Opposite sides, p.1
Opposite Sides, p.1Susan Firman
By Susan Firman
Copyright 2014 Susan Firman
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TABLE of CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1 England
CHAPTER 2 Minus Times Plus
CHAPTER 3 Intricate Shakes
CHAPTER 4 The Turners
CHAPTER 5 Friends
CHAPTER 6 In the Millions
CHAPTER 7 Privilege
CHAPTER 8 Acceptance
CHAPTER 9 The Picnic
CHAPTER 10 Something Important
CHAPTER 11 Confrontation
CHAPTER 12 Tea at the Turners
CHAPTER 13 The Rising Storm
CHAPTER 14 Prelude
CHAPTER 15 The Meeting
CHAPTER 16 North Africa
CHAPTER 17 To catch a Bear
CHAPTER 18 The Desert
CHAPTER 19 Captured
CHAPTER 20 Camp
CHAPTER 21 The Last Christmas
CHAPTER 22 Last Days
CHAPTER 23 Jan
CHAPTER 24 Germany
CHAPTER 25 Hunting
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It is always difficult making a new life in a new land, especially when the two countries had been on opposite sides only six years before. Friendship bridges that were so difficult to build, were destined to be broken again through a series of events that would sweep across Europe and involve most of the world.
Thursday 22nd May, 1924. A warm English spring morning. Lindbergh had just completed his solo flight across the Atlantic the day before so today was one full of life and anticipation. A restless call of a cuckoo resonated somewhere high in the tree tops. It seemed to be following the line of old beech trees from the gateway towards the stone building at the end of the long driveway. A solitary figure was slowly walking in the shade that spread halfway across the wide driveway. Above him was the spreading canopy of new burgundy-wine foliage and beneath his feet, the small white angular stones that defined the path. The figure hesitated, resting his two bags on the ground as he thought about what had taken place during the previous two hours.
The young man had finally arrived at Prince Albert College, a private finishing school on the outskirts of a small English town, fifteen miles inland from the coast in Sussex. How would this sixteen year old son of a German military officer fit into a society that was still trying to understand how and why they had been dragged into a most devastating war. He was not sure how well he would cope for, even though he had some knowledge of English, he had already had a few days in England, long enough to realise his limitations in the language. It made him feel strange and a little on edge.
Since the death of his mother, he and his two brothers, Renard and Axel, had been looked after by his father’s sister Laura and her husband Karl Klön. They had not been fortunate enough to have had children of their own. After an enduring ferry trip of many hours across the North Sea and after following directions about which train to catch, he had finally arrived at his destination. He remembered how nervous he had been, standing there in the middle of the platform, his two large travelling bags at his feet and some English pounds in his pocket, watching the rear of the guard’s van recede into the tree-lined distance. He had waited for what seemed like hours for his contact person to arrive. He had had to look for the man in the white hat.
The Germany he had left behind was struggling to build a new republic, for when the war ended, the Kaiser had abdicated and fled to Holland, leaving his country to pull itself out of the mess left by its defeat. Uncle Karl had a profitable knife-making business, so as the boys were growing up, many of the post-war difficulties passed them by and the boys, together with their uncle and aunt, were able to spend many of their holidays either hiking somewhere in the southern forests or splashing around in one of the numerous lakes dotted across the landscape, just north of Berlin.
But that world was not his any more. His world lay ahead, an untrodden pathway filled with the mysteries of a new country, the thrill of learning another language and meeting new people. He wondered how he would manage with all the subjects he had chosen, especially as he was not yet fluent in English. Yes, he already knew just enough English to get by, for he had studied the language for almost four years, yet he had now found that when people spoke to him, it was far too quick and so he did not understand much at all. He had managed to ask a few simple questions at the station but when the man answered, everything became a jumble. He had been left feeling confused and helpless. Just as well someone would be there to meet him. Ah, yes, the man in the white hat.
He had stood on the platform watching all the other passengers leave. They all knew exactly where they were going. He had watched the line at the ticket collector grew shorter and shorter until he was the only one left standing on an empty platform. At least it had been easier to find each other: the man in the white hat and the younger one in the dark trousers, school jacket and cap.
The young man picked up his heavy suitcases and made his way over to his contact.
“Mornin’ young man!”
The white hat was removed and a driver’s hat took its place.
“I’ve ‘ad instructions t’take you to the school. Main gate be fine?”
“Main gate, young man?”
“Gate. Entrance. Where the school is. I’ll take you there.”
Finally, he understood.
“Thank you, mister driver.”
The driver had first loaded the bags into the back and then he had held the rear door open. He remembered how he had stepped up on to the running board and into the vehicle and how his tired body had sunk into the soft upholstery and how he had spread himself out most comfortably in the middle of the back seat. Then, as the car drove through the town Hans had reminded himself of the expectations his family. He hoped he would be good enough to gain a certificate at the completion of his studies. Such a certificate, an English certificate, would give him an entrance into a very good job either here, or in Germany, or anywhere. It could be his ticket to see the world. What a prospect for a young man!
As these thoughts churned over in his mind, he became aware that the car had stopped by a gate and sign which read: Prince Albert College: modern education for young men and women. The driver unloaded the two suitcases, touched the peak of his hat and announced with a cheerful manner,
“ ’ere you are, young man. Good luck with your lessons!” With no more to say, the driver pocketed his fare and drove away.
