ENGLAND, MAY 1950
Mum looked odd, kind of pasty, as she opened the front door. I slung my heavy, half-term satchel with my dirty sports kit in it onto the hall floor. I hung my panama hat and blazer on the coat stand as usual, but instead of heading for the kitchen with promises of supper, Mum tugged at the hem of my skirt, fiddled with my tie and plaits and looked me up and down.
I was filled with a kind of dread. ‘What is it? What’s going on?’
It was as if I woke her up. ‘We have a visitor, dear.’
I followed her into the front room that we hadn’t used since Peter’s family from next door came for tea and mince pies last Christmas. The atmosphere was chilly, though it was a warm day.
A blur of red sweater rushed towards me with a cry that might have been pain or joy. Strong perfume wafted over me as a woman’s arms grabbed me and I found myself pressed up against the soft flesh of her bosom. We remained glued together in the middle of the room. Beneath her perfume, the woman smelled of mothballs and overflowing ashtrays. Strands of her black hair tickled my nostrils.
Wondering whether I was supposed to hug the stranger back, I turned to Mum. The look on her face terrified me. I’d never thought of her as fragile before, but right then she looked like she might break into little pieces. Clearly, something serious was happening; I hadn’t the remotest idea what.
‘Lena,’ the strange woman began to murmur. She said it Lay-Na, over and over.
No one ever called me Lena. Yet the sound of it took the bottom out of my belly and left a longing there I didn’t understand, like someone strumming half-forgotten guitar chords that I loved. I pictured myself as in a dream, with my cheek on a big pillow soaked with tears, yearning to hear ‘Lena’.
I winced under the stranger’s scrutiny as she held me at arm’s length. What was she hoping to see? Did I pass muster? Why should I even care?
Her eyes were brown and rimmed with streaks of mascara. Her hair was swept into a low bun. Her cherry-red lips matched her tight-fitting sweater. She was a young woman and beautiful, I thought – like a movie star, although her teeth were stained yellow from tobacco. Her smile lit up her whole face. I wanted to earn that smile again and again.
She pinched my cheek. ‘Lena, so gross geworden.’
I didn’t know how I understood what she said, but I knew it was German and that she was telling me I’d grown tall. Her face crumpled. She clasped me in another bear hug. Her body heaved. She wet my neck with her crying.
I turned to Mum and mouthed, ‘Who is she?’
She flinched, which was not reassuring.
‘Who is she?’
Mum looked desperate. Her lips moved, but no sound came from them. She cleared her throat and tried again. In a voice not her own, I heard her say, ‘She’s your mother.’
Her words made no sense. They bounced around the room and flew back off the walls at me like a volley of stinging arrows, without meaning. Yet they turned my blood ice-cold and my body clammy. I shouldered off the woman’s suffocating embrace like she was a disease.
‘No, she’s not!’ My throat was parched. The room was closing in. I squirmed. ‘Let me go!’
Still she had my hands. I snatched them away. A jumble of husky words from her followed me as I lurched through the door. I caught a glimpse of Mum as I went. She looked afraid. I’d never seen her looking afraid before.
Fighting back the black that was engulfing me, I went out of the back door. I was panting like I’d just finished a cross-country run. I glanced behind me as I sucked in gulps of air but neither mother followed; a relief but also vaguely disappointing.
Mr Price next door was strutting around his back garden, smoke rising from his pipe in choo-choo puffs. If he saw me, he’d be bound to ask in his usual hearty way how ‘we’ were doing at school. I scooted down the garden, crouching below the level of the fence to avoid him.
The gardens in Lanfranc Close were long and narrow. At the end of ours was a great weeping willow tree with a bad hairdo, whose trailing tendrils masked an old bomb shelter. From the outside this looked like a hump of earth covered with balding grass. The steps down to the low opening where the door once was were overgrown with lilac and buddleia.
Inside was my very own fox’s lair, the place where schools for dollies gave way to daydreams growing up. No one else except Mum knew this was here. And she never came. I sat on one of the concrete benches that ran along the two longer sides. With my knees hugged to my chest, I waited for my breath to calm, but it refused to do so. It was like I could see everyone in my school closing in on me out of the dark corners of the shelter, all whispering and pointing fingers.
I hugged my knees so tight that I felt I’d throw up. The crawling thing inside me felt like guilt, but I’d done nothing bad that I could think of.
The stranger had come like a flood that swept everything I thought I knew away, dragging off my identity and leaving me without a rock to cling to. I had no past, no future and no answers, only questions. If she really was my mother, why had she left me here? What kind of a mother would abandon her daughter like that?
Come to think of it, what kind of a mother was the woman I called Mum? She always said honesty was the best policy. But, for all this to be true, she’d had to have told me a whopper big enough to turn my whole life into a made-up story. After all, it wasn’t possible to have two mothers. Only one of them could be real. Right? But which one? The one who’d dumped me or the one who’d lied to me? Right then, I wanted nothing to do with either of them.
