Sunday, 10 October 2010

THE SIGNS -A short story by Michael Braga Oct 2010

I am just about to enter the narrow path between the shops when I see them. It’s been a long while since I have seen that sign. The bald man pauses in his painting of the swastika as he looks at me with that insolent stare that is his privilege and birthright. Before he can advance, I spin around. Having just been to the butcher on the right; I blindly stumble into the kosher bakery on the left.

I steady myself as I enter the bakery’s warm cinnamon and apple Austrian fog. It is the smell of Marthe’s cooking from before the troubled times. I long to impulsively reach out to the china plate of gingery Pfeffernusse on top of the counter, but hold myself back. I am still shaking as the girl there looks up at me expectantly.

“Can I help you?”
I hold up my string bag with its joint of ham from the butcher.
“I’m sorry. I should not have brought this in here.”
I rush out and flee past the shops and the bus stop. The August sun is fierce but I am cold. I could have worn my woollen coat but it’s not safe to stick out. If the Gentiles have bare arms so will I. With no yellow star to mark me these days, I can disappear like a sweet spoon of honey in bitter coffee.
I come in breathless and sweaty but my icy hand and knuckles scream their winter song of pain. While Walter’s beloved ham is on the boil, I start on Marthe’s honey cake. He loves that too. In that childlike manner of his, he will lick each sticky finger off before wiping his hands on the linen serviette that I will then have to put in the weekly wash.
With the tin in the raging oven, the cold is conquered by the warmth in the small kitchen. Despite the briny boiling ham, the honey smells strong in the kitchen and reminds me of how different it was then.
Even my name, H______ was different then. I was young then, so young and everything seemed so high above me. Tall people with long faces draped in broad furs that swept our dark wood floors. Silky white walled cool rooms with their ceilings high to the sky and those steep glass jars of cherries and apricots hunkered down in the brick cellars. The only thing that remained the same here was the smell of the hot honey Mutti would stir into her beloved lemon tea.

My darling Mutti was wiser than my Papi. We had heard of the transports when we were expelled to the Ghetto in the East, but by that time Papi was a starving man and no longer himself. He had never been hungry for so long before then and like the other men the free jam and blankets they bribed us with did us all in. With the help of his brother Shmuli, who was in the Ghetto police, the two brothers drove us and the howling others to the Umschlagplatz from where we were to be expelled to the East with our precious promise of jam. Two thousand people in a small square. After that November day in the piss and shit soaked square, winter air has never felt crisp or clean to me.

Wise Mutti exchanged her pearl ring and her last ruby brooch with Mrs. S____son, in exchange for us slipping through that cordon and escaping the camps that time.

In the end though, Mutti was not wise enough. Trusting Marthe meant our betrayal and having to endure that terrible Lager for so long. An age and Mutti passed on, before the new Aryans came in and transferred us to the Grand Lager with as many rations as you asked for and thick wool blankets. A DP they called it a Lager for the dispossessed and displaced.
That DP was brought to an abrupt end by the ship that brought me here: a great big unsteady bathtub that lurched across the narrow sea. I sailed with Etjie, Kitty and the rest who giggled constantly. We are free, we are free! I knew better. We were off to a new Lager with better rules, but rules all the same. As soon as we docked I collected my precious paper money and slipped off leaving those giddy goats behind.
The new Lager was not like the last place. There was no routine, no appelplatz assembly at dawn, no breaks. With no special status, I needed an Aryan to hide behind, so I ensnared Walter.

Many months later, I saw Kitty here. She still lives in the Eastern Ghetto giggling her way from one day to the next. I know better. Where there’s a ghetto there are informants. There one day your own elders will become policemen and the next day they will drive you with blows to the Umschlagplatz on the promise of jam.

Time goes by very quickly here. We are relieved of the race rules –no stars, no decree filled announcements, no expulsions from the halls of government. My lovely blonde hair is now a dreadful gray with a nest of black shoots. My eyes maybe blue but they are watered down. All that stands proud is the hook of my nose. And that is what they see. I know it when I see them look at me. When the time is right they will come for me. That much I am sure of.

