Read Kindergarten Online

Authors: Peter Rushforth


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A Novel by Peter Rushforth

ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-837-4

M P Publishing Limited

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Originally published by:MacAdam / Cage155 Sansome StreetSuite 550San Francisco, CA 94104

© 2006 Peter RushworthISBN: 1-59692-108-0

For the peoplewho gave metheir words

We only wanted to get away, only escape and arrive safely, nothing else.

—Anne Frank. Wednesday, 8 July 1942

Whenever I close my eyes

I see them wander

There from this old farmhouse destroyed by the war

To another ruined house yonder.

High above them, in the clouded sky

I see others swarming, surging, many!

There they wander, braving icy blizzards

(Homes and aims they haven’t any),

Searching for a land where peace reigns,

No more fire, no more thunder,

Nothing like the world they’re leaving,

Mighty crowds too great to number.

—From “Children’s Crusade,”Bertolt Brecht

BESIDEa dark pathless forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his second wife and his two children, a little boy and a little girl. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. They had very little to eat, and when a great famine came to the country, the father found it impossible to find them any food at all. One night when the children were in bed, he lay thinking of what he could do for them all. Overcome with fear, he groaned, and said to his wife, “What can we do? How can we feed our poor children, when we can’t even feed ourselves?”

“I know exactly what we can do, husband,” answered the stepmother. “Tomorrow morning, very early, we will take the children into the midst of the forest, where it is darkest, light a fire for them, give them each one last piece of bread, and then we will go off to work, and leave them there, and never return. They will not be able to find their way home again, and we shall be free of them.”

“No, my wife,” said the father, horrified, “we cannot do that. I could not bear to leave my poor children alone in the forest. The wild animals will tear them to pieces.”

“Fool!” said the woman. “If we do not do this, then all four of us will die of hunger. We must destroy them in order to live ourselves. Otherwise you might as well start making the coffins for us all now.”

The man’s heart grew heavy, and he would not agree with her. She did not leave him alone until he had agreed to her plan. He said to himself, “It is not right,” and yet he agreed.


THEFACESin newspaper photographs and on television news reports had changed. The faces of terrified children, and of women holding up imploring hands, were no longer South-East Asian faces, but the faces of Europeans. The gun-fire, the burning buildings, the bomb explosions were in the streets of European cities once again. The unknown possibilities of death were all around.

ITWASChristmas Eve, 1978.

The terrorists in the West Berlin school were making the captive children sing carols.

Children’s voices came across the waste of snow in front of the school, the distant mass of the buildings showing no light from its windows. At first, Corrie thought they were singing “The Red Flag”—the tune was the same—but then he made out the words.

“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!Du grönst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!Wie oft hat nicht zur WeihnachtszeitEin Baum von dir mich hocherfreut!O Tannenbaum…”

The group of terrorists at the school were from the same terrorist organisation, Red Phoenix, as the people who had carried out the shootings at Leonardo da Vinci airport, the people who had killed his mother. He felt his stomach beginning to tighten. He had switched on the television to watch a cartoon version of “Hansel and Gretel,” and the afternoon news report immediately preceded the children’s programme.

Lilli, his grandmother, who had come through into their kitchen from her house next door, walked into the living-room behind him, drawn in by the German words. He turned to face her.

“What is that song?”

“‘Der Tannenbaum.’ The fir-tree,” she answered quietly. The words had awoken memories for her.

He thought of the special television news programme for the deaf on Sunday evenings, a digest of the week’s events, when subtitles appeared at the bottom of the screen as the newscaster spoke.

Lilli sat beside him, looking at the television.

“The song tells us the fir-tree is a symbol of faith. It is always green, in summer, and in winter also, when it is snowing. We learn from it hope and steadfastness.” She pulled a face as she spoke the last word, and looked interrogatively at him.

He nodded. The word was right.

“The fir-tree is noble and alone. It comforts and strengthens us.”

She spoke each word very carefully, her mouth sometimes working awkwardly, as though the words were small solid objects she balanced between her lips. Her whole mouth puckered, as if she were about to pronounce the letter “o,” like a child’s when it has sucked something sour. It was only in her speech that the stroke she had suffered eighteen months ago occasionally left its sign, though strangers would not have noticed this, believing that her hesitancies were those of someone to whom English was a foreign language.

Her fingers were pulling the front of her smock.

“It was one of the few Christmas songs allowed in the time of Hitler. It makes no mention of Christ.”

He looked at her face. Physical pain always faded as time passed. The memory of humiliation and mockery never died. Each time the memory was revived, the feelings returned as intense as they had been at the time they were first experienced.

She held her hand in front of him, opening out her fingers, and smiled.

“‘Der Tannenbaum.”’

He picked up the slender green fir needles from her open palm, smelling their freshness—snow in dark forests—noticing, for the first time, other needles clinging to the front of her smock and down her skirt.

“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,”he said, and began to pick other needles from Lilli’s clothes, dropping them into his cupped left hand.

