‘Cunningham House’, a 20 room mansion built in 1870, was situated in one of Britain’s great historic cities – Chester. The city has a background of over 2,000 years of history. It is surrounded by a wall built by the Romans to protect it from invaders. Many of the city’s houses are of Tudor or Georgian architecture. It has the oldest still-in-use racecourse in Britain. It is said that its Eastgate clock is the most photographed in the world.
The first owner of the Manor House was Major William Cunningham-Parker, who was the first citizen of the town at that time. He was a passionate and accomplished pianist, but in 1920 he died on the keys of his beloved piano while playing and singing his favourite waltz – The Blue Danube – by Johann Strauss.
He loved singing the lyrics of this classic masterpiece; his voice, strong and vibrant, reverberated throughout the house.
“Danube Blue, so bright and blue,
Through the vale and field you flow so calm,
Our Vienna greets you.
Your waters stream through all the lands,
You merry the heart with your beautiful shores.”
It was often alleged by the neighbours that sometimes, often during the night, they would hear the clear sounds of this classic melody being played on the piano and his singing, even though the mansion was now empty and uninhabited. The property was subsequently occupied by his heirs, one generation after another. It was finally owned by Robert Cunningham-Parker, himself also a pianist. His passion, however, was acting, and for this reason he had moved to London to follow his acting activities, leaving Cunningham House empty.
As he had no intention, for the time being at least, of returning to Chester, he leased the mansion to the Chester Heritage Foundation, who adapted it for cultural purposes. For the opening of the revamped property, the Heritage Foundation was to produce a play based on the history of the House, piano ghost and all, in the large courtyard of the same house. Who better than Robert himself to play the role of Major William Cunningham-Parker? He was intimately familiar with the house, knew the character of his ancestor well and, of course, he was a pianist and also an actor. When approached by the Foundation, Robert accepted immediately.
The open courtyard was full despite the bad weather conditions on the day. Snow was falling heavily, the wind was a gale force and the cold was bone-shattering. The play was, however, a huge success. The actors gave a brilliant performance and the applause at the end was long and deafening. The whole story and history of the House was shown to perfection. The part that really stole the performance, however, was the playing and singing of William Cunningham-Parker’s Blue Danube, which mesmerised the audience. As the audience, pleased and satisfied, were leaving the theatre-style courtyard and the Director, also satisfied with the performance, was resting in his room, Robert Cunningham-Parker burst in breathlessly. “I’m sorry, awfully sorry! It was impossible to make it in time, the snow made chaos on the roads tonight, I was held up. I’m very frustrated to have let you down, I can tell you, sorry!”
“What?” gasped astonishingly the Director, “Do you mean to tell me that you did not play and sing The Blue Danube?” “Of course I didn’t play and sing!” said Robert. “I was 30 miles away in Stoke at the time!”
I didn’t believe her when she said that she was leaving. She had been telling me this many times before, but knowing her – a lot of words and no action – I took it with a pinch of salt. However when I returned from work on Friday afternoon, I caught her packing her things up in boxes. “What are you doing?” I said. “I’ve told you that I’m leaving,” she replied. There were several boxes lying about in the room, some closed and taped, others still open being filled up.
We’ve had our tiffs sometimes . These were nothing of a serious nature really, just what two different characters living together normally argue about. We always made up almost immediately, apologised, shared a hug and continued our life together, although
the situation appeared to be serious today. She was definitely leaving. Her mind was made up. There was no turning back. I would have to adjust to living in this house without her. She was throwing discarded clothes in a corner. “Don’t throw that out,” I told her. “That dress had always been one of my favourites”. “You’ve never told me that before Jimmy,” she responded. It was a simple cotton dress, old fashioned really, but it had looked nice on her.
We’ve always been sensible and practical, so I helped her choose and pack. “Are you sure you’d be happy with him? I asked. Despite her decision to leave, I still felt responsible for her in a way. “Of course I’d be happy! It’s not as if I’ve just met him, I’ve known Ben for six whole months now,” she replied exuberantly. And so we continued packing. “Keep looking after the garden,” she said. The garden was always her favourite place. She’d go out on the patio early in the morning, wrapped up in her dressing-gown, and drink her hot mug of coffee. “I’ve never been much of a gardener, but I’ll do my best,” I said, not looking forward to the task that now fell on me.
It broke my heart when she first told me that she was leaving. We had talked about it for a long time. She told me that it was time to leave, but that she would keep in touch. I would certainly miss her warm soft hands, her gentle words, her happy disposition, her breakfast in the morning, her calls of “Jimmy, are you there?” as she entered the house. Oh! I’ll miss so many things about her. I’ll certainly have to adjust my life now. It was a big decision for her to make. I understand that. At first I didn’t make it easy for her. You see, I loved her, loved her with all my heart. But I had to accept it. We are both mature adults and know that things have to move on. In truth, I hold nothing against her. I wish her happiness in her new life with her Ben. To be honest, he’s a good man and I have no doubt that he’ll treat her well.
When the day of her move arrived, I had some time off from work as I could not let her leave without saying goodbye. It was not something I was looking for. I would have preferred had she decided to remain with me. But, yes, life has to go on. He had arrived on time to pick her up, and her things, in a small black car. “You all right Jimmy?” he called as soon as he came out of the car. Ben was a small man but with a large smile on his face.
Together we loaded the boxes in the car boot and inside on the back passenger seat. “You had better look after her,” I said sounding jealous but wasn’t. “Don’t worry Jim,” he replied, “I love her dearly and she’ll lack for nothing”.
“What are you two talking about?” she said as she saw us together. “Just chatting,” said Ben, smiling, as we continued packing the boxes.
“I’ll just have a last look inside,” she said as Ben started the car. She and I went inside. “I have something for you,” I said. “Don’t make this difficult for me,” she replied. She opened the wrapping. It was a red scarf. I knew she liked scarfs and that red was her favourite colour. “Thank you,” she said as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I love Ben,” she exclaimed. “After your father passed away, I thought that I would never love anyone else.” She kissed me on the cheek as we hugged each other tightly. We held each other’s hands as we went out to the car. Ben and I shook hands. “Drive carefully and phone back when you arrive home,” I said.
“Take care son,” Mum said, “Don’t forget to look after my garden.” I waved to them both as they drove off. I knew that Mum would be happy with Ben. He was a good man.
Helen and Margaret were sisters but they were as different as chalk and cheese. Helen was outgoing, extrovert, friendly, confident, talkative, noisy, exuberant and always laughing. She was also beautiful with a fine delicate complexion, high cheekbones and long auburn hair that seemed to be always shining. Margaret, on the other hand, was introvert, timid, lonely, more of a listener than a talker and unsure of her place in the world. She was also rather common-looking with a pallid face, slightly protruding nose and mousy black hair which seemed always needing to be combed.
And yet they were as inseparable as twins – always together, looking after each other, going out together. They had no secrets between them so much so that oftentimes they recounted their dreams and expectations of life. Very often they were in each other’s room, swooning over records of their favourite singers. Helen liked modern singers and bands like One Direction and Rihanna while Margaret favoured the old singers like Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Johnny Ray.