Two years pass and the signs are painted everywhere now. There are lots of new people here who come from an East that is farther than the East I know. They wait on street shop corners like itinerant peddlers, their darkness stark against the surroundings. So the Aryan Alliance gathers pace once more and I am very fearful. They have a new uniform this secret state army. In the old days death came accompanied by a gentleman’s hat, soft grey wool, shiny black leather whip and boots. Now they take their short hair and raze it to signify the razing that is to come. The newcomers try to fight them just like we did in the old City, but it is no use. They will lose just like we did.

One peculiarly clammy October afternoon, when I read the news of the riots, I catch cold and start shaking. I put my overcoat on and head for bed to right myself, and this is where Walter finds me three hours later. This is where the silence between us explodes into noise.
“Marie, Marie wake up!” Walter shouts and for a moment I forget myself.
Dear little French Marie with her cheeks rouged in blood at every selection, finally got selected by typhus. Now her name belongs to me and H___ is another dead statistic.
“Oh, liebchen, don’t worry,” I calm him down with the promise of food. “I was just trying on the coat for winter and fell asleep. Phish! I’m just a silly old goose. Here let me fix you your sup..”

“Marie! Stop it! You’re not well, love. You know it. You’re sobbing, tossing, turning all night and every morning you deny it? Well it needs sorting out. I’m going to call Doctor Sharples for a check up right now.”
“Walter stop it. I am fine liebchen. I was just tired. I was cleaning out the scullery. Come on now its egg and chip night, your..”
“No bloody’ egg and chips, old girl, I’m not going to let you give up. It’s Doctor Sharples or I call the ambulance. You look green enough for them to take you in right now!”
I could not risk the dispensary. Helena with her boils and abscess went there and up she had gone up in smoke. A sick Jewess might as well be dead as far as they were concerned.
“Don’t be a worried goose Walter. I’m as right as rain! Now come on I need some egg and chips and I have got a new bottle of that mustard you like so!”
“I know what you’re worried about but it’s over, it’s over! You hear me? It’s August nineteen bloody seventy six! It’s been over for thirty years! You are not in a bloody Lager camp, you’re in Croydon for heavens sake!”
“Walter, don’t fret so, please?”
“You were an Art teacher at Croydon Grammar Marie, what’s happened to you? You never worried like this?”
Never worried? I just now know that now I am too old and feeble to hide the worry. The worry strengthens as your legs weaken and can no longer run as fast as you may need them to. He carries on babbling as he holds me close to his damp coat that smells like a wet dog.
“It’s okay Marie, its over. You have Israel now, a homeland I’ll take you there just to show you its all kaput. I can’t take this worry.”

We spring apart after our uncustomary embrace and sit in silence. I wonder if I should tell him what I know, but how can this Gentile with his brown sweet rabbit eyes understand what is happening around him. What does he know of a homeland for Jews? Look what good Madagascar did. Instead of a homeland, came ghettos and ovens to burn in. Israel or Madagascar it’s all a sham!
“Walter, I..”
“It’s on the wireless Marie, and there’s even the television you could watch if you went round to Gertie’s. It’s all on there. We watched the reels at the Ritzy, you saw it. It’s over the camps are finished.”
The television-phtchah! This poor man has no idea of how easy it is for them. Goebbels may be absent but his trickery is everywhere!
“Walter, Walter, really don’t make a fuss..”
“Stop! I mean it, stop! If you don’t see Doctor tonight I’m getting Gertie round to take you to hospital.”
Fraulein Gertrude-she was no better than Stella K-----selling all those poor Jewish U Boat families in hiding to the dogs when their money ran out. I never stooped that low.
“I mean it Marie, you know what I know..”
In the end Walter gets his way he knows my old secret and I cannot afford to lose his trust or favour.
“Okay, let us have our meal liebchen, and we’ll call him round in the morning”

I saw to it that Doctor Sharples did not arrive the next morning and our argument raged every day for weeks.