Hans had picked up his bags and he had began walking. The thoughts of travelling surged through his mind and he walked automatically, hardly aware of the huge trees or of the cuckoo hiding high above. He did not notice the wide expanse of grass that spread out from both sides of the driveway until it met the high stone wall of the school ground perimeter. All he heard was a cornflakes-crunch beneath his shoes, like the monotonous breaking of sea shells when one walks over them on the beach. He had stopped half way up the drive to give his aching shoulders a respite from the heavy load which he was carrying. The bags were far
Finally, he reached the dark grey-blue stone flint school building with its narrow angular windows and steep roof. The stones had been split so that their broken surfaces formed the façade. Each one had been randomly set into dark-grey mortar and each corner and each window was edged with dark coloured bricks which gave the building and air of permanency and authority. There was no hint of welcome in its presence. Even the plain concrete steps leading up to the twin solid, oak main doors did not appear inviting. The stone motto above the door lintel, in Latin, bared down on him, demanding obedience and respect from all those who passed beneath its arch.
The youth hesitated at the foot of the steps for a while. In his mind he went over the instructions that had been sent to him a few weeks before he had left home. He gripped his fingers together tightly enough for his nails to pinch the sweaty flesh of his palms. He focused on the heavy wooden doors within his reach. One had a large iron ring on it and he decided that that was the one to open. Inside, stretched a long hall from which countless doors, both to the right and left broke the walls into a hundred segments. Old photographs of past pupils and staff sized him up: was he good enough to be admitted to their school?
The hallway smelt of fresh polish and well-matured timber, together with a mustiness that goes with old scholarly books. He walked hesitantly across the polished floorboards, trying to muffle his squeaky footsteps until he located the door he had been told to find. It was very clearly and formidably marked: ‘MATRON’.
Doubts flooded his brain and he began to feel dizzy and somewhat sick in his stomach which, in turn, made the muscles in his thighs begin to twitch. He checked the letter he had stuffed in his top pocket to reassure himself that it was the matron he was to report to; and not the principal. Would ‘she’ even be pleased to see him? He paused while he steadied himself, and using his thumb, he rubbed his little finger up and down in time to his breathing, slower and slower until he felt calmer. Then, he knocked, a light, unsure tap which seemed to be absorbed right into the wood and did not go any further.
Matron would never hear that knock, he thought. She would never know he had arrived and he might still be standing there until the end of the day.
He knocked again, this time louder. An authoritative educated English woman’s voice answered from the other side of the door.
There was no going back, now. He pushed the door a little, took a gulp and bit his finger so violently that a small drop of blood crept out of the small wound and turned his fingernail red. He rubbed it away on the back of his trouser leg. Then, with a deep breath, head high and back straight, he stepped inside.
His eyes immediately scanned the book shelves. There were so many books, stacked or squeezed together until no more could be accommodated. The ceiling was high with dark-stained timber beams criss-crossing in a chequer-board pattern from which dangled a single light, switched on as the single window only cast narrow daylight into the shadowed, dim room. He was somewhat relieved to see another young person already in the room, standing slightly to one side of a large desk, behind which sat the commanding ‘Voice.’ The other student . . . he presumed the girl was a student . . . still wore her coat and had short auburn-hair. She seemed to be about his own age, maybe a year younger was his first impression. Never-the-less, she smiled at him and then her green-blue eyes turned back to the middle-aged woman behind the table who was now standing.
“I am Miss Turner, the matron of the college.”
Miss Turner was smaller than he’d expected but even so she appeared to be someone completely in charge of the situation. She sat down again on some sort of high stool so that her upper body towered over the desk top, taut and exceedingly straight. .
Maybe she sticks a rod down her back, He wondered. Otherwise, how could she maintain such a posture?
The next thing that struck him was the severity that was part of her. She wore her hair pulled so tightly away from her face that her thin nose stuck prominently out and reminded him of the carrot nose the children stuck on their snowmen. Her glasses had slid part way down her nose so that she appeared to be looking at him from over the rims. And as she read through her notes, he became aware of how thin those lips were and that they now reminded him of the line that cartoons used to represent a mouth. Then, she turned her head slightly and he saw that the round bun of her hair was one of the tightest he had ever seen and that her once dark hair had already begun to turn quite grey around her temples so he came to the conclusion that she could be similar in age to his grandmother. But this woman was not at all like Oma. This woman had authority.
Yes, very much in charge, thought Hans.
She was also surveying him: from head to toe and back again. Her thin lips twitched slightly. Then she spoke.
“Oh, you have arrived. You may leave your suitcases out in the hallway.”
Hans bent over to pick them up.
“Not now. When you leave.”
“Yes, of course Miss Matron,Miss Turner.”
“Miss Turner will suffice.”
It was an unemotional comment.
“Yes, Miss Turner.”
She reached for the letter his previous school had written and his enrolment papers which were in a brown-covered file.
“Erwin Hans Resmel.” She spent some time sizing him up. “So, you’re our new student from Germany. Our first overseas student for almost twelve years. We did have two previous students from Europe but that was before nineteen fourteen. I assume that you do speak and understand English.”
He was not sure whether she was telling him that was the case or asking if he did indeed have some knowledge of the language. He decided a nod was in order, for he was too scared to speak in case he muddled up his tenses or made silly mistakes with his plurals. So, he stood in silence, watching her flip methodically through the pages in his file. When she had finished, she looked up.