Margaret ran single-handedly the town’s library with dedication and fervour that put a smile on her face every day. She was passionate about books, reading everything that came her way, whether they were ‘classics’ or ‘comics’. She knew all there was to know about books and their authors. Clients told her that she was ‘a walking reference book’. She had purposely sought work at the library because she genuinely loved books. She felt calm and at ease in the quite atmosphere of the library surrounded by shelves and shelves of all kinds of books.
In the evening, when her sister was out with her boyfriend, Margaret liked lounging in the small sitting room engrossed in a new publication while her father smoked his pipe or read the newspaper. The picture-frame on the mantelpiece showed a photo of her mother who had died five years ago. It was, in fact, her Dad who saw to their up-bringing, watching them emerge from teens to young women. And Margaret was Dad’s favourite. “You know Marge”, he told her as he put his newspaper down for a moment, “You may think that beautiful people have an advantage over the likes of you and me. But if Helen’s got beauty, you have brains. You’ll always have a good brain to rely on while beauty fades with age. Just remember that when you feel sometimes envious”. “I’m not envious Dad, but sometimes wish that life is more generous with me, that’s all” replied his daughter. “That’s why you must use the talents you’ve been given Marge, to get what you want from life” retorted her Dad. He patted her affectionately on the knee but he could see that she had more than her fair share of lemons and therefore could understand her attitude to life.
When Helen took up with Ben, she encouraged her sister to go out on dates with friends of her boyfriend. She did go out with a couple of boys but there was no follow-up interest and, therefore, she returned back to her old routine of library work and home by her father. One evening, while smoking his pipe, her Dad noticed that his young daughter was staring at the ceiling. “A penny for your thoughts Marge”, he said. “They aren’t worth a penny Dad”, she replied. “A half-penny then”, he again responded. “They aren’t even worth that much either”, said Margaret in a subdued tone, fed up and feeling miserable. “Some aspects of life are sad dear, but there is nothing we can do to change them”, said her father in an effort to cheer her up.
One day at the library, she noticed a man looking for a book in the ‘classics’ section. It looked as if he had not found what he was looking for. She left her desk, went over to him and asked if he needed any help. “I’m looking for ‘The Black Arrow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, but I can’t find it under the ‘S’ shelf”, he replied. She went to check the movement of books loaned out to clients in her computer and found that the book had been loaned out two weeks ago. “It’s out Mr, but it should probably be returned by next week, shall I hold it for you?” she asked.
When he returned the following week, she gave him the book but they also started chatting about the ‘classics’, what books they liked, their favourite authors and other subjects. His name was Steve and he worked as an accountant. They found that they had a lot in common, especially books. He came frequently to the library and their conversations about books and about life in general continued. Margaret found that she liked him and looked forward to see him. He was decent, intelligent, book lover and, of course, good-looking men don’t come along very often. This could be her spark of happiness. She also hoped that he liked her, despite that she was not beautiful like her sister and that eventually he would invite her for coffee or something. With such small things does love begin, she thought.
Their unscheduled meetings and literature gossip continued for some weeks. She still harboured hope of a romantic ending with Steve. One day, after discussing the merits of an author and his novels, he asked her – “Are you free next Saturday Margret?” She was stunned. Her heart beat faster than usual; the words she had hoped to hear had finally been said. This was the beginning of something special. “Yes, yes, I am”, she replied. “In that case, I want to invite you to my house for tea, would you accept Marge?” her new-found friend asked. ‘He is serious in his intentions’, she thought and immediately accepted his surprise invitation. She waited, in anticipation for his next words. Then he continued “I want you to meet my wife! She’d be pleased to meet you”.
Adam, Eve and the Apple
It is an accepted fact to all Christian faiths that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman created by God. According to Luke “God created Adam from dust, and then breathed life into him”. Then, in the first-ever ‘surgery’, God removed a rib from Adam’s side and from it he created Eve. When God pronounced judgements for their disobedience, he told the serpent that he would crawl on his belly and eat dust; he told Eve that she and all women after her would have pain in childbirth; and he told Adam that he and all his descendants would experience painful toil on earth until death. When bad Cain murdered good Abel, our fore-parents had another son, Seth, from whom, it must be, we are descended.
And what about the apple? Was it really an apple? There are different interpretations of this incident that happened at the Garden of Eden. Some say that the word ‘apple’ is symbolic; it means God forbade our fore-parents to do something, but not exactly not to eat an apple. Others say that it was the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ that was forbidden, and others hold that it was truly an apple fruit. I sometimes wonder what today’s picture would be if our fore-parents had not disobeyed God’s wishes. The idyllic life of no labour, no disease and no death, would have meant that today there is no need for work, for hospitals, for cemeteries, for doctors and for undertakers. It would also mean that men and women, thousands of years old, would be roaming the streets of town! I don’t know what to think really.
But all that was in the very remote past. Today, as it happened, Adam and Eve were drifting smoothly on cloud 9. They had, so many thousands of years ago, by hook or by crook, made it to the Heavenly Gates and into Paradise, but only just. As they looked down on the world below them, they saw 7 billion people on planet Earth spread out over the five continents. All these people were family members but so different in appearance, language, religion, ideologies, culture, skin colour and way of life.
They noticed how things have progressed since their early and primitive time – skyscrapers in every city, nuclear energy, medical advances, sending rockets to the stars, computers, fashion, entertainment and so many other things besides. But they also saw that the people were in a race to dominate each other and were often intent on hating and hurting each other – wars, killings, burglaries, injustices, accidents and other catastrophes. These self-inflicting sufferings have been repeating themselves so many times over and over again. They never learn.
Eve elbowed Adam as she pointed downwards. “But there are some very good men and women around. Look at that humble man from Argentina preaching love, peace and brotherhood to everybody; and several others who, unknown and behind the scenes, work tirelessly to help those in need of assistance – the poor; the sick; the elderly, children, those living in war-shattered zones. These are only a few, I know, but they are so good people who need and deserve our support.” “Yes. It’s a pity that the good ones are only a few”, replied Adam, “What can they do against all those others, intent on making their own world such a bad place to live in?”
Suddenly Adam, still handsome despite the years, turned towards Eve and said to her, “Why did you do it Eve?” “Do what?” she replied taken aback by his sudden question. “Give me the apple, in the Garden of Eden, remember?” he retorted. “Oh, that”, exclaimed his wife. “It was the ugly serpent. He tempted me and I believed him”. “You know something Eve?” said again Adam, “I didn’t even like it. I have not eaten another one during all these years!”
“And that damned apple has brought us and our descendants so many troubles and tribulations” said Adam. “Yes, Yes”, replied Eve, “As a result of our folly we and all the members of our family, had to toil for our living, we contacted all kinds of diseases and we had to die”. “Imagine if we had not eaten that apple, what a wonderful life we would have had Eve” said the first man on earth.
