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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (22 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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26

Later in the day, he went to the perimeter of the airfield to see if he could find Mathias and discover what had happened to Jacob, but the place was deserted. He saw where a barrier had been erected around the recently discovered bombs. A sign warned everyone to stay clear. A solitary man crossed the expanse of broken runway alongside the stacked planes. The uneven slabs of the fractured concrete had the appearance now of the waves of a rough sea. The man saw Mercer where he stood, paused for a moment to look at him, and then continued into one of the buildings. A gentle breeze had risen off the sea, and the distant silver bodies creaked and rocked in their stacks.

Mercer felt certain that Mathias would have already learned of Jacob's departure, and he wanted to ask him what he believed they might now do in an effort to alleviate the man's all too obviously worsening illness.

He returned to the tower to find Mary already inside. He asked her how she had broken in – those, deliberately, were his words – and she indicated the
window he had left open. He understood how constrained she had been in the presence of her father, but, equally, he regretted how unquestioningly she had allowed the man to say and imply the things he did about her in front of the others, how easily, how
willingly
almost, she allowed herself to be manipulated by him to his own ends.

‘He doesn't mean half the things he says,' she said, motioning for him to lock the door.

‘He does,' Mercer said flatly. ‘And if he doesn't mean the things he says, then why say them?' He saw what a poor argument this was against her own understanding of the man. He went to the open window and secured that, too. ‘What do you want?'

She shrugged, uncertain of how to respond to this unexpected hostility.

‘Just to say that,' she said.

‘No doubt he'll be close outside somewhere. Hiding, perhaps.'

‘He went into town with some of the others.'

‘Do you do
everything
he tells you to do?'

‘It's easier. She tells us not to upset him.'

Because he takes it all out on her
, Mercer thought. ‘You're his children,' he said. ‘You shouldn't have to tolerate all this. He's the one who has to adapt.'

‘She says that we're different from how he remembers us and that it's hard for him.'

‘It's hard for you all. He doesn't seem to be having too many problems in making his presence felt.'

‘She says he's just like he was before he went away. He shouts a lot; they argue. She says that what happened to him wasn't fair. Everything he tells her, she agrees with.'

‘I doubt she has much choice,' Mercer said. ‘But
you
do.' He waited, hoping she might acknowledge this and agree with him.

‘He had to hit Peter because of the noise he was making,' she said.

‘Your brother.' He had forgotten the boy's name.

‘He told her to shut him up, but she couldn't.'

‘The things he sometimes says about you – it's still not right.' He wondered if he had said too much. She no longer wore the blouse or the short skirt.

She saw him looking at her dress. ‘He told me to put them on,' she said. ‘He said it would be the quickest way of getting rid of the tobacco.'

‘And you agreed to do it.'

‘You make it sound as though I had a choice.'

‘I know,' he said, knowing now that his purpose in trying to make her understand how the man was using her would not be served by confronting her like this.

‘He's still my father,' she said, looking away from him.

There were fifty responses to the remark.

‘Of course he is,' Mercer said. ‘But I'm still glad he's not here now.'

She smiled at this.

Say it
, he thought. ‘
Me, too
.' But she said nothing.

They went together to the upper room. She made tea, and he let her, seeing what simple pleasure she gained from the act. She told him to sit down. She expressed her surprise at his store of sugar.

‘Take some,' he told her. ‘For your mother. A gift. From me.'

‘He wouldn't be too happy about that.'

‘You could say it was payment for some work you'd done.'

‘He'd like it even less.'

‘You could tell him you stole it,' he said, knowing
that this would appeal to the man, and she looked at him sharply.

She put down her cup and rose from her seat.

‘I'm sorry,' he said.

‘I've never stolen anything,' she said. She sat back down. ‘Well, not much. And I wouldn't steal anything from you.'

‘I know,' he told her.

‘At least not from in here.'

They both laughed at this.

‘I just thought it might be a way round you having the sugar,' he said. ‘He thinks little enough of me already, especially where you and I are concerned.'

‘You and me?'

‘Our friendship.'

The remark flattered her and she could not hide this.