“What do you prefer to be called?” She spoke the words so quickly, he was unable to comprehend exactly what she had asked. He frowned and then made some stuttering comment which, luckily, she did not hear clearly. And after an awkward minute, she spoke slower. “What do you call yourself? Erwin? My notes say you would prefer to be known as Hans. Is that correct, young man?”
“Correct. Yes, Miss Turner. Hans. Hans Resmel.”
He always left out his first name when he could. It sounded so official.
“All right, Mister Hans Resmel.” Her voice had softened a little and the corners of her mouth indicated a faint smile. “However, here you will be known as Mister Resmel. You are expected to follow the rules for all our pupils are addressed by their surnames. And, this young lady is Miss Sutherland.” She indicated the girl on his right who smiled at him again and he thought she was very pretty and very English-looking, not that he really had any idea what English girls were supposed to look like. “Now, about our school,” the Matron continued. “We’re a very modern private institution that offers vocational training for young people between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Until a few years ago, we only catered for boys. Most lived in. That means they boarded at the school. Today, we also have some students who are day students so there is more coming and going throughout the week. We are also thoroughly modern for we’re one of the few private boarding schools that also offers classes and training for girls. There’s a separate part of the college for the education of young women. Completely out of bounds to you boys.” The woman the other side of the large table narrowed her eyes and looked at Hans with the glare of disapproval. “You are not to go to the girls’ part under any circumstances . . . and that goes for the dormitories, as well. Completely off limits. You understand that, Mr Resmel?”
Hans had understood very little of what had been said but he thought it better to agree, what ever it was.
“Yes, Miss Matron.”
“Yes, Miss Turner.”
He watched as she wrote something down. It took a minute but it felt much longer than that. The silence was awful. Finally, she looked up at the figure of the youth before her.
“You and Miss Sutherland should now make your way to the assembly hall and sit down at the back. It’s the only time both parts of the school come together. I have already asked Miss Sutherland to show you the way to the assembly hall. She’s familiar with the school layout. After morning break, you will begin your lessons. The assembly begins in a few minutes. Students enter as soon as the second bell is rung.” Then, Miss Turner addressed Anne. “Remember to remove your coat before you enter the hall and when the assembly is over, Miss Sutherland, you are to join the other girls. One of the masters will familiarise Mr Resmel with all the school rules.”
“Yes, Miss Turner.”
Matron slid her chair back and reaching behind her and pulled out a file from one of the shelves.
“Leave your bags outside. You can collect them at the end of the day.” As she breathed in deeply, he became aware of how much her breasts filled out towards him. His face coloured and he hoped neither she or the girl had noticed his reaction. “And now, Mister Resmel, Miss Sutherland, I have other important matters to attend to. Thank you and I hope you will enjoy your stay with us.”
She indicated with a flick of her hand that they should go.
Hans had understood very little of was said so he waited for Miss Sutherland to make the first move. He did not want to appear stupid. Not on his first day. Miss Sutherland mimed with her fingers that they should tip-toe quietly out of the office.
The other student waited until Hans had closed the door. He put down his cases as close as possible to the wall and stood with his back resting against the dark-wood panelling. It was the girl who spoke first.
“Please, my name is Hans. I am . . . sehr . . . um, pleased to meet you.”
He bowed very slightly, bringing his heels together with an audible click. He felt awkward and was uncertain what to say or do next.
“I’m Anne to my friends. We are going to be friends, I hope.” She held out a smooth, alabaster hand for him to shake but, instead, he raised it to his lips. The girl was taken back a little but did not comment on his action. She placed her coat over her bags, then straightened the skirt of her school uniform. “There! Now we’re ready!” Anne flicked her head to one side. “Follow me, Mister Hans Resmel. I’ve been here several times. One of my brothers came here five years ago.”
“Your brothers? They are since five years here?”
“One brother. Five years ago. Not now. He’s grown up and left. I’m the baby of the family. Understand?”
He nodded. He liked her. If English girls were like her, he would feel at ease straight away even though he was understanding far less than he thought he would. Everyone so far had spoken to him too quickly and he was finding the concentration of it quite tiring.
The school assembly was formal: boys on the left and the girls on the right and it was always conducted in exactly the same way. Mr Bowes-Heath, the headmaster, was a tall, wiry man in his late forties, greying slightly at the temples, draped in a black academic gown that made him look as if he could easily take flight the moment he should raise his arms. His staff of eight masters sat on the stage, a silent semi-circle of eyes, eyes that remained fixed on every student in the hall: girls in the front four rows to the side and the boys in the rest. On the left were two women teachers. They sat behind Miss Turner. She sat upright in the front like a meerkat on watch, a large black folder resting on the lap of her long grey skirt that almost reached down to her ankles and her hands folded with exact precision over the top.
As the final hymn notes melted away, Mr Bowes-Heath left the podium and stepped forward towards the front of the stage. His voice was neither high nor deep but easily reached into the furthest corner of the hall and his words were delivered with the skill of an accomplished stage actor as he announced the arrival of the two new students.