A breath of wind came down the stairs, cooling the tears running hot down my cheeks. I glanced up to see if one of them had come. But no. Both had left me all alone. Well, I had nothing to say to either of them anyway.
The new mother’s eyes were half-moon shaped and brown, like mine. Mum’s were grey, like a cloudy sky, like her hair. Mum was too old to have a daughter of fourteen and a half. But the other one was too young.
I wondered how I’d understood her German. I was in the Latin stream at school and had never learned German. Yet, as I bolted, she’d said, ‘Du weisst wohl wer Du bist.’ And I knew what that meant: ‘You know very well who you are.’
Well, she was wrong about that. I had no idea.
Mum was in the garden, calling, ‘Marlene, are you there? Supper’s ready.’
I heard her but didn’t react. When the words had finally sunk in, I scrambled out of the bomb shelter and ran past her, through the back door and into the house. The front room was empty. The Other Mother was gone, leaving only her bittersweet smell behind.
Panic rose in me. ‘Where is she?’
The woman had no sticking power. And no consideration for my feelings. Clearly, she hadn’t considered that I might be hurt by her abandonment, which would be glaring to anyone with a modicum of compassion. There was more – much more – I needed to know.
I tramped into the back room and sat down at the square table with a sigh. I didn’t want to ask Mum anything. Mum could no longer be trusted. She brought us plates of baked beans on toast. We both behaved as if I hadn’t yelled.
She said, ‘For what we are about to receive…’
And I cut in, ‘Amen.’
It was like nothing had happened and my life hadn’t been ripped to shreds, though I found I couldn’t swallow, even though I was ravenous. Eyes brimming with tears, I watched Mum eat. She knew I was watching but carried on, saying nothing.
Her hair tamed by grips, her wrap-around apron and her pearly clip-on earrings all confirmed a no-nonsense attitude. To her, right was white, wrong was black, and she followed the path of truth. Yet she’d cruelly deceived me.
My vision misted. I looked towards the clock on the mantelpiece that was ticking away the seconds. I wished I could get up, open its glass front, and turn back the hands to ordinary, to arriving home from school and ringing the doorbell again, to hanging up my things and thoughts of supper, to her not saying, ‘We have a visitor, dear.’
Mum lay her knife down beside her fork. She turned to me with an extra-kind expression on her face that jabbed another ice pick of alarm into my heart. ‘This is hard for you, Marlene, I know. Please understand that it’s hard for me too…’
The sneer I intended came out as a sob. She was going to tell me something I didn’t want to hear, and I had to let her. Though I wanted to run, I didn’t. Though the buzzing of a whole hive of bees in my brain was setting my teeth on edge, I listened.
‘It’s hard too, for… Mutti,’ she said.
‘Is that her name?’ My mouth was dry again. It was hard to get the words out.
‘Her name is Mrs Levi, Rochel Levi.’ She pronounced it Rock-el. ‘We would say Rachel, I think. And Mutti is…’
‘… Mum in German.’
The image that flickered before my mind’s eye didn’t match the sweet sound of that word at all. The oom-pah-pah of a sliding trombone would describe it better. I was watching from the wings of a darkened theatre as a woman with cherry-red lips, like the stranger’s, sang and danced behind eerie green footlights. She had on black stockings and a top hat. The scene brought the crawlies back into my belly and I didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because I was absolutely sure at that moment that Mrs Rochel Levi was my mother.
I jumped up and backed away, drowning in a sea of hurt that caused actual pain behind my eyes, in my throat and down my spine. At the same time, it was like a hand was squeezing my heart hard enough to drain the blood from it. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Sit down, dear.’ Mum’s voice was firm, though her face was ashen. She patted the seat.
I shook my head. I was feeling like bolting again. Yet, at the same time, I was glued where I stood.
‘You knew,’ she said.
‘No, I didn’t! You were my mother. But it turns out you’re a… an… imposter.’
I jabbed my finger at her. ‘Who are you?’
‘You don’t remember?’
More German! ‘What’s that?’
She patted the chair again. ‘Sit down and I’ll explain.’
I took a step forward. I had to know. But I sat with my knees sideways on, in case I needed a fast getaway.
With a deep sigh, Mum began. ‘It was a grey November day at the beginning of the winter before the war started –1938. I was baking a Victoria sponge and listening to the Home Service on the wireless…’
In a flash, I was right there with her, remembering the old farmhouse kitchen where we used to live and its yeasty bread smell. I would stand on black slate tiles beside a long table, high as my nose, as she sifted flour into a big bowl.
‘They broadcasted a call for foster parents to come forward, for the children who were coming,’ she went on. ‘You see, Hitler, the German leader…’
‘I know who Hitler was, Mum!’ The word ‘Mum’ felt furry in my throat. Perhaps I shouldn’t call her that any more?
