No 150 - 1997
When Childhood Ends
(For my good friend Henri Szliwowski)
Pierre was visiting his best friend Raymond. They were planning their next joint campaign when Raymond was to visit Pierre’s house and in his big playroom on the top floor they would advance their armies and successfully tackle the enemies who faced them. Suddenly Raymond’s mother appeared although Pierre had only been there a short while. “Your mother has rung, you must run quickly home, she wants you.” Pierre was allowed to go to Raymond’s house on his own because they lived on the same side of the same street so he could visit Raymond without having to cross any roads. He just had to put his head down and run and that was just what he did. Not looking he ran straight into a man.
“Achtung,” said a voice and a lot more in a language that Pierre did not understand. The man that Pierre had run into was a big man wearing a big grey overcoat who had what looked suspiciously like a gun slung over his shoulder and he picked Pierre up and looked at him pinching his cheek quite hard. Pierre stared back at him saying nothing; the man put him down saying something in the strange language and struck him firmly on the bottom. Pierre realised he was free to run on and run he did, his head held high looking for other walkers on their quiet residential street.
Pierre ran up the drive, rang the front door bell and pressed himself against the door so that when it opened he half fell into the house. “What are you doing?” Said his mother. “A man,” Pierre began, but his mother was too anxious, too frightened herself to listen to the story of what had frightened him. She picked him up and kissed him. “You will not be able to play with Raymond any more. The Germans have entered Brussels.” Pierre knew that the Germans had something to do with why his mother didn’t like him playing soldiers but she looked at him and he thought she’s sad - would she cry ever? And he said “Can I go up and play with my soldiers?” and she said “You can go and play with your soldiers.”
His father’s job was a problem. He wasn’t something you could tell people at school like Raymond’s father who was a doctor. Pierre’s father worked in an office but it curiously was at Raymond’s that he learnt more when Raymond’s mother introduced him to a friend of hers saying, “His father’s big in import/export and does a lot with England.” From England came his father’s friend Stephen. His father and Stephen were busy in the office for one or two days and Stephen would stay with them and he always brought presents for Pierre and his older sister Carol. Dolls for Carol and when he was little soft animals, bears, a rabbit, a lion cub, but then when just before his sixth birthday the best present ever, a big box with twelve lead soldiers in it. Guardsmen with red jackets holding their guns with their silver bayonets fixed in front advancing towards the enemy.
As soon as Stephen was gone, leaving to catch a night boat back to England, mother sent Pierre quickly to bed. She kissed him quickly, no story and “Go to sleep.” She hurried downstairs, Pierre crept out onto the landing so he could hear the row. Actually, he could only hear his mother’s voice as she half shouted while his father murmured back. “I don’t want him to have soldiers to play with.”
“It’s like giving him those toy guns, he’ll grow up liking them, he’ll grow up wanting a gun himself. He’ll want to fight.
“No toy soldiers. You could see he loved them. He’ll grow up wanting to be a soldier.
“He will, he will. He’ll want to be a soldier. He’ll want to be in wars. He’ll be killed. You’ll see and it will be your fault.
“Having soldiers must tell him adults approve of war. Look how well they are made. They’ll seem his most important toys.”
And again and again; “He’ll want to fight.”
He only heard one sentence from his father, his voice raised in frustration: “I’m importing them for God’s sake.”
He got cold on the landing and long before the argument stopped, Pierre crept back to bed. But when later in the year, all the family were there at one of those family lunches with his grandfather who wore a furry old hat all the time, his grandfather said to Pierre, “What do you want for Christmas?” and there was only one answer “soldiers”. And his grandfather laughed and said: ‘That will be easy for everyone and make us all some money.” Pierre looked at his mother but her eyes were down fixed on her plate not looking up or joining in the laughter, her husband was silent too.