“ . . . and after one of our senior boys left to take up further studies at university and two further boys having been accepted for positions with the Bank of England, the staff and I have much pleasure in introducing two new students.” He paused as he drew himself up to his full height, extending his wing-like elbows and bringing his hands in towards his chest where he grasped either side of his open gown. “Today Miss Turner enrolled Miss Anne Sutherland and Mister Hans Resmel. Miss Sutherland will be in the female wing under Miss Turner’s guidance. Miss Sutherland is already acquainted with our school through the education of her older brothers.” The headmaster paused. The hall remained quiet except for one muted cough somewhere in the centre. A minute passed Then, the headmaster continued. “Mister Resmel comes to us from overseas. His house will be Coleridge in Block Two A. I hope both of them will enjoy their time with us and work diligently at their studies, helping to keep up the good name of this wonderful college. Veneratio est nostrum rector. I hope everyone will help them realise our school motto: Honour is our Guide so I ask you all to do the honourable thing and demonstrate your loyalty to this school by making them feel that this is their school, too; a school in which each one of you needs to show how proud you are to be a pupil. Thank you.”
“Everybody stand for the headmaster!”
Mr Bowes-Heath walked down the centre steps leading away from the stage and began making his way down the isle between the rows of students in the assembly hall.
Miss Turner picked up her black folder, swished her dress fan-like around herself and quickly followed her headmaster out of the hall. As the last of the staff left and the assembly had come under the control of the prefects, the students, now seated again, turned and craned their necks to gawk at the two ‘new-comers’ who were seated at the back.
Miss Anne Sutherland was a slim, good-looking girl of sixteen years, five months and twenty-three days. Her light auburn hair which had been cut in a modern bob-style, cupped each side of her oval face as though it was a precious jewel. Even in her unflattering school box-pleated black uniform she was a stunner of a girl and the admiring looks from the boys in the hall showed that each one of them was already trying to work out how he might be the first to gain her attention. She smiled at two senior boys who were sitting opposite to her and then dropped her eyes and remained looking down in the direction of the floor.
Attention was now moved to the young man sitting beside her for many of the students wanted very much to see for themselves what someone from overseas might look like. Mister Hans Resmel looked directly back at the waving sea of faces and craning necks which waved before him like a flock of flamingoes he had seen when his mother took her boys to the Berlin Zoo. The similarity almost made him smile so he quickly had to push that image from his mind.
He must have passed the inspection in a favourable light for the younger girls began whispering among themselves as they noted every detail from his thick light-brown hair which he got that from his grandmother, to his large bright blue eyes and finally to a strong, determined chin which he had inherited from his grandfather on his father’s side. Several of the girls actually smiled quite sweetly at him from the other side of the hall.
Like many boys of his age his body was still thin and gangly. It needed time to fill out and muscle up after the spurt of growth that had taken place. He appeared to be several inches taller than the girl next to him him but it was difficult to be exact as they had remained sitting.
As the whispering grew, the school prefects took up their places around the perimeter of the hall.
“Everybody, turn around!”
The loud voice of one of the masters brought the students back into order. All the head
The senior prefect took his cue from the master.
“Now, the notices for the day . . . ”
Hans turned and smiled faintly at Anne as he noticed the relief on her face. He seemed to convey some understanding that he knew how she felt. Anyway, he was having a lot of trouble trying to focus on what was being said and found that he was not understanding much of it at all. He began to wonder how he was going to survive the next few months.
The assembly hall emptied, boys to the left and girls to the right, never to come together again until the next main assembly. The chatter outside began to subside. One of the masters reminded Hans of his father: they would have been about the same age. He moved like his father so it was likely this master had been in the army for some time. His father had been a soldier, too. Hans only knew his father in uniform right from the time he could remember.
When Hans was a little boy the family lived in Salzburg on Austrian border. He was proud of his father. When he wore a bright uniform with shining badges and colourful epaulettes and Hans thought he looked exactly like one of the tin toy soldiers he kept in a box under the stairs’ cupboard. Then, when he was older, the family left Austria and went to live on the outskirts of Berlin, not far from his aunt and uncle. That was when his father went away. That was when the war began.
Hans remembered the last time he had seen Papi. It was almost a year before the war had ended. Everything was to have been fine and when it was all over, Papi had promised to take them back home to Austria. But it was not to be. Only two weeks after that, a telegram boy had rang the doorbell. That dreaded telegram which no one wants delivered. Mutti cried. Her world had been shattered. Her children soon knew their father would never be coming back and that he would never take them back to Austria. Not ever!
Hans then thought how lucky he was that his grandmother had chosen him as the one to go to England. Papi’s mother had been born in England. It had been a desire of hers that one of her grandsons would learn to experience her homeland and grow to love its countryside as much as she had. Oma had left some of her money in England, which was just as well, as after the war many people in Germany were to lose all their savings.
Even though there had been a bloody war between his country and this one, the Resmel family had no hate for their cousins across the sea. One day, he decided to learn English at school. It was then that Oma told him that it was her wish for him to go to a school in England. If he could make friends there and find his English relatives, then he could help to mend the bridges that had forced them on opposite sides. The trouble was that Oma had lost touch with her English family and all she could give her grandson were hazy directions or names of people long since gone.
So, with all that going through his mind, and with eyes fixed firmly in front, Mister Resmel pushed back his shoulders and was determined to make his grandmother proud.
During the morning recess, twenty boys took the opportunity to surround the new-comer and learn everything there was about him.
“. . . and where did you say you came from, old boy?” asked a one of the boys. He was a well-built boy who, Hans noted, had thick, round lips like a girl.
“Oh, ho-ho. Where’s that? Is that why you speak so strangely?”
