Authors: Judith Kerr
For my husband
The rug was exactly the right red – not too orange and not too purple, but that lovely glowing shade between the two which was so difficult to find. It would look marvellous in the dining room.
“I’d like it, please,” said Anna. Clearly it was her lucky day.
She glanced at her reflection in a glass-fronted showcase full of table linen as the assistant led her to his desk. Her green coat – not passed on to her by friends but bought by herself – hung easily from her shoulders. The printed silk scarf, the well-cut dark hair and the reasonably confident expression were all in keeping with the status of the store around her. A well-heeled young Englishwoman out shopping. Well, she thought, nowadays I suppose that’s what I am.
While she wrote out a cheque and the assistant copied her name and address for the rug’s delivery, she imagined telling Richard about it. It would make their flat almost complete. All that was needed now were little things like cushions and lampshades, and perhaps, if Richard finished his script soon, they would be able to choose those together.
She became aware of the assistant hesitating over her name on the cheque.
“Excuse me asking, madam,” he said, “but is that any relation to the gentleman who writes for television?”
“My husband,” she said and felt the usual fatuous, self-congratulatory grin spread over her face as she said it. Ridiculous, she thought. I should be used to it by now.
“Really?” The assistant’s face was pink with pleasure. “I must tell the wife. We watch all his plays, you know. Wherever does he get his ideas from, madam? Do you help him at all with his writing?”
Anna laughed. “No,” she said. “He helps me.”
“Really? Do you write as well then?”
Why did I ever start on this? she thought. “I work in television,” she said. “But mostly I just rewrite little bits of other people’s plays. And if I get stuck, I ask my husband when I get home.”
The assistant, after considering this, rightly dismissed it. “When that big serial of his was on last year,” he said, “the wife and I stayed home for it every Saturday night. So did just about everyone else our way. It was so exciting – not like anything we’d ever seen.”
Anna nodded and smiled. It had been Richard’s first great success.
“We got married on the strength of that,” she said.
She remembered the register office in Chelsea, next to the foot clinic. Richard’s parents down from the north of England, Mama over from Berlin, their own friends from the BBC, cousin Otto passing out at the reception and saying it was the heat, but it had really been the champagne. And the taxi coming and Richard and herself driving off and leaving them all behind.
“It was quite exciting for us too,” she said.
When she walked out of the store into Tottenham Court Road, the world exploded into noise and light. A new building was going up next door and the sunshine trembled with the din of pneumatic drills. One of the workmen had taken off his shirt in spite of the October chill and winked at her as she passed. Behind him the last remains of a bombed building, scraps of wallpaper still adhering to the bricks and plaster, crumbled to a bulldozer. Soon there would be no bomb damage at all left visible in London. And about time too, she thought, eleven years after the war.
She crossed the road to get away from the noise. Here the shops were more or less unchanged – shabby and haphazard, selling things you could not imagine anyone wanting to buy. The Woolworth’s, too, was much as she remembered it. She had come here with Mama when they had first arrived in England as refugees from Hitler, and Mama had bought herself a pair of silk stockings for a shilling. Later when Papa could no longer earn any money, Mama had been reduced to buying the stockings one at a time for sixpence, and even though they were supposed to be all the same colour, they had never quite matched.
“If only, just once, I could buy myself two stockings together,” she had cried.
And now here was Anna buying expensive rugs, and Mama earning dollars back in Germany, as though none of the hardships had ever happened. Only Papa had not lived to see everything change.
For a moment she considered trying to find the boarding house somewhere nearby which had been her first English home, but decided against it. It had been bombed during the Blitz and would probably be unrecognizable anyway. Once she had tried to show Richard the other boarding house in Putney where they had moved after the bomb, but had found it replaced by three skimpy family dwellings with identical treeless lawns and crazy-paving. The only thing that had been the same was the bench at the end of the street where Papa had sometimes sat in the sun with his pipe. He had eked out the tobacco with dried leaves and rose petals, and for lunch he had eaten bread toasted over the gas ring and spread with exactly one seventh of a jar of fish paste. If only he could have lived to see all this, thought Anna, as she passed a wine shop crammed with bottles – how he would have enjoyed it.
Oxford Street was bustling with Saturday shoppers. Should she walk through to Liberty’s for a look at their lamps? But a number 73 bus stopped just as she was passing and she jumped on, climbed to the top deck and sat with the sun warming her face, visualizing the new rug in their tiny dining room and planning what to wear to go out that evening, while the bus made its slow way through the traffic.
Outside Selfridges people were staring up at the brightly coloured plaster figure which was being hoisted into place above the main entrance. “Come and see Uncle Holly and his grotto of dwarfs,” read posters in every window. Heavens, she thought, they’re getting ready for Christmas already.