Sometimes his father would take him down to his office, a bunch of rooms in the one corner of a warehouse, piled high with all sorts of goods his father was selling. But after lunch his father took him into the warehouse and showed him a huge pile of crates ‘Brittain’s’ and he tapped them ‘Soldiers’. “You’ll see, they’ll be in all the toy shops next week.” And they were. He saw them when they went shopping, his mother dragging him away from the toy shop windows saying, “Why couldn’t he have gone on just importing clothes.”
So very soon Pierre had an army. Only his sister (and he loved her for it) had been to a shop and bought four Belgian troopers, blue and red with baggy trousers but all the brightest troops given by cousins and uncles were boxes they got at a discount from his father’s warehouse. They were English soldiers mainly but there were the three Scottish regiments. The Tartan Trousers, the Greys and the Scots Guard who were splendidly gilded with very firmly attached but mobile arms, their rifles shouldered; they had very firm stands and did not fall over easily. Then the main English Regiment with their hats like the policemen in Brussels so they were ‘Policeman hats’, then the English Guard one foot behind the other and their bayonetted guns not shouldered but held quite pointing forward. Then there were others, the Khakis, the Calvary, the sailors, the odd Red Indian. The Band. Mostly the tunics were bright red polished unchipped below the pink fresh faces with their little mouse-like features.
Mostly, of course the soldiers fought in the playroom, the big loft-like room on the second floor of the house but that last summer he and Raymond had brought them down into the garden. To understand that you have to have seen the garden. The house was on a low hill with a verandah at the back with ten foot vertical walls at one side of which there was a steep flight of steps. Pierre could remember when he needed a helping hand to go down them onto the path which ran along the top of the garden. Down to the centre past three terraced beds to the circular crazy paving area beside which were the rose beds. At a certain time of year hundreds of little purple flowers nestled in these upper steps and Pierre liked them because their smell reminded him of his tall dark beautiful mother. Beyond the rose beds was a low wall and over the wall was the tumbling wild rockery through which a stepped path weaved its way to the tennis court. One hot day last summer he and Raymond had fought - they always fought pretend enemies - and had fought, he to the right, Raymond to the left, all the way down to the tennis lawn.
This summer they planned to do it again but for today sent upstairs Pierre simply set out the men for an advance across the playroom floor to the door. Scots on the right, the guard pushing forward in the centre and to the left the Calvary who were always such a pain to stand up. He had not got them all in place when he heard the front door slam and his father’s shout for his mother and he shot downstairs catching his mother as she came out of the bedroom. His father was standing in the hallway still not moving on into the sitting room.
“The Germans have entered Brussels.”
“I know. I saw them on the street already.”
“Tomorrow the children must go to the cousins.”
The next day their mother drove them down to “the cousins”. The cousins were alright. There was some joke about them not being real cousins which Pierre didn’t understand then. At first it was holidays and that was alright - they could get out of the small town and get into the woods. The cousins children knew where you could swim in the river and knew lots of children from the town - it all seemed friendly and easy when they had to go to the local school, until a big lad about twelve pushed through the group. Pierre was kicking a football and he took hold of Pierre pushing him against a wall and said: “You’re a jew-boy, a jew-boy, a jew-boy,” laughed and ran off.
And a few days later there was a noise in the night and when they came down in the morning someone had daubed white-wash stars on the windows and written onto the doors ‘There are jews in this house’. The cousins were frightened. “It is not safe for you. It is not safe for us. You must go back to Brussels.” There were hasty phone calls and they were put on a train back to Brussels and told their mother would meet them.
Which she did. But not looking herself - her hair usually so neatly groomed was hardly brushed. She was wearing one of her elegant dark coats but pinned to it was the star from the windows, the Star of David. She took their hands and said, “Come, we must get quickly off the streets, we are living over the warehouse.”