There was an air of contempt in the boy’s expression that Hans did not like. He took an instant dislike to him.
“Österreich,” he said with conviction. After all, that is where he had spent much of his early childhood. Oma still lived in the same house in Salzburg. It was where she and his grandfather had raised all their children.
“Österreich.” Hans repeated.
“Where?” The boy’s eyebrows rose. He shook his head, and with a mocking grin looked at the senior boy sporting a prefects badge who had just joined them. “Sorry, never heard of it!”
Hans felt that the boy was ridiculing him and he did not like the tone of his voice. Some of the others around this boy mimicked ‘never heard of it’ and began laughing loudly together. Hans thought they were laughing at him. He felt the skin on his face begin to burn as his blood surged upwards and made his temples throb. Hans clenched his fists and was ready to lash out when he was stopped by the hand of someone touching his shoulder.
“All right, old chap. Take things easy. Don’t get fashy or worked up about it. It is not worth getting into trouble over a little harmless bantering.”
The touch was friendly enough and comforting at first but it didn’t last long. The well-built boy who had mocked him stood slightly to one side, just behind the prefect and continued to make mocking faces as he eyed Hans up and down. He balled his fist at him as though he was now ready for a punch-up.
“Hau ab! Go! Go away!”
Hans flung his arms wildly in his tormentor’s direction but the other boy ducked out of the way directly behind the prefect. Hans appealed to the senior boy but the words that were spoken now were stern and threatening.
“Your name, boy?”
“Well, Mister Resmel, watch it next time. I have you marked.” He pointed to the side of his skull. “It’s in here. I won’t forget!”
“That boy start the fight!” Hans pointed behind the prefect who turned to look behind him.
“Nobody is there.” He instructed the small group to move away before addressing Hans once more. “Mr Resmel. I shall not forget.”
As the prefect walked away, Hans felt another hand touch him lightly on his arm.
“Keep calm and keep your head down for a while.” The voice behind him was friendly. “That boy is known to be a bully. He always rubs any new boy up one way or another, just to take pleasure in seeing him punished. As for that prefect, his name is Timmins and he’s one to avoid as much as possible.”
Even though Hans had not understood, he felt that here was someone who, at least, sympathised with his situation. He was sorry and angry with himself at the same time for his stupid outburst. He knew he needed to control himself but everything was so difficult. Something inside him took control of all his emotions and then the anger just suddenly welled up and threatened to gush over like a burst dam. He was here, he had to remind himself, to try and understand these other boys; not fight with them. There had been enough fighting in the world . . . for four long years . . . four years during which so many boys had lost their fathers.
“Don’t mention it, old chap.” The boy had wavy black hair which he had attempted to flatten with hair oil. His round face broadened further in a wide grin as he asked, “What did you say your name was?”
“Hans. Hans Resmel.”
“Robert. Robert Brinkwater. Pleased to meet you, Mister Hans Resmel.”
Robert held out the hand of friendship. It was firm and resolute. Hans felt relieved.
Several weeks after that episode, the House, as each of the main groupings of boys was called, went outside to do ‘manual.’ Working in the garden was one of the activities that the boys had to do to help them become honourable members of their society. As many of the men had been killed during the Great War and as there were not enough working men available for employment, the boys were obliged to keep the college grounds clean and tidy. So, every Friday morning shortly before the midday recess, each House from the senior and junior boys, was made responsible for a certain section of the grounds and gardens.
Coleridge House was responsible for the east wing area which included part of the main driveway. On this occasion, it was Miss Turner who arrived to supervise the allocation of tasks, together with two of her girls . . . one, who Hans had noticed briefly two days after his arrival at the school and Anne Sutherland. Hans had already been told that garden duty was only expected from the boys so he was surprised to see Miss Turner with two of her girls.
Hans nudged Robert in the side.
“Who’s that with Miss Sutherland?”
Hans had already heard that Janine Turner was one of the youngest of the girls at the school and always did exactly whatever her aunt said, especially if it was passing on a message to one of the other students. Young Janine Turner was well known throughout the school for that role.
Most of the girls at the school came from privileged backgrounds, a new rising middle class that now spent money educating their girls so that they would find positions as private secretaries, be accepted into accounting firms or become a companion for some wealthy and titled lady. This school was the finishing school which would turn each girl from an awkward or rebellious teenager who had reached the school leaving age of fourteen into a polished and desirable young lady of seventeen or going on eighteen that any father would be proud of. Of course, there was always the hope that some successful business tycoon or landed gentry may be looking for a good match for a younger son.
The first time Hans saw Janine was when one of the boys pointed to this girl piled high with books making her way over the wide driveway towards the section of the school where the administration and library was. A pile of books with black-stocking legs. A nameless pile of books. He now remembered that Robert had mentioned that the girl he had seen carrying the books did not mix with much with the other girls but spent much of her free time in the library. Hans had thought that was because there were so few girls who were as young as she was but now he knew her name, he thought that it was most likely because the Matron was her aunt. Anne had been seen with Janine on several occasions for she had helped the girl with some of her homework. Since that day Janine had told everyone that Anne was her friend and since then she had latched on to Anne like a limpet to a rock and was seen either tagging along behind Anne or not too far away from Anne and her group of friends. Being in Anne’s company allowed Miss Turner’s niece to become one of the admired members of ‘Anne’s group.’ This gave the younger girl courage and occasionally the suppressed side of her nature became bold enough to make its appearance, like this day, a month after Hans had entered the school. It was his turn to see the bossy side of the young Miss Janine Turner.
