Latest Winner: A Letter

By Ann Means

Ann writes: After twenty years of living overseas, my husband and I are settled in Oxford. I’m fascinated by the writing process: characters, places, fragments of experience jostle in my mind until they form themselves into stories. How? I wish I knew! 

A large brown envelope, postmarked Dresden. How many years since he’d heard anything from over there? Here he was at the opposite end of the world with the sounds of the bush all around, the sharp scents of dust and eucalypt, the dappled shade of the afternoon sun. How many years?

It was unusual for him to sit down at this time of day, with the chooks to feed, veggies to water, wood to chop for the cooler nights coming. But this, well it took the strength from his legs, for a while. Inside the brown envelope, another. And a piece of paper too, with a note scrawled on it in English. They presumably thought after all these years he would have forgotten the language he spoke as a child. “I hope this finds you. Greetings from your Cousin Gottfried”. No return address. Cousin Gottfried? No memories of cousins in Dresden. Memories of cousins in the West, yes, of course. Memories of pinchings and kickings, of being reminded over and over again that he was lucky to be taken in, that he should be grateful for scraps and shelter. Memories of scrubbing the workshop floor with cold water and raw red hands, memories of hauling in coal, of thin blankets and thinner food. Memories he thought had gone for good, years ago when he left. 

But it was the writing on the envelope, propped up against the teapot, that really, well, got to him. You hardly see envelopes like that now: small, cheap paper, barely sealed with browned scotch tape where the gum hadn’t stuck. They used to make the gum from boiled animal skins, didn’t they, wasn’t that why it had that peculiar acrid smell?  The paper was probably whitish once, now it was yellowy-grey. But that writing. Clear, elegant capitals. And just two words “Johannes Schneider”. The same words, the same writing. Those words that had been printed on a large piece of paper and pinned to his coat. Before his father had taken him to the Hauptbahnhof, pointed out the train and reminded him, reminded him again and again, what he had to say if he was questioned. “I am Johannes Schneider. I have to return to my family in Hannover. This is the address. No I have no relatives in the German Democratic Republic. I hurt my head and was in the hospital. My parents had gone home already to work. I want to go home, to Hannover”. 

And of course he was questioned. A ten-year-old boy, bundled up in winter coat and knitted scarf, short trousers, long grey socks, scuffed black plastic shoes, with a handwritten label on his coat and a small brown cardboard case. In it a shirt, underwear, two more pairs of socks, carefully darned. A small piece of soap, a faded wash cloth. A greasy paper package with two dry rolls and a precious piece of salami. Nothing else. They didn’t really know what to do with him, the guards. It was the fat one, the one who looked as though he was calculating the amount of paperwork if they took the boy off the train, who eventually said ,”OK, just let him go. Let him go, his family will be waiting.”

And now, this letter. Nothing for years, Nothing during all the time when every minute was miserable, every minute with those people who didn’t want him, and who made it clear. Nothing in the post, no letters smuggled out by others who made that perilous journey from East to West. No phone calls, no messages. Nothing before the day he left for the New World when he was 18. Nothing afterwards. Until now. 

A letter from his mother.  

What did she have to say to him? What could she have to say to him, now? Was she still alive? How old would she be? But no, this letter, it was old, was not from now, it was from then. Memories came: tall, thin, hair swept up and pinned untidily, bony hand impatiently tugging at a sleeve, crisp clear way of talking, no nonsense. Scrupulous about homework, bedtime, washing face and hands. Children should be seen and not heard. Mama and Papa have important work to do. Those people who come, they are Mama and Papa’s work colleagues. If anyone asks you, you must say you have not seen anyone. Now eat everything on the plate. Go to your room.

What could she say to him now? Then, as he was leaving, she had said,“You have to behave well, you must obey Aunt and Uncle, you must study hard.” It was Papa who tried to explain that this was necessary, that it might be hard but it was for the cause, that sometimes Papas and Mamas and also children had to endure some hardships but that the cause was good, in the end it would be Okay.  But he mustn’t say any more and Hansi must never ever tell anyone, here or there, about what Mama and Papa were doing. Not anyone. They were teachers, that was what they did. Nothing else and their colleagues came to visit and talk about work. It was Papa who took him to the train, who squeezed his hand so hard it hurt, who sniffed and had watery eyes. “Auf Wiedersehen, Hansi. Leb wohl.” Live well. 

And as the screech of the mynahs brought him back to the present, he thought, Yes, I did live well.  I do live well. Here in Australia there was a profession, a wife now ex, a son. And now this place I built by myself, for myself. In the ever-changing never-changing Tasmanian bush. Twice a week on the motorbike up to town to read the papers, meet a friend or two, to pick up the post.

Today there was a letter. The letter. Johannes Schneider, Hansi, Hans, picked up the envelope. And without opening it, without looking at it again, threw it on the fire.