Chapter eight of Christobel. The narrative is back in 2014 with Chris, who with Frieda is visiting her grandfather again, listening to more of his memories and lifetime’s wisdom. But he’s approaching his Good Night, and not going particularly gentle into it.
I hope you are enjoying these twin stories. If you would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and then read each successive one from there. Thank you for your interest.
Frieda was having problems of conscience. On the subject of Dieter. ‘I really do think I should see him more frequently now, Chris,’ she said, a few days after the visit. ‘He cannot have many more months of life left now. I should not expect Mutter and Vater to do it all, just because they are the closest in generations. We must all make his remaining days as peaceful and filled with love as we can, don’t you think?
‘Yes, absolutely,’ Chris agreed, touched by her compassion.
‘And he has taken quite a liking to you, I suspect. You bring a little light into his life.’
‘I like him too. He’s a really nice old chap. What my gran would call a proper, old-fashioned gentleman.’
‘Yes. I don’t quite know what you mean by that, but I am sure she is right.’
So they went again the following weekend. Dieter did seem pleased to see Chris, certainly, judging by the animation that briefly lit his tired face. He was bed bound again. Another carer, Henning, was on duty, but he seemed less instinctively inclined to offer refreshments and simply disappeared to his own room. Frieda went to the kitchen to produce them, leaving Chris and Dieter to gaze at each other and fumble for a conversation starter.
As he’d done the first time, Dieter broke the silence. ‘So, whereabouts in England are you from, Chris?’
‘Tiverton. In Devon. In the west of England. Do you know it? Er, Devon, I mean.’
Dieter managed a languid smile. ‘Yes, I know where Devon is, although not Tiverton. Devon is a beautiful part of England though.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is, really.’
‘And does your family still live there?’
Chris looked uncomfortable. ‘Er, well, I haven’t really got a very big family. There’s only my brother Mick – the rock star, you know – and me and my gran – grandmother. I don’t really have any parents. Well, my dad’s still alive but I don’t see very much of him, to be honest.’
‘Oh. You haven’t a mother then? Excuse me if that is an impertinent question.’
‘No, that’s all right. My mum died a few years ago. And she and my dad were not really together. She was a single parent. My Gran looked after us after that. Well, I was grown up by then but Mick was still a kid, really. He still needed looking after, and she still does so now, looks after him; she’s the housekeeper for his country seat. Er, sorry; mansion.
‘Oh I see. I am sorry about your mother. Presumably she would not have been very old? That is tragic.’
Chris held his breath, waiting for the almost inevitable what-did-she-die-from? But it didn’t come. Dieter was either uninterested or too polite to ask.
‘Yes, it was.’
‘Is your grandmother a professional chef then?’
‘Well, not really. At least not a proper one. She used to work in pubs – er, taverns, you know? – but I think before that she might have had a restaurant. I seem to remember one, as a child.’
Dieter smiled again. ‘Yes, I know what a pub is. And a tavern. I lived in England, remember.’
‘Ah, right. Sorry.’ There was an awkward pause; Chris hurriedly continued, ‘Yes, I have some quite interesting ancestors, really. My great-great-grandmother spent some years living over here. Not here in Germany, in Belgium. She was a nurse too.’
‘Oh, really? Yes, that is interesting. Nursing must be in your family’s blood then. Or it’s genes.’
‘Yes, I suppose so. She was a fascinating lady. She kept a diary and my gran inherited it, and she gave it to me a few months ago, before I moved here. It’s marvellous, reading it. Things were so different back then. Well, obviously. They were still using treatments like bleeding with leeches!’
‘My goodness; were they? So she would have been a nurse when, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century?’
‘Yes, that’s right. She began training in the late eighteen hundreds, and moved to work in Brussels in nineteen oh-eight.’
‘So, presumably, she nursed during the first world war?’
‘Erm, yes.’ Chris felt a snatch of embarrassment. Careful now! Possibly tricky territory! Best avoided, perhaps.
Perhaps Dieter felt the same caution, because he deftly sidestepped. ‘Yes, it would certainly be fascinating reading the memoir of an ancestor, having their history told in their own words. I wish some of mine had left a written record.’
‘It is!’ Chris enthused. ‘It’s wonderful. Such an . . . insight into the past and a very different world.’
‘The world of your grandparents must have been very different from now, Dieter.’
Dieter managed a faint smile. ‘It certainly was. I told you about me being born in a fateful year for Germany, didn’t I?’
‘Yes, you did. Hitler coming to power, wasn’t it?’
‘That’s right. Well my paternal grandfather, Otto, was born in another one. Eighteen seventy-one. Well, more optimistic than fateful, really. Or at least it should have been.’
Chris looked at the old man blankly. ‘Oh? Why’s that?’
Dieter’s smile had faded. ‘Were you not taught any European history at school, Chris?’