The afternoon had been allocated as a tidy-up afternoon. Each boy was given one of the duties and then, as each task was completed, Miss Turner got her girls to check it off the list. Janine Turner approached Hans with an air of smugness and began reading off the jobs on the work-card she was holding.
“My Aunt says . . . ” She was known for always starting with those words. It made the boys feel very uncomfortable as though the school mistress was always present even when she was not. “Mister Thickpenny and Mister Stafford are to tidy the main garden area. You have to pick up paper and rake pebbles back on to the drive.” Hans noticed she gently knocked the bottom of her glasses with the back of her hand when she looked up from the form. “And then . . . my Aunt says . . . ” She stopped mid-sentence and waved the instruction list at them. “It’s all here in black and white, if you don’t believe me!”
“Go on,” said one of the boys in a flat, disinterested voice as if he had heard those words a thousand times before.
“It says . . .” She indicated the pile of tools which had been dropped at the base of one of the trees. “It says you are to take those buckets over there, together with these brushes and rakes and spades here.” She began reading the names of each boy, together with his pair and the list of duties they were to perform. Each pair collected a bucket and then gathered the tools they needed. Hans watched them go and wondered who his partner might be. He did not have to wait long. “My aunt says . . . Mister Brinkwater and Mister Resmel are to scrub the fountain and its surrounds. It has to be clean. Spotless! And my aunt says I’m to say if it is spotless, see?”
It was the way she stressed the ‘is’ and the way she looked at him, especially him, that that Hans found annoying. He was indignant that a girl, especially this rude and bossy girl who was several years his junior, should even tell him what to do. No real man should ever take orders like these from a woman. In uncle Karl’s house, it was always his word that ruled. Aunt Laura always deferred to her husband and he could never remember his own mother telling his father what to do. There had been no place for any petticoat politics in Hans’ life, ever. And he was not going to take orders from any female, especially a trumped-up chit of a girl like Miss Janine Turner!
Hans stood for a minute or two, brush in one hand and bucket in the other, watching the other Miss Turner disappear in the direction of her office, and trying to summon up enough language to confront this bossy girl.
“Did you understand?” she asked him. Her hazel eyes behind her round lenses looked directly into his face with the intensity of a chicken. It roused his indignation and he clenched his fists.
“Let it drop, Hans.” Robert reached out and pulled his friend back by the elbow. “Take my advice, Hans. It's not worth it. Don’t argue with her.”
Janine appeared to be enjoying this battle of nerves. She stood on tip-toe and made herself even taller by pulling her two plain plaits above her head.
“Mister Resmel. No dilly-dally!”
The girl sounded just like her more formidable aunt and Hans was just about to say something else when the booming voice of a bigger authority sounded.
“You heard the young lady tell you what you have to do!”
Hans swung round. It was that senior boy he had come up against before. This time it was clear he was a prefect. He had walked over to see how the younger boys were progressing through their tasks. Three prefects and one of the masters, a Mr Moore were the work supervisors. Hans had heard from the other boys that this master was the sort who excelled in firm discipline and backed the senior boys whatever the case, yet Hans had not understood all the implications of their warnings. He looked from the prefect to Robert Brinkwater. Robert had remained riveted to the same spot since he had picked up the rake and his motionless made him exactly like one of the school’s garden statues. His mouth had dropped open yet there was no perception of breathing; his wide blue eyes remained firmly fixed on the master.
The prefect pointed at the buckets and scrubbing brushes. Like a chameleon in slow motion, Robert leaned down and picked up one of the brushes. He was a stockier boy than Hans, and six months older. He was noticeably shorter, a good five inches shorter which made him shorter than most of the boys. Normally, he would have been the butt of their joking but the other boys looked up to him, for Robert was one of the best bowlers in the college cricket team. And for that skill, alone, the other boys in the college admired, no almost worshipped him.
Behind Robert was the fountain, its slimy green fountain bricks begging to be scrubbed clean and along side that was Janine Turner. Never in his life had Hans been told to perform such a menial tasks and he could not control his anger.
“Sorry, I refuse!” He spat the words out with utter disgust. “I refuse. Fountain-man . . . it is his job. Dig gardens, grow plants I do . . . but this, I refuse this!”
The master came over to see what the commotion was about. The senior boy was explaining the rules but his words had little impact on the youth standing directly before him. In the background Hans could clearly see Janine Turner. She was seemingly enjoying the confrontation between the prefect and this new boy.
At first, the prefect began to explain how each student’s name had been drawn out of a lottery and Mister Resmel, together with Mister Brinkwater, had only been allocated this job by chance and that their job had nothing to do with young Miss Janine Turner. Then, something must have clicked in the prefect’s head because he stopped what he was saying and took several determined steps towards Hans until they were standing chest to chest.
“Resmel. I told you I would remember you. And now you disobey an order. Well, let me tell you. No one disobeys an order around here, and especially when I give one. Get it? So, I am ordering you to pick up that bucket.” As Mr Moore came clos
The master had come right up to the two boys. He beamed at Timmins and congratulated him on how well he was handling the situation. But to Hans there were only the stern words of authority.
“You heard . . . so, the sooner you make a start, the sooner it will be over. You will follow all the rules whatever they are so get to it, boy!”
