Heidi stood by the open piano. From the staffroom next door the voice of the Fuhrer cackled with an announcement for the people of the Third Reich. Her fingers reached for the keys. She pushed one down; the note echoed in the hollow room. The black and white keys blurred in front of her as a tear wormed its way down her ceramic check. Leaf-like she drifted down to the piano stool and positioned her fingers on the keys. Softly, she began to play. The familiar notes floated out from under her fingers and proceeded out the door. She was unable to hold onto the music as it turned to ash in the smoky grey sky.
One year ago this music had been hers. The notes had resounded in the church building as she walked down the aisle. The day had been hers; hers and Franz’s. Now, her white dress hung in the back of her wardrobe. The flowers had long since faded. She bowed her head, her fair hair slipping out of the hairpins.
On the 24th of May 1939 she had stood at the front of the church, surrounded by her family, friends and well-wishers with Franz by her side. One year later, even the music had changed.
Just before Hitler invaded Austria, Heidi’s family had left for Switzerland, but she had stayed to be with Franz. She would be safe. She had married a good German man, someone who would be useful to the Reich. That was how it was. If you were not useful, you were an enemy. Heidi’s father had helped an American in the Great War years before. He was no friend of the Fuhrer. They had escaped and found safety, leaving Heidi. And now Franz too had left her behind.
While Franz had been there, she had been so happy. Germany was thriving and Hitler’s charisma had renewed their hope and pride. She had felt so secure. It had seemed impossible that the war would come to their village.
It was strange how much a simple brown shirt and a small, white piece of paper could create such upheaval. Five months after the wedding, Franz had come home in uniform. He had been requested to join the air force. Even as he had held her in his arms and her tears left dark splotches on his new brown shirt she had known that he had no choice but to go.
And now she stayed to wait. There was nothing else that she could do. Hot tears burned her eyes once again as she struck her fist on the keys.
It was ironic, her job was to teach the beautiful music of her country, the music of Beethoven and Mozart, yet her country was overwhelmed by destruction and devastation. They came in many shapes and forms. For her, they came in the form of a telegram. All colour had faded as she stared at the black letters.
‘Franz Hoffner: Missing in Action.’
Days had gone by, turning into weeks. Days of rhythmically teaching music lessons. Whilst her fingers were dancing minuets over the keys, her heart pounded a dirge. Life, like the keys on her keyboard, had been reduced to black and white. It had been four months and she had heard nothing more. Still, she waited.
“Frau Hoffner? Are you ready for my music lesson now?”
Heidi looked up at the yellow-haired child in front of her and forced a smile.
“Yes, you’re right on time. Did you practise lots this week?”
It had become monotonous, lesson after lesson, the metronome ticking mercilessly, bombarding her with the beats. Children constantly demanded her attention; but they were not her children, she had none of her own.
“Let’s begin with your scales today. Start with F Major.”
The child’s fingers faltered up the keyboard and back down again. Then it was on to another exercise, another piece. Heidi had heard it all before. Crescendo, decrescendo, it became like breathing; in, and out. Rapido and largo; fast and slow. People became grey shadows moving through her life. The music had been reduced to black and white. The keys on the piano, the notes on the page, and now the music too had lost its colour.
Today should have been a day of colour, of music and flowers, a candlelit dinner and Franz’s arms around her. There was music, but there was always music for Heidi. The difference was that she no longer wanted it to make her feel. Black and white were safe, music that made her feel was colourful and piercing. And so, her heart was not stirred by the melodies and the notes passed her by.
“Frau Hoffner, guess what? I can play the national anthem!”
“Oh really! Would you like to play it for me?”
“Yep!” The little girl’s head bobbed in excitement. “My mum taught me how to play it and I kept practising it all day long until now I can play it really really good!”
The child tentatively played the first few notes of the Horst Wessel Lied and after a nod of encouragement from Heidi, continued on. Just after their engagement, she and Franz had sung this at the rally in Nuremburg. Proudly they had saluted the red flag with the black and white spider on it. Heidi remembered the sound of Franz’s deep bass harmonizing with her melody. There was no one to sing with now.
“Very good! I’m sure even the Fuhrer would be proud to hear you play for him!”
The child collected her books and bounced out the door leaving Heidi alone once again. It was finally time to go home.
With her books strapped into the basket on the front of her bicycle, Heidi gathered up her skirt and draped it neatly over the crossbar as she mounted. Freedom. The trees along the familiar laneway protectively stretched out their leafy green branches. On the ground there was a carpet of red, yellow and blue. Vibrant colour was everywhere. There would be flowers today after all. And today, of all days, she noticed them; a gift from Mother Nature. She reached down, gathered a handful of the wildflowers and placed them on top of her books. Slowly she continued homeward.
Home. For another silent night. Blackout curtains drawn and floorboards creaking. More hours of waiting. Hoping. Praying. Heidi parked her bike around the side of the house, gathered up her books and the flowers and walked up the steps to the front door. The hinges squeaked as the door opened.
After putting her books away and arranging her flowers in a vase, Heidi sat down at the piano. Her hands fell listlessly to the piano keys and she ran her fingers over the worn ivories without letting them make a sound. Resolutely she began to play. There would be music at home tonight. First was Franz’s favourite, and then her mother’s. A Landler she had danced to as a child, her wedding march and then the anthem that the child had played earlier that afternoon. She knew it well; the brass band had played it the day she said goodbye to Franz.
Amidst the chaos and noise of the aerodrome she had stood with Franz, his arm securely around her waist. Gently he had tilted her head up, compelling her eyes to meet his. She had been so proud of his courage; ashamed of her weakness and tears. The recruits had been called to board as he kissed her for the last time, holding her tightly to him. She had shivered as the aircraft vanished behind the thick white clouds, bound for the battlefront in France.
There was a sharp rap on the front door. Sheets of music scattered to the floor as she turned around. She got up and meticulously counted the steps to the door; five, six, seven, eight. Finally she reached the door and warily checked through the peephole. A telegram delivery boy stood on the step. She unbolted the door and turned the handle slowly.
“Telegram for Frau Hoffner.” The brown shirt creased as the boy reached into his satchel and pulled out a small, white square of paper.
“Vielen Dank. Thank you.” Heidi closed and carefully latched the door as she returned to the piano stool. She forced herself to unfold it and to see the black words staring up at her.
‘Shrapnel wounds STOP Right arm amputated STOP On my way home STOP Franz.’