He had once been a little afraid of Lilli. She was tall, still considerably taller than he, who was small for his age. She looked rather fierce, and now—in her seventies—was dressed in a loose billowing smock with a tiny dark floral pattern, and a rust-coloured floor-length velvet skirt. Her hair, still dark, hung loosely about her face, not like an old woman’s at all. She looked like a folk-singer with a rich clear voice who would sing sad songs about the deaths of maidens, the cruelty of love—all the songs collected by his grandfather before his death. It was only in the last year that he had really talked to her, as he had helped to give her lessons after her stroke. His hands moved gently against the velvet material. Stroke. That was what a stroke was. A gentle touch of affection. A gentle touch on the brain that could cripple.

It was nine months since the killings in Rome. That had been during the Easter holidays. Mum would have been carrying Easter presents for them all. She had promised to get them all something.

The face on the television screen was a face at a window, the face of a frightened child. Below the child’s face, the now familiar image behind the newscaster on each day’s news, were the words “School Siege: Day Seven.” They were marking the end of the first week of the siege by an extended news programme, the most coverage the event had had since the day it had started. As the number of days of the siege rose, news about the school had come later and later in the reports, moved to the inside pages of newspapers, shorter and smaller as the days went by, compressed by the greater demands of more recent events: a bomb explosion in Tel Aviv, a shooting at a Middle Eastern embassy in Rome, a plane hijacked from Belgium. The same pictures appeared over and over again: the air liner on a lonely desert strip, viewed from a distance across bare sand; the hooded figure at the window with the sub-machine-gun. The subtitles appeared and disappeared at the bottom of the screen, as if the words spoken were in a foreign language talking of incomprehensible occurrences.

Now the television screen showed the face of a weeping woman being restrained by a policeman wearing a peaked cap. She tried to pull herself forward, and away from him, towards the encircled school, her eyes gazing upwards.

The newscaster began to talk about the political situation in West Germany. Behind him as he continued speaking, filling the whole background, one brightly coloured picture remained as an image of modern West Germany. A group of well-dressed people were sitting in a glass-enclosed street restaurant in a pedestrian precinct. Stainless steel held the glass in place. It was very new, very sharp and shiny, like everything in the picture, the expensive clean impersonality of the transit lounge of an international airport, where all the people there were only passing through. Behind the glass, wiped free of all fingerprints, the men and women ate elaborate ice-cream confections from narrow cone-shaped glasses, the laden spoons held before their open mouths. Their eyes had the shut, closed-in look of people who knew they were being photographed but were trying to look natural. They all had rings on their fingers, men and women, and they were all middle-aged. Dim figures, many of them, could be seen through the dark glass which closed off the inner rooms of the newly painted building, but the door which led through from the outside, on which all the seated figures had their backs turned, was closed.

INSIDEhis copy ofGrimm’s Fairy Tales, lying on the floor beside him on top of the notebook with the ruled staves—spidery with pencilled notes, crotchets and quavers, much corrected—was the hidden postcard he had found in the school music rooms. He had opened the door set into the wall, and gone into the room beyond.

The postcard had been posted in Berlin in June, 1939, to the man who had then been the headmaster of Southwold School, a predecessor of his father.

Dear Mr. High,

Thank you very much for your kind letter. I am so gratefull that you will receive me and my big brother in your school. We wait now for permits. I send you our good wishes. Dear Sir, also our parents thank you very much. Excuse, dear Mr. High, all this troubles. Please pardon me about my stammerings, but my will is stronger than the words I know. We will be diligent in our study and becomingness, and prove ourselves worthy. We will be good boys. I am happy about my violoncello. Highly esteemed sir, I remain,

Yours respectfully,Nickolaus Mittler

Other pictures were shown on the television, some in colour, some in black and white: police photographs of young men and women, unsmiling, staring straight ahead; photographs of bomb damage; coffins being interred; bodies lying in streets, their feet protruding beyond the edges of the blankets; people showing identity papers to policemen; film of riot police with batons; crowds running from tear-gas; burning buildings. Film of that day’s events at the West Berlin school was repeated, and the children’s high voices came from out of the darkness and the unlit building.

Lilli held out her hand to take the fir needles from him, and then stood up.

“How is the German Christmas?” he asked her.

She had spent the past week preparing what she said was going to be a “traditional German Christmas” for them in her house, insisting on doing everything herself, keeping it all secret. Christmas Eve, she had told them, was the special, solemn time, when everything important happened. Christmas Day was not a special day. The fir needles were a part of her plans. He had seen the fir-tree being delivered two days earlier.Der Tannenbaum.

“Six o’clock. The German Christmas will be ready at six o’clock.”

ONTHEother side of the postcard was a sepia photograph.Die Freilichtbuhne, Berlin.(Open-air Theatre, Berlin.)

The scene was an enormous open-air theatre built to the same design as the theatres of ancient Greece. Tier upon tier of curved seating rose in an immense semicircle away and upwards from the circle of the orchestra, the dancing place for the Chorus. In the centre of that circle would be the altar. From the back centre point where the photograph was taken, the rows of seating arched away to right and left, the farther rows smaller and closer together. In the distance, behind the central grassed circle, was the acting area, a raised stone platform running the whole width from side to side, with a wide central flight of steps. Behind this was a high stone wall with an entrance facing the centre of the steps. Above and beyond the blank stone was a dark fir wood, its closely packed trees tall and impenetrable, the inner darkness beginning only a few feet from the edge.

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