‘Hitler and his Nazi Party were making life unbearable for the Jews in Germany.’ She looked at me as if she were expecting this to strike a chord. She was wrong. I glared back at her.
Hesitantly, she went on. ‘He stirred up all the other Germans until everyone hated the Jews. On Crystal Night they smashed up the Jewish shop windows and beat up the owners. It was a scary time. Your mother would have feared more and more for your safety, and her own.’
I hated it when she said ‘your mother’. It was like motherhood was something you could just transfer over to someone else. And the thought that I wasn’t who I thought – that nothing was solid any more – left a taste like cold metal in my mouth. ‘If she’s my mother now, then you’re not responsible for me any more. Are you? I don’t have to do what you say.’
My sneer missed its mark. Mum only looked like she felt sorry for me. My mind was racing on. If she – Mutti – was Jewish, perhaps I was too. But they were the unfortunates you pitied because of the hatred that had been shown them. I had thought I was properly British, part of a proud nation that ruled the waves, whose vast dominions coloured the world map pink.
It all seemed so unreal. When I tried to remember Germany and being Jewish, what came at me out of the floaty fog were vague snapshots from the time before Mum and I moved here to Canterbury: her hauling me aboard the tractor she was driving, letting me help feed chickens and bring in bleating sheep. We used to have a farm in Wales where the grass was as green as the tiny glass of crème de menthe Mum would sip at Christmas.
‘Over here, we thought all that was very wrong,’ she said. ‘Britain agreed to take 10,000 Jewish children. You didn’t all come at once but in dribs and drabs.’
‘So, I am Jewish!’
‘Why, yes, dear.’
‘They don’t believe in Jesus!’
‘Will they still allow me in the church?’
‘Of course. Jesus Himself was Jewish.’
She smiled. ‘And the disciples and almost everyone else in the Bible.’
‘I’ve heard 6 million Jews died in the war,’ I said.
She nodded. ‘It was good that you came to England.’
Perhaps some of them were my uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents. I’d heard about the concentration camps where they murdered Jews in gas chambers. At Auschwitz, the biggest and most well-known camp, they had a sign over the gate that said in German: Work Sets You Free. That was nothing but a big lie to help the Nazis keep everybody under control. Those who weren’t gassed were worked to death on starvation rations, never mind if they were sick or old, or were children.
My hand flew to my mouth. Perhaps it would have been my own fate to die that way if I’d stayed… But maybe not. That woman who’d said she was my mother and then vanished had got through. No doubt I would have too.
I cut into the sober silence that had fallen. ‘Six million is a massive number.’
I leaned forward. ‘Go on, then.’
‘I talked to Daddy and we decided we’d apply.’
On the bureau sat the framed photograph of a handsome man in his forties wearing the uniform of a naval lieutenant. I had no memories of him of my own, but it was like I did because Mum never stopped talking about the wonderful person he was. That picture was like a holy relic to her. And so, also, to me.
Now everything was shifting. He was as much a stranger as my real father. A thought hit me like a brick. Perhaps my real father had been murdered in the camps.
‘Someone came to inspect our home and interview us. And we were approved.’ Mum smiled to herself, no doubt remembering the sweet day in her sweet life that approval arrived.
I narrowed my eyes, wondering what other secrets there might be. ‘You never had any other children? I mean, children of your own?’
‘No. We just didn’t.’ She shook her head. Looking right at me, she went on, ‘We thought we were doing something good for a refugee child, but I was very glad to have you when Daddy was away fighting, and even more so after the news came that he’d been killed.’
‘Daddy?’ Claws of bitterness had gripped my vocal chords.
Mum, who wasn’t the soppy, sentimental sort, surprised me then by reaching for my hand and squeezing it. ‘You came with a little suitcase. There wasn’t much inside. No winter clothes. But then, we didn’t know how long you’d be staying. It was supposed to be a temporary thing. But we sort of connected. Didn’t we?’
I stayed cold, remembering the terrible lie she’d let us live, though I was beginning to realise that I was mostly angry because I desperately wanted her to be my real mother and she never would be again. No amount of fiddling with the clock hands could change that now that the truth was out. Mum didn’t seem to care that I’d turned to wood.
I couldn’t stand it any more. I got up and headed for the kitchen. When I got there, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. The back door and the shelter at the end of the garden beckoned. But I had a need to know everything, although I dreaded what else she might say. After a moment’s hesitation, I filled a glass with water and took it straight back to the back room. Mum looked relieved.
‘So, what did happen at the end of the war?’ I was asking to hear something sweet – hoping she’d say she loved me too much to let me go – yet my voice was as sharp as a shard of glass.
Again, she sighed deeply. ‘You Kindertransport children were all supposed to go back to where you came from. But that was impossible. Most of you had no one left to go back to. Whole families had been wiped out.’
