After two years we moved to a town further North where my father had accepted an accounting job in a war comrade’s company. We arrived there in the autumn. My mother had taught me the beginnings of reading and writing, so that I could join school in a part of the country where the school year started at Easter time.
We were now in the British zone of occupation, living on the edge of a large, company-owned warehouse-cum-open storage area, a depot for hundreds of barrels containing paints, varnish, tar, solvents and all sorts of dirty chemicals. The barrels were mostly arranged in long rows, perhaps twenty or thirty of them, sometimes two or three barrels on top of one another. It was good fun having the neighbours’ children round and playing “hide and seek” and all the other wonderful games. My mother did not like it too much for an obvious reason : the barrels were not always clean ! More often than not we came home with tar stains. We were threatened with severe hidings, if it happened again. Of course, it did. I went to find my father. He could not fail to take in with one look what was the matter. However, I managed to disarm him by telling him that he could now give me a proper hiding. He called for my mother’s biggest cooking spoons which he intended to break on me, sat down, took me between his knees, a spoon in either hand — and was at an utter loss what to do ! Eventually he produced the company’s own solvent and did what he could to make my clothes look respectable again.
My sister had a lovely dress given to her, white of all colours. It would have been impossible to keep it clean under any circumstances. We were conscious of this problem, and when we once found a huge, brand-new, empty and immaculately clean wooden barrel, freshly delivered, open and lying invitingly on its side, we had a wonderful afternoon’s playing in it, mainly rolling backward and forward while inside it and dirtying it with our shoes, of course. We were clean at least ! My father did not know what this beauty of a barrel had been meant for and thought it wise for us to withdraw unnoticed while we could.
There was a wide drive all round the place where the barrels were stored, enabling lorries to pick up and deliver. This was our favourite racing course where we were allowed, on a Sunday, to do three rounds on one of the two bicycles we then owned. My father’s could not be touched – he relied on it to go to work. My mother’s was almost equally important – she did all her shopping with it, but we could practise our skills on a Sunday, if in a somewhat limited way, so that the precious vehicle did not suffer too much.
Another popular event on a weekend was the handing over of the so-called “Sunday Penny”. I do not remember what I did with mine. My sister certainly turned hers into sweets as soon as she could – much to the distress of my father who liked to see us be careful with it, save it up in an orderly fashion, keep it in a proper place and think well before parting with it.
The house we lived in was a barrack type depot, a long, low building, a third of which had been converted into a flat. We also had the use of the adjoining storage room where we kept a few rabbits, chicken and pigeon food and the bicycles, and where we caught alive, by means of kipper heads, a number of formidable rats. How do you get rid of caught live rats ? The local farmer who delivered the milk made them run into a sack which he then hit hard on the ground several times, thus dispatching this undesirable company.
In the loft we were allowed to house pigeons in a small compartment. They could fly in and out during the day. At night the shutter was closed. I gave names to all of them and spent a lot of time taming them. This was done most easily by attracting them with hands full of wheat. Sometimes three or four would settle down simultaneously on my hands held up high. I loved it and made good progress with them, until my father noticed that the wheat was going down too rapidly. Instructions were given that they could not be fed more than twice a day. I was forced to do things in secret, inside our storage room, for example, where my sister caught me red-handed one day. She told my father who called me to task. I denied the charge hotly, was acquitted and more careful in the future, in fact I obeyed the law from now on. When I told my father the truth years later, he declared himself shattered at the flagrant injustice done to my sister who had been called a liar. Fortunately nobody seems to have suffered much by this.
My father used to leave for work early, around 7 am, to return for lunch which my mother never managed to have ready in time, and then go back to work until sometimes quite late in the evening. My sister and I hated to go to bed before he was back. We lay awake in our bedroom, having guesses at which point of his journey home he might be just now and how much longer we would have to wait, until we heard the familiar whistle. What a relief when it came !
Sometimes there were thunderstorms at night. On such occasions we went to the safest place we could imagine : our parents’ bed. How comfortable and cuddly and wonderfully gruesome to hear, from safe shelter, awful claps of thunder – St. Peter playing skittles, my father used to say – and to watch the big elm-tree lit up by tremendous flashes. When the rain came, the performance was finished, almost a pity, because we had to go back to our own beds.