But there is one thing that puzzles me” retorted Adam again. “What?” asked Eve. “Its’ that today, so many thousands of years after we had eaten that apple, the learned doctors on earth tell their patients that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away!”
It was just three years ago since her husband, God rest his soul, had left to the other world. He had come into her life to steal her heart and disturb her soul. He was the only man in the world that she had wanted as her companion for life. They had spent thirty wonderful years together. Many times now, sitting in her favourite armchair sipping a hot cup of coffee, she remembered the places they had visited together, the joys and the heartache of everyday life, the charming words he said to amuse her, so many things. How she missed him.
Ella, her only daughter who had married and was living abroad for the last eighteen years, encouraged her when she phoned to go on outings which the Local Council organised frequently for elderly persons. “We both loved Dad, but we cannot bring him back. You should think of yourself and move on now Mum,” she often told her. She did go for a couple of outings, not because she felt like doing so, but because she did not like to displease her daughter.
Her new life began when Gianfranco walked into her life. He was born in the Tuscan region of Italy. Life was so much simpler and less hectic over there. “Don’t be sad”, he would tell her, “I want to see you happy and enjoy life”. His English, with a marked Italian accent, uplifted her spirits and brought a smile to her face.
The first night he stayed at her house in London, she cooked him a hearty English meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. He enjoyed it immensely. He then made her sit down, brought her a glass of wine, sat down beside her and both talked for a long time of this, that and the other.
One lovely summer evening they went to the park together, sat down on a wooden bench and looked at the stars shining in the sky. He told her the names of the stars, how far away they were from our world and other things he had learned at the University in Pisa. She was mesmerised as she had scarce knowledge of the immense universe that surrounds us. On the way back home, he held her arm in his and they walked slowly together to her house, engrossed in each other’s company.
He felt such a mystery to her, so different, yet every time she looked into his eyes, he filled her with hope. They chatted and got to know each other a little better every day. He told her about his native Tuscany – the lovely little churches, the paintings and sculptures, the sprawling countryside, the food and wine and so many other things.
After a few days of getting to know him, she observed his easy going way of looking at life. She thought that the hustle and bustle of London life would tire him and he would surely return back to the hills and valleys of his Tuscany. He was never in a hurry; he did a bit now, a bit later and has some fun and rest in between.
“Why don’t you sit down and enjoy your garden?” he would ask. “Why don’t you stop and look at the flowers?” He charmed her with his dark skin and ebony eyes. “Yes, I should. I did not have so much time before” she replied nostalgically. “I had a job, a husband and a daughter to look after. I’ve spent my life rushing around. Now I’m retired I should relax. You are right dear”.
She had grown to love him immensely. She had never experienced this kind of love before. There was something special that thrust them together. While previously her time passed slowly by, now it flew so quickly it left her breathless. She enjoyed her time with him so much; she wished he’d never leave her.
Her daughter often phoned her from abroad to see how she was getting along. Her mum seemed enthusiastic, she was enjoying herself. Her daughter was very pleased that she and Gianfranco had hit it off together, that they like each other and that he was settled with her.
On her part, once he was now to live with her, she showed him the London where she was born and grew up – the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; the evening band concerts at St. James Park; the flow of the Thames from the railings of Tower Bridge; lounging on deckchairs in Hyde Park watching the squirrels hurry to and fro; the beautiful facades of the theatres along The Strand; the multi-coloured river boats on the canals of Little Venice.
She had met him three weeks ago at the airport. He came over to attend a year’s course at the London School of Economics. He had lived in Italy with his parents since he was just two years old. Her daughter had asked her to look after him during his stay in London. When they saw each other and embraced at Heathrow, his first words were like balm to her “It’s so nice to see you Gran, you look wonderful!”
Susan Wilkins arrived at the offices of ‘Osborne-Kerr Enterprises’ for her interview as a typist. Just turned 18, she felt a flutter of excitement in her stomach as she entered the building with trepidation.
The little confidence Susan had, deserted her the minute she opened the door and entered an oak-panelled reception area. She was impressed with the surroundings. A glamorous girl sitting behind a desk gave her a professional smile “Can I help you Miss?”
Susan broke into a cold sweat. “I’m here for the interview”, she blurted nervously, instantly thinking of a hundred better ways she could have introduced herself. “And you are?” asked the receptionist, “Wilkins, Susan Wilkins”, replied Susan. “We’ve been expecting you Miss Wilkins”, replied the receptionist. Susan’s pulse raced. Was it her imagination or was the receptionist reprimanding her? She looked for a clock to check if she was late.
“Miss Wilkins” asked the receptionist a few moments later. “Sorry” Susan apologised, conscious she had not been listening. “Mr Osborne-Kerr will see you shortly. Would you like to have a seat while you wait?”
“Thank you”. Feeling clumsy and awkward, Susan walked over to one of the chairs around a low table set with neatly-arranged magazines. She would have liked to pick up one, but lacking the courage to disturb the display, she studied the room instead. The oak-panelled wall looked and smelled as though it was cleaned four times a day and the floor was so polished Susan was terrified she’d slip and fall when she left her seat. Every single piece of furniture was delicately and strategically in place. Everything looked so clean, so ‘de lux’. She could not imagine touching anything, let alone working in the place.
What on earth made her think that she could get a job in a manager’s office as grand as this? As her last traces of hope evaporated, she began to tremble. She also realised that her feet hurt. Her shoes had fitted her well when she had bought them, so why are they tight now? She must have blisters but, she told herself, she could bear it – just as long as she didn’t limp when they called her in. That would be the final humiliation. They might think that she had borrowed someone else’s shoes for the interview because she could not afford her own.
Opening her handbag, she pulled out her small mirror to check that the sprinkling of powder she’d put on her face hadn’t disappeared, or that the lipstick she had applied so carefully a quarter of an hour before was not smudged. She wished she had the courage to ask the receptionist if she could go to the ‘Ladies’. If there was a larger mirror she’d be able to check that her hair was still all right and the seams of her nylons were still straight.
“Miss Wilkins?” she heard a voice say behind her. “Yes, yes, it’s me”, she replied timidly. “I’m Odette Olsen-Jones, the secretary to Mr Osborne-Kerr” said the young woman, exuding self-confidence, who was dressed in a navy tailored suit with mid-calf, pencil-slim skirt and light-grey blouse. Her hair was swept neatly behind her ears, her make-up glossy, and her perfume subtle, yet effective enough to be picked up from six feet away.
No matter how much she earned, Susan knew that she’d never achieve that degree of sophistication – the right accessories, gold button earnings, discreet and tasteful, complimented by a gold lapel pin and a half-hoop of diamonds on the third finger of her left hand. Susan wasn’t surprised that she was engaged. She could imagine men vying to be seen with her and not the sort of men who lived in her neighbourhood – but rich men with well-paid jobs who drove new cars and owned houses.
