Perfect Family Tales And Other Trivia

The art of the short-story writer is that of the cartoonist. It is the magical craft of creating entire worlds with a few simple strokes of a pen. Tales told by an idiot? Maybe! But my tales are also a mix of reality and fantasy; truth and lies; some based on my own family; others, not. Readers must guess which characters are real; who are inventions - and who are an amalgam of both. Please draw the boundaries for yourself.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

‘Still Breaking News’

Arbeit macht frei

November 10 2014

Today I was astounded to receive a letter from Hilde Herrmann.

I was thunderstruck as I had neither seen nor heard from her in more than seventy years.

The very sight of her signature was so shocking that I began to tremble quite violently and when I picked up the glass I’d used at breakfast, it fell from my hand and smashed into the kitchen sink.

Glassware.1940sThe last of a set that I’d  used since Mummy died, it now lay scattered in a thousand champagne-coloured shards, an apt finale to what had been a terrible chapter in family lore.

Hilde Hermann – together, her names mean  ‘battle warrior’ – stormed into our lives for six weeks from early January 1940.

She was brought to England during the Children's Transport rescue scheme that helped youngsters escape Nazi Europe. But she was not the underfed, docile waif delivered to other willing foster families.

Not Hilde! Then aged 12, she had supposedly been orphaned well before the war and was somehow manoeuvred on to a convoy leaving Berlin. But she was like a cuckoo in a nest, much taller than average and enormously fat.

To begin, my mother enjoyed watching  her fairly demolish everything on the dinner table. But  she had to keep an eye on our wartime rations and more than once, discreetly asked her to leave something for everyone else.

Hilde suffered disturbed nights and from the first, we heard her moaning endlessly in her sleep, then waking and prowling the landing by the half-hour.

The Kindertransport authorities either were unaware or refrained from advising my parents that Hilde had long endured far more than the fear and ritual humiliations heaped on other Jews a couple of months earlier during Kristallnacht.  Uncommon for the times – especially in the Jewish community – she had not only been conceived out-of-wedlock but had been abandoned soon after birth.    

My darling, sweet-natured father intended that she would become a sister for me, his spoilt, precious only child. But it was not to be. Instead, she scared me witless; shouting, pulling, sometimes hitting me when we were supposed to be playing quiet ‘girls’ games’.

Matters grew darker when items in the house began to disappear. First, went the loose change on the hall table that Daddy always removed from his overcoat when he returned from work. Then he couldn’t find his mother of pearl cufflinks and Mummy’s carefully hoarded stash  of sweeties vanished without a trace. Mother.of.Pearl.Cufflinks.1940s

But worse was to come and Hilde’s continuing antics frightened even my parents:

Next, the night-time prowls became goose-stepped stomps up and down the stairs. Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil,” she’d chant just loud enough for us to hear.

Then one night – no, two nights together – I peeked from my bedroom doorway as she strutted down the stairs, out through the front door and slammed it behind her.

Despite the freezing winter air and wearing nothing but her nightdress, she remained  in the front garden for some time before banging  on the door with a broken brick, demanding to be let back in.

My parents were kindly, gentle people who rarely raised their voices, even in a crowd.

“But”, said Daddy in Yiddish after the second and most desperate night, “genug ist genug – enough is enough”.

After he’d run down stairs to rescue her and gently coaxed her back between the covers, he returned to his own bed hoping for a few hours’ rest before the alarm clock rang.

But Hilde did not stay in bed for long and started shuffling about, scraping the bedroom stool in front of the three-winged dressing-table mirror.

I was now so anxious that I plucked up enough courage to creep out of my bedroom, push her door barely ajar and kneel on the floor watching what she did.

“Bad girl! Wicked girl!” she hissed at her now seated reflection. Then,  her face contorted with rage, she rose, leaned across  and wielding the  rear-side of Mummy’s silver-backed hairbrush, began hitting the three  glass panels with all her might and main.

I’m still awe-struck when I recall Hilde’s hysterical accuracy and precision. She smashed each part in turn. First in half; then quarters, then eighths, smaller and smaller, screaming louder and louder until her work was done.

As everything went quiet, I realised that Mummy and Daddy had been standing behind me as Hilde’s  performance raged on.

Then they motioned me to go back to my room, somehow propelled Hilde into their bed and went downstairs for what remained of the night.

Everything else that happened became a blessed blur. I believe Daddy contacted the Kindertransport authorities early the next day and Hilde was sent away.