‘But not my… mother?’
‘When no one claimed you, I assumed that was what had happened to your people.’
‘And that I’d stay with you?’
‘And that you’d stay with me.’ She reached for my hand again.
I was having none of it. This was all her fault. It was like she’d kidnapped me and I was her hostage. I jumped to my feet. ‘You’re mean, Mum! All these years you’ve kept me in the dark. You’ve denied me my rightful identity. You’ve kept me from my true mother.’
No matter that I wasn’t sure my rightful identity was something I wanted. Or that I found the colourful woman claiming to be my mother a little scary. Right at this minute, all I wanted was to get away from Mum and the gloomy little world she’d cocooned me in under false pretences. All this upset was down to her, 100 per cent her fault. ‘I hate you!’
I stormed out of the room and upstairs to my bedroom. I threw myself onto my bed and reached for One-Eyed Lottie. She was the rag doll I’d had forever. She had brown woollen plaits, black knitted shoes and a grubby red woollen pinafore. Once my dearest plaything, now that I was big, she mostly sat on my bed all day. I cuddled her close.
After what seemed like a long time, Mum’s footsteps creaked on the stairs. When she stood in the doorway, I turned my face to the window, which, being a warm afternoon, was open. The voice of Doris Day singing ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered’ was drifting in from one of the dorms of the boarding school at the end of the garden.
‘I suppose I should have tried to find out what became of your family when the war ended,’ she said. ‘But you never asked, and I was content not to pursue something that might ultimately cause you distress and force you to choose.’
How could she be so matter-of-fact? ‘You make me sick,’ I said under my breath. I’d never cheeked her this way before. It made me feel bad even though she deserved it.
Mum chose to ignore my words. ‘Marlene, poor Mrs Levi. The hotel is expensive. I’m sure she wants to get to know you. And you must…’
‘You must want to get to know her.’
‘No!’ I scooted my whole body to face the window, away from her.
Though I was eaten up with curiosity, I dreaded what might come out. I was getting a memory, maybe…
The dream-like picture of the cabaret dancer with cherry-red lips was returning. This time, a little version of me was there. I was feeling as anxious as before. I saw myself, trying to get to her. But giant hands lifted me. A grey-haired man in a brown overall – a stagehand, perhaps – put me back in the wings. I had to stay right where I was, he said, though I needed the toilet so badly. ‘Mutti!’ I cried in desperation as hot wee surged into my knickers and dribbled down my leg. Her head half-turned in my direction, but she kept her fixed smile and carried on with her act, leaving me shivering in my shame.
‘Perhaps we should ask her to stay with us?’ Mum was saying.
I didn’t like this idea at all. My protests, however, were feeble. Though I hadn’t asked for any of this, there seemed no other way to try to unravel the mystery of who I really was.
I trailed after her to the phone box at the end of the road. We called the place where the Mutti was staying. I was surprised when they held a conversation: Mutti was clearly responding to Mum’s English. They agreed she would come to stay tomorrow and see how things went.
‘Perhaps it’ll be a nice day for a picnic,’ Mum said, as we walked home.
Her suggestion sounded so normal. I wondered how she could remain calm when I was a million miles from getting used to what was going on. Tomorrow held the prospect of long hours spent with a mother I didn’t know and wasn’t sure I wanted to.
Tomorrow would be worse even than today.
First thing the following morning, I hurried next door to Peter’s. Mrs Price went upstairs to wake him while I waited in the hall with my hands clasped together in front of me to hide my body from Mr Price in his dressing gown and pyjamas. ‘You look very attractive in those shorts, Marlene,’ he said.
It was a sunny morning. I’d put on my flowered cotton top and blue shorts. On my feet were my plimsolls. I wished I was waiting outside, and not only because of the sun.
‘How’s that beautiful mother of yours?’
My heart surged. I thought for a moment he knew my secret. Then I realised he meant Mum and not the Other Mother. ‘Very well, thank you.’
‘Doing anything exciting over the Whitsun holiday?’
‘Uh-uh.’ I wasn’t about to tell him anything about anything.
Peter appeared at the top of the staircase in striped pyjamas, rubbing his eyes. What a relief.
‘Can you come out?’ I said.
‘I’ll be right there.’ He turned and disappeared. He was true to his word. I was standing waiting for no time at all.
‘Be good.’ Mr Price chuckled as he opened the door to let us out. ‘And if you can’t be good, be careful.’
I was too polite not to say goodbye to a grown-up. But the door shut as I turned. So, I was glad I didn’t have to.
‘What’s up?’ Peter asked.
I took him to the bomb shelter.
‘Wow! This is a keen place.’ He went down the steps and bent to go through the doorway. This last month or two he’d shot up several inches. He was stretching like an elastic band. ‘It’s like a smaller version of the shelter we had at school. But that was stinky, with a bucket behind a rag of curtain for a toilet. How come you never mentioned this be–’
‘Never mind. Sit down.’
