Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Prisoners of War, a story by Joan M. Baril


The Prisoners of War

By Joan. M. Baril

As he wakes, the knife blade at his neck shimmers away. His hand flies up to the scars on his shoulder as the sweat slicks across his forehead. Something stops him from shouting out. It’s the goose feather quilt. He runs his fingers across it. Soft. Soft as a cloud, soft as his wife’s skin and as far away from Camp Neys as the moon is from hell. The rasping of his breath slows.

  He sits up, pulling a corner of the sheet to wipe his sweaty face. It’s still dark but a grey tint shows at the window. A crow caws and then another. From the barn, the lowing of a cow. Out of the darkness, a rooster snaps the April air awake. He takes a few deep breaths to clear away the nightmare and bring in the smell of the attic bedroom, the soft scent of an old house and the mothball odor of the clothes that Helena set out for him on the chair beside the bed.

 Martin, you landed on your feet, right enough,” he thinks.
He remembers the night before, walking up the muddy lane to the lights of the farmhouse that were pointed out to him when they stopped the train. April 16, 1944 and a cold Canadian spring evening. No use trying to escape; he has no idea where he is.


 The woman’s voice had a gentle lilt, startling in contrast to three years of prison voices. “Hello, come in. You’ve arrived at last. Willkommen. Willkommen.” A feminine voice like the song of a bird in the small kitchen and then a child’s voice piping, “Hello, Herr Martin, willkommen,” and the light in the kitchen dances in a blur. He stands by the door on the woven mat, takes off the grey-blue mackinaw with the red circle on the back and bends to untie his muddy boots.

  A family kitchen, the first he’s seen for five years or more. Familiar farmhouse smells of burning wood, coffee, leather boots and shoes in the corner. A faint background smell of animals. He’d been told there were a dozen or more cows in the barn. A much smaller kitchen than the one at home in Germany and much poorer—he understands that at first glance. Standing on the yellow linoleum, he’s surrounded by a crescent of furniture close enough to touch: a painted kitchen dresser, a walnut chest of drawers, a wood stove and, in the corner by the stairs, a small refrigerator, the source of the humming sound that fills the room.

            She’s by the wooden table, a small woman in a heavy plaid shirt, brown hair to her shoulders, a heart shaped face with large wary eyes. Beside her is a boy of about ten, a skinny kid shyly waving one hand at him, a big smile on his face. The child has the same brown eyes as the mother but darker hair, spiky on his head like early summer grass.

“I’m Helena,” she says, pointing to herself. “Sit down here. I’ll get you a bowl of soup. The train was a little late but Ken really wanted to wait and have supper with you.” He understands only the word ‘soup’ and sits on the wooden chair pointed out to him.

            Danke, danke, she says.

            Why is she thanking him? 
He can’t help laughing and they both laugh back. Danke, danke, they say to each other as he eats the soup and homemade bread. Danke.

***

Now, five years later, in the Arthur Café in downtown Port Arthur, she leans across the booth. “Your English, Martin. It’s wonderful.” The same lilt in her voice but her face looks softer than he remembers, rounder and, surprisingly, more youthful. Her hair is still long and glossy and he wants to reach out and touch it. Again the laugh he knows so well. He must attend to the menu or he’ll break out in tears.

“Everything I know,” he says, “I learned from Ken here and Eaton’s catalogue.”

The boy, half grown now and sitting in the booth beside his mother, stares hard at him.

Martin recites with a slight pause between each word, “Ladies’ bloomers, regulation cotton, for the mature figure.”

“I remember, I remember,” Ken says. He imitates a German accent. “Extra outsize, 48 to 51.” They laugh. “You memorized half the catalogue,” the boy says “And Parcheesi, do you remember playing with me? I was crazy about that game. I could play all night.”

“I recall a game or two,” Martin says.

 “More like half a million.” Ken runs his hand over his shock of dark hair. “So much happened after you left, it just blew a lot of stuff out of my mind.” He glances at his mother as if for permission and then resumes. “First Karl and Beth going off and then you leaving and then Bonnie was born. It all changed so fast. Grandpa died. I went to live in town. The war ended and Uncle Marc…”  His voice trails away.

Bonnie?

With a quick glance at the door, she puts her hand out and strokes his upper arm. She’s on the lookout for her husband, he thinks. It’s very quick and the hand is withdrawn.

            Danke, he says but he shouldn’t have. Now her eyes hold the tears.

            A man comes in the café with a blond girl about five years old. “This is my husband,” Helena says “and this is my daughter, Bonnie.”

            Martin stands and shakes hands with the tall heavy-set husband, at the same time thinking this guy couldn’t be the farmer, the knife-faced fellow whose photo was on the wall in her bedroom. He manages a smile for the little girl, searching for a resemblance. She’s about the right age but she’s thin and small-boned with startling blue eyes while he is as dark haired as a raven and as hefty as a tank. Of course, looks prove nothing, he thinks. Oh God, what next? His heart feels as if it’s taken an electric shock.

            The husband leans into the booth and drops a quick kiss on Helena’s hair. “I’m taking Ken off to get his school shoes,” he says to his wife, “so you and Mr. Mueller here can catch up. And I’ll get Bonnie a milkshake to calm her down before she falls over.” The little girl is twirling on a stool at the counter but brakes with both heels when she hears the word “milkshake.” Ken slides out of the booth and Martin sees how tall he is now, close to 1.8 meters, he estimates, a good height for a 15 year old. The youth waves on the way out.