Frieda had rejoined them, bearing mugs of coffee. She handed one to Chris and sat, taking Dieter’s hand. She laughed. ‘It is not Chris’s strong point, Opa!’
‘I know something!’ Chris protested. ‘About the French Revolution, and Napoleon. And, er, the Crimean War. And the world wars, of course.’
‘Mm; I suspect your history would have been taught from a very British perspective’ Dieter said dryly. ‘But that is only to be expected. Were you not taught anything about Germany as it existed before the first war?’
‘Er, well, no, not really.’
‘Well, it might surprise you to know that Germany as a complete, unified country is comparatively young. Like America. And I don’t mean the reunification of east and west in nineteen eighty-nine. That aside, it’s been a complete country for less than a hundred and fifty years.’
Chris’s mouth fell open. ‘No! really?’
‘Yes, it is a fact. It only became a unified country called Deutschland – Germany – in eighteen seventy-one, after the end of the Franco-Prussian war. Before then there were many Germanic states, over a hundred, often quarrelling with or fighting each other. The two largest ones were Prussia and Austria, but many were tiny, some no more than city states.’
‘So like Belgium then, really? It didn’t become “Belgium” until eighteen, er, something-or-other. I read about it on the internet because I was interested, after reading about my great-great-granny living in Brussels.’
‘Yes. That was eighteen thirty. Belgium is a little older than us, at any rate. Europe was a minestrone soup of very many small countries and states, until the bigger ones began devouring the smaller ones in the nineteenth century, until the map eventually finished up as it is today.’
Chris chuckled. ‘Well, that makes Britain seem positively stable and together. I suppose that’s why we’re so proud of our long nation’s history!’
‘Mm, well, you had a lot of brutal wars and conquests by the much bigger England to arrive at your present United Kingdom of course,’ Dieter pointed out.
‘Well, all right; touché!’
‘But yes, seriously, the trend towards larger geopolitical entities has resulted, finally, in a large degree of stability, and most importantly peace, in Europe, notwithstanding that you’ve had some degree of devolution to the constituent smaller countries in Britain.’
‘Except that a lot of people in Scotland, and some in Wales too I think, want to leave the UK altogether and go back to being totally independent countries again; there’s going to be a referendum on it in Scotland soon,’ Chris countered.
‘So I believe, and I am all in favour of devolution of those powers which are best exercised at local level – like we do with our and America’s federal-and-state systems, but I do think that co-operation within a larger entity is better and mutually beneficial in other cases. That is why the US is so powerful; it is a case of pooling resources. And the same is true of the EU, although the set-up here is different of course, because it is sovereign countries co-operating, not states.’
Frieda listened to her grandfather and boyfriend batting the discussion back and forth, although it was hardly equal: more a case of lecturer expounding and student listening. But it was good to see a little animation, a small spark, back in Dieter’s rheumy eyes, at least. Although he seemed to be flagging somewhat now, as he stopped talking and feebly indicated his oxygen mask. Frieda placed it over his mouth and nose, gently holding it there as he closed his eyes and took several inhalations. Speech and breathing must increasingly be a struggle. She mustn’t let this go on too long. ‘Do not talk so much, Opa’ she said softly, in German.
But he seemed to want to, need to, and resumed, as Chris leaned forward to catch his mumbled words. ‘Yes, and speaking of Brussels, it seems rather fitting that a small country like Belgium should contain the main European Commission building, rather than France or Germany.’
‘Or London,’ Chris suggested.
‘Well it could not really have been there, historically speaking, as Britain was not one of the founder members of the EU – or “Common Market”, as it was originally called. And besides, if your UKIP people get their way and Britain leaves, it would be a little difficult, not to say embarrassing, if some of the premises were in London, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yes, I suppose it would. But I don’t think that will happen, surely. I’m sure the EU is far from perfect, with perhaps too much bureaucracy sometimes, but we wouldn’t leave, would we?’
‘Well let us hope not, Chris. I know Britain is a little half-hearted about Europe in some ways, such as in not wanting to join the common currency, or Schengen. It is probably a result of being an island nation, and a long-established one, to some extent. Sometimes you insist on doing your own thing, like the French. After all, you still use miles to measure distance and unlike almost every country in the world, drive on the left! But if the second-largest economy in Europe withdrew, that would be bad for both Britain and the EU, in my opinion.’
‘Mm. I don’t know anything about economics or trade or any of that stuff, but for me, it just seems a good thing to be outward-looking, and to be able to live and work in other countries, and have foreign people in ours. It’s sort of . . . er, what’s the word?’
‘Culturally enriching?’ Frieda suggested.
‘Yes, exactly! Thanks, Frie.’