Out of the station into the street Pierre half running as his mother dragged him and his sister after her. But then coming towards them were two men in those big grey overcoats. Was one of them the man who Pierre bad ran into? They stood on the pavement and they had to stop and one of them said in a thick foreign accent, “Not so fast, jew-girl, not so fast.” And he took his mother’s jaw between his big thumb and forefinger and lifted it so his mother was forced to look into his eyes. Suddenly he pulled her face towards him and kissed her very firmly on the lips and then let go of her laughing loudly and, pushing past them, went on up the street.
Their mother grasped their hands and ran and this time he did run and this time she was crying as they sped on towards the temporary sanctuary of the small flat above the now empty warehouse.
“Why are we here?” asked Pierre, “Why are we not in our own house?”
“It’s been requisitioned,” said his mother.
“But what of our things, our books, our toys, our soldiers?”
‘They are still in the house as we left them.” Said his father in a vague effort to reassure them that life would yet return to normal.
“A Christian organisation will look after you. You are going a long way into the country. You will not see us again until after this war is over.” So the very next day a stranger they didn’t know came and took them back to the station, explained the changes in trains they had to make and wrote the name of a small town which they had never heard of down near the frontier with France.
Towards evening they arrived and were met by a tall bald man called Rupert and his wife Olga. They went quickly out of the station where Rupert had a small trap waiting and the horse briskly trotted off out of the town away, away to the small village where the pair lived.
They took them into the house and sat them down at a table with a meal they must have left prepared and they ate in silence. Then Rupert led them into the sitting-room and sat them down on two hard chairs - Pierre’s feet did not reach the ground. He sat opposite them and Olga sat beside them.
“You children must forget that you are Jews. You must forget your visit to synagogues – your Jewish prayers.” (Pierre heard his father’s light laughing voice: “We’re not part of that synagogue crowd”). “You must put all that behind you. Here you must be and be seen to be Christians. And that is good for you because Christ is the true faith, his is the true Church, and you are going to become part of it. So you must learn to pray. We will start now. We will all kneel and you will repeat the prayers after me.” They all knelt and Rupert, line by line, pausing for them to repeat after him, began to intone:
“Our father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done….”
Afterwards, Olga showed them the outdoor toilet and then took them up to their separate bedrooms. Olga left Carol in one little room and took Pierre into another room. He looked round it and asked, “Is this a child’s bedroom?”
“It is your bedroom Pierre.” But if it was his room why were there no books, like his old picture books and the newer books with stories he could read and the books his mother read to him before his light was put out, although the door was always left open so the light from the landing came in? Where were his toy animals, his cars, his rubber mini-bricks? It was true there was one book, a big heavy bible with a prayer stool before. There was case Benjamin - the rabbit - and he was allowed to take him to bed with him.
“Are you all right Pierre?” Olga asked.
“I’m all right,” said Pierre.
“Goodnight then,” and she put out the light and left the room closing the door firmly behind her.
In the morning there were prayers before breakfast, then that simple meal, then a journey in the trap to the village school where Rupert dropped them off and went on to the big saw-mill of which he was manager. The first morning he got down from the trap and led them through the gate and showed them two doorways ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’. “You go in there,” he said pointing. Pierre, scared that his companions might repeat the jew-boy episode, found them instead cowed but friendly. Infringements of any sort were dealt with summarily with strokes of the cane on the hand while for what were regarded as more serious crimes - rowdy behaviour, you were caned smartly on the behind. You tried not to step out of line. So you worked in school and you had mounds of homework much of it tedious in the extreme, pages of long division sums, long texts to copy from religious manuals like the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux.
In the holidays, Pierre usually went to the saw-mill where he was busily employed stacking logs, clearing the floors of dust, digging in the surrounding vegetable garden. It was less boring than being at “home” where you sat and read on through the great bible. There were the ritual prayers that had to be learnt but also there was extempore prayers and half sermons. On Sunday when they went to the chapel there were longer sermons. Pierre learnt that everybody was a sinner, the world was like it was today because of his sin. Rupert extemporised prayers every evening. “For we know we have sinned and we suffer for it. Forgive us our transgression, heal us with thy mercies.” His sister soon seemed to catch the faith. She began to bend forward with clasped hands and occasionally even moaned a little as she bowed her head. But Pierre knelt uncomprehending and unmoved but anxious to know what had been his sins: his mother had not wanted him to play soldiers.