In Hyde Park, clearly making for Speakers’ Corner, a small procession moved briskly under the thinning plane trees. Its members carried handmade placards with “Russians out of Hungary” on them, and one had mounted that morning’s newspaper on a piece of cardboard. It showed a photograph of Russian tanks under the headline “Ring of Steel round Budapest”. Most of them looked like students, but a few elderly people in dark old-fashioned clothes were probably Hungarian refugees. One of them, a man in a shabby coat with a pale, clever face reminded Anna of Papa.
At Knightsbridge the traffic thinned a little, and as the bus rolled past Kensington Gardens, she could see the leaves floating down from the trees on to the grass below, where groups of school children, urged on by their teachers, were playing football and rounders.
She got off at the bottom of Kensington Church Street and set off on her way home through the tree-lined residential streets at the foot of Campden Hill. Here there were almost no cars and few people. Cooking smells wafted across shrubby front gardens. A baby slept in its pram. Cats dozed on walls and pavements, and the falling leaves were everywhere. One drifted down quite close to her. She stretched up and caught it in midair. That means more luck, she thought, remembering a childhood superstition. For a moment she held it in her hand. Then she loosened her fingers and watched it spiral down to mingle with the others on the ground.
The block of flats where she and Richard lived was brand-new, and as soon as she could see it from the corner of the street, she automatically started to hurry. This always happened: she knew it was silly after being married for more than a year, but she still did it. She ran across the road, up the stone steps and along the red brick terrace so thick with leaves that she almost slipped. Outside the porter’s flat below, the porter was talking to a boy on a bicycle. He waved when he saw her and called something that she did not catch, but she was in too much of a rush to stop. The lift was not there and, rather than wait for it, she ran up the two flights of stairs, opened the door with her key, and there was Richard.
He was sitting at his typewriter, much as she had left him hours earlier. There was a neat stack of paper on the table before him and a collection of crumpled pages overflowing from the wastepaper basket onto the floor. Behind him in the tiny living room she could see their new striped sofa, the little red chair she had bought the previous week, and the curtains made from material designed by herself in her art school days. The vivid colours set off his dark hair and pale, restless face as he frowned at the paper, typing furiously with two fingers.
Normally she would not have interrupted him, but she felt too happy to wait. She let him get to the end of a line. Then she said, “It’s lovely out. I’ve been all over town. And I’ve found a rug for the dining room.”
“Really?” He came back slowly from whatever world he had been writing about.
“And the man in the shop had seen all your plays on the telly and practically asked me for my autograph when he found out I was married to you.”
He smiled. “There’s fame!”
“Are you right in the middle of something?”
She saw him glance at the page in his typewriter and resign himself to abandoning it for the present. “I suppose it’s lunch time. Anyway, I’ve got quite a bit done.” He stood up and stretched. “What’s the rug like? Is it the right red?”
She was beginning to describe it to him when the door bell rang, “…exactly what we were looking for,” she said, and opened the door to find the porter outside.
“Telegram,” he said and handed it over. It was for her. She knew it must be good news, for it was that sort of a day, and opened it quickly. And then, for a moment, everything seemed to stop.
For some strange reason she could see Richard quite clearly with part of her mind, even though her eyes were on the print. She heard him say, “What is it?” and after what seemed like an enormous gap of time of which she could later remember nothing but which could not really have lasted more than a few seconds, she pushed it into his hand.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “Mama is never ill.”
He spread it on the table and she read it again, hoping that she had got it wrong the first time.
“YOUR MOTHER SERIOUSLY ILL WITH PNEUMONIA STOP YOUR PRESENCE MAY BE NEEDED STOP PLEASE BOOK PROVISIONAL FLIGHT TOMORROW STOP WILL TELEPHONE NINE O’CLOCK TONIGHT.”
It was signed Konrad.
“All she’s ever had is ‘flu,” said Anna. She felt that if she tried hard enough, she would be able to disprove the whole thing. She said, “I don’t want to go to Berlin.”
Then she found she was sitting down with Richard beside her. His face was troubled and she thought illogically that she shouldn’t be distracting him in this way from his work. He tightened his arm round her shoulders.
“It’s only a provisional booking,” he said. “You may not need to go. By the time Konrad rings up, she may be better.”
Of course, she thought, of course. She tried to remember what Konrad was like. During the years Mama had known him he had always seemed ultra-responsible. Probably he would act even on the off-chance of trouble. By tonight Mama might be sitting up in bed, her blue eyes outraged. For heaven’s sake, Konrad, she would cry, why on earth did you cable the children?
“D’you suppose he’s cabled Max as well?” she asked. Max was her brother, at present in Greece.
Richard shook his head. “Goodness knows.” Then he said suddenly, “Would you like me to come with you?”
She was both touched and horrified. “Of course not. Not in the middle of your serial. Anyway, what could you do in Berlin?”
He made a face. “I wish I could speak German.”
“It isn’t that. But you know it would throw you completely to stop writing now. And Mama is my responsibility.”
“I suppose so.”
Eventually she rang Pan Am who were sympathetic when she explained the situation and said they would book her a seat. This seemed to make the whole thing more definite and she found herself suddenly close to tears.