The secretary extended her hand. Susan stumbled to her feet, one shoe getting in the way of the other. “Pleased to meet you” she said. “Mr Osborne-Kerr will see you now. Can you please follow me?” “Thank you”. Clutching her bag and the envelope containing her certificates and testimonials, Susan slipped, tearing the thin strap that held her left shoe together above her toe.
“Are you all right Miss?” asked the secretary as she came to her aid, helping her to her feet. Susan fought back tears of pain and mortification. “If you’d like to postpone the interview, I’m sure Mr Osborne-Kerr would understand” said the secretary. “I’m fine” lied Susan. “If you’re sure” replied the secretary, supporting Susan’s arm as she opened the door that led from the reception area to the offices. “Mr Osborne-Kerr may look stern but he’s fair” encouraged the secretary.
Instead of calming Susan, the words set her nerves jangling even more. If she walked carefully, Mr Osborne-Kerr might not notice her broken shoe. “Good Luck” said the secretary as she pushed her in and closed the door.
Mr Osborne-Kerr stood behind the largest desk Susan had ever seen. He had an imposing figure with thinning grey hair and pepper and salt moustache. He peered short-sightedly at her over a pair of half-moon reading glasses. “Miss?” He checked the paper on his desk. “Wilkins” replied shakily Susan, “Susan Wilkins”. “Sit down girl, sit down”, Mr Osborne-Kerr muttered impatiently while leafing his papers. “You’ve applied for the position of typist?” “Yes Sir”, she replied. “I have not been knighted yet, so call me Mr Osborne-Kerr please”, he replied immediately.
“It appears from your certificates that your typing needs to be improved and your shorthand speed need to be better, but your spelling is good. Also you don’t have any experience in office work I see ……” said Mr Osborne-Kerr. “Its true Mr Osborne-Kerr, but I learn quickly” replied Susan, her hopes now dashed to the ground. “You will need to do better to work in our office” he insisted. “I certainly will. I’ll practice and get my typing and shorthand up to date, if you give me the chance”, she replied.
Mr Osborne-Kerr pressed the buzzer on his desk and seconds later the elegant secretary entered the room note book and pencil in hand. “Yes Mr Osborne-Kerr” she said. While Susan was still sitting in the chair in front of his desk Mr Osborne-Kerr addressed his secretary – “Miss Wilkins’s typing and shorthand fall short of our expectations, she has no experience of office work …………..” he said to his secretary. Susan’s heart sunk. That’s it. I’m finished. ‘Why did I think that I could get an office job?’ she thought. Mr Osborne –Kerr continued his instructions to his secretary “ ……………but she is honest and determined to reach our standards. Get her the necessary papers in order that she’ll start on Monday as a typist and she will also assist you in your duties”.
Susan gasped; her hand went to her mouth. “Thank you Mr Osborne-Kerr, oh thank you”, she exclaimed certain that the good Lord, the Virgin Mary and all the saints in heaven must have interceded on her behalf and a miracle must have just happened today.
August 1945. The Armistice was signed; the war was over. From all over the battlefields in Europe and those beyond the Pacific, the fighting men were now returning home to embrace their eager mothers, wives and children. From all over these battle-scarred places they streamed, back to their country, back to their homes, back to their loved-ones.
For five long years they fought hard, courageously, gallantly and with a patriotic sense that makes men heroes. In the last year they suffered hell, defeat, humiliation and tasted the bitter effects of occupation.
Yet not all that went away to fight their country’s cause were now returning home. Some still lay there, buried beneath the soil of battle in a foreign land; these will never return home, will never cry at the sight of their mothers. Their duty done, they now sleep peacefully in the ruins of Stalingrad, El Alamein, Arnhem, Kursk, Berlin and other battlefields.
The big troopship had berthed safely and silently alongside the other ships at the port of Cologne. The troopship brought human cargo, soldiers of the once great Wehrmacht Army from the Western Front, from the Pacific Isles, from the far-flung Eastern Front.
They lined the deck of the ship, some five thousand of them, and gazed eagerly at German soil after five long and bitter years in strange foreign lands. The hard steel helmets, the shining smart rifles, the up-to-date battle equipment were gone.
They all wore very light army caps and dirty battledresses. These men were being escorted by equally tired Army officers. These soldiers were the vanquished, they were German soldiers.
One by one they walked down the gangway guarded by grim- faced Allied soldiers. They walked silently, their proud heads erect as ever, catching the fresh air of their German homeland.
On the shore, held at a distance by the victorious Allied soldiers, were a multitude of people. They were not ordinary people these; they were wives, mothers and children waiting eagerly and anxiously for the first glimpse of a husband, a son, a brother, a father.
Some will be lucky enough to see him, some will shudder at the sight of a battered war-torn face while some, less fortunate than the others, will walk away dejected, resigned to the melancholy depression of a dear loss.
Franz Huber longed to see his own loved country again; he longed to see how his beloved Cologne had resisted the onslaught of Allied bombing. He was still on the ship, waiting his turn to set his feet on native German soil.
He looked over to the shore; there the eager people were waving excitedly and expectantly but, at the same time, in a solemn way. Nobody knew whom they were waving to. Laying aside the fact that they were close relatives of the returning soldiers, Huber thought, there was nothing to wave about.
It was his turn now to walk down the gangway; his turn to leave the ship and touch the sacred ground of Germany. As he walked down he noticed how the dejected German people greeted the defeated soldiers of the Rhineland – with warm fervour and excitement.
As his friends walked down before him they were embraced and hugged by their mothers and wives. They had to wait hard and long for that embrace, that warm hearted kiss. But now the mother and son, the husband and wife, were together again, now nothing mattered, not even the grim-faced presence of the victors.
Somewhere deep down there, in the crowd of fervent patriots, there must be his own Jean. She must be there waiting eagerly for his long-awaited return, anxiously anticipating the tired yet affectionate embrace of a lonely soldier.
His mother had written to him some few months back and told him that his beloved Jean was still alive in Cologne and, she added, lonelier than ever.
Franz Huber and Jean Schmidt were engaged to each other just before Franz was posted to the Eastern Front. He loved her as much as his heart would let him; he was young and so was she, but there was nothing immature about their love affair.
It was very different from the common love affairs pushed forward by the robustness and eagerness of youth. He knew Jean well and always thought that she would be his perfect wife and lifelong companion.
He would have married her before his departure had his mother not told him to leave it until he comes back. Well, he was back now and the first thing he wanted done was to marry Jean Schmidt.
After three long eventful years of cruel separation he failed to forget her delightful and inspiring memory. Jean was not a typical daughter of the Reich; she was neither fair nor of a stature to fall under that category. Jean’s hair was dark, falling in long lovely tresses on her shoulders. Her complexion matched her hair rendering her a beautiful girl. Yes indeed, Jean Schmidt was lovely! And he kept that inspiring thought all through the cruel and brutal stages of the war. Her photograph was always close to his chest.
Franz did not like fair haired girls, detested their arrogant and often vulgar bearing. He always thought, contrary to what the Reich encouraged and expected of its Aryan citizens, that such girls would never make good, loving wives.