He turns back to Helena and they both speak at the same time. “What happened to Karl?” she says. “Did you ever find him?”

“What happened to Beth?” he says

***

He was a German merchant seaman and, in August 1940, taken off the coast of Africa, sent first to Britain where prisoners got 1000 calories a day and then to Neys Camp 100, wherever that was, he’s still not sure. Somewhere on the shore of Lake Superior. Plenty of rock, bush and sky and above all food: piles of flour slabs called pancakes, a sweet sauce on top, big glasses of thick milk with the yellow cream floating, apple schnitzel as good as his grandmother’s made by the German cook, slabs of roast pork as big as the plate. Paradise was a potato mountain dripping with gravy, an archipelago of blueberry tortes in a line on the side table, a river of coffee.
 

A few weeks later, when he became a lumberjack working for the Pigeon River Timber Company in Camp 67 somewhere inland, he saw the Canadian guys leave food on their plates. He sneaked the half-eaten bread and the crust end of pie back to his bunk and hid them. After a week, he realized his foolishness; in Canada, paradise was unending. When he thought no one was looking, he threw his collection of moldy crusts and bits of squashed pie into the trash bin.

 They made fifty cents a day cutting a cord but he often worked on into the evening cutting more and the company foreman, Smokey Grannis, was happy to slip him a dollar and slap him on the back. “Give‘er Martin. You give’re shit.” These were his first English words. He sent for a shirt from the Eaton’s catalogue, one that did not have a red circle on the back.

This was before the Category Blacks (mine Uber Fuehrer Deiter Arnim and his Afrika Korps thugs) arrived in the camp. Soon Arnim had them all Heil Hitlering to each other out in the snow with their cross-cut saws.

“You’ll be Heil Hitlering to the goddamn horses next,” Martin said.

“Jew lover,” Arnim sneered when Martin told him the war was lost. “We are advancing, we are winning,” but he and his hangers-on could do nothing, not with the Canadian Veterans’ Guard guy lounging on a log within earshot and Smokey Grannis driving in the horses from the other side of the clearing.

Hamburg is now rubble, thanks to you,” Martin yelled back. “Flames higher than the tower of St. Michaeliskirche, a firestorm covering the city and sucking the air out of people’s lungs. Folk on the street bursting into flame, flaring up like human torches. Then, then…,” he paused to grab a breath, “the RAF drops a burning jelly that sticks to your skin. You die slower.” He raised his arms to the sky. “Oh thank you, Herr Hitler, the saviour of the country, the protector of the German race….”

“Shut up,” Arnim screamed. “Shut up with your Jew propaganda.”

Martin turned his back, raised his arm, Heil Hitlered a spruce tree and then lifted the ax. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Smokey laughing.

But, that evening, while he ate in the mess hut, someone searched his bunk for the little radio, found it, smashed it and stuck the pieces under the grey blanket. His friend, Hans, also from Hamburg, who translated the English news broadcasts for him, trembled and changed immediately from a Category White to Category Black. “For the love of Christ, Martin, you’ve got to keep your head down and your trap shut. They’re fanatics. They’ll kill you if they get a chance.”

He decided to hell with it and set about scrounging for new radio components but this time without help. Everyone was afraid.

The war would be over in six weeks at the most. He’d just keep doing the extra work, save up the money and get so damned tired at night he’d fall asleep at once without thinking about his wife and parents on the farm not three kilometers from Hamburg, or his sister with her three kids living a block from the Jungfernstieg. There might be a letter the next day; that was the only thought he allowed himself. There might be a better tomorrow.

But there wasn’t a better tomorrow. Smokey’s cough turned out to be tuberculosis and not the result of a weekly flat fifty of MacDonald’s Fine Cut. Overnight, the lumber camp was closed. They were marched to the train, taken to Port Arthur to be X-rayed and then back to Neys. Arnim was appointed Camp Leader and the Blacks took over completely. Martin and the few others like him who were classified as Whites or anti-Nazi knew their lives were on the line; those classified as Grey’s turned a bit Blacker every day. The smell of fear in the huts was nauseating, especially after lights out.

They got him at night. They pulled him out of the bunk and all he heard, before he started to fight back, was: “Are you ready for your trial, Jew-loving traitor?”  

Thankfully he was strong from the good food and outdoor work and the noise alerted the Canadian guards. They were all decent, friendly types but they seldom came into the barracks, preferring to leave the day-to-day management of the prisoners to the German officers.

When they burst through the door, the Africa Korps bastards scattered like rats but the guards rounded them up for a roll call and then searched the hut with unusual thoroughness. They found his few bits of wire for the new radio, but they also pulled out one of Smokey’s tin cigarette boxes, flattened and pushed between two floor boards. It startled him; the thing could easily be shaped into a weapon. How many more were hidden somewhere?

It was not a complete surprise that the next time they came for him, they had a knife.

***

After the soup, the barn and thirteen cows. She hands him a pail and they milk and Ken carries the full pails outside to the large milk cans set on a wooden cart. Danke, he says after the first pail. “Thanks”.