But Hans was feeling angry with the world today, with himself and everyone around him. Whenever he struck such a mood as this, he felt everyone was against him.
“Sorry! I refuse still! I feel not happy!”
“We are not interested in how you feel, Mister Resmel.” The voice of the master was loud enough for everyone to hear. “Young Miss Turner, here . . .” He indicated the Matron’s niece who was now visibly smiling with the satisfaction of revenge. “ - has told you what to do and you are expected to do it. Right now!”
“Not from a Mädchen. No!”
“It’s a pity you feel like that, Mister Resmel. What is the motto of this school?”
The master glared at him and indicated that he had no patience for any hesitation. The hem of his black gown rippled slightly as a slight breeze wafted across the school ground and Hans wondered at what point the master would set sail.
“Er, um, I think . . .” he stumbled over his words.
“Yes?” Hans watched the master reach up and pull the top of his gown closer around his neck. “I suppose you do know, sir. I am waiting!”
“Veneratio est nostrum rector, sir.”
“And what does that translate in English, young man?”
“Honour is our guide, sir.”
“Then you would do well to remember that, my lad. You know that morally you are expected to fulfill your obligation to help with keeping the school grounds clean and tidy. We expect you to obey the rules set here. Honour is to do so with diligence and dignity. You have shown that you have neither obeyed nor done the honourable thing. Besides, subordination will not be tolerated, no matter who has given the order!” The master turned to the prefect. “Take this offending boy to the office, sir. Get him out of my sight!”
The master shouted in Hans’ face at the top of his voice, “Go! Now!” He thrust out a long arm like the Grim Reaper and pointed in the direction of the two main offices.
Hans glared in anger but directed it at the ground away from the master. Never in his life had he heard of a girl telling any boy what to do. His father or his uncle had been the only ones to give orders to the boys. Even his mother did not do that. Yet here was a girl telling him what to do! If this was the English way, how he hated English ways! He turned, and shuffling his feet along the ground so that he sent little pebbles scattering in a million different directions, he followed Timmins in the direction of the main college building.
“This way first, you scum!” Timmins pointed to the prefects’ room. A young boy came round the corner and stopped dead in his tracks. “You, boy!” The prefect beckoned the boy to come over. “Your bottom button has not been done up. What have you to say for yourself?”
“Nothing, sir,” answered the youngster bowing his head in new found shame.
“Nothing! You say nothing. Then, you also need to be taught a lesson. No boy at this school will be sloppily dressed and express no remorse. Do that button up at once and come with me.”
Now Timmins was trailed by two younger boys as they hurried to the prefects’ room. Hans wondered why they had to go there at all, for he had thought the headmaster or the matron were the ones they should have headed to.
It did not take many minutes before both boys knew exactly why the prefect had dragged them along. As soon as they reached the room, Timmins opened a cupboard and brought out the cane, a long, swishy rattan cane that almost reached to the ceiling. First Hans and then the other boy received the punishment: four swift strokes before both were sent on their way: the younger boy with his jacket correctly buttoned up and Hans to stand outside Matron’s door.
He was lucky. Matron was occupied and did not not have the time to try and make head or tail out of his mixed-up attempts to explain in English. She gave him a warning, making it very clear that such things as canes were used for boys and that next time he would not be treated so leniently. When he returned for duty, he was muttering under his breath about the unhygienic situation of the entire cleaning-up affair. With much loathing, he picked up the brush again and began to help Robert scrub the dirty stones and then rake the pebbles off the grass and back on to the driveway.
“Is it correct that prefect permitted to cane?” Hans pretended to hit his backside but dared not even touch it as his buttocks were still stinging from the blows.
“Quite normal, Hans. It saves the masters time.”
“And do the men here always do how the women say for them?” Hans asked Robert as the two raked over the grass.
“No, not as a rule. My father says that women have too much power today. They began to demonstrate for equal rights after the war. Haven’t you heard of Mrs Pankhurst and her followers?” Hans shook his head. “Votes for women is their slogan and that is exactly what they are demanding, although my papa does not think the government would be so stupid to allow just any woman the right to vote. Take Miss Turner, for example. She already has a large say in matters concerning the running of this college and no-one, not even the masters dare go against her. She has the education to make sensible choices. I do not think my papa minds her being given the right to vote but allowing those who can barely read or write the vote would be another thing. My papa says the country would slide into rack and ruin.”
“Miss Turner has a vote?”
“I am sure she does. Most women do not, however.”
“So she has by this the power?” Hans was a little confused but he was starting to catch on.
“Miss Turner is a lady of power around here. She’s next in line after the headmaster so when orders come from her, even through her niece, those orders have to be obeyed.”
“Then, this girl, she has power also?”
“If her aunt stands behind her, yes. Best not complain, Hans. Get’s you nowhere in this place.”
“Not from my home. My uncle says always what is right. He is boss.”
“In my family, too.”
Robert gave a short laugh, hardly perceptible but enough to convince Hans that he did not entirely agree with Miss Turner’s position.
The last hour of the morning passed by quietly so that when one o’clock came, he was only too glad to return to the cottage across the road from the school where he had been staying since his arrival.
Hans was still feeling somewhat angry and bitter when he put his key in the lock and opened the brown front door of number twenty-five. The school had arranged his accommodation and it had been Miss Turner who had made the decision to accommodate Hans with the Brymers rather than in one of the dormitories with the other boys. That is, until Hans had time to become familiar with the language and school rules. Consequently, his Midday dinners were always eaten with the Brymers at the cottage on Fridays as Mr Brymer always finished any work on a Friday sharp at twelve.