She must have had an amazing cure because, so Mummy reported,  soon after the war a large, carefully wrapped parcel arrived at the house.

It was a gift of glassware with a brief note attached inside:

“Dear Mr and Mrs Selwyn

“I’m feeling a lot better now and want to thank you for your kind hospitality when I first came to England. It’s true, you know. Work really does make you free.

Best wishes.

H. H.”

And the letter I received from her today?

It was to say that she’s returned to North London after a peripatetic life; has discovered I still live in my parents’ house and would like to get in touch.

But the very  idea appalled –frightened -me afresh. So I took the paper; folded it in half, quarters,  then eighths and tore the pile to shreds. It’s still lying on the table next to me as I jot this note.

Perhaps later, when I feel less fragile, I’ll go into the garden and make a bonfire. Like Hilde said, work can make you free.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 11 November 2014)

Friday, 7 November 2014

‘When Wee Willie Winked’

Only connect’ – E M Forster

 

Wee Willie winked as he 

shoved Ann away.

What a thrill; such joy:

the stabbing, the plunging

in the back and neck –

seven times one.

Something which in ancient days

only Brutus would have done.

William.Cornick

 

So fine and dandy:

the hacking, the gloating,

the getting caught.

In prison he’d be clothed,

fed, never have to work or study –

especially Spanish –

‘Yo también! – same here!’ -

a language he’ll loathe

forever – or so he’ll tell

his victim in the

never-never.

 

----------

Gennady.Kernes

 

Gennady’s smile was grim.

So strange that he, a

modern Jewish Caesar,

should share the reaper’s nod

with England’s newest

saint on Yom Hashoa

Israel’s Holocaust Day.

 

Et tu, Bruté? Who betrayed

him with a kiss?

 

Ann.Maguire

Bare hours before Ann fell dying,

a nameless gunman shot Gennady,

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s mayor,

as he made his morning run.

 

A great job; money well won,

grunted the nameless, faceless

killer, striking his target’s

back, lungs, liver.

 

Dark.Souls.II

But as he scythed the flimsy

silence of the mild April hour,

he, the cold professional,

could not fight the frenzied

wails of a multitude of

frozen infant souls, now

seventy-three years gone.

 

But not quite forgotten:

Nazi giants, seeming

seven-foot tall, had thrown

the children headlong,

kicking, screaming

into nearby pits;

hoarding, with banal bureaucracy,

precious ammo for far

bigger things.

 Drobytsky Yar

 

This is how our

worlds collide: a ceaseless

dissonance of bangs.

Then come the whimpers.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 07 November 2014)

Friday, 24 October 2014

‘Two Witches Brood’

It was funny. The irony was clear.

Pentangle BadgeThere they were - two fat, ageing witches huddling in a well. The same spot where their foremothers had been hurled after torture and execution in 1684.

“Is this how it feels to be inside a cauldron?”, wondered Zena.

“Na! This is damp, wet – not toasty and dry”, said her friend, Nellie.

“Anyway”, continued Zena, “if it’s true that our blessed matriarchs were chucked in here, they’ve tidied up – left no bone unturned!”

“Hmm! And  I can’t sense any souls”, said Nellie. “But”, she added, thumbing skyward,  “from the number of departed spirits tumbling about me as we ran here, you’d think some blundering idiot had punched a hole in the fabric of the astral plane. None of this is how two nice Wiccan girls should spend Halloween”.

“You’re right. Meanwhile”, giggled Zena, “we’ll have to manage until dawn, then squeeze ourselves back through the hole and scoot home. But why am I laughing? For the first time in 330 years, it’s dangerous to be a witch”.

“Everything’s beyond awful”, agreed Nellie. “We’re living through a waking nightmare. Who could have  imagined  hiding like  feral animals in our own village?

“I’ve even heard rumours about the reinstatement of the British anti-witchcraft laws that were repealed in 1953. A blissful 61 years of freedom –   our own lifespans - all being snatched back on a  bureaucrat’s whim”.

“Don’t think it’s without foundation”, said Zena. “Folk who hate us – that’s almost everyone – have been cooking this up for ages”.

“You’re talking about Ilyse Robens and her boycott augury? She warned that’s how things would start. But no-one listened”.

Gerald.Gardner“A great lady who’d learned the lessons of history. We should remember her as a woman who fled Holocaust Europe and whose surviving family spurned her when she followed Gerald Gardner. Oh, the pride she took in her Wicca badge!  ‘A yellow star was forced on me  in Leipzig’, she’d say, ‘so I’ll never be seen without my pentangle here”.