“Children are lucky. They have no work. They only have to find out about life when they have to work,” Olga stated regularly. Pierre felt he knew already what work was like, it was a daily grind, an unrewarding, drudge.
Actually Pierre was lucky, he learnt Latin quickly and was given books to study that other pupils couldn’t tackle. There was a little library of texts which clearly his teacher had never read, Catullus, Ovid were a little different to the dry Aeniad and Caesar. It seemed he was ‘clever’, top of the class but he kept quiet about it so it didn’t bother the other kids who he regularly helped with their work.
This was the life then pendant la guerre. You grew, you learnt, your body changed (which you were well aware of and you could sin then but you would not talk of that), you inhabited a house, you lived in a village, you went to a school, you had no word from the past. The war ended but there was no word from their parents who had not even known the address they were going to, only the station where they were to alight.
His sister in the summer of ‘46 went to Brussels. A letter came, she had found their mother living in a little room in the apartment of one of their a bowl to wash in and a small chest for his few clothes. He had in his little old maids and then came his mother, a tiny little bent white-haired figure who clasped him in her arms and wept. Their father dead in some camp (Auschwitz?). She stayed only the day and went back to her little room and soon his sister went after her to live and look after her.
But Pierre stayed. Now going by bus to school in the small town and still living with Olga and Rupert and more years and passing scholarships and going with his scholarship but in a special scheme south to Lyon to study medicine while his sister tried to recoup the family fortune by working as a clerk in an import/export office. There was a small flat where Pierre could visit and stay for a little time with his mother who talked little but liked to have him there.
Pierre was a quiet serious student and then a quiet serious young doctor down there in hot warm South of France, not very socially adept you might say but always polite and considerate.
Then a dark-haired girl, a nurse of course, said “You are too serious Pierre,” and when he looked at her she took his hand and held it for long enough for him to know that he wanted to hold her which he did. Warmth. You talk about the present and what you do. But you also talk to each other about the past - hers a bustling Provencal family. His? She told him to go back and look for it again.
So that summer he went back, stayed with his little silent mother and one day he walked the three or four miles to the suburb where the house had been. He recognised the road and came to the first of the houses in that peculiar almost gothic-style, smaller than their house but suddenly the old feel of the street. It was some time before he could work out that this apartment of 16 flats was where their house had been. There was a parking lot where their drive had been and the building was further forward towards the road than the house had been. He went to the back. He worked his way round there to the narrow road from which you peered over up at their garden. The garden had gone of course, the rockery, the terraced flower beds, bull-dozed out and rough leaving only brown grass which led out from the back of the apartments.
The house which his elegant mother, his quiet firm-handed father had had their life, had not just been sold off, it had been destroyed. He went back to the front of the new apartment and looked up to where on the top right the playroom had been. The room was deserted, dusty, decayed, but oddly still there. And he thought that in there, still quietly standing to arms, would be the soldiers standing ready to advance. On the left he imagined the Calvary might indeed by now be quite clouded with cobwebs and the poor animals would hardly be able to move at all. On the right the creaky board on which the Scots had stood so firmly had slipped and the three regiments had tumbled all together to the ground. But in the centre the guard, or at least some of them, would be still standing foot thrust forward to advance, their uniforms, alas, no longer bright red but chipped, faded with a leaden colour peering through. But others had fallen to the ground and were supporting themselves on an elbow their face no longer fresh pink but greyish and their pin-point eyes no longer sparkling but glazed over as they still stared ahead at a doubtful future. This is, after all, what happens to old soldiers when childhood ends.
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