We sat on the concrete bench. I swore him to secrecy. ‘And may God’s thunderbolt strike me dead if I ever tell another living soul what Marlene is about to tell me,’ I made him repeat, holding his hand to his heart. When he’d finished he looked me in the eye. ‘That promise only holds if I’m sure you won’t come to harm through whatever is going on.’
I told him everything. Afterwards he was silent. The birds were twittering and a squirrel was chattering. I could hear the low murmur of conversation from the boys’ dormitories beyond the back fence.
‘What are you going to do?’ he asked, eventually.
‘No idea. I was hoping you’d have a suggestion.’
‘There’s a Bible story about a child with two mothers.’
I’d never heard of it, but then, he was more churchy than I was. He went to Bible study and was a youth leader. It didn’t seem to bother him in the least when others teased him and called him a goody-goody.
‘They go to King Solomon, both claiming the child is theirs.’
‘Solomon asks for a sword to cut the child in two.’
‘Well, that’s a bit drastic!’
I was seeing myself tied up like in the old silent movies, with a sharp-toothed rotary saw bearing down on me.
Peter grinned. He had a charming grin. ‘That’s not the end of the story. The real mother backs down.’
Would my real mother, the Mutti, back down? If she did, then nothing in my life would change. I could stop chewing my nails. Maybe they’d actually grow, and I could paint them shocking pink, like my best friend, Babs. But would that mean my life would turn out to be a big disappointment? Would I be stuck here in Lanfranc Close forever?
Just yesterday at school, Miss MacGrotty had invited my class to consider our futures. I had wished mine would turn out more exciting than the routine of school and home and church on Sundays that was stifling my adventurous spirit.
She asked us what career appealed. This was to help us think about subject choices for the new GCE O level public examination course we would be starting in September. She handed out cards for us to write on. As I watched girls outside the window pounding the track in navy knickers, no ideas came. My blank card looked up at me reproachfully.
I later shared my dilemma with Peter, after running into him walking home from school.
‘So, what did you put down in the end?’ He had to raise his voice above the noise of the buses and cars passing us, as we ambled towards Canterbury’s imposing Westgate Towers, once the main gate to London in the medieval city walls.
‘Farmer?’ He snorted with laughter.
My cheeks burned. I glued my eyes to the pavement, feeling silly. I soon had to raise them to squeeze past throngs of American tourists, exclaiming at our timbered houses and ‘seventeenth-century’ witches’ ducking stool.
Farmer was an odd choice, I supposed, for someone who lived a bookish sort of a life in the centre of a bustling city like Canterbury.
‘Sorry, Marlene.’ Peter looked concerned. ‘That wasn’t very nice of me. I have no idea what I want to be.’
‘The farmer idea was desperate,’ I conceded. ‘I had to write something.’
I glanced back at the tourists with their cameras. They took home snaps of what they wanted to see, I supposed, the towering medieval cathedral and the quaint houses from across the centuries, rather than the picket-fenced bomb sites that were like gaping teeth between them – a doorway leading nowhere, a single wall with a window in it, or a crater pushing up purple buddleia.
‘Maybe you could marry a farmer?’
‘Because girls can’t be farmers?’
‘I was thinking that a farm probably needs two people to run it.’
I hadn’t replied. He was the one I wanted to marry.
‘Solomon realised that the real mother loved the child enough to give it up,’ Peter was saying.
If Mutti had really loved me, she’d have come way before now. The war ended five years ago. What took her so long?
‘So, he gave her the child.’
‘What? Solomon gave the real mother the child?’
I tried to make the best of it. I clapped my hands. ‘That’s really keen.’
I didn’t sound very convincing.
‘Which mother will you choose?’
Mum had used that word last night. I’d had the heebie-jeebies ever since.
‘Choose rhymes with lose,’ I said, like I was joking. Choosing wrong could ruin my life. Even choosing right would be awful. There could be no avoiding someone getting hurt.
Peter looked concerned. ‘I’d like to pray for you.’
Right there and then he laid a hand on my shoulder, closed his eyes, and prayed that God would give me the wisdom of King Solomon. I kept my eyes open. Even so, I felt it was nice. But the tingling silence after his ‘amen’ was too intense. I had to break it. ‘Perhaps I won’t even be allowed to choose. Perhaps the Other Mother has a legal claim and I’ll just have to put up with what she decides.’
‘I suppose Solomon represents the powers that be in this world.’ I pulled a wry face.
‘I think Solomon represents you.’
Whatever I decided, if I got to decide at all, would cut me in two.
I went indoors after Peter went home. A green canvas suitcase was standing in the hallway. It was battered and covered in stickers, some of which had funny writing on them, not our alphabet at all.