Their inclination to flirt would never enable them to settle down devotedly to happy married life. But he liked the type of girl who would stand by him in all his troubles and tribulations. Faithfulness and sincerity were the characteristics that he always sought in a woman.
His avowed love for Jean was indestructible. It was kept alive while all around him he witnessed scenes so brutal and ugly that would have made his love towards Jean, even towards mankind, shake its very foundation.
He witnessed poor brave soldiers of the Fatherland fall gallantly in the face of battle all around him, uttering their last dying sound of death; he saw buildings fall and crumble on their innocent tenants, burying them alive with their meagre possessions; he saw the desolation and plunder in the wake of the enemy’s retreat into the heart of Russia; he saw the brave proud armies of the great German Republic sweep victoriously onwards, marching deep into the enemy’s lands.
War……..hate ………guns…….flames……..death! These did not shake his love for Jean. He was a good soldier still, was young Franz Huber.
He was on German soil now. The sound of the enthusiastic people around them was instilling pride and honour in the hearts of the returning soldiers.
The German armies were defeated. The soldiers were returning home. He was free now, free to wander wherever he wished, free to go back to the delightful places he knew so well before the war, his old-time friends, his Jean, his mother.
This was repatriation day and he was extremely happy. Now he was just Franz Huber, no longer Corporal Huber of the Second Battalion of the Reich.
He waited there among the people, jostled with them, and wandered the place to find his Jean. All along he saw soldier friends who had formed part of his defeated company being kissed and hugged by their wives and girlfriends. In a few minutes he too will forget the troubles and sufferings he had endured during the last five years. He will be in Jean‘s arms. But Jean was nowhere to be seen, nowhere.
He walked away dejected and headed to the place he knew so well – his home. He remembered how he used to play in this street, how he often used to meet his friends here. It was now deserted, lonely, and miserable.
A large part of the houses were destroyed by Allied bombing. Some, the remains of which were still visible, brought pity to his heart. Others were totally ravaged and not a sign of their existence was left. And yet some others were still towering over this absolute destruction. Of the long line of houses in his street that once was the pride of the city of Cologne, only a few still remained as if to bear witness to such desolution.
Cologne was the fourth largest city in Germany. Her famous cathedral, Germany’s most visited landmark, the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne, was one of the finest in the whole world. It is the largest gothic church in Northern Europe and it has the tallest spires and largest façade of all the churches in the world. The cathedral, although heavily damaged, was not destroyed by the bombings. The University of Cologne is one of Europe’s oldest and earliest places of learning.
But the city suffered terribly. On the night of 30/31 May 1942 more than 1,000 Allied bombers hit its heart. More than 150,000 of its 700,000 inhabitants fled the city after this terrible air raid.
Franz hurried his steps. He must find No 68, he must; it was his mother’s home; he was brought up in it; it had so many memories etched in his mind. Then he saw it, practically alone and still erect; No 68, his dear old home, still defying the Allied bombers. He was happy.
He looked on both sides of him bringing familiar memories with each wayward glance; the beer house where he drunk late with his student friends; the cinema was supposed to be there; the little park where he and Jean met every other day. Jean…..he must know about her.
He went up the few steps leading to his mother’s house and knocked hard, impatiently. His poor long-suffering heart was beating rapidly. The door opened and in between its frame, a stout elderly woman in a black shawl appeared …..his mother!
The woman stared at him. “Franz” she exclaimed emotionally. In an instant both mother and son were in each other’s arms. A mother holding her soldier son back from the war; a son embracing his suffering mother. She knew he was safe now and he will never leave her. She couldn’t believe that her son was not dead when so many young men of the German Army did not return to their own country.
“Mama, where is Jeanny?” shot Franz as if she was all that mattered in the whole world. His eyes flashed. his face grew pale, he willed his mother to answer.
His mother’s face grimaced; will she tell him the truth and see her son face yet another ordeal? Will she keep silent, as if she did not know? But he will know eventually and will have to swallow the pill of disappointment nevertheless. She will tell him, she will. “Franz, Jean‘s not here anymore, she’s run away, she will not return to us!”
For one little moment he could not think. Then he fell heavily on his knees and cried bitterly like a child. He loved Jean so much, so sincerely. He never dreamed that she could do that to him; she told him that she loved him; that she would never leave him; that she would wait patiently for his return from the war. But now she left him!
He run out and went for a walk around the blitzed city. The iron bench behind the cathedral, where he and Jean used to sit in the evening, was still there, overlooking the river that once used to be so busy with all kinds of boats.
He sat there and reflected on the unfortunates of his love ……unfaithfulness of women …..Please God, please help me …….. He opened his buttoned shirt and tore away a silver locket, holding it in his hands and thinking deeply on his fate. His brown deep eyes spoke pity; He swung his hand and threw the vile object away. The still water stirred as the locket touched the surface, a number of concentric circles enveloped it into oblivion.
With one last look at it, he stood up and went his way. His heart, like that of Cologne, was totally devastated. Like his beloved country, he will have to start from scratch.
The Rebel of Baka
The state of Baka, bordered by the equally small states of Malik and Radan, situated in the African continent, has four million inhabitants. It has been run by a dictatorship led by the notorious General Georges Patu for the last five years. He has ruled his little country with an iron fist policy, imprisoning, torturing and killing those who oppose him.
The people are very poor and often die due to the lack of food, treatment and medicine, but Patu, his family and his henchmen enjoy a luxury life. They have amassed a fortune in money and gold now deposited safely in various banks overseas.
The brutality of his army has instilled fear in the hard working people of his little country. Patu does not know the meaning of justice, fairness, moderation, and good governance. Those who oppose him come to one end – death.
He was very different when he was a child – shy and loving. He did not know his father, but his mother who was poor and lived in a shack, loved him dearly. She sheltered him from danger as he grew up in the often turbulent country.
When he was a child he had noticed the strange birthmark of a serpent on his chest and cried. Other boys did not have this mark. He felt different. His mother cuddled him to her chest and told him. “Do not cry Patu. It is a sign from God. You are the chosen one. Those who harm you and your birthmark will die a violent death!” From that day onwards, following his mother’s words, he felt strong and safe.
Despite the Army’s terror campaign, some citizens of Baka overcame their fear and opposed the regime. They gathered together a rebel force in the mountains to fight Patu’s dictatorial regime. And what was the world’s reaction? Nothing at all! Baku was a small, poor state with no oilfields, gold mines or other important commodities to export. Therefore the developments were of no interest to the rich and powerful countries of the world. They left her and her people alone to their fate.
On this very early morning in June, not even a solitary figure strolled along the capital of Baka’s main street. Not even a stray dog dared to show his head outside. The street was bare except for the lighted lamp-posts stationed at even distance all along, shedding their dim lights on the empty and dirty road.
The houses on both sides were completely cut off from outside, secluding their tenants from the silence and eerie atmosphere of the streets. Shutters were pulled down, doors securely closed, voices hushed. Fear engulfed the poor people.