Opposite our living quarters, on the other side of the road, was a camp of British soldiers. We were separated from them by a wooden fence with regular gaps as wide as the battens the fence was made up of, gaps big enough for us to put our hands through and tease these young boys who used to lie in the sunshine, leaning against the fence from the other side. We learnt our first English there and were given delicious things like bags full of oranges, chewing gum and chocolate. I myself seemed to keep a bit of a distance on these occasions and to my annoyance did not receive half as much as the others, if anything … Of course, I have been generously compensated since !
Serious English lessons began when I entered secondary school at the age of ten. One of the first rhymes I learnt runs as follows : “The rose is red, the violet blue, sugar is sweet and so are you.” My father was much amused by this, did not grow tired of repeating it and in the end decided it was time for him to learn the English language, too. Who knows what it might be good for one day. His knowledge of languages had so far been limited to Latin, Greek, French and a spell of Hebrew. He now subscribed to an English correspondence course, and I, with a year’s advance, had to have sessions with him, ensure his pronunciation was correct (the English “r” proved an unsurmountable obstacle) and keep an eye on mistakes in general.
He patiently and doggedly, without particular talent, filled one exercize book after the other. He could, of course, not use the gothic script for his English writings and developed a universally readable hand-writing.
Gothic script was not taught any more officially when I went to school. I learnt it from my parents and am pleased to say that I am perfectly able to read my father’s letters, whereas my sister is not – unless he renounces his original hand-writing.
At weekends and weather permitting, my parents went on cycling tours with us, my sister riding with my mother, I with my father, on little seats fastened to the frame somewhat below the handlebars, our feet secured on rests attached to the part of the frame holding the front wheel. We went into the surrounding woods, saw a thousand- years old and even older oak trees, magic ponds in dense forests, sandy hills, long stretches of purple heather, and in the spring, oh these beautiful pink hawthorn trees lining miles of road !
My father was always in front, needless to say, and he and I had great fun once, when we were so far advanced that we could not see the other two any more and were able to hide with the bicycle in the ditch running parallel to the road. Mother and sister duly rode past, not looking left nor right, and I wrote a much applauded little essay about this event at school a few days later.
When we went to secondary school, my sister and I had to have our own bicycles; big old second-hand things they were, with pedals built up with wood, so that our feet could reach them. They were like clothes bought too big, we were expected to grow into them. Under the circumstances it was desirable to have maximum use out of everything.
We went on our outings on four bicycles later, systematically collecting what was available in the way of bilberries, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries and all sorts of edible fungi.
At weekends also we had to give my father a hand with a number of jobs. Sawing up wood with him was a less popular one, supervizing rabbits which were allowed to run free, cleaning out pigeon house and chicken pen, collecting dandelion for the rabbits, feeding them with boiled potato peel among other things (what a smell !). From time to time the quickly multiplying pigeons had to be reduced in number. I did not like to hear my father promise to my mother six pigeons for her saucepans. However, he would never choose any without consulting me who knew them well, and my mother never had more than four at a time, either. Rabbits and chickens also had to die once in a while to enrich our menu.
We had wonderful holidays in the summer, spending a fortnight in a little village ten miles away, amidst woods and fields, rivers, ponds and hills; dragonflies, birds, roe deer everywhere, and an intoxicating scent of ripening cereals. We took our bicycles with us on the train and paid a visit home on them once to see what our swallowtail chrysalids, left in a jar on a window-sill, were doing. What a delight to see them transformed into the most beautiful butterflies !
We stayed on a farm during these holidays and had our meals provided. One of the great attractions was the daily egg for breakfast. My father invited us once or twice to break our eggs on his head, but did not do so any more after a little incident during which my sister knocked her egg on him so hard that the yolk flowed over his face. She was dismayed to lose her egg ! He also did not touch her nose any more after suffering retaliation, forcing him to sport a bruise for several days.