“Indeed”, said Nellie. “I’ll always regret dismissing her so coolly when she described her vision of the windows of Jenny Alton’s  herbalist shop being shattered”.

“Now it’s happened. Three times”, said Zena.  “Then the self-appointed War on Witches brigade drew crude broomstick cartoons on the main door;  smashed her healing crystals and threatened to  report her ‘criminal activities’ to the police.

“As a trained pharmacologist, they said, she had to choose between her professional work  and her links to the International Society of Alchemy. So she’s  shut the shop and judging by her appearance, has aged ten years almost overnight”.

“It’s another horrible story”, said Nellie. “Jenny’s so decent. I’d noticed that her premises had been boarded up, but didn’t know why.

“Everything gets worse each day. I read in The Guardian and Moralist that  Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible  has been deemed ‘too sympathetic to witches and witchcraft’, so a proposed West End staging has been cancelled and the producer has been arrested on charges of intended ‘incitement to hate’”.

“But who is hating whom? Ridiculous and unjust”, sighed Zena. “This sounds like another War on Witches publicity stunt. They’re looking for any excuse to attack us.

“And it’s not only here in England. Europe, Africa, the Middle East, even American university campuses are astir with anti-witch protests of the type not seen for generations.

“Much of the frenzy has been whipped up by international news services like The G and M, especially since the outbreak of the Weevila pandemic. Well- respected witchcraft practitioners everywhere have been accused of infecting water supplies and of gratifying the most hideous sexual perversions that their accusers can contrive”.

“Of course”, said Nellie, “the situation’s being  made much worse by a few genuine wrongdoers and it’s difficult for outsiders to differentiate. There have also been stories about ritual child abuse linked to witchcraft, with allegations of drownings and rapes as part of attempts to ‘drive the devil out’ of small children”.

“But surely”, asked Zena, “even if these bizarre rumours had the slightest substance, they couldn’t have anything to do with our members?

“All I read and hear is: ’Put the witches on trial. Prick them! Burn them! Bring back the Witch Finder General! King James I was right!’

“But hardest  to believe or comprehend is how a baying mob of protestors found their way this week  to a pre-Samhain gathering in the woods outside Heaton-Under-Mallows. It’s claimed that the rioters tormented the worshippers about their ‘asymmetrical’ numbers. “Only thirteen?”, they chanted. “Unlucky for some!” Who told them about the meeting? We can only guess”.

“It was an ‘insider’ – of course”, said Nellie, beginning to weep. “I know. There’s nothing – no-one – like an apostate to cause  trouble between heaven and earth. You must have read the rubbish spouted online by members of ‘Sword and Shield Ministries’”.

“What are you saying?”

“It’s my son, Adrian who’s behind much of the terror. I’ve carried the burden of this terrible secret for too long. I must speak now, Zena. You’ll know him as ‘Father Johnny Spicer’. But I don’t believe he’s been ordained.

“We’ve had no contact since he left home aged 16 after a row that almost killed my Cecil. A long time later we learned that after living rough he was given shelter by a well-meaning charity. Then he fell in with a bunch of bigoted do-gooders, had his head turned and decided he loathed everything about witches and our craft”.

There was a long silence. One that frightened Nellie more even than the screams of the mob that was thundering down the path towards the well.

Then Zena spoke.

“ I understand now, Nellie; why Spicer’s so-called ‘sermons’ start with “speaking as a former Wiccan and as the son of a practising witch …’

“But don’t blame yourself. There must be something wrong with his wiring. Adrian’s no son of yours, darlin’. He’s just a sad, mad traitor. And a fool!”

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 24 October 2014)

Thursday, 14 August 2014

‘Sleeping the Big Sleep’

Betty bounded the final flight of steps two at a time. No-one – nothing – must stop her now.

The door at the top on the right was barely ajar. It had to be the one. She pushed the handle and peered cautiously round the opening. But a rank fug from fifty-seven years  of  incessant smoking and relentless drinking made it almost impossible to see. 

The Big SleepThen her vision cleared and she made out three men hunched over a rickety table. They were playing Seven Card Stud.

“Hullo”, she said,  her deep voice more sultry than ever.

“Y ’short-handed?”

There was no reaction.

The next second dragged like an hour.

Betty tried again.

