‘Frieda’ (winner, Wales U3A Short Story Comp, 2017)

Winner of the Wales U3A Short Story Competition, 2017

 

Frieda

On the coffee table, in a blue and white bowl, was a worn pair of pearl ear clips and a little leather picture frame with a cover. Frieda carefully put down her fruit juice and picked up the frame. It was shiny with age and handling, and a little scuffed at the corners. She opened it, gently stroking the fading monochrome image. ‘Mutti… Papi.’ She lifted the frame and peered closely, hoping to connect more deeply. Her mother’s eyes looked into hers, smiling slightly, mysteriously present behind the absence. Papi was more reserved and unreadable. She thought she detected a trace of fear round his mouth, but it might just have been thoughtfulness.

‘Long ago…’ she said out loud and put the frame back in the bowl, then adjusted the bowl so that it covered the scratch on the melamine. She poked at the ear clips. ‘Might as well get rid of those. I won’t be wearing them again.’

A tear began to well. She had bought those ear clips with her first wages, what?… good heavens… seventy years ago. So long… so much…

Her first job… a trainee nurse, looking after injured aircrew. Absolutely shocking work for anyone, especially a teenager. But she was determined to stick it out. It was the only way she could fight back.

Back…. back… there were so many vivid moments, none more vivid than searching Mutti’s eyes through the grubby carriage window. They were both howling inside but nobody would guess. Papi had his arm round Mutti and held up his palm in a farewell, then slowly folded his fingers. A jerk, a blast, another jerk, and the train moved out. Frieda’s last sight of them was of Papi mouthing what seemed to be ‘The bowl’.

The bowl?

Yes, the little blue and white bowl that had pride of place on every occasional table she had ever owned, which was not many, and almost always second-hand. And always in the bowl was the little leather wallet picture frame. The bowl was not an antique. Very far from it. It was of purely sentimental value. Papi had been specially to a sort of informal night school run by a little group of disenfranchised Jews in a back street in Hamburg, back in early April of 1939. He was a little proud of it when he brought it home. It was his first ever attempt at making a pot, and it showed. Frieda stroked the uneven rim and smiled. ‘Funny little pot. Thankyou, Papi.’

He had given her that pot, along with the photo frame when he and Mutti had made the heart-wrenching decision to get her a place on a Kindertransport away from Nazi persecution. In retrospect, Frieda realised that her parents must have suspected their own fate, despite Goebbels’ elaborate lies. Another tear welled as she thought of this, for the millionth time. ‘Greater love…’

She sighed and glanced at the clock. ‘Nearly ten.’ Amanda would be arriving at eleven to look after her sore leg. It was taking a long time to heal. ‘Not surprising… I’m lucky to be here at all. What’s a little ulcer?’ She hauled herself to her feet, leaning heavily on her stick. Matthew’s picture shone at her from the grey tiles of the mantelpiece. ‘You lovely man…’, and she smiled. ‘Matthew… thankyou again for everything…’ She looked down at the blue and white bowl. ‘I could give those ear clips to Amanda. I wonder if she’d wear them? Probably not. Not the fashion these day, I suppose.’ But she could sell them. Good pearls; and nine carat; quality…  ‘Always buy quality,’ Papi had said. ‘It will always sell well if you need it.’ He knew what he was talking about after twenty years in the jewellery business. He’d done well for his family and had been the first one in the street to own a car. And Mutti had a fine fur coat. Quality. She’d once heard Papi say to a Christian friend that a Jew should always have a car because you never knew when you might need it. It had puzzled her at first but now she knew what he had meant. But they stole the car.

Matthew had worked hard in the docks to provide for her and Andrew, but he didn’t have Papi’s head for business. They were never short of bread, but had always needed to be careful. A holiday was a rarity. Once he had asked her why her father hadn’t given her a gold bar or something when he packed her off to a foreign land. She explained that the kinder-kids weren’t allowed to take any valuables with them, just a little sealed suitcase. Anything of value would have been immediately stolen by the police and border guards.

Pill.. she should take her pill. ‘Silly old fool.. forgotten it again. Forgot yesterday, too, and probably the day before that. Don’t quite remember… Anyway, not to worry. Won’t be long now, whatever. Matthew… Mutti.. Papi…’

She picked up the bowl and ran her fingers over it. ‘Not a bad effort for a first try,’ she smiled. A bit irregular here and there, and the glazing was patchy, but overall, it really didn’t look too bad. Not of sale value though. But that didn’t matter. And a pity about the crack that ran halfway across the base. It was quite deep, and had resisted the glaze. Once she had tried filling it with glue, but it didn’t take properly.

She took a step forward.

Looking up at the ceiling, she barely noticed the pain. It had an abstract quality that somehow didn’t register or belong to her. It was just her body. She was conscious of it being odd, looking at the ceiling. She vaguely remembered ‘a sharp moment’ and tipping forward. Then banging her head on something. Ah, yes… the bowl. Get up. Get up. A peculiar sense of peace and distance. And a voice that sounded like Papi, laughing. ‘The bowl, Frieda!’ and more happy laughter, from Mutti too. It was as if they were in the room with her.

Amanda let herself in. She found Frieda lying by the tipped-over coffee table. Still warm, but clearly lifeless. There was a gash on her forehead, oozing slightly. Next to her head lay her precious blue and white bowl, cracked neatly in half along the crack that Frieda had once shown her. She bent to pick the  pieces up and something caught her eye.

Along one side of the broken crack something glittered. She turned the bowl to the light. A row of six perfect cut diamonds gleamed back at her.

‘Oh Frieda….’. She sat down in the silence, remembering as if for herself, the stories Frieda had told her about ‘former times’.Some minutes passed. She closed Frieda’s eyes, with tears in her own. She wiped the blood from  Frieda’s forehead and turned the fragment of bowl over in her hand, savouring the flashes and glitter of the stones. She smiled despite herself, and put the broken piece into Frieda’s hand and pressed  her fingers round it. With a slight sigh she took out her phone.

If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my novel ‘Mr Grooby and Me’, available in Carmarthen Waterstone’s or from this website.