One Friday afternoon, seven weeks later, Walter unexpectedly appeared with Doctor Sharples and Frau Gertrude skulking behind him. They forced me down into my own chair to let the Doctor examine me. A week later I received official notification that I was to be transported to the hospital for further tests.
Walter brings me the hospital letter and tells me I am too old to run. He is right, this war will outlive me. When he leaves for the pub, I know that he must never have to defend my wrongdoings as a collaborator. I will do what is right for the both of us.

The morning before my transport, I go to my secret store. It’s in the outside lav, a place Walter never goes to now we have one indoors. There inside the cistern is my roll of cloth with my Reisepass, Mutti’s Kennkarte, my thirteen cans of provisions and the envelope. Many families we knew in the old Ghetto had these envelopes .They were brought out on the night before the families scheduled transport and their contents were shared by all the family. I say the Kaddish prayer of the dead for them, and for Mutti, Papi and Marie. I lift the tinkling poison envelope out from the roll and head indoors. Inside I shake its precious contents out and stir it into the rich chicken stew Walter and I will feast on together later.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Friday thoughts on a Monday afternoon

Last Friday afternoon work started to empty itself from my inbox at around three in the afternoon as out of office replies starting pinging their way at me in response to my truculent queries and insistent demands to those who were apparently still at lunch. At four with the umpteenth email promising to "get it done by Monday" I packed it in and walked through a sun saturated City that promised a return to summer for the weekend. The City’s glass towers had purged itself of it’s be suited inhabitants and vomited them into the pubs that they themselves would spew out of (quite literally) under the watchful eye of the moon. But for now there was camaraderie in the air, an azure sky and golden goblets of bliss held by many hands as they stood outside the Globe, All Bar One and O’Neill’s.

Minding my own way I wended down to the river which was littered with a thousand sparkling diamonds that must have fallen from the careless diamond fairy's handbag as she dropped off for a much needed nap on the cool waters under the glowing orb in the sky. I walked back towards St Pauls and heard Bow Bells sound five peals for the foolish workers who had lost track of time as they sat ensnared by the pure white light from their monitors that trapped them like flies to sticky flypaper. Below the spires of commerce and at dark wooden pub doors; blue silk and linen jackets were slung on clever shoulders, men’s sleeves were rolled up demarcating the vacationers from the staycationers and the bubble of laughter and chatter gurgled in the air like some ancient village brook in the heart of this old City.

The white sun was edged with gold now as it sliced lower through the glass ramparts and po-mo facades at London Wall only being defeated by the hulking irresoluteness of the concrete fortress of the Barbican. Little velvet squares of manicured lawn under shady plane or chestnut trees were a brilliant lime green like the new neckwear recently appropriated by Waitrose supermarket staff. The white asphalt under our feet glowed as it was branded by the sun above. Fat bees weaved in the air dizzy and drunk on nectar and sunlight, skimming fair and dark heads unshielded from the fury of our solar stranger which was reflected at us by the glass on the cathedrals of industry that rose arrogant and insouciantly above us.

Many hours later I was still sitting on a splintering wooden bench outside a pub that would soon be demolished to make way for a grand transportation project that was at least seven years away. The sun had slowly melted at its heart bleaching the sky in a lactic whiteness bleeding at the edges with a thin frayed border of fading fuchsia.
As violet banded the horizon, white light spattered on within the red double deckers trundling past us and the flow of folk and nectar started to ebb. Like good wood left out too long in the sun a splintering started that saw the large masses break off into chips of twos and ones drifting to the rail stations or slipping down stairwells to the trains that sped along long tunnels under the tar or clambering onto red buses heading north, south and east.

As I walked homeward I noticed that the asphalt has lost its daytime sun seared white -even though it had now cooled dark and grey it still tingled and sang with an electric hum that promised that the best was yet to come...