One could hear the soldiers every hour, marching together, performing their repeated nightly checks, their strong boots beating on the hard stones of the street, making a strange sound that echoed from afar. Except for those occasional and fearful patrols, this was a dead street of the night.
At this very early hour of the morning the curfew was still in force. It had a long time yet until it was lifted. All the streets of this Bakanian city were heavily under curfew from dawn to dusk. Government forces had clamped down on any movement in their struggle with the rebels.
This street had witnessed vengeful murders and patriotic resistance. It had seen death stalk in to claim many victims of political oppression. Groups of fanatical patriots had given their sacred life to the cause of freedom and deliverance. Their blood still flows fresh along the streets like some fair example of man’s endurance to injustice. The fight was on, it may take years and years to be won, but only victory can bring the struggle to an end.
Soldiers were carefully posted at strategic points surveying the scene of silence, eagle eyes looking here and there, rifles at the ready lest one solitary figure shows his head. Everybody was to stay indoors …..That was an order!
While all this was happening outside, in one solitary house a life was hanging on the strings of life and death. A light flickered in the room, a dim yellowish candle-light reflecting the sombre state of the walls. The stately silence was being interrupted by the occasional sobbing coming from the far corner of the little room. There, resting in a wooden bed was an old woman hovering between life and death.
Her wrinkled face sweating with anguish and great pain, eyes looking upwards staring deadly beyond the ceiling. Soon after this curfew was imposed she was taken suddenly ill and her condition grew graver and graver. She needed drugs, medicine, medical care and attention.
Beside her, holding her sweating hand was her husband. He was aged too, rugged and rough, but thoughtful of the state of affairs. He was grieved seeing his beloved wife suffering slow death and pained hearing her sobs and cries. As her loving husband, he was desperate, to a state of hysterical madness that knew no bounds to reason or laws.
His name was Milaku, a rebel leader who had led his men in several raids against Patu. His dark face, flickering in the dim lights of the dying candle, was filled with pity towards his wife. He could not bear to witness her suffering so terribly. His mind cuddled with thoughts of her; memories of her undying qualities of a peaceful, loving woman; her strong yet tender character that feared the wrath of the Almighty but not the anger of mere mortals.
But there she was now, a helpless creature stretched in a humble bed of wood, a dying woman with no medicine or medical attention to cure her illness. He hated this moment, he hated those armed bullies that patrol the streets at night, and he hated life itself with all its miseries and tribulations. He hated these, but he loved his wife like she was his own soul.
Suddenly there were hard knocks on the door and commands for him to come out. Patu’s soldiers had found him and they had come for him. He could shoot them out, probably die in the process but they would then kill his wife too. If he gave himself up, she might live with the help of his good neighbours.
Milaku got out, his hands on his head, surrendering to the heavily armed soldiers. They took him immediately to General Patu’s headquarters. Patu looked the poor rugged man straight in the eye. So this was the man who, with his band of rebels, had killed so many of his men. This was the man who wants to end his reign. This was the man he had long been looking for.
Patu was a merciless thug, a murderer, a ruthless bully. He did not hesitate. He took out his gun and shot Milaku at point blanc range, killing him instantly. He will be no threat to him anymore.
His soldiers took Milaku’s bloody shirt off and laid his corpse in front of Patu asking his instructions what to do with his body. His first thought was to parade him around the main streets of the capital to serve as a reminder to his opponents that those who oppose him will die.
Patu’s eyes rested on the rebel’s body. He stared at his bare chest. His face turned white, fear got hold of him, he froze. On Milaku’s chest, still red with blood, he saw the birthmark of the serpent! Just like his own. His mother’s words rang in his ears – “Those who harm the serpent birthmark will die a violent death!”
An Act of Jealousy
Those who are conversant with the profondities of love will appreciate better the sorrow of the parting. ‘Love’, it is often said, ‘lies on the border of hate and is adjacent only to madness’. I wonder sometimes why the noblest of virtues should be so frail and so mysterious. How often has it also been said that ‘he who loves as an adolescent, learns to hate as a grown up’.
There are instances in life when man will ponder on bygone memories and learn to criticize his own folly from the logical point of view. And so, in this manner, he pondered.
……….Yesterday she was mine; my wife; vowed she loved me; promised to make me happy; we laughed, loved and made merry………
………..How many evenings did we spend with each other? She loved me then; but now she is gone, gone forever; an intruder had won her love; she forgot all about me now; why should she keep remembering me? What did I do, for her to disinherit me from her heart?…………
She appeared fresh in his mind; an enchanting queen; smiling as she used to pass from under his balcony. He looked; they smiled; they talked; he won her. They met afterwards nearly every night, breaking the monotony of the village routine by varying their outings – now to the seaside, then to the theatre, sometimes to the disco and more often than not, to the cinema.
Love had played its part between two feeble hearts and governed all their thoughts and deeds. It was responsible for their omissions to duty and to friends because, as they say, ‘love is blind’.
He would burst in anger, if at times, as she often did, she would not wait for him on his return from work. He loved her madly and that, he reasoned, was credit enough to own her, to patronize her, to feed his eyes on her beauty. But he was now losing his love and, without his knowledge, he was beginning to transform his love to hate. Yes, hate her! The same woman he had so much adored a short while before!
For what is jealousy? Is it not mistrust? Is it not the doubt in the integrity of the second person? It is, in fact, more than that. It is egoism on the part of the doer and annoyance on the part of the receiver. Jealousy is the destroyer of love and the stepping stone to madness.
Involuntarily, our young lover was destroying the love he himself had pained to create. She felt annoyed; without freedom of action; he was enslaving her and that is, by far, more than a woman’s pride can bear. He had lost her forever. He wept, was confused and, in this state, did not know what he was planning and doing. She was like a bird flying further away from him. He never recovered normality again. Once the passions of hate are aroused there is no remedy to sooth them. He had to do what had to be done. There was no alternative.
For a full three years he had loved her. But could he say the same for her? Did she reciprocate his love? She had kept his company for three whole years. Or she kept him chained by the lure of love. Now, finding better company, she discarded him like a woman discards old clothes!
Weeks passed and his hate grew without bounds. He now hated her walk (when once he thought it was elegant); her looks (which once he so devotedly revered); her beauty (once so fresh, so noble, so charming, and so heavenly); hated himself for ever once loving her (once he thought himself fortunate in holding her hands).
He hated that tall, bony, painted, cheap, good-for-nothing skeleton who was once his lover. He hated her words, her face, her eyes, her perfume. Unnoticed, he often followed the steps of the merry couple as they made their romantic walk in the moonlight. He followed them to the theatre, to the cinema, everywhere. Yesterday he was in her arms; now he became a lurking dog. One moonlit night, he went to the abandoned cottage near the unused mill. He knew the place very well. He used to make love to her there every night, tenderly, lovingly, passionately. Now he was there spurned by hate and vengeance.
He looked from the half-opened window of the cottage and saw the silhouette of the two lovers lost in each other’s arms, kissing and vowing their love for each other. He recognized the woman’s silhouette as that of the tall, bony, painted, cheap, good-for-nothing skeleton that once was his own lover.