‘In fact, come to think of it,' he said, ‘you're the only friend I've got round here.'

‘My mother said you were “decent”.'

‘He'll have enjoyed hearing her say that.'

‘He hit her,' she said. ‘Not hard, and only once.'

Again, there was nothing he could say.

The room was filled with the afternoon sun; flies circled the ceiling in a clumsy and restless torpor.

‘I'm sorry,' he said eventually.

‘What for? It's hardly your fault.'

‘No, but I do appear to antagonize him.'

‘Everything does that. And if it wasn't you, it'd be someone or something else.'

‘Jacob or Mathias, for instance?'

‘Them. Or her next door. Or Peter. Or Daniels.' She refilled their cups, paying great and unnecessary attention to the pouring.

‘What does your mother think will happen?' He tried to make the remark sound casual.

‘Happen?'

‘Will he stay? Will he go? Will he find work?'

‘Are you saying you think he might leave us again?' The prospect of this genuinely concerned her. ‘Is that what
you
think he'll do?'

‘I just wondered if he'd said anything, that's all.'

‘You probably think it would be best all round if he did go. He's only been back five days.'

‘Of course he'll stay,' Mercer said. ‘He has no choice.'

‘If he wants to go, they won't stop him. Besides, perhaps he'll want to take me with him and I'll get out of this dump at last.'

Now it was Mercer's turn to be alarmed. ‘Would you go with him if he suggested it?'

She considered this. ‘It'd be something.'

‘You can go without him,' he said.

‘I'm fifteen,' she said. ‘I've got no prospects. Whatever they are.'

‘Who told you that?'

‘Nobody needs to tell me. He says I'm just like her. Finished before I started.'

‘That's not true.'

‘You don't know,' she said.

It was clear to him that she did not want him to pursue the matter. She rose again and walked around the room, pausing at his desk and at the blankets still on the floor before returning to sit beside him.

‘I don't believe everything he says about Jacob and Mathias,' she said.

‘I know you don't.'

‘He thinks everyone should believe what he believes. She goes along with him, but only because it's the easiest thing to do.'

‘And you?'

‘It's mostly best to keep your mouth shut.'

‘I'm learning that,' he said.

‘It's just that half the time he treats me like I'm still a kid, and the next minute he thinks I'm
her
.'

‘I can see that, too,' he said.

‘Is that us, then – a friendship?'

‘I hope so,' he said.

‘In that case, I am delighted to make your acquaintance.' She spoke in a voice not her own. Then she held out her hand to him and he took it and pressed it to his lips.

27

‘I have this to show you.' Jacob handed Mercer a folded piece of paper. His hand was steady, but Mercer sensed his uncertainty or reluctance in the gesture. There were occasions when Jacob's hands trembled to the extent that holding a cup or a glass was difficult for him – not so much for the disturbance itself, but for the attention it attracted to the motion. He remarked on this and held his fluttering fingers in front of his face and watched them. He could not account for the affliction, insisted that it did not concern him, and said that he was only forced to consider it when it happened in the presence of others.

Almost a week had passed following the night at the tower, and this was the first time Mercer had seen him since then. Jacob looked a little better than previously – still pale and weak and slow-moving, but less breathless than he had been after his journey, and it occurred to Mercer that he had not left Bail's in all that time, that this was the reason for the small improvement in his health.

Mercer had sent word to him and had then come to see him in the room in which the man's lonely existence was now almost wholly contained.

He took the square of paper Jacob had given him and carefully unfolded it. His first thought was that it might be a letter, written either by or to his dead sister, but as it opened in his hand he saw that it was a flimsy printed leaflet. He held the sheet taut against its tendency to fold back in upon itself. It contained only seven lines:

Protest against the detestable persecution of the Jews!!!

Organize self-defence in the factories and districts!!!

Solidarity with the Jewish victims of the working people!!!

Snatch the Jewish children from Nazi violence – take them into your family!!!

Strike!!! Strike!!! Strike!!!

Solidarity!!! Courage!!!

Fight proudly for the liberation of our country!!!

At the bottom of the leaflet was the date, October 1943, and the words
Dutch Resistance Movement
.