The husband is one shitty farmer—all dirty even the cows and the floor encrusted with cow shit. Junk here and there although the pails seem clean. When they’re finished, they stand outside the barn looking across the dark snowy fields towards the road, waiting for something. It’s the first time he’s had a chance to stand close to her and even in the sharp air he can smell her— milk and soap.

            Tiny bells jingle in the dark and a work horse emerges into the lantern light. Two  people are riding high up, one of them a slight blond man who jumps off  as lightly as  a circus performer and then reaches up towards a woman who leaps into his arms with perfect confidence. Like the lady on the trapeze, Martin thinks.

The young man clicks the heels of his boots. “Able Seaman Karl Hansen, Merchant Marine,” he says, spinning round to show Martin the red circle on the back of his jacket. “Willkommen, dear comrade-in-arms, and Heil fucking Hitler to you too.” Out of his startling relief to hear German spoken and also to find a comrade, Martin discovers himself without a word in his throat. He’s barely able to snap out, “Chief Petty Officer Mueller, Merchant Marine.”

            “Yes sir,” the young man says but with a cheeky grin on his mobile face.

            “Right, right,” Martin says in German. “We’re at the end of the known world here and also both politically as white as the Canadian snow, I believe. Du if you please,” making the relationship instantly informal.

   Danke. The blond acrobat makes a sweeping bow towards the woman who came with him on the horse. “This is Beth Cloutier, Helena’s sister.” Beth, a small and shapely figure in the lamplight gives him a little wave. “Helena and young Ken, you’ve met.”

Within five minutes, Karl has the little milk cart hitched to the horse, waves and calls out in rapid English to the three Canadians, motions Martin to come along and, holding the horse’s head,  they move off down the track. When he looks back, Martin sees the circle of lamp light move toward the house and three elongated shadows sliding beside three silhouettes.

Karl and he haven’t far to go, just across the road to the train tracks. There, as Buddy, the horse, waits patiently, they muscle the milk cans on to a high platform. Although the sky is dark, the white snow gives off enough light for the task. Snow is the light of the Canadian world, Martin muses. At the same time, he listens to Karl’s rapid talk.

            “Grew up on a farm in East Prussia, joined the Merchant Marine as soon as I hit eighteen and was captured when my ship was torpedoed off the coast of Greenland. Just like that. One, two, three. So then,” Karl pauses to take a breath , “two years in a prison camp  in Scotland before ending up in Canada and, in a sort of fluke, they were looking for farm hands and I’m sent here. Luck can hit you like a bolt of lightning.” He laughs. “I was the tree.”

He takes out a pack of Players, holds out the open end to Martin who refuses. The match flares and Buddy turns his head snuffling out a puff of steam. “Great cigarettes here,” Karl says as he blows white smoke into the clear air. “And nice liquor. It’s called rye. We’ll have some later. Good food too, not as varied as the camps because a lot of stuff is rationed, but the girls are terrific cooks. And tonight,” he gives a few skips in the trampled snow beside the tracks, his cigarette tracing light streaks around him, “we’ll play cards. We’ll teach you canasta and maybe a few English words to boot. And then,” he says, “after the kid goes to bed, bath night for Beth and me.”

Bath night?” The guy is like a firefly, dancing in place, his cigarette end swooping here and there.

“Yeah. Have you seen the bathtub that Helena’s husband put in? And the monster electric water heater as well?  You could wash a cow in there. Lousy farmer but he liked his comforts: fridge for his beer, no electricity in the barn, you get the picture.” The cigarette flashes in a circle.

How young he is, Martin thinks, not more than twenty-two or three. He feels large and old beside him. “Where the hell are we?” he says.

The younger man laughs. “It’s not downtown Danzig, let me tell you. The entire area is called Rowan. The sisters grew up in the bigger farmhouse that way.” He points the cigarette end down the road. “Going the other way a couple of kilometers along you come to the train station, Ken’s school, a pathetic broken down store with nothing much in it and four houses, three of them boarded up because everyone is moving to town to pick up the good war jobs.

“Beth and her husband, Marc Cloutier, ran the farm with the old father; the mother dead long ago. They’ve got two boys, young teen-agers, who live in Port Arthur with the father’s sister and go to high school there.

“Anyway, comes the war. Cloutier joins and gets captured almost as soon as his outfit lands in Hong Kong. No luck there. So the old man and Beth try to run both farms with the help of Helena and her useless husband. But it gets too hard for the old man so Beth goes to town to ask for a Prisoner of War farm worker.

He takes a long meditative drag on the cigarette.

“That’s when I arrive. Two years back. Everything O.K until three weeks ago when all hell breaks loose. Helena’s husband gets the big money job and buggers off to Ottawa—as a farm expert, if you can believe it. Has some kind of degree in agriculture.” He shakes his head. “Incredible.”

“A week later, the old man has a stroke and has to be moved to the hospital in town. And that’s where you come in.” Karl cups the cigarette, holding it with his fingertips to get the last drags. “Helena, this time, heads off to the Current River Camp in town and asks for a farm hand.”

Martin shakes his head, confused. “You’re telling me we’re alone out here—no husbands?” All along, he was expecting a man or perhaps two men to materialize from somewhere.