Cautiously he crawled near them and held his breath. She was speaking in a hushed voice but he heard her. “Let’s leave this town together ……I can bear him no longer ……… my love is only for you”.
These words made him madder. He had to do something. He could bear this no longer. He wielded the rusty iron bar and hit them both on their heads. They fell to the ground instantly, lay motionless and no further sound was heard except for the hurried steps of the jilted madman.
“You have visitors” thundered the guardian as he unlocked cell 39 of the State Prison. At the visiting room, the solicitor defending his case made all sorts of enquiries, but the prisoner remained silent.
Then came the day of the great trial. The court room was full with all kinds of people and journalists. The accused faced the men of the jury who held the balance of his life in their hands. He waited; only to hear one thing; either “guilty” or “not guilty”. The jurymen retired. The accused conversed impatiently with his solicitor. Then the court was in its second session.
….. “Have you reached your verdict?” asked the Judge.
….. “Yes, your Honour” stammered the chief juryman.
….. “Then let the court hear it” replied the Judge.
….. “GUILTY your Honour” pronounced the chief juryman.
….. “Silence” hammered the Judge and, after going through a long speech which would have benefited more a funeral occasion, he concluded:-
“ …….and the Court sentences you to die by the electric chair!”
What on earth can describe that brief moment between the death sentence and its execution? Who can describe the feelings of the accused? Hours, minutes, seconds ticking away one by one! Hopes fading like the mist; memories of his life that haunt the accused to his death; desperate hours of his last precious minutes taking him to his end. His doom! A beacon of light ready to be put off! A life that was once so precious and now so cruelly to be ended!
And then it came. He stood erect on the chair – cold, shocks, tremors, death. He had paid dearly for his crime. “Is there any one to claim the body?” shouted the officer in charge of the execution. No one spoke. The body lay there silent, covered with a white shroud with the number 39 stamp on it. Love had shadowed his life; hate had led him to the electric chair; death had carried him into oblivion.
Suddenly the alarm clock started ringing. It was eight o’ clock in the evening. He threw away the bed sheets and got out of bed. He was sweating profusely; and shivering. But he was alive! What a bad dream that was! He washed, dressed hurriedly and went out to meet his girl.
It all happened suddenly about 4.00 a.m. of Wednesday, 14 March 1859. I tried to stretch my limbs, lift my arm, move my legs; nothing happened. I tried to call my mother but my mouth produced no sound. My eyes were fixed in a permanent position. Strange enough however, I could hear everything – the clock ticking, the dogs barking, my brother snoring in the adjacent room ………. everything. I had nothing to do except wait patiently. Those were desperate hours.
Then the real story began. It was 7.00 a.m. when my mother came to wake me up for work. She shouted in my ears. I heard her and saw her beside me but I could not answer back. I could not move, smile or show any sign of communication.
My mother, driven mad, rushed downstairs repeating to my father and brother that I was dead. I saw them near me with tears on their cheeks and a desperate look in their eyes. They were shocked and crying. Even my father, my brother and my sister seemed to confirm my mother’s fallacious belief. I had to admit myself that I was dead or, better still, would soon be dead.
The doctor was called for and, on entering the house, told them that they had spoilt his sleep. He then pompously entered my room. I could see his bald head bending on my chest. He was tickling me with his long, untrimmed moustache. And he smelled! I had to endure all this for some time. Then the long experienced doctor straightened up and concluded that I was dead. Dead!! How could I convince them that I was alive?
The situation was now becoming desperate. My mother kissed my cold forehead and cried her heart out. Of course my forehead was cold, it was March and the windows were open so that the room would not smell the damned smell of the dead. That morning, in fact, was an exceptionally cold one and I was freezing.
A warm tear fell on my face. My parents, uttering hysterical lamentations, started clearing the room, otherwise visitors would not have enough room to crowd around me. All fancy ornaments were removed. My photo, lying on my bedside table, found itself in my mother’s embrace.
Four large candles were fetched, lit up and positioned around me in the centre of the room. People – relatives, friends and neighbours – were ceremoniously admitted in my presence to pay their last respects. A boy was sent hurriedly to get the coffin maker.
Old women came en masse, like they traditionally do on these occasions. There were also many children as I could hear their elders ordering them to be quiet. It is said that the left foot of the statue of St. Peter at the Vatican is being worn off by the kissing process of visitors. On the contrary, my forehead was accumulating a thickness of dirt from the stinking lips of shabbily dressed old women and smeared-faced little urchins.
Those kisses were neither remonstrations of love nor signs of pity. Those visitors were faithfully conforming to the tradition and custom of the time. No doubt the little sillies, seeing the grown-ups doing this ceremony, copied it jovially. I had to forego all this with astonishing resignation and unnoticed annoyance. I had no option.
I heard lots of stories from my friends that day wherein I was made the hero, featuring in some bravado, stories created at that same moment to alienate the sadness and depression of my relatives. Among the constant crying, an occasional laugh broke the gloomy atmosphere of the room.
Old timers opened their big mouths, showing decaying teeth, meaning to show consent and approval. Some of the dirty little scoundrels helped themselves and were carrying little souvenirs with them before leaving – books, pencils and other things which come useful when they return to school.
The party was going on nicely and smoothly. Unfortunately I was not enjoying it at all. I stood there helpless, an image for respect and comment. It was here that I learnt that my nose was slightly twisted and my mouth was a little too big for my face. They also said that I retained, even in death, a natural smile. Some said that I was smiling at the angels. The truth was that I was tearing myself apart seeing these parasites around my corpse. For me these were no angels, but demons from the depths of hell, come to disturb my peace.
My father was persuaded to rest in another room. The shock was too much for him, poor old man, not much in good health. How I wished that I could move and talk! Then the situation would be corrected immediately and all this farce would come to an end. I would have thrown out all those nosey pokers who came just to satisfy their curiosity, rather than to genuinely console those I was leaving behind.
Piercing cries of grief, despair and lamentation greeted the coffin-maker. He was so unlike the others around me. He looked all over me in a business-like manner. He carried on his work of measuring my length in an unconcerned way and his behavior was most unmannerly. He laughed between his teeth as if he was glad that I was dead and he was earning his commission. All it meant for him was pure business and nothing else.
As noon tolled its usual Angelus, I saw with great relief, most of the intruders rise and leave the room, of course after going through the act of telling my mother “We are awfully sorry, may God grant you patience and long life!!”
Guests and visitors being gone, silence reigned supreme in my room save for the rhythmic sobbing of close relatives. No food was served on that day, except for cups of tea and biscuits. Everyone at home kept themselves occupied in weeping and other remonstrations of affliction.
While all this was being enacted around me, I kept guessing how it would finish. I tried to convince myself that my paralysis would be over before they would bury me. I hoped it would, with all my heart I hoped it would!