My heart became lead. ‘She’s here?’
Mum was overly jolly. ‘I’ve made a picnic lunch.’
I loved picnics. Sometimes we’d go to the Westgate Gardens. The River Stour running through this park was clear in summer: you could see green weed wafting in the water’s flow, and fish swimming. These lovely gardens lay beside the old Westgate Towers, through which pilgrims once poured, hopeful of a miracle at the shrine of Thomas Becket in the cathedral. Another favourite of mine at the opposite end of the city was the Dane John Gardens with its lawns and avenue of lime trees. However, I liked wandering off into the country best of all, such as to Fordwich, an ancient village not far from Canterbury. You could sit in a grassy meadow beside the Stour there, with the woods at your back and an old hump-backed bridge beside an olde worlde pub in front of you.
The Other Mother appeared at the top of the stairs. Mum and I looked up and she made her grand entrance, with her perfume descending ahead of her. She was more composed than yesterday, wearing a big smile. Her hair, held back from her face by a stretchy headband, fell loose about her shoulders. And she was wearing slacks! I thought only movie stars wore those. They were stone coloured and hugged her figure, showing the sway of her hips as she came down the stairs.
Ignoring Mum, she took my hands in hers. ‘Lena, you are so beautiful.’
My attempt at a smile froze on my face. She made me very nervous.
Inevitably, she pulled me to her and held me tight. Just like the previous day I managed not to flinch, though my arms remained wooden at my sides. I was feeling as much resentment towards her as I was towards Mum. They were both causing me a lot of upset.
The picnic turned out to be just her and me. I was furious with Mum when she told me she wasn’t coming. My first urge was to storm off. My second was to shout and stamp my feet. The reason I did neither was that the Other Mother was clapping her hands in glee and saying, ‘Vot a lovely idea,’ in her strongly accented, raspy voice. ‘Zis vill be fun, Lena.’
Now we were walking through the woods in silence. I was carrying the Red Riding Hood willow basket with all the food in it and feeling like the wolf might jump out of the shadows at us at any moment. To say I was on edge would be an understatement. I was a big disappointment to myself. I’d wished my life could be more exciting. Now, suddenly, it was, and I was miserable and unable to cope.
She tugged her cardigan across her shirt. ‘It’s cold.’
Although it was shady under the trees, the sunlight was filtering through the beech leaves and dappling the woodland floor. It wasn’t cold at all. ‘Are you ill?’
‘Nein.’ She stopped to light a cigarette, sucked on it hard and blew smoke out, over me.
I waved it away pointedly and coughed. ‘That’s very bad for you.’
‘Life is bad for you.’ She laughed. ‘Actually, it’s terminal.’
‘You’re a card. Aren’t you?’
‘Card?’ She didn’t even realise I was being sarcastic.
‘Oh, come on.’
She followed me along the path. ‘I’m used to the weather in Israel. It’s hot. At least most of the time it is. We had fifteen centimetres of snow last January. I could not believe it.’
‘Israel?’ This was a revelation. ‘I thought you lived in Germany.’
She laughed long and hard at this. ‘Such an idea. No, I don’t believe I’ll ever go back there.’
I knew nothing about Israel beyond what I’d been taught in RE at school. I told myself I’d better smarten up and learn about this. It could turn out I’d be going to live there.
Squiggles of fear mingling with a weird kind of thrill wriggled in my belly at that alarming thought. The Pathé News at the cinema often talked about the war between the Jews and the Arabs in Israel – soldiers in helmets and tanks in the desert. Who would want to live there?
‘Do you live in the desert?’ Perhaps she lived near where Jesus was when He wandered for forty days and nights, tempted by the devil.
‘No, I live on a kibbutz near Haifa.’
I didn’t know what a kibbutz was and had never heard of Haifa.
‘Haifa is a big port on the Mediterranean, in the northern part of the country. The kibbutz lies between there and Nazareth.’
‘Where Jesus grew up?’
She frowned at me like I’d said a dirty word.
‘Have you been to Nazareth?’ I asked.
‘Naturally. It’s really near.’
‘What’s it like?’ I imagined a pretty, historic village, probably a bit like Fordwich, where we were headed.
‘Jews need to be careful there. There are many Arabs.’
‘And the Arabs don’t like the Jews?’
I wondered whether there were Christians there but thought I’d better not ask.
‘What’s Israel like?’
She thought about this for a moment. ‘Israel is hope.’
How could a country be hope? I’d expected her to say something about the sights – there would be loads of biblical ones – or the scenery, or the weather. If someone asked me what England was like, I might say it’s a ‘green and pleasant land’. These were words from the song ‘Jerusalem’, which, oddly enough, is about England.
Her thoughts were turning towards a song too. Her eyes glowed. ‘In Hatikvah, the national anthem, we sing about our hope to live in freedom in a land that belongs to us. You see, Lena, we had no country when Hitler came against us, nowhere we could run to.’
