Sunday, March 21, 2010
This is the opening to my novel SONS. I'm still in the process of writing it and would appreciate any feedback you might have. The next installment is here.
Every age seems to have its own particular tragedy, every generation its own guilt. The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. Each era must learn to deal with the transgressions of the past and those they will visit upon the future. Collective sin becomes collective guilt. And so it was with my generation. Especially for those of us who had lived through one of the greatest horrors of the modern age.
I was raised in Dresden by my grandparents who died along with the other estimated 35,000 Germans during the Allied fire bombings between February 13th and February 15th, 1945. My father died in the Great War and my mother, I was always told, had also died during “The War to End All Wars.” I was to learn, however, that she was English and had given birth to me and returned to England after leaving me with her German boyfriend and his parents. When the letter arrived informing me that as her son and sole heir, I had inherited a small fortune and her home in the midlands of England, I received the news with fear and excitement.
After the war the Russians moved into Eastern Germany with an amazing ferocity. To acquire my passport and traveling papers took a great deal of perseverance and tenacity. Serving in the German Army Intelligence and dealing with military bureaucracy played a large part in helping me to achieve my desired goals. Ultimately, I was granted permission to leave Germany. I had traded my uniform for civilian clothes and was traveling light. I left Berlin sharing a train compartment with an elderly gentleman and a woman with an infant.
I watched the German countryside pass by as I said goodbye to my old life and the years of fear and strife brought on by the war. The old man snored and the woman nursed her child. As we approached the Dutch border the conductor came through checking our tickets and passports. A terror gripped me as he looked at my papers and then at me. I smiled as he handed them back to me. Soon we passed through the Netherlands where the old man got off the train and continued into Belgium where the mother was replaced by American soldiers. Eventually, I arrived in France. Everywhere were signs of destruction.
I found a room in Calais and was up early the next day to catch my boat on a bright clear spring morning with clouds on the horizon. As the boat left its moorings and sailed into the English Channel, I stood on the bow of the boat, the wind and mist on my face baptizing me into my new life. No attachments gave me a new sense of freedom I had yet to experience in my thirty-six years. As I watched the coast of France, the fear and hatred flew away, my spirit soaring with the gulls that accompanied our boat.
The crossing was uneventful. The sea was dark with frothy white caps. British soldiers lined the decks as we approached England and the cliffs of Dover. A few were at the railing getting sick. The rest looked longingly as the coast appeared on the horizon. The closer we got the more animated their conversations became until the cheers rang out and they began hugging and slapping one another’s backs. Soon they began singing, “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see.” The deck filled with others from below singing and crying as we approached the coastline. My growing sense of isolation as an outsider became more acute.
As I stood on the deck of the ship, I saw a young man in army khakis standing off to the side, looking in my direction. His eyes caught mine, held the gaze for a moment and returned to the coastline. There was sadness and a touch of sorrow in his gaze. He looked back at me, saw me looking at him and smiled. I smiled back as he walked over to me holding his hand out.
“Miles. Miles Sheffington. Nice to meet thee.”
I had assumed my mother’s maiden name, using the English pronunciation of my given Christian name. A gust of wind blew mist into our faces almost blowing our hats off. Miles held onto the rail and his side cap as he inquired.
“You might say that.”
I had worked out my story but it seemed like nonsense to lie to him.
“My mother died and I inherited her home in the midlands,” I hesitated. “I’ve never been there. I…I was raised in Germany.”
“So, yer mother was British? What about yer father?”
“German. He died in the first war.”
“Ye sound so British.”
“I woulda guessed thee was an earl or at least a lord.”
We laughed. He looked into my eyes and smiled again. I had studied English and during the war had done some translating, working hard on my pronunciation. When I received news of my inheritance having decided to go to England, I worked even harder on losing any traces of my accent.
“Where didja live in Germany?” he asked.
The smile left his face as he looked out to the approaching coastline.
“Dreadful business, war.”
I leaned onto the rail, looking to see how much time we had before we reached England.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“North, near the Scottish border. The Lake District.”
“If this great world of joy and pain revolve in one sure track; If freedom, set, will rise again, and virtue, flown, come back;”
He looked at me and finished the verse.
“Woe to the purblind crew who fill the heart with each day's care; Nor gain, from past or future, skill to bear, and to forbear!”
He smiled again, that sad, beguiling smile and touched my hand resting on the rail.
“Thankee,” he said.
He held his hand on mine a moment longer and squeezed before he let go, looking back out to the coast. A cheer rang out on the deck.
“For what?” I asked.
“Yer kindness. It’s been a long time.”
He turned and walked back to where the other soldiers were standing. I watched him leave and strike up conversations with the men. He glanced back, saw me looking after him and smiling walked back over to me.
“If yer ever in the North Country, I come from a place called Buttermere in Cumbria. Ask fer Miles and they should direct ye. It’s a small village.”
He shook my hand and turned away. The boat had entered the harbour at Dover. We docked and began to disembark. Having brought only one suitcase with me, I was soon on the dock, standing in the long line to pass through the customs house. A light rain began to fall. The shoulders of my overcoat were soaked at the shoulders. The woman behind me stood closer and held her umbrella over us both.
“No reason you should die of pneumonia after what I’m sure you’ve been through, lad,” she said and smiled.
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”
“Thank you, son, for helping to wipe out that demon Hitler and hold back the Hun once more.”
“I. . .I . ., you’re welcome and thank you for the use of your umbrella.”
I looked ahead and saw Miles waving at me on the other side of Customs. After a few dark glances and questions, I passed through to the other side and was welcomed by Miles.
“I see thee made it through the gauntlet unscathed. How ‘bout I buy thee a pint or two and we get stinking pissed my first night back in Merry Old? I think thee needs a proper introduction to yer new country.”
“No, in London Town. We’ll get a room and find us a pub.”
“Alright,” I agreed and we set off to the train station. Very soon we were heading north to London. We crowded into our seats and sat opposite another soldier with a head bandage, missing an arm. I looked into his eyes and smiled, but there was no recognition. He turned his head and cocked an ear as the door opened and another soldier sat down beside him.
“There you are, Harry, I thought I’d lost you,” he said and patted the other man on the thigh. It dawned on me at this moment the wounded soldier was also blind. “When we get to London yer sister will be meeting us at the station.”
I turned to Miles who was also watching the two men and then turned to look out the window as the countryside moved past us. It had grown dark and our car was soon in dim light. I closed my eyes and before I knew it, Miles was nudging me on the shoulder.
“Ye started to snore and besides we’re pulling into the station.”
I watched the two soldiers across from us get up and the one called Harry grabbed onto his friend’s arm with his one good arm.
“Makes me grateful I made it back in one piece,” Miles said as we watched them exit the car. He stood and grabbed his kit. I stood as the train came to a stop and we stepped out of the car onto the platform.
Next installment is here.