The war is over.
The human cataclysm that drove so much of the world over a very high cliff, and left the remains lying in bleeding chunks at the bottom of the ravine below, is over.
She is a small Irish child, daughter of a British army officer living in post war Vienna. This mixture does not seem odd, as when you are three or four, as long as you feel safe, what you know is normal. Don’t fret, this is what life is.
She does feel safe, in the large house with its big garden surrounded by railings and a tiny gate lodge at the entrance. A kind woman lives in the gate lodge; the small child thinks she is very old, but perhaps she isn’t. She has given the child a present of a brooch, featuring a furled umbrella on which perches a little bird. This delights the child. As an adult she has only her memory of it. There would be so many moves and so many houses and so many future precious things left behind.
Along with the happy memory of the brooch, there will come the burden of an adult veil of disquiet. This woman who shows kindness and generosity to the child of an enemy army – what were her real feelings? She has lived through the ravages of conflict and suffered the ignominy of defeat. She has witnessed the exposure of all she had been told to believe in as the epitome of evil. Already she feels that shame which will be first hurled and then insinuated down many generations. Did she welcome this small child and all she stood for as the wellspring from which might flow waters of healing and happiness? Or was there a small grinding wheel of resentment hidden behind a smile and an ingratiating gift?
Either is possible, but neither concerns the small child who is delighted with her brooch.
The house is at least three stories high, maybe four, if the basement, which she thinks she remembers, is actually there. In the house is Margaret, a friendly woman who cares for her when parents are out. A driver and a batman come and go. The small child likes the driver. He is occasionally sent to buy from a famous Viennese ice-cream maker a huge black thermos flask full of freezing snow-white vanilla heaven. Heavenly, except for the time he returns with the huge black thermos flask full of snow-white nut ice cream .One of life’s remembered disappointments. Quite unacceptably strange. Uneatable. Much later, the adult child will reflect on the ice-cream. After the years of deprivation, if not starvation, the return of such a luxury must have been a small but intense beam of light shining through darkness.
The nightly darkness holds only one fear for the small child: Thunderstorm.
These howling, crashing night visitors are not too much of a problem when a warm parental bed can be burrowed into, but one particularly overexcited storm arrives on a night when the parental bed is found to be empty, on account of a parental outing . Margaret is downstairs, perhaps in the basement; the small child, rigid with fear, far above. Her own bed seems the least worst option, so she climbs back into it and yields to overwhelming screams, which are mocked and smothered by the bellows of the storm. This duet, the screaming of a small child and the primal roar of a force of nature, continues until rescuing parents return.
Margaret, who is well used to these storms, is unaware of the distress upstairs. Perhaps after what she has lived through a mere thunderstorm is not much to worry about. It is different when you are small and alone in the dark of a big house. The adult child no longer screams, but is still nervous of thunder. Even of the usually understated Irish thunder which sounds as though it is just leaving, having not achieved very much.
Another aspect of the house: this does not concern her then, but darkly floats into her adult consciousness. The house was formerly the property of a Jewish family; snatched by the Germans and now taken in turn by the victors to house a foreign army’s family. The adult wonders if the feelings of loss and terror and the scars of cruelty subsequently endured and now perhaps entombed within the walls, may have been in some tiny way assuaged by the innocence of a child. A house which is a small representative monument to the darkest hour might resume its role as a sheltering home. This is perhaps rather a lot, no, it is definitely rather a lot to ask of one small child. Just a reflection.
A favourite place during the safety of daylight is the sandpit. So…. there were children in the Jewish family…. like the nut ice-cream disaster, an occasional intense occurrence stands out from the many others that retreat into an unremembered blur. One ordinary day in the sandpit brings a never forgotten visitor. He hovers over crumbling castles and lands on the edge of the bucket. He is a fire enamelled dragon fly .The miniature whirring sound of his expert wings adds a slight militaristic threat and although the child is not frightened, there is a certain tension in the air surrounding his presence. Soon he is gone, unaware of the enduring connection he has made with a small child who is far from home. Some signatures in the visitors’ book of life do not fade.