Friday, 10 June 2011

The Colours of Music: A Short Story

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.’                                                

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Poem From A Pre-Service Teacher

All that a teacher can be      ~Naomi M, March 2011
A teacher can be a friend, a mentor and guide
They can motivate, inspire and bring great ideas to mind
To every question, there is always an answer
Some may be dull, but others much fancier. 

Teachers can discipline, give knowledge and hope
But they also can laugh at any good joke.

Nothing is wasted, even when done in haste
And life CAN be loved, albeit fast-paced.

A teacher can drink coffee, something stronger, or tea,
To help it appear, that phased they won’t be.
Worksheets, assignments and forms all wait to be filled
In a pile as high as a Great Pyramid.

All teachers’ ears are attuned to the bell
And it when it resounds, they all run pell-mell.
They carry many a pen, piece of paper and book,
And have perfected the art of the infamous ‘look.’

Teacher can strike fear in the hearts of those who are late
But in spite of this, they haven’t left all to fate.
They work endless hours and daydream of sleep.
Give all they have without falling in a heap.

Teachers know all that is worth knowing at all
And if students don’t learn it, their destined to fall.
There’s seemingly nothing a teacher can’t do
They’ll do all they can just to get students through.

This may be a dream and perhaps I’m insane.
But without high ideals, will anything change?
I know I’m naive, but surely it’s true
That teaching is far more than just a job to do.

It’s all about caring, and sharing and giving
Definitely not for those just after a good living!
For the good of society and to make the world better
That’s why we do it, when it’s taken down to the letter.

So stop and reflect on the future you want to see
And you will discover all that a teacher can be.

Teacup Memories: A Short Story


Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, and the things you never want to lose.  ~From the television show The Wonder Years

Nanna Anne is slowly dying. Her mind is fragmented and her thoughts wander, trying to recapture the past. As Aunty Rilla and I sit with Nanna in her room, surrounded by piles, sorting through and packing up her memories, the only sound is Nanna’s haphazard phrases. “They have a little boy now. And Mum said to be sure to not to work to hard. Oh yes, and then there were fireworks.” Her voice wavers and then fades, as Nanna is lost in a world only she remembers. She is the last of her siblings left and has outlived Granddad and most of her friends. Each ornament on her shelves represents a person or an event that was significant to her; every black-and-white photograph encapsulates a moment frozen in time, and each pressed flower holds some memory. A lifetime of memories, now packed away, to be stored in a corner and abandoned. Eighty-five years of life: weddings, birthdays and holidays; all these cannot simply be boxed up and forgotten as long as there is someone who still remembers.
Aunty Rilla carefully picks up Nanna’s favourite teacup. The delicate, almost translucent china is covered in an exquisite, though faded, rosebud design. The inside is tea-stained and there is a chip on the handle, but remnants of the lacy gold filigree can still be seen on the rim and handle. Aunty Rilla holds the cup up to the light to admire it.
Suddenly, Nanna is alert and paying attention to what we are doing. With almost childlike pleading in her voice, she implores: “Please, be careful with that.”  She reaches for it and takes in her arthritic hands; her fingers barely able to hold it. She looks up, first at Aunty Rilla and then at me and smiles wistfully: “You know, this cup isn’t actually mine.” She leans back in her chair, cradling the cup and the room is silent for moment.
“We used to sit and talk for hours, Kayla and I. One afternoon a week, one of us would walk across the compound with our teacup and together we would just sit and chat. I suppose it was how we helped each other cope with the loneliness of being a pilot’s wife, and the challenges of expatriate life in Kenya, far away from all our family and the familiarity of life back home.”
“What was it like living in Kenya, Nanna? What were the people like?”
Nanna is oblivious to Aunty Rilla and me and continues reminiscing. “We were both newlyweds and had moved to the compound in Nairobi at about the same time and as we got to know each other, we became like sisters. One afternoon though, the pleasant rhythm of our lives was shattered, and for the first time in two years, our tea was left unfinished. We had been sitting discussing patchwork patterns when the hum of the static on the radio was broken by the eerie screech of the distress signal.”
A tear traced its way down the maze of wrinkles. “They had the most beautiful cocker spaniel puppy. And then there was the first day of school, and the day all six of us piled into the car just for the fun of it. I used to love collecting shells.” Her voice dies away as she tries to recapture her now fragmented memories.
“Mum, will you please tell us what happened? What was the distress signal for? Why did you never tell me about all this before?”
“Nanna, please, won’t you continue?”