“Nope. No husbands.”

“What?  We’re the enemy, right?  And they trust us out here with two women and a boy?”

Karl tosses the cigarette butt into the snow. “God knows how they think, but here we are. Maybe they think the grandfather is still living on the farm.” He pauses. “Helena omitted that scrap of information—the fact the old man’s in hospital. She told them he was sick, can’t do much work, that’s all. Anyway, they don’t record where people are living. These Canadians have no organization. They don’t keep track of things. It works in our favour, in fact.” He pauses again, taking a few steps, spinning back. “On the other hand, maybe they don’t give a shit. Canada’s food production comes first, as they say on the radio. We’ve got twenty-five cows out here. That’s what’s important to them.”

            “I still don’t get it,” Martin says. “It would be a snap to escape. Why haven’t you done that, Able Seaman Hansen?”

            “You want to escape, Chief Petty Officer Mueller, go ahead. If you make it, the dear Fuehrer will reward you well. A nice trip to the Eastern Front where you’ll be captured by the Russians who’ll slit your throat like a dog. As for me, I’m definitely planning to escape. I’ll be heading west to Winnipeg, but not now. Later.”

            “Later? What do you mean?”

            “When the war is over, Colleague, when it all stops. I’m not going to be repatriated, thank you, and certainly not to East Prussia which I hear from the radio will soon be a Russian colony and therefore a pile of corpses. Look, when you land in paradise, you sit down. I’m in paradise now. My English is getting better every day. When the final whistle blows, I’m melting like a lump of lard into the big Canadian goulash out there.”

The blinding eye of the train lights up the spruce trees and arrives in a roar of steam. It slows for only a few minutes, shaking and huffing, just time enough to get the heavy milk cans on. It starts moving out even as the empty cans for the next milking are pushed off.

Their boots crackle the freezing slush as they lead Buddy and the rattling cart of cans up the ruts of the drive. Martin is still trying to puzzle things through.

“What I don’t understand is why work two farms,” he says. “Why not move into one until the husbands come back from the war?”

“Can’t,” Karl says. “Houses are too small and neither barn would hold twenty-five cows. No building materials available to do anything about it. Your farm has the good well and plenty of water, ours goes dry in the summer. We have the big fields enough for both and, believe me, you need lots of hay in this climate to get those cows through the winter. Helena has the chickens; we have the pigs. What could be better?”

Later, when he thinks back to his life in Rowan, his first thought is Helena, her small body curving under his, her brown hair on the pillow like angel wings, her large eyes shining. Next, his memory arrows into the sheer heart-stopping joy of that first evening in Helena’s kitchen.

No night on the Reeperbahm, no evening at the wildest beer hall in the Port of Hamburg could compare. The wooden table is pulled into the middle of the floor and they all hunch around it, cards in hands. The bottle of rye sits in the centre beside a plate of cheese sandwiches. Another plate with butter tarts is in arm’s reach on the kitchen dresser. The coffee is on the woodstove. The card game, an incomprehensible Canadian concoction, creates a lot of yelling and slamming of cards. Karl gets so excited when he wins, he runs to the end of the room and does a little polka and then a present arms routine, clicking his heels on the linoleum like a Prussian officer.

Young Ken sits beside Martin to help him with his cards. The kid plays as well as the adults and Martin soon amasses a pile of Canadian coppers. However, at the end of the evening all these riches go back into a big jar they call the kitty, ready for the next game.

When the boy is sent, protesting, off to his bed, a tiny cot in the miniscule living room, all four adults cram into the bathroom under the stairs to watch the vast claw-footed tub filling with hot water from a heater that stands as high as the ceiling. Karl sits on the toilet seat to take off his socks; Beth slips the bobby pins from her hair, putting them one by one on the shelf over the sink. The smell of the hot water and the women so close are overwhelming him. Also, it’s obvious Karl and Beth will be bathing together. The tub is big enough for both. His thoughts are glued on Helena. She’s wearing a dark red dress and she looks much slimmer than in the heavy work clothes she wore in the barn. He wants to smooth his arm around the curve of her waist, undo the sash at the back, the buttons rounding over her breasts in the front. Instead he sips some of the strange rye from his glass and decides he likes its sharp bite.

“Gut,” he says lifting his glass. “Ya, gut.” He takes a drink. “Give’er shit,” he says using his single English sentence. They almost fall over laughing.

 

The days are exactly what he needs. Plenty of work. He soon has the barn cleaned and the cows as well. He shovels a mountain of fresh manure out the back and spreads the old stuff on the snow covering the vegetable and flower gardens. He repairs the pump house and cleans the pump and splits all the wood in the wood shed, piling it in Canadian fashion as he was taught in Camp 67. No letters from Germany are forwarded from the Red Cross.

Spring evolves. The snow disappears. The cows spend their days outside in the high rolling fields or clustered around the pond near the road. Their milk is thick and full of cream, almost like the milk at home. A big rhubarb plant beside the house unfurls and Helena cuts the stalks to make a tart-tasting pie and a strange jam with walnuts in it. Ken eats the bitter stalks raw by dipping the ends in sugar. The air smells sappy from the new buds on the poplars beside the house. The first black flies arrive.