On a certain Saturday afternoon each month my parents used to meet friends of theirs in the best café in town. We went with them and enjoyed ourselves with a big piece of some fantastic gateau; sometimes we were allowed two.
My sister and I were happy in these years. We were allowed to live our own little lives unreservedly. Nothing nasty intruded from the adult world. We did not know about those bitter struggles my parents had to go through, my father mainly fighting for economic survival. He was being made use of at the cheapest possible price. Gossiping, intriguing, involvement in other people’s problems – we were not touched by all this. My parents never discussed things which they considered of no concern to us in our presence. If they had a difference of opinion – and I do not know that it happened very often – it was settled behind closed doors, without a sound. They also withdrew when it came to working out financial affairs. This happened at the beginning of each month. My mother followed my father into the next room, looking serious and armed with four little boxes in which she kept the house-keeping money for the four weeks of the month. I do not know what she did with odd days. The reckoning up for the past month took place before she was given the money for the next one. Sometimes they needed an additional meeting before the end of a month, because she had run out of money already and had to extract more. My father could never understand why she did not stick to her resolution to do on a certain amount. As for me, I failed to see the point of the four boxes, because she frequently “borrowed” money from future weeks. Once she came home altogether upset : she had lost 10 DM, which was an enormous sum at the time. My father received the news calmly; presumably he was powerless against my mother’s tears.
My mother would invariably and under any circumstances back up my father. In matters of general interest she would never commit herself before having discussed the point in question with him, whether we could have a new pair of shoes or take part in a school- outing, whether we could harvest the gooseberries or let the rabbits out. In more sensitive matters she would be particularly adamant, like when we came home from school with a bad mark. Did we really have to tell my father ? There was no way round it – we had to face it. Keeping secrets from him, doing things behind his back, was unheard of and simply not done. He must have felt this as his prerogative, for when in later years my mother once tried to break away from this long established principle, he reacted in the most touchy way : “lies have short legs”, meaning they don’t get you very far, he used to say, forcing my mother to go about things more diplomatically in the future.
My sister and I had no chance of playing my parents off against each other, my mother not doing anything without my father’s consent and he knowing that she would fall in with him.
I do not remember much of my time at school in those years, except that it was a convent school with a good academic reputation, to which we were sent in spite of being protestants. There was a lot of praying and more or less gentle talk by friendly nuns who would not accept girls in trousers; we had to bring skirts to put on top of them when we arrived at school. We had a lady teacher from Ireland once and invited her home, my father being eager to try out his English.
We were also friendly with my biology and chemistry teacher, a doctor of science who had a certain variety of primrose called after her for some work she had done on it. She was a widow from the East with three children, and we had many pleasant outings together, during which she introduced us to all the edible fungi.
At the age of fourteen, all my class took a course, as was customary, in ballroom dancing with a reputable dance school. Our male counterparts were a year older and came from the local grammar school for boys, a school, in fact, which was specialized in classics. My parents had toyed with the idea of sending me there because of the subjects taught, but somebody told them it might not be a good thing for one or two girls – there was a precedent – to be mixed in with hundreds of boys. I wonder what it would have done to me ??!
As for the dancing lessons, I found them quite exciting on the whole, but really not all that interesting. Some of my classmates did not stop whispering away about boys, blushing, laughing, crying; their whole lives seemed to turn around them.
I remember one boy who looked like my cousin and another one who impressed my parents, because his father was a very high-ranking civil servant. This boy invited me to go canoeing with him, and since he was to be my partner for the concluding ball, I could not very well turn down his invitation. It was pleasant enough on the river in the end. I felt a little bewildered with him sitting behind me, unable to see him and what he was up to. Nothing happened, however. Once, a boy on the river-bank shouted that we were not brother and sister. It embarrassed me terribly. What put me off finally was the fact that my partner, back on land, put his hand on my bare arm occasionally and once even on my neck ! I detested it and was mighty glad when the dance course was finished.
Two of my school-friends had brothers, one of them even four, a lot older, so good-looking and kind – I adored them from a distance, but never had a chance to declare my feelings. Why could I not have an elder brother ? This was the one thing I regretted.