I was burning to ask her about the Holocaust, about my family and my father, but I held back. That conversation didn’t seem to fit with strolling along a woodland path with birds chirping in the trees above us.
‘What about Bethlehem? Have you been there?’
Again, that no-entry sign frown. It stopped me dead from asking her if she’d seen Jesus’ birthplace.
‘Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem,’ she said. ‘But it’s in Jordan.’
I’d never heard of Jordan. ‘So, have you been?’
She stopped and stamped on her cigarette until it was quite dead. ‘Are you a Christian, Lena?’
‘Of course.’ I stuck out my chest defiantly.
‘The Nazis were Christians,’ she snarled, and strode away.
I had to run to catch up with her. ‘Maybe so. But not all Christians are Nazis. I’m not. Mum’s not. Peter next door is not.’
I was surprised to see her face crumple. She threw her hands up in the air. ‘I shouldn’t have let you come here. Ach! But you couldn’t stay with me either. You would be dead too.’
I wondered who she meant by ‘too’ – my father, perhaps? She looked like she might start howling. I hoped she wouldn’t. I’d never had to deal with a grown-up in that state before. Luckily, she’d calmed down by the time we reached Fordwich meadow and sat down for our picnic.
I set out the tablecloth and the food Mum had put in the basket for us. There were Cheddar cheese and pickle sandwiches, some of Mum’s special home-made sausage rolls, and a pork pie. She must have been hoarding our meat ration coupons. There was a bar of chocolate and lemonade. It was a feast.
‘So,’ I said.
She reached for a sandwich, took a bite and scrunched up her face. ‘Schrecklich!’ She put down the triangle of white bread, which now had a lipstick-edged bite taken out of it, on the red-and-white checked tablecloth.
We hadn’t yet said grace. I closed my eyes. ‘For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.’
I opened my eyes. Hers were closed. Perhaps she was praying, although no ‘amen’ had come from her.
‘Um…’ I didn’t know how to address her. ‘What should I call you? Should I call you Mutti?’ The name felt gluey in my mouth.
She opened her eyes. They were deep and brown and lovely. She shrugged. ‘What do you call her?’
‘You mean Mum?’
‘You can call me Mutti – or Imma.’
‘It’s Hebrew for mother. Or Rochel.’
‘That’s your Christian name?’
I decided to move away from name choices for now. ‘How old are you?’ It was a cheeky question, but she was so young. She made Mum seem so old.
To my surprise, she answered me. ‘I’m thirty.’
‘But I’m fourteen and a half!’ That would have made her just fifteen or sixteen when she had me.
A what-can-you-do look that left me none the wiser was her only response.
A bottle-green car, coming from the village, was crossing the narrow, hump-backed bridge over the River Stour, not far from where we were sitting. A second car approached, travelling in the opposite direction. There was only enough space for one car at a time. So, the green car backed up and, tucking in at the start of the bridge, allowed the other car to pass. The drivers waved to one another courteously. Again, the first car started to cross the bridge. The same thing happened again. On its third try, the green car stayed where it was, forcing the car coming from the other direction to back up. We exchanged grins. It was an amusing pantomime.
‘Mutti.’ My throat constricted. The name felt too big. ‘Would you like a piece of pork pie?’
‘Jews don’t eat pork.’ Her tone implied this was obvious.
In my hand I had one of Mum’s sausage rolls. She made them with shortcrust pastry and spread ketchup between the meat – mixed with breadcrumbs to help eke it out – and the pie crust. They were totally delicious. I didn’t feel Jewish. But if I was the Mutti’s daughter, then I must be. So, should I eat it? Or not?
It didn’t take long to decide I should. I reasoned I’d been eating Mum’s sausage rolls all my life.
The Mutti hated cheese with pickle. She wouldn’t touch pork. She casually picked up our solitary chocolate bar and scoffed it, as if sweets weren’t rationed at all.
Wasps began to annoy us. I put everything except the tablecloth back in the picnic basket. We sat in the sunshine watching the weeds waving in the river. Several times, I opened my mouth to speak and shut it again. There was so much I wanted to ask about how we used to be, but I didn’t know where to start. So, I tried to keep it conversational. ‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I told you. I live on a kibbutz.’
‘What’s a kibbutz?’
‘We have kibbutzim all over Israel. We live together and work together and share everything.’
She sighed like I was a bit dense. ‘That’s what people who live on all the kibbutzim are called. It sounds Russian, doesn’t it? And it is.’ She flicked her hair out of her eyes as the breeze caught it. ‘It’s a Russian type of system, a sort of communism.’
Well! I wondered how she could speak lightly of communism. Only countries we didn’t get along with were communist. In communist countries everyone had to do the same and be the same, which, looking at the Mutti, didn’t sound like her cup of tea at all.