Everything needs painting inside and out. Perhaps, he asks Karl to translate, the next time Beth takes the train to town to visit her father in the hospital and her boys at the Aunt’s place, could she bring back some paint?   He has visions of a clean white barn like those at home, the floors washed down every day.

He finds the rusty tractor that Helena’s husband parked in the bush without even a tarp to cover it. It takes him a week to get it going but now he can take their milk cans to the train himself. Usually Karl is there before him, anxious to fill him in on all the war news from the radio. A second front is coming. Karl is certain the allies will land in France somewhere. “And one of us at least got some news,” Karl says holding out the letter from his parents dated three months before. They and his sisters are at the port of Memel on the Baltic waiting for a ship to take them from East Prussia and the advancing Russian armies.

“God help them,” Martin says. His own family has fallen away into a pit of silence.

On the other hand, four weeks of work and the farm looks good, he thinks. That morning he takes the tractor and cart to get gravel from the pit past Beth’s house at the end of the road. He shovels it onto the drive to make a roadway instead of the clay quagmire it became with the melt. On the way to lunch with Helena, he feels he’s walking through air as textured and soft as a blanket. He’s moving into the centre point of his day, the hour after lunch in her double bed. Later, he’ll remember every move, every smell and curve of her body. He’ll recall every inch of the bedroom, the peeling pink calcimine, the crocheted curtains, the blinds that let strips of sun run across their bodies and the trembling wind sounds of the poplars outside. He plans to wallpaper that room. He wants to cover the walls and ceiling with flowers.

It started two weeks before at lunch, the laziest part of the day with just the two of them at the table because Ken ate at school. Their conversation consists of single words, his English working overtime. He can’t help watching her mobile face, her darting smiles. He reaches for the cream and, without paying attention, pours it on the table cloth missing his coffee cup completely. They both jump up for a cloth and then, at the same time, start to laugh. Now, they’re standing a few inches apart in the tiny space between the sink and the table and her eyes stare into his. He practiced his English for this moment, looking up the word “bed” in the catalogue and memorizing a few other words supplied by Karl, but now he remembers none as he reaches for her hand. Bitte, he says, and his voice is gravelly. Bitte. Please.

 

On the evening of Friday, June 16, 1944, Karl walks into the kitchen. To Martin’s surprise he’s wearing a topcoat, a fedora and carrying a small briefcase. He looks like a junior clerk at the Hamburg City Hall. Beside him is Beth in heeled shoes, a little blue hat on her head and also carrying a small case as well as her purse.

 What the hell?

”We’re taking a little trip to town,” Karl says in German.

Martin stands up so fast his glass of rye shoots across the catalogue. “What? What kind of a damned fool are you? We’re not supposed to leave the farm.”

“I want to practice being a Canadian.”

Martin mops at the spill. “You could be stopped on the street, asked for your papers.”

“This is Canada, Martin. People are not stopped on the street and asked for papers. People don’t even carry papers. We’re flagging down the fast train at midnight and we’ll be back tomorrow evening. No one at the Rowan station will see us; there’s no one there most of the time anyway. We’ll stay at the Aunt’s place, and tomorrow I’ll walk around the town, be a Canadian, go into Eaton’s, buy something, have a Stan and Si at the Arthur café. Beth’ll be at the hospital seeing the old man. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll take Beth and her boys to the Lyceum Theatre to see Deanna Durbin. It’s all planned. A normal Canadian Saturday enjoyed by a normal Canadian family.”

“You’re an idiot.” Martin is close to shouting but mindful of Ken sleeping in the next room.

“It’s a trial run. The war’ll be over in a few weeks.”

“Shit.” Martin moves forward to grab Karl by the collar of his stupid coat and shake him around the room, but the two women stop talking at that minute. Helena’s eyes appeal to him; Beth looks cool and determined, as if she were on a mission.

They don’t have a clue, he thinks as he sits back down   His English is not good enough to reach them.

During the next twenty four hours, fear and fury drive him like a train—cows milked, barns scrubbed, gardens weeded. But at midnight, the pair shows up on time carrying two gallons of white paint, a box of donuts and a Hardy Boy book for Ken. Helena throws her arms around her sister. Two more glasses are brought out. He can only shake his head.

All the next week, Karl can’t stop talking about the trip to town. “To walk down the street like a free man, you can’t imagine what it’s like, Martin. You float, you swim, you’re like a fish swimming with other fish. Just another fish. Moving along. And you can breathe. I realized something. For the last five years, I haven’t taken a real breath.”

            They stand in their usual place by the tracks, waiting for the milk train. At seven o’clock on a June evening, the sun rides high in the sky. “I’m completely confident now,” Karl says. “I never looked over my shoulder, just strode along. Even the policeman at the Eaton’s corner didn’t faze me. I passed him by as casually as they do.” He takes out his package of Players, tosses it high and leaps to catch it. “It’s all coming to an end.” He means the war. The Normandy landing had occurred ten days before. “It’s just a matter of mopping up but I hope they get to Germany before the Russians take it all. And I’m ready to bugger off. One more practice trip and I’m gone.”

Martin glowers at him. “One more?”