‘I took it from the corpse of a woman I knew. She came after us to Papenburg and then to Auschwitz. She was eighteen, or perhaps nineteen. Not a woman, still a girl. She and I had attended the same school. She was in a class two or three years below me. She clearly had no true idea of where she was going or of what was about to happen to her, otherwise she would not still have had anything so dangerous or incriminating in her pocket.'

‘How did it incriminate her?'

‘She had read it. She had saved it. She was Jewish.'

‘Did you see nothing similar yourself before you were sent away?'

‘No. We knew, of course, that something calling itself a resistance movement existed, but not that it concerned itself with the Jews. That was the work of individuals.'

‘Did it give you some hope, seeing it?'

‘In Auschwitz? Hope? No, it gave me no hope. My parents were dead by then, and I was separated from Anna. I was still able to contact her and to see her occasionally, but by then our lives had long since started to unravel. We were pieces of ourselves. Whatever we had once been as individuals, and whatever we had once been to each other, counted for nothing.' Jacob gestured for the leaflet to be given back to him. ‘“Snatch the Jewish children from Nazi violence”,' he read. ‘I was no longer a child, but Anna was. No one snatched her from that violence, no one took
her
into the safety of
their
family.'

‘Why did you keep it? Surely, it was a risky thing to do under—'

‘“Under the circumstances”? I kept it because it made me angry to see everything set down so plainly, so simply. It angered me to see all those exclamation marks, as though the thing were being shouted aloud in some public place and in the faces of our persecutors. It angered me because for so many of us those simple and obvious choices no longer existed. It made everything so black and white with its good and its evil. Of course some people responded to it and did what little they could, but for everyone who helped, there were a thousand others ready to denounce us, and for each of those thousand there were another ten thousand only too willing to look away, to ignore or to tolerate what was happening. “Voor Joden Verboden”.'
He carefully refolded the leaflet and slid it back between the pages of the book from which he had taken it upon Mercer's arrival.

‘You took it and kept it because that in itself was an act of rebellion,' Mercer said, finally understanding.

Jacob acknowledged this. ‘A futile and pathetic act of rebellion.'

‘Were you able to show it to Anna?'

Jacob looked up sharply at this. ‘No, of course not. For her even to have known of its existence would have put her in jeopardy. There were informants everywhere.'

‘It might have given her the same hope, caused the same anger in her from which you yourself drew some strength.'

‘In Papenburg, perhaps. But not afterwards, not
there
. You talk of risk, of those risks worth taking, but in that place nothing was calculable; there was no reason, no connection between how one lived and how or why one died. To be in the wrong place at the wrong time was a risk, but who was to know where or when that was? People were chosen at random, the sick and the healthy alike, and they were killed. I'll tell you something.

‘Anna had a friend, a girl called Rosa. One day, the woman in charge of Anna's hut called for everyone to go outside and line up. This woman then told Rosa, who was a year older than Anna, and well known in that part of the camp for her good looks, to go to her. Even Rosa's shaved head did little to detract from her looks. She and Anna had arrived together, and so, in the way of the lost and the terrified, they had stayed together as far as possible. Rosa went to the hut leader and then this woman called for another to join them. This time her choice was an old woman who had
seemed close to death for several days. She was ancient, at least fifty, and barely able to stand. For weeks, according to Anna, she had made herself inconspicuous. Others had stolen her food and she had refused to complain. The two of them, Rosa and this breathing corpse, stood one on either side of the hut leader, who then called over a German sergeant who had been standing close by, his pistol drawn, keeping an eye on what was happening. He came smiling and stood with the three women. Anna stood as close as she dared to the front of the crowd and her eyes never left Rosa's. The hut leader then announced that today was her birthday and asked everyone to sing to her. The sergeant conducted them with his pistol. Anna said the woman stood with tears in her eyes, as though this demonstration of false affection had been spontaneous, done willingly, with feeling, as though it
meant
something and was not merely another whimsical display of the woman's brutality. Anna said there were at least half a dozen nationalities singing that song, but that despite the conflicting languages there was little discordance in the overall harmony.

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