‘Good for you; I quite agree,’ Dieter said, clearly approving. ‘That is the worrying thing about excessive nationalism; it so easily tips over into xenophobia and selfish nativism. We can see the insidious trend towards the far, and sometimes extreme, right in so many countries in recent years: in yours, the NPD in ours, the Front National in France, the Tea Party in America and so on. It is as if people are incapable of learning from history; so quick to swallow the seductive populist line and cynical promises of politicians. It saddens me.’
‘And me too.’ Frieda murmured.
‘What’s the NPD, Dieter?’ Chris wondered.
‘The Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands. The “Democratic” part is rather a misnomer though. It lends it respectability. But then the old East Germany was called the Democratic Republic too. The NPD is our equivalent of the Front National and your defunct National Front – although from what I’ve seen of it, your UKIP seems almost as extreme, although it slyly tries to pretend that it is not.’
‘Yes, it sometimes seems a bit racist, although it tries to deny it is. Seems to pander to people’s worst instincts, not their best.’
‘Indeed. There does seem to be a slide back to it going on in Europe now. Back to the hatreds and prejudices I remember when I was a young man.’
‘Things must have been so different then’ Chris mused. ‘We’re always being told in Britain how bad it was in the aftermath of the war, when even though there was peace, there was great deprivation and rationing and homelessness for years afterwards. But I suppose it was even worse over here, because you had to cope with the trauma of being defeated too.’
‘It was certainly dreadful; I remember it vividly. The devastation was even greater than Britain suffered. My father had been killed in nineteen forty-four, somewhere in France I believe, so my mother was left to try and support us children after we returned to Osnabrück from the country. She was put to clearing rubble from streets and roads, I remember, because there were so few men available, working long hours simply for food for us, with only Sunday afternoons off. I was twelve years old in nineteen forty-five and my sister Hilde fifteen, so we had to fend for ourselves most of the time. We were relatively lucky in that our house had been left fairly intact, while so many had had walls blown out or been completely razed, so the people had to find whatever shelter they could. I had little education, as most of the teachers, the adherents to Nazism, were purged by the occupying forces. I made up for it later though, with mature-student education.
‘There was never enough food. Or anything else, like fuel to keep warm, either. Food was severely rationed, to barely subsistence-level, and people died. But the victors were reasonably benevolent by the standards of war, I suppose, and we weren’t simply left to starve en masse, like the poor Jews in the concentration camps. We were completely reliant on aid, mostly from America, as it was the one country that hadn’t been brought to its knees economically by the war, although Osnabrück was actually in the British-occupied zone.’
Dieter sighed, his eyes unfocused, lost in memory. ‘Yes, they were certainly harsh times, but although we had been defeated, we were thankful – well, my mother said she was – that although she had lost her husband, at least the terrible suffering and death of the war was over.’
‘Yes, I bet you were. But Germany recovered fairly quickly, didn’t it? After all, you’re now the richest country in Europe and, what is it, the fourth-richest in the world?’
‘Well, if you mean by that “biggest economy”, yes. And the EU is the second biggest as a trading bloc, after the US. It took fifteen years for us to get back on our feet, after the Allies changed their minds about us being de-industrialised so that we could not become military again, and then actively encouraged it, with the US’s Marshall Plan, to meet the Soviet threat. There was continuous and strong economic growth and rebuilding from the end of the war to nineteen seventy-three and the oil crisis – the Wirtschaftswunder – and yes, we have prospered for most of the years since then. Until the banking crash of twenty oh-eight, at least.’
‘When did you first begin to feel that the dark days were behind, and feel reasonably comfortably off, Opa? Do you remember?’ Frieda wondered.
Dieter considered that for a moment. ‘Oh, by the mid-fifties, I suppose. After I had left university and was working in my first job as a teacher. Well, certainly by fifty-eight when Sofia and I married. The rebuilding of the city was well under way and we could afford to rent a nice little apartment. And it was not many years after that before we were able to buy this house. That was on mortgage, of course.’
‘Fifty-eight; that is a very long time ago. How did you meet Oma?’
Dieter smiled, although the tinge of sadness was unmistakable. ‘We were students together, both doing teaching degrees. She was the prettiest girl in the class, so I never understood what attracted her to me. She could have had her pick.’
Frieda squeezed his limp hand. ‘Oh, no, Opa. I can see exactly why she fell for you!’
Dieter’s smile widened a fraction. ‘Nonsense, Liebling.’
‘Yes, really! I have seen photos of you when you were young, and of your wedding day. You were a lovely couple. You were very dashing; the . . . what is the English expression, Chris?’
‘I dunno; don’t ask me. Bee’s knees? Cat’s whiskers?
Dieter’s smile had vanished. His eyes had glazed with moisture. ‘Well, all I know is, I miss her terribly. Life seems pointless, trapped in this useless broken old body, without her.’
‘Oh, Opa,’ Frieda murmured, biting her lower lip. ‘Yes, I am sure you do.’