“I always liked forget-me-nots and violets. We stopped and sat in silence, straining to hear any break in the constant static that might tell us what had gone wrong. After what seemed like hours, a voice came over. It was Kayla’s husband calling for help. All he could say was that there had been a security breach and he required another plane to get him out of the village. After the rescue team took off, things started happening quickly and the days whirled by as contingency plans were set in motion. I found myself going through the motions of life in a trance, as nothing felt real anymore. Mum made me a butterfly shaped cake for my birthday that year. She always made the most incredible cakes. Tear-gas always makes me feel queasy. Oh, and then there was the time when Danny broke his arm, and the day Rilla dyed her hair when she was seven. Although he was physically safe, Dave had been held at gunpoint by rebels as his plane was stripped and all the money and cargo taken. Company policy dictated that after any incident, the staff involved had to get out of the country; both for their own safety, and for appropriate debriefing and counselling. Dave no longer felt safe flying, fearing that now the rebels knew him, he would become a target. It was decided that because of the current civil unrest, Dave and Kayla needed to go home as soon as possible.” Nanna pauses, remembering.
In the silence, I allowed my thoughts to roam. How does someone deal with that, having to suddenly pack up everything and just leave? 
“All the expatriate wives came together and helped Kayla pack up their house. It was emotionally shattering, both for her, and for those of us trying to help sort through what was to be taken and what was going to be left behind. Everything that was being taken home had to be packed into crates and prepared for shipping out, while clothing and essentials were packed into their suitcases, ready for the first flight out the next week. I did my best to help and not make the situation more painful by showing my hurt. Kayla needed me to support her and my tears were not going to make things go back to the way they were. Even though I did my best to hide my grief, my heart was crying for the loss of a friend who I had shared so much with.
On her last afternoon, I carried my teacup over for one last cup of tea together. We sat there in the empty kitchen, a tissue box between us, silently savouring the moment. I made it home just before curfew that evening. It wasn’t until I was putting away the dishes that I realised that I had left my teacup over at Kayla’s. When I went over the next morning to say my final goodbye I looked for my teacup. On the kitchen bench was Kayla’s teacup, but mine was nowhere to be seen. I asked the other women if they had seen a second teacup anywhere. The director’s wife said that in the last minute packing that morning, she had packed up a teacup and put it in the boxes just before they were taken out to the truck. She had assumed that the one on the bench was mine, as she knew Kayla and I had a tradition of always drinking out of our own teacups.
When it was finally my turn to hug Kayla goodbye, I whispered to her that our teacups had been swapped. Through her tears, she smiled at me; “I would never have forgotten you anyway, but now I have something of yours to remember you by.” This teacup is Kayla’s; every time I use it I remember our precious times together. I never saw Kayla again after she and Dave left Nairobi. Paul and I left about six months later as the political situation was becoming unpredictable.” Nanna sighs and reaches for a tissue.

“Kayla sent me a letter shortly after they left. It should be in with all those papers there.” Aunty Rilla sifts through the pile of papers and at the bottom of the pile she finds a small yellowed envelope. Nanna takes it and opens it up, the creased paper rustling like fallen leaves. The letter reads:

            My dearest Anna,
I was not able to properly say goodbye to you when I left, so I am writing to you now to say the things that I could not say then. I have just finished unpacking and found your beautiful teacup. Now while I am drinking out of purple violets, you can be drinking out of pink rosebuds. I wish I could sit and have a cup of tea with you again. I miss all the hours we shared, doing patchwork projects, working in the Nairobi women’s centre and just living life together.
I want to say thank you for your friendship. Your love and support helped me feel a part of the community. You made me smile and laugh while sharing my tears. I now realise how much your friendship meant to me and how much of my heart I have left behind. Although it has been decided that Dave and I will not be returning to Kenya, I am thankful that I had those few years there because I was able to share them with you.  I hope that our paths may cross again sometime soon.
                                                            Until then, all my love,
~Kayla

The clock chimes, interrupting our reverie and Aunty Rilla and I clear away the packed boxes and find our coats. Aunty Rilla tenderly kisses her mother goodbye and walks to the door deep in thought. As I farewell Nanna, she takes my hand and gently places the teacup into it.
 “Keep it safe for me, won’t you? You know the whole story behind it now. You can remember for me.”  She looks up at me. “Please, promise me you won’t let it ever be forgotten?”