“This week-end, the big one. We’re going in Friday night and staying at the Mariaggi Hotel. We’ll check in as Mr. and Mrs. Cloutier. Next morning a leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room, a stroll around downtown, some shopping, another fabulous Stan and Si at the Arthur Café and this time, the Marx Brothers at the Colonial Theatre with the boys. We’ll bring you back more paint for your wonderful barn.”

“You’re a god-damned fool.”

Karl tosses the cigarette pack once more and catches it by climbing half way up the milk platform. When he drops to the ground, his face is grave. “It’s for Beth really. A good-bye. Something to remember me by.”

That Friday night in bed, Martin’s nightmare returns for the first time in weeks. The knife is slicing into the base of his neck once again and ripping down his arm as he struggles to break free. The Neys doctor is bending over him saying in German, “We’ll have to get you out of here,” and then he’s walking the wire fence at the Current River Camp and looking at the citizens of Port Arthur who come out on the streetcar to gawk at the men in the cage.

            The sound of a car on the road wakes him up. It’s an unusual noise in a land of rationed gasoline and he sits up knowing as he does so that the sound is too low pitched to be a car. Not a car but military vehicles, two maybe three. They’re coming for him.

            He’s dressed by the time the headlights turn up his beautiful graveled drive and a minute later hears their boots crunch to the back door. He meets Helena in her robe in the kitchen. “Martin, who is it?” she whispers. Ken is standing at the door to the living room looking scared.

            “Mom?’

Martin touches her hair and then opens the back door before they knock. He doesn’t want them to break it down.

            “Mrs. Helena Robertson?”

            “Yes.”

            “Your sister, Mrs. Beth Cloutier, is in the Cooke Street Jail in Port Arthur. You can visit her in the morning. Chief Petty Officer Mueller, you’re to come with us. Get your things.”

            Helena reaches for young Ken and holds him close. “What are you doing here?” she snaps at the uniformed men. “What’s going on?  Why is my sister in jail?” But they don’t say a word more. One of them goes upstairs with Martin and takes a good look around the attic as he packs his kit bag. He hears the other one walking around the three downstairs rooms. Ken is crying wildly, his arms around his mother. One look and then he’s out in the cool night air and heading to town.

***

In the Arthur café, Helena smiles at the waitress. “I’ll have an orange and onion sandwich, Alma,” Helena says. “And a pot of tea.”

Even as the waitress is writing the order on her green pad, she’s gawking at Martin. And no wonder. He’s still as handsome as hell, Helena thinks, even though he looks older than his forty years. His skin is greyer, the cheeks drawn. Life was rough in Germany after the war. But the same intense eyes, the same cropped black hair and tough looking face, the muscular body that takes up half the booth. Alma’s pencil is poised; she can wait all day.

            “I’m going to do it,” Martin smiles at the waitress. “Bring me, please, the famous Stan and Si.” He looks at Helena and shrugs. “No idea what it is. And no, don’t say. I want it for the surprise. And,” he says to Helena as the waitress moves off, “I stayed last night at the Mariaggi Hotel. It’s nice. They told me all redecorated since the war, so it doesn’t resemble that night…”  

Helena winces. Even after five years it’s still raw.

            She had a few letters from Martin after they took him away. He spent two years in a camp in Halifax where he started his engineering studies and worked on his English.

Another letter arrived from Hamburg in 1948 saying he was looking for Karl and, through the Red Cross, found the entire family: parents, sisters and even the grandmother. They’d all managed to get out of East Prussia. They were living in Munich and getting along pretty well considering they were refugees in a country of refugees. But of Karl, they knew nothing, heard nothing.

            She leans back and looks at him. He’s staring at Bonnie who’s sitting on a stool at the counter demurely sipping her milkshake. She makes a decision. He has a right to know the child is not his.

“Beth and Karl never actually stayed in the Mariaggi,” she starts. “They were arrested in the lobby, just after they registered.”

            “Who turned them in?” The dark focused eyes, the same concentrated look that once flipped her heart upside down.

            “I don’t know,” Helena says. “Someone on the train?  Someone at Rowan Station?  Maybe a neighbour was spying on us all the time?”

            He nods. “Possible.”

            Helena’s mind careens back to that final second when a kaki covered arm reached back, grabbed her kitchen door and slammed it closed. She remembers the white shock that took over her brain, the grind of the trucks on the drive, the frantic hunt for a sliver of calm to sooth Ken, take him to bed, rock him to sleep and, after bathing her face, taking the first step into a blurry dawn to tend to the cows in both barns in time for the seven-thirty milk train as if it were a morning like any other.

Now, in the café, she clasps her hands together on the table. He reaches out and touches them lightly. Then, she tells him the rest.

At nine o’clock that morning, she and the boy stepped off the platform at the Port Arthur station and walked up the hill to her Aunt Maeve’s. In the back yard, she knelt by her son, whispering to him, telling him he has to stay outside for just a little while and play ball hockey with his cousins. Beth’s boys waited, leaning on their sticks. One held out the goalie pads as an inducement.

To her weak-kneed relief, her sister Beth was hunched at the kitchen table holding  a shaky tea cup, her face as white as Aunt Maeve’s bone china. Her good suit was rumpled, her hair sticking every which way.

 “I look like an unmade bed,” Beth said standing to hug her, “and I don’t know why because they didn’t give me a bed, just a cell with a chair in it.” The hockey yells of the three boys outside threaded through her sobs. “I’m charged with aiding the enemy. But it’s okay. Mr. McIssac got me out.”