“Hullo – Bogie? It’s me!” Humphrey.Bogart.Lauren.Bcall

“Hullo, y ’self,” said Bogart, unmoved. “Huh, Baby. Y ’took y ’time. What kept ya?”

“Dunno. Suppose it was the three kids to put through college. A couple of Tony Awards, an Academy Award nomination and an Honorary Oscar. Not much to write home about. Sorry you had to wait”.

“I thought - maybe you and your motor-bike had broken down on the highway to heaven”.

“Y ‘know about that? I needed the thrust; the power”.

“Then you ran out of gas. Here, we know about everything. Y ’ll pick it up pretty damn quick. Y ‘as always a quick study …”

“So were you, Bogie. Now I’m here, do you want some help with your hand?”

“You always knew where to put it. And Frank, here,” added Bogie, shrugging his left shoulder, “says you always helped him, too. How could you do it, as I lay dying, Betty? That’s what makes me so mad”.

“Hold on, Bogie. I’ve been here barely five minutes and already you’re beating on me. Y ‘haven’t even offered me a goddamn drink. What’s the matter?”

“Look, I know I was a mean ol’ critter as the cancer grabbed m’ throat but was that an excuse to go off whoring?”

“What about you, Bogie? Hell, I couldn’t go fetch your medicine without you getting a call from –  I can barely say her name without spitting – ‘Ve-ri-ta’. It was the nurse who told me you rang her from your deathbed. My! Where did you find the energy?”

“Well, she cared. Worried enough to call me. She rang me; not me, her. She loved me enough to visit our boat to see everything was all right.

“Then when she discovered I’d had it  painted, she realised I knew my time was up; that the boat had to look good so it could be sold. So, ‘Verita’ – your first lesson is learning how to say her  pretty name – called me and I said, ‘Don't drink all my scotch, I'll be down there soon’.

“But it didn’t happen. I was brought here almost right after, with only your whistle for company. Then when ‘Verita’ followed a few years ago, we carried on  from where we’d had to leave off. So she’s still got a head-start on you. Go check for yourself. She’s in the next room”.

“Yeah. I’m goin’ through.  But on the way, I’m gonna work out how to kill a dead woman. That reminds me, Bogie. You have the whistle. Me? I’ve got my Oscar. You’ll know, of course, what I said when I received it? ‘A man at last!’”

“You’re still goddamn cute, Baby. So I’m surprised you’ve not asked after my other friend. You remember him?”

Betty looked at the third man. Curious.

“I’m not sure we ever met. Umm? Yeah, that’s it. You’re the thriller hack,  Raymond Chandler. I didn’t recognise you, sober!”

“Spot on”, chuckled Chandler. “And while you’re doin’ some head scratchin’ try and remember what I wrote”.

“What was that, Ray?”

“As I always remind my Cissy, ‘Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.’ If I were you, I’d try to keep to the script”.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 17 August 2014)

 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

‘Tarnished Treasures, Guilty Pleasures’

“And the Lord said to me; What do you see, Amos? And I said, "A plumbline." And the Lord said: Behold I place a plumbline in the midst of My people Israel; I will no longer pardon them”. (Book of Amos 7:8)

Jimmy.SavileFirst they came for Jimmy,

but he’d already slipped away downstairs.                               

 

Then they went for Stuart,

whose time on It’s a Slop-Out will thrill us all for years.

 

Bill  came next with a bravura show well beyond our ken.

 

But we understood at once why Max’s mini organ would never play again.

Pastor.Martin.NiemöllerThen they came for several odd-balls – a couple still bounce loose.

Last – for the nonce - they came for  Rolf who once drew the Queen - and large, delighted crowds.

Amos.7.7But now, he  too  resides behind thick walls placed by a plumbline. And it’s there that no-one’s left who’ll speak for him. Ever.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 20 July 2014)

Friday, 18 July 2014

‘Gaza Beach, July 2014’

The sea’s not calm today.

Rough waters have sent the surfers home, leaving the coast clear for marauding zealots who craft their murder  round the clock.

Ah, love, who could have dreamed up such a plan?

 

Just as an Israeli gunboat nears the shore, to have four sweet-faced fisher boys playing footie in the sand, hard by a band of po-faced hacks with cameras – phones -  notebooks – even sticking-plasters in their their hands?