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The pursuit of sadness

So after umpteen self help courses projects and ‘wow’ moments I was fortunate enough, in my late twenties, to realise that happiness is not something to hanker after but it’s our natural way of being unless we choose with our minds or our bodies to feel sad. The tough thing is that even when life is going fantastically well tiny superstitious whispers at the edge of a pragmatic mind exhorts us to ‘ examine the cons’, be realistic, be mindful of others etc. etc. There are a hundred different reasons to get off the happy train and swap smelling flowers for ‘waking up and smelling the coffee.’
The phrase ‘analysis paralysis’ is so apt here as our happiness lies trapped deep in a mental mine that is topped by a hard assed-straight talking, reasonable and practical mountain of data, statistical evidence and counter arguments.
As a young child being happy was not worthy of pursuit or exploration, as in most instances where the basics were being met happiness was a natural state of being, until that first time. The first time a discordant note was sounded in the melody of our life we became aware of the perfection of the harmonious construct that formed the tune of our life and stopped to examine what caused the song to go wrong. That stopping or dwelling started a life long pursuit and obsession with the nature of wrongness and it’s relation to perfection. Until that moment, perfection didn’t exist it just was the canvas, the background we crawled stumbled or slept through. From that moment on we got geared up at the pursuit of sadness store with some highly personalised gizmos to help us on our life long quest including:
-Judge-o-meters-the perfect I’m right you’re wrong nifty portable accessory and vital for any pursuit of sadness mission
-Past master-a view master like apparatus that projects achingly beautiful and lyrical montages of moments from the past to hanker after, in our inner minds eye
-Craporama- Essential eyewear: these High Def glasses frame our minds eyes every morning to help us view our self, the world and almost everything as just not good enough
Reasonator- A statistical device that is evidential in nature, and provides reasoned and logical data driven theoretical constructs to support and justify us in our approach to the pursuit of sadness
These are just some of goodies that are personally customisable at the Sad Shop, a place we all know too well. Many fellow writers and artistes will pick the “Pain-essential” mind trap, that will only spring open to let the ideas and expressions come rushing out, in moments of personal pain.
The pursuit of sadness is what makes us human in the current state of evolution we’re at. As we evolve further maybe sadness becomes as arcane a construct as bear baiting or slavery, but till then we soldier on united and yet strangely divided in a sad race towards a state of happiness.
I would love to know your thoughts on this contentious and very simplistic post and appreciate that there is a huge level of complexity that is being ignored here. I just wonder if the lucky majority who aren’t medically diagnosed as sad, are indeed chasing an ephemeral happiness that they already possess. Answers in the comment box below please.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Ride on time

Last week the BBC documentary Vision of The Future on the box ( suggested that people in their fifties or sixties today could live to be a healthy hundred and fifty. That’s Madonna sorted then.
The interesting question is to imagine a world where the technology was already in existence. What shape or form would that world take, if say Mary Whitehouse was still alive and healthy enough to continue playing her vitriolic role as a social and moral guardian. The mind boggles as there are so many greats and not so greats that have withered and declined as their organic faculties have struggled to keep pace. What kind of a world would it be a hundred years from now if Madonna was singing her swan song and would we still care? Would the rush of thought and culture, that is ushered in through the natural order of things, slow down as gridlock commences because the older generation are not ready to pass on the baton for a long time? After all power is only reluctantly passed on when the physically weakened are unable to keep in step with the times.
The other interesting thought is who will be given access to extend their life? In the current context there is the balance and pay off between time and money (in the richer world). If time was less finite than it is, would it replace money as the transaction vehicle for the future? So would an ageing population get access to the life extending technology in return for continuing to work till they were a hundred and twenty? That would be a fair trade off for economies in the West and China as they struggle to keep up with the more demographically youthful Latin American and South Asian market economies. How would the portfolio career withstand this change? Would we return to job for life and if so would that be a stultified existence or would there be enough opportunities for furnishing a portfolio career? The likely scenario is a stratification of working paths: both a job for life and the portfolio career would exist side by side and it would be a case of ‘horses for courses’; markets permitting.
Marketing wise, where would the ‘empty nester’; ‘silver surfer’ marketing opportunities disappear to? As we get healthier for longer and accrue more golden years how will we spend, live and eat and will we choose to have babies later in life? What will happen in the workplace, when we realise that we’re here to stay will we be less rushed in our approach to the career ladder? Most important of all what will happen to the youth and where will their place be in all of this? Will our present obsession with youth and beauty be replaced by a veneration of experience when youth and beauty become ubiquitous?
Answers in the comment box below please and if any one has mastered the space time continuum and spotted a peek at our parallel selves, pray do tell. Your secret will be safe with us.