A gnome-like man in a bomber jacket rose from the table, a hand extended. Helena recognized him as a lawyer friend of her Dad’s. Aunt Maeve must have called him at home

“We got to the Mariaggi Hotel, no problem,” Beth said, sitting back down beside the lawyer who was taking notes on a yellow pad. “In the lobby, I started laughing because Karl signed the register with a big flourish. That’s the moment when these two soldiers jumped out from behind the counter and grabbed him. I saw the pen spin across the carpet. They shoved him out the door so fast I couldn’t catch a word he said. Then two policemen came from somewhere and shoved me out the door too. I looked for Karl on the street but he was gone. Just like that.…”

             Later, when the lawyer drove them all back to Rowan, he talked to Beth’s two teen-agers who sat on the front seat beside him. “Now lads, your Mom is in a tight spot and you’ve got to look after her. Some people may come along who want to talk about that prisoner fellow who was staying out at your farm. Just say nothing. Simply say, and politely, mind, that you’re not allowed to talk about it. Okay?” They both nodded. “That way you can really help out.”

            He half turned to the sisters in the back. “You gals stay out in the sticks, you hear. Hunker down. We’re not home free by a long shot.”

Just after eleven that evening, in Beth’s farmhouse, with the late June twilight shadowing the fields between the house and the road, Helena stood at the front window, the .22 rifle that had belonged to Beth’s husband Marc, in her hands. She was on the watch for another cruising car. The three boys were asleep upstairs. Beth’s soft sobbing in the downstairs bedroom had stopped.

When the first vehicle had honked past the two farms ten minutes before, Helena wondered if the local radio station had broadcast the story. As the head lights turned at the dead end just past the far field and cruised back, she saw the car doors open and heard voices yelling something unintelligible. She ran for Marc’s .22 rifle stored deep in the cupboard under the stairs and, in the dim room without a light, carefully lined up a few bullets along the edge of the fern stand.

As soon as the car sped off with a grind of gravel, she ran out the back door and down the darkening drive. The old rusty gate leaned half fallen in the alders, but she managed to yank it out and stand it in place. Tomorrow, she’d make two NO TRESPASSING signs, one for each driveway. Turning back, her eye was caught by a white paper sticking out of the mailbox.

Under the back porch light, she read, Why don’t you whores move to Germany and spread your legs for Hitler?

Inside again, she stood at the window watching a second car and then a third go by. Or perhaps it was the same vehicle; it was too dark now to tell. Thank God for gas rationing, she thought.

The boys had helped with the milking but only she and Beth walked old Buddy and the cart to the train stop. That was when Beth told her about being pregnant. Helena sighed, shifting the rifle to the other hip.

Worries flew around like the night hawks swooping over the far meadows. What if the authorities found out? Would they take the baby away?  And Martin—where was he? Most likely at the Current River Camp but what did it matter, after all?   He’d never be allowed to come back. He might as well be on the moon.

***

“Where did they take you when they took you away?” she asks him five years later. The orange and onion sandwich is on the café table with a second pot of tea. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Alma behind the counter creating the Stan and Si.

            “Twenty-eight days’ detention at Current River Camp. Bread and water,” he says. Not a lot of bread but, on the other hand, as much water as I wanted.” He smiles, and then his face saddens. “The odd thing is this. Karl was not at Current River and I never found out where they took him. Over the next two years, I ask everyone, but no one saw him at any of the camps.” He shakes his head. “He vanished like a puff of smoke.”

            He nods in the direction of Bonnie who’s standing at the juke box looking at the flashing lights. “So she’s Beth’s girl?”

            “Yes. But everyone, including my new husband, thinks she’s mine.”

            Alma slides the Stan and Si in front of him and Helena sees his shoulders shoot up in amazement. “Good God,’ he says. “What is it? It looks like a gravy mountain.” He leans forward breathing deeply. “No wonder Karl loved these things. The smell alone.”

Alma explains. “It’s really just a hot sandwich four layers high. Good thick slices of pork and onions and lots of gravy as you can see. The fries around the edge keep the entire kit and caboodle from running off the plate. It’s a Port Arthur invention,” she says proudly. “You won’t get one anywhere else.”

He cuts a small piece out of the corner and lifts it carefully to his mouth. “Wars,” he says after a moment, “could be fought over a sandwich like this.” He cuts a larger bite.

Helena takes a nickel from her change purse and goes to the juke box to show Bonnie how to press the buttons for the music. The Andrew Sisters blare forth and, after a minute, Bonnie begins a swaying dance in the neon bars that swirl across the floor. She adds a few hops and then a twirl. Her blond hair swings, her eyes close with joy.

Back in the booth he looks up from his plate. “Was Beth arrested?”

“Not really, no. She was charged with aiding the enemy but the charge was stayed. She couldn’t leave Rowan but the kids were allowed to stay at the farm. We sent them to Aunt Maeve’s when school started.

She feels her courage failing; her husband and Ken will be back any minute. It’s an effort now to make her voice loud enough. She describes how the auctioneer came out and sold off all the cows except one they kept for themselves for the winter. They even sold old Buddy, the work horse.