But then she told me something about her life on the kibbutz. ‘I get a full Israeli breakfast every day. We have our own hens and dairy cattle. We are lucky to have eggs and cheese. We have fruit and olives and cucumber and, of course, bread.’
‘You have all that for breakfast?’ Coming, as I did, from a childhood of wartime rationing, the breakfast sounded out of this world.
‘We take what we want.’
I’d never eaten an olive. It sounded Mediterranean and exotic, something from far-off places with year-round warm climates.
‘For lunch we have soup and meat and salads and dessert. There’s supper too. Or I can take some things from the kibbutz shop. I don’t have to pay.’
‘You don’t have to pay?’
She laughed. ‘I take what I need – shampoo, cigarettes, clothes; chocolate, even, sometimes – whatever we have, when we have it.’
It sounded too good to be true. I wondered if she was making it up.
‘On Shabbat, we get together for songs and dancing.’
‘What do you call it? Ach, yes! Sabbath, the day of rest.’
I nodded. ‘Sunday.’
‘From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday,’ she corrected, sounding a little peeved. ‘Du bist keine Jüdin!’
It sounded like she was accusing me of not being Jewish. She was being unreasonable. How could I be expected to know what being Jewish added up to?
‘Of course, we don’t get paid much. As good as nothing, really. But we have a roof over our heads and everything we can need. We are building a homeland for the Jewish people.’ She looked at me and smiled. ‘Perhaps you will join us?’
Was she serious, or was this a tease, a dangling carrot she might yank away so she could laugh at me? Would it even be possible for me to go to Israel? Did I dare? Did I want to? If I did, would it turn out to be an opportunity, or a curse?
‘Don’t you want adventure, Lena?’
I couldn’t answer her. It was all so confusing. So, I shrugged helplessly. I wondered what was really going on here. She seemed to be playing some cat-and-mouse game.
Her eyes took on a dreamy look. Maybe this was just how she was – kind of foreign and overblown. ‘After the work, on a summer’s evening, we all get in the truck and drive to the beach. Swimming in the sea is a fun change from our swimming pool.’
‘You have a swimming pool?’
‘Of course.’ She spoke as if everybody had one. ‘We built it ourselves.’
‘It sounds super.’
A silence fell between us. I hurried to fill it. ‘It sounds just like Butlin’s.’
‘It’s a holiday camp. My best friend, Babs, is there right now.’
Yesterday she’d ducked behind the lid of her desk during English class to dab powder on her nose and tell me about her holiday plans. ‘My dad’s filling the car up. We’re going to stay at Butlin’s.’
It made no odds to me that petrol was coming off rationing. We didn’t have a car. But I was impressed to hear she was going to Butlin’s, which was for rich people. I tried not to sound envious. ‘Have fun.’
Babs had responded with a wink that clearly I was supposed to understand but didn’t.
‘The kibbutz is no holiday camp,’ the Mutti said. ‘We must work.’
‘What do you do?’ If you’d asked me to guess, I might have said she worked in the kitchen, or maybe the shop. But no.
‘I look after the cattle. I milk cows. I take them out to the field and guard them.’
To my surprise, she mimed wielding a rifle. I supposed that was in case they were stolen. They must have a lot of crime in Israel. Probably too, there were wild animals. When I used to attend Sunday school, we’d learned that King David, as a shepherd boy, practised long and hard with a sling, to protect his sheep from beasts like mountain lions and wolves. This gave him the skills he needed to take on the giant Goliath.
The Mutti’s work wasn’t vastly different from what Mum did in the war. But she was so elegant. I couldn’t imagine her in dungarees and a headscarf like Mum used to wear.
‘In the war, my mum used to look after sheep.’ I thought I was making a connection between us, but the words ‘my mum’ seemed to hang in the air like a wedge. I soldiered on regardless. ‘But I don’t think we have to stand guard over our livestock here.’
Just then the fields all around Canterbury sounded like maternity wards, full of bleating lambs and their mothers. All without a farmer in sight, most of the time.
‘I also give the little ones their bottles,’ she went on. ‘And I clean up the poo…’
She smirked at my disapproval of her bluntness and tapped yet another cigarette from her packet. It was almost empty. Her fingers were stained yellow from nicotine. She made me feel how Babs sometimes did, like a square. I didn’t want to be a square. I wanted to wear slacks and lipstick.
The Mutti dragged on her cigarette. ‘I send them off to where they are…’ She mimed cutting her throat.
She laughed and gave a little wave. ‘Bye-bye.’
Nastiness was batting between us like a ping-pong ball. How had our conversation turned so unpleasant? I searched for something to say – anything. ‘You don’t like your work?’
‘We are building a country,’ she replied. ‘It’s better than starving. Better than the gas chamber.’
It was like I was being made to feel guilty for the things I’d escaped; terrible things, no doubt, that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.