Friday, 20 August 2010

China in your hand (apologies to Carol Decker)

We hurtled down a rocky path and even the hill hardy battered jeep groaned in protest. The rain grew stronger and soon lapped at our six pairs of ankles in the old jeep; we soldiered on. It was 1986 and in our usual state of bravado we had decided that on our trekking trip to the mountains, we would get to the Chinese border to, get this: buy erasers and pencils to fill our Donald Duck magnetic pencil boxes. We were early teenagers desperate to acquire coveted Chinese erasers that we could swap for championship striker marbles.
After an exhausting three hour border procedure designed to remind us that we were to be subservient to the vastly superior People’s Republic, we were greeted by its first citizen. It was a mountain dog who with his assorted coterie crossed the borders as their whim took them, if they fancied their chicken steamed or fried they were on the right side of the border and when the call of the curry became too strong to resist, they crossed back into India.

The village was tiny and the track muddy but a few larger houses were freshly painted in white and feted with bright red flags: Government buildings. One of these was the store which our guide took us to. Even then the marvel of Chinese manufacturing engulfed our senses: six different types of pencils, banks of Hello Kitty erasers rejected by American importers sat in empty oil tins, large plaid printed hard covered notebooks sniffed imperiously at us from the sample glass cases and the mercantile communists demanded to know if we were aware of their minimum purchase requirements. They looked rather bemusedly at our individualism as we stepped up to negotiate our own orders, and advised us to club together to meet the minimum.
Out in the street, clutching our purchases in red paper bags the dogs were the only denizens of the village, the locals seemed curiously absent till we spotted a hidden square. The people sat in odd clumps repairing cycle tires and no one talked. There was an odd industrious air that was totally missing the usual jocular and noisy camaraderie ever present on Indian workshop floors. A few vacant and dismissive glances at us were all we merited. The wet towers of tyres and dripping broad hats suggested that the workers had continued working through the rain in this open square. Their stoic silence shushed our noisy schoolboy chatter and we reverted to library behaviour pointing at a stray chicken and whispering at the impressive mounds of cycle tires on display.
We wanted to stop for some lunch but it seemed that lunch was not on offer even for paying foreigners. As we walked through I felt a prickle on the back of my neck and a strange sense of dull hostility from the silent streets and dark doorways along our path. Even the sun seemed to prefer the company of the large clouds which seemed to race northward away from the Indian border. Our guide hurried us on, no doubt eager to make his way back to his cronies at the border with his bag of fermented brew that he had brought out with him after he had slipped into a doorway in a lean to at the back of store. As we drove away, I turned around and saw the dogs’ race alongside our jeep. A narrow eyed child plump cheeked but strangely narrow framed had toddled to the side of our path and a pair of determined hands pulled it out of sight more worried by its observations of us than cleaning the dried stalactites which hung from below its nostrils.
Across the border we were greeted by three urchins, the guide’s cronies and a blaring transistor. The sky was blue, the sun hot and the smell of mustard seed and spring greens on flat griddles was in the air. We tightened our grip on our paper bags to make sure that they did not get contaminated by the pungency of turmeric and cumin, as our precious stash would need to hold onto its aloof and damp desirability in order to trade well. Twenty four years later, when I read this article in today’s Economist I was reminded of that peculiar day.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

The fate of books (and homo sapiens?)