But my wish was not granted. At about 4.00 p.m., twelve hours exactly after my death hour established by the doctor, the coffin-maker returned accompanied by four coffin–bearers. How I wish that I could describe those faces! Four rough brawny men, two of whom had scars on their faces. Their looks were terrifying and their language, when not in front of my relatives, was most foul. These were the four cut-throats who were hired to accompany me to my everlasting peaceful place.
Then there were mother, father brother and sister who, at the sight of these rough bearers, burst out shouting and weeping and begging that I be left another twelve hours in their company. I heard cries – that melancholic rhythm of the weeping which came from every corner of the house. I heard steps –coming and going, in and out of the room. And I saw the ghastly light of the four candles playing a funeral air with the in-coming breeze.
The thing that I had dreaded most had now arrived. I was lowered gently in the coffin under the agonizing look of my relatives. “No!” I wanted to shout, “Wait, I should be left another twelve hours here. This is required by law. Mother and father why did you give in to the blubbering of these four ruffians who are always eager to have the ceremony through as early as possible? Why the hurry? Why? Please leave me be ………..” These were my thoughts. I could not speak. My thoughts, as are those of everyone else’s, were inaudible.
The facts are now known. Although my parents had raised many an excuse to leave me with them for some more time, the coffin–bearers had persuaded them to bury me as early as possible in order to conform to the health laws. They argued that the stipulated twenty four hours expired on Sunday at the Ave Maria. Therefore I was either to be left here until Monday morning, which was not permissible by law or, as was proposed, I be transferred to the Mortuary room at the cemetery that same day.
This was considered to be the most plausible argument and was therefore agreed to by all. So my best friends came with wreaths and flowers, stinking ones some of them were, and seated themselves beside me. They all had loved me once. They all had liked my company when I was with them. Now, they were on tenderhooks to see the ceremony over. They wanted to have me buried at the earliest and go back to their wives and girlfriends. They had other appointments after this one. “Life goes on”, it had always been said.
“Make way, let this family alone!” shouted a hoarse voice. It was the undertaker who came to screw the lid of the coffin. Prayers were administered and last kissing ceremonies being over, I was remorselessly shut down and secluded from the outside world.
How can I describe what I felt while I was there? I knew that all hopes of getting out were now futile. A few more hours and the farce would have a tragic ending. Amid the cries and hysterical weeping, I felt that I was being lifted and moved. I was on my way to eternal sleep. This time it looked more real.
They were going down the first flight of steps carrying me with them. This was the end. I wanted to shout at them and tell them – “Easy, you damned fools. This is no common load that you are carrying. Be careful and make it smooth!” But, of course, they could not hear my thoughts.
“Put him down gently”, commanded the familiar hoarse voice. “Let me see him for the last time”, my mother frenzied. I heard the bolt being unscrewed and once more I could behold those stricken faces. Mother, father, brother and sister showered a rain of kisses over my face. I did not mind. I was enjoying some fresh air. I needed it badly. “That is enough”, cut short the undertaker who was more than eager to go through with this ceremony without more loss of time.
The lid closed. I felt myself being lowered down. I dimly heard the sound of cries, sobs, dust falling on the top of the coffin, stone slabs being put on the grave. Then silence, darkness, solitude, despair …………. I knew that there was nothing that I could do except wait patiently for the end to come.
The noise had long died away; the birds were long resting in the trees; the cemetery gates were certainly closed shut. Most people must be sleeping peacefully in their homes and I was dying like a rat. My friends might be enjoying themselves at a restaurant or the theatre, their long time friend forgotten. My parents, brother and sister however must be hurt at losing me and must be surely in despair.
I prayed and wept but no tears showed on my face. I implored all the saints in heaven to help me, to get me out of there and restore me to my family. This was no way to end one’s life. I tried to shout but did not succeed. Where was my voice? I tried to move but I could not. I waited and prayed, wept and despaired, hoped and prayed again. Seconds passed by, minutes followed slowly and then an hour. The cemetery bell chimed the eleventh hour.
Then it happened all of a sudden. I heard my own breath, though very feeble. I shouted and this time the coffin resounded with the sound of my voice. My voice! My voice! I was recovering. It was a mixture of joy, hope, but also desperation. Then my limbs moved. I tried my arms, my legs. They responded. It appeared that I was recovering from my paralysis.
I turned my back against the lid of the coffin and pushed with all my strength. It gave way and I breathed the contaminated air of the occupied grave. I forced my way out of the coffin and sat for a minute contemplating my next move. Beneath the coffin were two other coffins and the smell was intolerable. I touched the ceiling. It was not high. I put my head against one of the slabs and lifted. It was freshly sealed and gave way easily. Up it went. I pushed with all my strength. Then got out and heaved a sigh of relief.
As I pulled myself out of that dreadful place, I rushed into the open air and sat breathless on the tombstone inhaling the fresh breeze. Darkness filled the area around me. Near me were all sorts of marble monuments while in the distance I saw the silhouette of the chapel and tall birch trees. Further away was the town from where some lights flickered in the darkness of the night.
My residence was some three miles away. I looked at myself and discovered that I was wearing an old black suit, socks but no shoes. The cemetery clock tolled 1.00 in the morning. As quick as I could I jumped over the wall which, fortunately, was not very high. In haste I made my way home. I knew that it was not going to be easy to present myself to my family when they were so sure that I was dead and buried. But they had to face it.
It was past 2.00 in the early morning when I reached my town. Slowly and noiselessly, I made my way home. My parent’s room showed some light. I was certain that they would not be sleeping that night. I knocked and my mother came down to answer. “Who is there? she sobbed. Without thinking twice, I told her “It is me, your son Joe!” She recognized my voice; opened the door and, on seeing me, fainted in my arms. My father, brother and sister were awakened. They were bewildered when they saw me. How could I explain that I was no ghost? They stood there before me, amazed, and would not touch me.
Some minutes later, after explaining the situation, I was holding my family members to my chest. When things calmed down my father said “Let us sit down”. Then he gave me a tot of whisky in a glass. I gulped it down and related to them the whole story. They were so happy to have me back with them after that ordeal. It was 4 in the morning when we went to bed. I knew that now it was all over.
Next morning I did not wake up for work. When I appeared in the streets I had a difficult task explaining how it happened. Everybody was asking about the doctor who had certified my death! “Well, he must have been in a hurry!” I responded with sarcasm. “But let us forget this terrible experience now and go celebrate my return to real life”.
“But how can it be that you were buried before the expiration of the stipulated twenty four hours?” they asked. “It was all the doing of the undertakers, they would not come on Sunday, so they wanted to finish the job on Saturday”, I replied. “How does it feel to be down there?” was another eager question. “Well, I felt like all dead ones do, except that while I wished and struggled to return here, on the contrary, real dead ones do not”, I laughed in their face.
This was indeed a strange experience, but at least I learned my position in connection with those I had to live with – my family, my friends, my neighbours. I will certainly be better disposed next time I have to cross to the other side.
Today, thanks to the progress of medicine and to more stringent health laws, such things will not repeat themselves. In those days, however, such happenings were not a rare occurrence.