“The boys were upset but we had to do it,” she says. “We’d plenty of money—that was the one good thing. The dairy business boomed all through the war with nothing to spend it on. We got a swell price for the cows too. We ordered our groceries and other stuff from Eaton’s and it came out by train.”

In September, a letter arrived from Aunt Maeve full of sinister hints. “I am sure there is always someone listening on my party line. The lawyer came by this morning and said under no circumstances should you girls come to town. There’s a mean mood about. The newsreels have been showing the opening of the camps in Germany and it’s getting people mad. So don’t tell anyone about anything. It may fire people up against you.

 All three boys have settled in and are doing fine at school. They send their love. Your dad’s weaker I think. He’s wandering in his mind.

Be careful my darlings. Love Aunt Maeve.”

  Helena breathes out a whooshing sigh. “They burned down my little house, Martin. I was outside after supper bringing in the clothes. When I saw the greasy smoke full of flames, I knew exactly what it was. I could hear them shouting even from so far off.”

“My pictures, all the furniture….” And your bedroom, she almost adds, and your bed. Sometimes, she had gone into the attic to lie down on his bed and press her face into his pillow.

“We didn’t dare go over till the next morning,” she continues. “And guess what was left?  That bath tub.” She tries for a steady tone. “Do you remember it? The Good Ship Rowan. There it was, in the middle of the rubble, a big black cast iron thing like a burned out boat.”

“So,” she shrugs, “We hunkered in for the winter. When Dad died we didn’t even go to the funeral. Beth was showing by then and I was the one who was supposed to be pregnant.”

His face sends the question.

 “Why did we do it that way? Mainly, it was for Beth’s boys. The other kids would have hounded them out of Collegiate.

“And then there was Marc, just liberated from that terrible camp in Hong Kong. How could he come home to a baby? She couldn’t do it to him. And Beth’s court charges—stayed but not dropped. We were afraid if the authorities found out… afraid of people coming out, social workers, the police. Maybe they’d take the baby away. So we decided I would be the official mother.”

He leans back waiting until she finds words again. “Bonnie was born at the farm just before Christmas with me as midwife,” she says slowly. “I registered her as my own and my husband in Ottawa as the father.

“When he wrote me and told me about his Ottawa girlfriend and he wanted a divorce, I was over the moon. I never did tell him about Bonnie.” She gave a half laugh. “He said I could have the house, didn’t know it was a pile of ashes. I didn’t even have to go to Ottawa.”

The music stops and Bonnie runs over jumping up and down. “Please, Mummy,” she begs, “another nickel.” Martin hands over a coin and Helena goes to start the music. Bonnie insists on the same song and the Andrew Sisters flare up again. Bonnie starts to twirl.

“We sold up completely the next summer,” she says to Martin when she slides back into the booth. “Beth took her boys to Vancouver even though leaving Bonnie broke her heart. But she wanted a new life and she got it. Marc came back from Hong Kong half blind—something to do with malnutrition. But he’s all right, he’s working. So we all came through. Except for you. You lost your family.”

He nods.

“They were killed in the air raids.”

“Yes.”

 “You married again too, you said in your letter.”

He nods again. “Her name is Inge. She’s a nurse. She comes to Winnipeg when I get settled at my Winnipeg job.” Now, she sees him glance at the clock above the counter. She knows the train for the west leaves soon. The shot of pain she feels makes her grab the edge of the table.

“I should maybe write?” he says.

“Christmas,” she says.

The café door opens and her husband and Ken come in.

“Write at Christmas.”

***

Martin uncaps his gold tipped fountain pen. Dear Helena, he writes on the blank side of a Christmas card, his mind, as ever, sliding back to the bed in the downstairs bedroom in the tiny farm house, the lines of sunlight playing across her body. He can still see her brown eyes fixed on his. The memories sink into his chest. Ah, that first night playing cards in the kitchen. And the meeting in the Arthur Café five years ago when he first come back to Canada. She was so much the same—eyes, hair, voice. And her laugh. She came through all right, he thought. All right, in spite of everything.

He recalls his shock at the sight of the Stan and Si but also remembers his impulse to wrap the extra fries in a serviette and put them in his pocket. Instead, he pushed the plate aside. His old compulsion returned in Germany after the war and sometimes, even now, he wants to save bits of food. When he left the café that day, after shaking hands all around, he took a last look at them in the booth. Just a normal Canadian family on a normal Canadian Saturday.

Once, he thought he saw Karl. It was on Hastings Street in Vancouver last summer. He’d gone there on business shortly after opening his own engineering firm in Winnipeg. A slight blond man on the sidewalk who flipped a pack of cigarettes in the air and caught it with a little jump. When the man turned into an office building, Martin ran from across the street but no one was in the lobby.

Now, at his desk in his beautiful new office overlooking Portage Avenue, he realizes his hand is jamming the nib of the pen into the paper creating tight spirals on the thick matte. He tears the card up. In war time, he muses, everything disintegrates, even lives, especially lives. They get patched together somehow, but only patched, after all.

He starts a new card carefully penning his standard Christmas opening.

Dear Helena, My best wishes to you and your family for the coming year….”
(originally published in The New Orphic Review)

 

.

 

 

No comments:

Post a Comment