The SeeWell isn't in sync today and so I'm unable to access my skyfiles which means I cannot access this particularly interesting novel called Indefinite Leave to Remain ( which I am told was circulated five decades ago. I shout at the Well but that sentient is as always inscrutable. Its shields are up though which means it is reading my anger levels and preparing to be lashed out at in frustration by me, one of the few scribers left. There used to be many of us but that was before the paper run of '19. The toofans that year had been fierce and the flooding of the islands had decided it, POCE (pulp of coniferous origin) was instantly declared a classified resource and all production or use of it ceased. To make sure things stayed that way every old papyrus, bound scroll and those BOOKS were secured in the womb of the Mankind Project. Now my handiwork can only be glimpsed at virtually through Skyfiles. Still Skyfile's a grand service to be running just for little old me with one foot in each era. My first present was an old bound piece of pulped tree to skim through for my Professor of Human Sciences and my last present was a Halucin implant that attempted to transport my meagre memories into TI or total immersion where the rest of humanity dwells these days. It even came with a free TI on Midnights Children that schooling classic that has been on Curriculum for over three decades. Aah well I prefer to glance over and absorb pictures and letters and not be drowned in moving aural and olfactory experiences that require me to boot-down after each silo-ed sensory layer comes crashing into my consciousness. Their large, heavy and dense constructs upsets my fragile webbed interface for I am after all only a first generation SD (sentient scanning device) created just before the Singularity...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Night swimming deserves a quiet night..

Wolves, faeries and dragons surround me and the wolf man throws his head back to howl at the moon at my feet but it’s not a howl I hear rather a shrill buzz, buzz, buzz…
Eyes thick with sleep cower within their heavy lidded prisons and a clumsy hand reaches out to an i-phone that dances as it buzzes on the bedside table. Its bright light blazes the thick veil off my eyes and the dark room is lit by this dancing torch. Wearily I look at the fascia and see the words unknown just before the phone stops its dance at the edge of the table preventing the first instance (in my limited experience anyway) of death by dancing. Turning over into a twisted duvet and burrowing under pillows I slip into the lair of wolves, dragons and faeries and the buzz, buzz, buzz starts again..
A dull pressure cresting my brow and knotting at my temples means that the caller will get the full force of my ire. Armed with my irritation and cloaked in indignance I reach for the dancing device and bark into it.
A mechanical transatlantic voice asks me if I am aware of the savings I can make; and before I can hear another word, I let out the howl the wolf was meant to make. I press at the keypad to see if it would connect me to a homo-sapien who would be ready like the moon to receive the howls that are waiting in the pit of my stomach but each option I press sends me to another automaton and for the sake of my neighbours the howling remains unsounded. Anger turns to incredulity for a brief moment: who, why, what, how could telemarketing have got so desperate? Meaningless conjecturing is instantly replaced with a fresh wave of rage that then comes boomeranging back at me. So much for all those countless online registrations forms filled by me which insisted that the field for my mobile phone number was compulsory. Greed to get my hands on the last pair of tickets to an underground event or the only remaining voucher for a discount expiring in minutes leads to a unknown call from a robot in a different space-time dimension.
Wide awake at three in the morning I daren’t to go to sleep as this new event seems specifically designed to occur when I hit REM. So I stay awake and watch the moonlight hit the water outside and throw crested light and dark striations across the pale bedroom walls. The trees outside are silent in the still heat and the restless spirit of night tangles me into its own special embrace. At the window I look out to see a city that is asleep for that one hour in the day when the denizens of club-ville have caught their last taxi home and the milk vans and HGV drivers are yet to sail past the ringed avenue that circles the centre of this agitated metropolis.
I flick on Spotify and create a new playlist starting with Night Swimming by REM ( that seems fairly appropriate, but my dear readers what songs would you add to this playlist for the sleepless?

Beauty is love and peace is fine.