 

The nights are long and hot; the moon is ripe with woe, oozing stale absolution on those meddling in  the muddy, foreign waters of human misery.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 18 July 2014)

Friday, 27 June 2014

‘Nor Any Drop To Drink’

“So, you want to know why I didn’t want to visit France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m here”, said Kevin Martin, a trainee reporter with the New Hampshire and Dorset Review, who was struggling to interview 90-year-old British veteran, Arthur Horton  at Westview Sheltered Housing in Portsmouth.  

“Well, I’ll  tell you something I’ve never told anyone before”, said Arthur, clearing his throat.   

D Day Veterans.02jpg“I wouldn’t be doing it now if our warden here at Westview hadn’t gone squealing to your newspaper. But I suppose I’d better explain myself to set the record straight”.

“Thanks, Arthur”, said Kevin. “I appreciate your time”.

“Hmm! We’ll  see about that! Anyway, what I’d told Mr Blabbermouth was that after we’d won the Battle of Caen and erected ‘Port Churchill’ at Arromanches, the bastard French refused to give us any drinking water”.

“What?”

“Yes! That’s right. When the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment  had embarked here  at Portsmouth I was even younger than you – barely  more than 20; a scared,  scrawny kid who had become an instant chain-smoker, trying to look  bigger, braver – and much older - than  my years.

“But I didn’t have to pretend for long. Twenty-four hours later I already felt old! Every time I think about it  I’m lost in a fog of cordite and ripped, burning flesh. I can even hear the moans of other lads my age, weeping for their mothers.

“As we landed and saw the dead and maimed tossed about in bloodied sea water near the shore, we couldn’t stop to help. So we just pushed the corpses and the injured men out of our way. We had no choice. We had a job to do”.

“But I don’t understand”, said Kevin. “At college, our tutors say  journalists write the first draft of history. Now you’re rewriting what the books say. Thousands of men like you helped to liberate Caen and Arromanches. This is what other D-Day veterans and world leaders have celebrated. But you’re saying that your intervention became self-preservation and that you weren’t welcome, anyway”.

“Oh, the locals wanted our help, make no mistake. They just didn’t want us hanging around begging for basics. Don’t forget, there were thousands of  soldiers and the war had been going on for almost five years. So when they saw us walking towards their homes they hid in the back or slammed their front doors in our faces.  They just wanted us to disappear once we’d done our job!

“But we – I - got over it. I grew up fast and got very hard. In the end I was even promoted to sergeant. I’m a great British patriot. If I was still young and healthy, despite everything, I’m sure I’d do it all again. But those at the top who were supposed to be running the show for the Allies kept dropping us in it. So the rest of us became like the lads who landed before me on Gold Beach – just swept up by the tide of events – tiny bits of wreckage bobbing on the sea.

“What happened to you after D-Day?”

“Things have gone a bit hazy in my mind, but all of us in our unit fought across Europe for what seemed ever-and-a-day until we reached Germany.

Operation.Market.Garden“But hang on!”, added Arthur suddenly, before Kevin could interrupt. “I’ve just remembered that I once got a free ticket to the official opening of the film, A Bridge Too Far as I’d fought in the real campaign in Holland that was code- named ‘Operation Market Garden’. It was as much a miracle for me that I got through everything with no more than a few scratches as it was when the Germans couldn’t blow up the bridge at Nijmegen because the wires to the detonator had been cut. Nijmegen.BridgeI kept staring at the screen that night in town muttering ‘I was there, I was there’! Amazing, really!”

“Did you help to liberate any concentration camps”?

Irma.Grese“Now that’s a good question. No, I didn’t. But before I was demobbed, I helped to form the guard for that bloody  murdering   sadist  cow,  Irma  Grese when she was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for her crimes at Belsen. It was thirsty work! We all went for a jar after the hangings. Albert liked his pint. That was a good day!”

“Arthur, you seem much more bitter about these events than a lot of other people your age. Why?”

“It’s not that I’m ‘bitter’. I’ve led a quiet life since the war. I’ve not done anything you might call ‘exciting’. I stayed single and kept busy as a carpenter. I’ve always been good with my hands and I’ve made a lot of furniture for myself. Funny though, despite my army rank, I never got far at work although I made sure I always did what I was told.

“At one time I went up north to make coffins for the Co-operative Society but I came back here as it’s where I belong. Now”, added Arthur, wiping his eyes, “it won’t be long before someone makes a box for me”.

----------------

Mark.UlyseasThis story first appeared as Little Water, Less Love in the July 2014 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=7860) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 27 June 2014)