Hans hung his thick woollen coat and hat on a peg alongside the others in the dimly lit hall and shuffled his way into the small living room, flopping into the nearest chair with both his arms sprawling untidily over both sides of the armchair. All that could be heard was the constant ticking of the clock in the next room where the dinner was being laid out on the small rectangular dining table. Mrs Brymer briefly poked her head around the side of the open glass door.
“Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”
Hans pulled himself out of the chair and entered the small dining room. The ticking clock got louder. He watched Mrs Brymer straighten one of
They were a fortunate family, as Mr Brymer had been lucky to find employment after the war while many of those who had returned with high hopes from the battle fields had found it very difficult to find any job at that time and many families had been forced into the work-houses. Even though the Brymers were lucky they had little spare cash to waste on anything other than essentials but they did eat well on two days in the week, Fridays being one of them. All but Agnes, their youngest, had left the nest and she managed to join the family for the Friday meal electing to work for her employers every Sunday as on Saturday morning the family always went to their church. She now waited patiently for her father to bless the food and begin cutting the meat. That was always the last item to be brought to the table.
The family always spoke in English. The girls thought of themselves as English girls but Mr Brymer still had a distinct German accent. Hans learnt that their eldest daughter was married and living near Oxford so she and her family rarely managed to visit. The Brymers had changed their name from the German ‘Breiner’ a few years before the war to a more acceptable English version: ‘Brymer’, even though to say the name was just about the same. Mrs Brymer was English and that may have helped with keeping her husband out of one of the interment camps that were set up during the war or prevented him from being deported as an ‘enemy alien’ like so many of those who had been born overseas. However, as the family had previously spent a few years overseas when they first were married, suspicion always surrounded them and that became especially noticeable when anti-German feelings ran high during the war. But the Brymers did not let that bother them.
“How did the English school go today?”
“Not good.” His young face clouded over as he searched for the words to express himself. “Frau Brymer - it was - so, so un, un-hy-gie-nic. Jawohl. To clean the fountain! Ungust, not . . . not . . . Ach, widerlich!”
“Try to use the English word, Hans. You must if you want to improve. Disgusting’s the word.”
“Dis-gust-ing. It was.”
He repeated the new word and tried to say it in his mind several times in the hope that it would stick. Once said, words were so easily forgotten.
Mr Brymer’s mealtime rules were that a good meal should be savoured and enjoyed in peace. Dinner was eaten in silence. That’s how it was always done. There was a proper time to talk again and that was when the meal was finished, the table cleared and the family had retired into the confines of the cosy living room.
“A drink, dear?” Mrs Brymer was quite used to addressing an upright newspaper. Somewhere behind was her husband and always she received no reply but as soon as the wine glass came anywhere near the paper, a hand would automatically move across to take it from her. “Would you like a little taste?” she asked Hans.
Mrs Brymer ignored this use of his mother-tongue and continued pouring the red wine into the glasses. Ever since the family had spent a few years living in France, Mrs Brymer had thought it most ‘civilized’ to partake a sip or two of wine to compliment her dinners. Good food needs good wine, she used to say. They make for good company. And so, after dinner, she and her husband always had a sip of wine together, remembering their time in France together and even her daughters had been encouraged to try a very little, to complete the feeling of Continental living.
“No! Speak no German here in England.” The voice originated from behind the open newspaper. “Here we speak English. You must learn it.”
“Good.” Mrs Brymer began pouring out the wine. “Now you’ve got that nose of yours out of the paper, Erich, maybe you can help Erwin with his English.”
Mr Brymer folded his paper in half and laid it over the broad arm of his chair. He rocked the wine gently around its glass and then took a sip.
“Tell me. How do you like your English college now, Erwin?”
“I am here Hans,” he reminded his host.
Mr Brymer put his glass down on the small table beside his chair. He pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. Then, he stood up and began to adjust the minute hand on the clock on the mantelpiece. He never liked to see his clocks running a few minutes fast or slow, so every Friday afternoon, just after dinner, he adjusted them, very precisely and with the utmost care.
“But is your name not Erwin? That’s what we were told.” Mr Brymer’s attention was still on the clock.
“My father called me that. I like it not. I call myself Hans!”
“Mm-mm. Then, I must try to remember. And when I forget, you must remind me.” He slowly closed the glass face, re-checked the minute hand against his watch and then sat down with satisfaction of a job well done.
“Pass me my embroidery please, Erich. It’s just there.” Mrs Brymer pointed alongside the chair and then held out her hand as her husband handed over the cloth bag containing her sewing things.
Mrs Brymer immersed herself in her embroidery, humming to herself, which only she knew the tune. Agnes had gone to the kitchen and Mr Brymer had decided it was now time to check the wall clock in the upstairs hallway. Hans was left alone to brood over his own thoughts: the assembly, meeting the students, the fountain incident and his general introduction to the rules and day-to-day life of Prince Albert College. After all, the boy was still young and had a lot to learn in the relatively short time he would be in England. Mr Brymer did understand the difficulties of trying to settle in a new country, for he could still remember some of the problems he had to overcome. He made a promise help the boy make his adjustments from one culture to the other.
Opposite Sides by Susan Firman / Actions & Adventure / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on20 votes