Yesterday I took a stroll in an old part of town. A shower of rain had left the streets newly washed, and the park, on the opposite corner was fresh and sparkling with sunlight on drops of water. All at once memory stirred, and I saw myself as a young girl, alighting from a tram on this very corner, and the memories came flooding back. This was where my mother had lived in a small, one-roomed flat, and I used to come there on week-ends, from the boarding school. I gazed across the busy street at the park, its shrubs bending low with the weight of moisture still clinging to them. It looked unchanged. I turned and walked back along the way I had come. Yes -- there was the shop where I used to buy cold drinks on hot days, with pennies I had begged from Mum -- pennies she could ill afford.
I walked past the shop and stood in front of the building, changed now, yet oddly the same, and still evoking the same feelings of joy and freedom which I remembered so well. I had a sudden impulse: a desire to see it again, this room which had featured in so many of my dreams. I walked up the two steps and opened the front door. Most apartment entrances were locked these days, and I wondered if this one had been left open accidentally. But I was inside now, and standing before the first door on the right . . . my mother's old room. I knocked. The door was frosted glass now, not the scarred wooden one I remembered. I saw a movement behind the glass, a hint of what seemed to indicate a child. Then I heard a man's voice, speaking with a foreign accent. "Who arre you?"
"Um . . . I ah, well, you don't know me, but . . . "
"Then why should I open the door?"
"I used to live here," I said, "a long time ago."
"A likely story! Do you expect me to believe that?"
"Please yourself," I said, and, disappointed, I turned to leave.
"How long ago?" he asked through the glass door.
I did a quick calculation. "About 64 years ago."
"Really? So long ago?"
"And you lived here?"
"In this very room?"
"And I suppose you would like to see it again -- after all these years?"
"If it's convenient."
The door had opened a crack, and I could see him pressed close against it. I imagined him trying to catch a glimpse of me, encouraged perhaps by the knowledge that I was only a woman, and an old woman at that.
"How old were you?" he asked.
"About thirteen I believe."
He moved away from the door and I could hear him muttering to himself. I felt a little ridiculous, standing there, waiting for him to come to a decision about my trustworthiness, and on another impulse I put my hand against the glass door and gave it a shove, sending it flying wide open. I had my chance to see the room, but I missed it because my eyes were riveted on the little man standing still in shocked surprise at the spectacle of his open door and the stranger staring at him.
Perhaps he was encouraged by the fact that I was still standing outside, and hadn't rushed in to bludgeon him to death, because he hurried forward, took my arm and drew me inside, quickly closing the door behind me. "Well, you're in now," he said., "have a look and go."
"Thank you very much." But I was still looking at him: a little man about four feet tall with grey wavy hair which seemed much too much hair to fit on his head. He had a nervous way of fidgeting with his hands. "Well?" he damanded.
"It's very different from what I remember," I said. "Of course, the window is still in the same place, but it never used to have bars on it."
"What do you expect," he grumbled, "being on a level with the street, as it is?"
"Yes, of course."
The room seemed bigger than I remembered. Perhaps because my mother had a double bed against the window, and now that place was empty. As though reading my thoughts he pointed to a cupboard. "The folding bed is in there," he said
He seemed to be growing comfortable with my presence, and I began to feel guilty about intruding on his privacy. "I like what you've done with it."
He seemed pleased by that remark, and as though regretting his initial brusqueness, he said "Won't you sit down?" He indicated a comfortable-looking chair. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
I felt quite ashamed by his sudden kindness. "That's very kind, but I really feel that I have already intruded enough."
"That's alright -- it's just that one can't be too careful -- you understand, living alone in such an unsavoury neighbourhood."
Yes,I thought, I suppose it is considered unsavoury these days. It wasn't when I lived here..I told him so.
He filled an electric jug and plugged it into a power point at a small table in the corner, and I remembered the gas ring which my mother had used: indeed, on which she had cooked whole dinners.
"How long did you live here?"
"Hardly at all, really. I only came here on week-ends" and I told him about the boarding school, and how coming home to this little room on weekends was the one bright and happy spot in the dreary weeks of school life. "I used to look forward to it all week," I confided. "I would come here on Friday evening, and Mum would take me to the theatre up-town, and we'd see a movie."
His look was sympathetic and understanding. "Sounds like you had a lonely childhood."
"Yes, it was rather."
He made the tea and poured two cups. He placed a small coffee-table beside my chair, then brought the tea and two biscuits on a plate, and set them on the table. Then he sat in the opposite chair with his teacup in his hand. I noticed that his feet didn't touch the floor.
Having overcome his initial fears, he was now quite civil, and we chatted about this and that. He asked me about my childhood, so I told him about my parents' divorce and how I grew up in the care of strangers, and he nodded sympathetically throughout. I began to feel embarrassed by what I saw as an intimate exchange, and wished I hadn't told him so much on such short acquaintance. "What about you?" I ventured, in an effort to change the subject. "What was your childhood like?"
"It was wonderful . . . until the war started." It seemed he'd been born in Poland. "Ah, so your accent is Polish?" I interrupted.
"Yes," and he told how he went to live in Germany at a young age. At first he prattled on about happy times with his parents and three sisters: about picnics, and theatre parties, and musical evenings with every member of the family playing a musical instrument. It sounded wonderful, and I forgot my embarrassment as I envied him his idyllic childhood. But then the tone of his voice changed, and he began to tell me about the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War: the murder of his parents, and the rape and murder of his little sisters, and how only he was left to survive the tragedy of the war. I was quite shaken by this sudden recital of the atrocities, and wished that he hadn't confessed so much of his personal anguish. I was trying to compose something comforting to say to him, but he went on speaking.
"Actually," he said, "the world owes me a great debt of gratitude."
"Oh? How's that?"
"I'm the man who killed Adolph Hitler!"
I was momentarily stunned by this revelation, but the earnestness in his eyes, and the certainty in his voice was so convincing that I didn't doubt either his sincerity, or the truthfulness of his statement -- not for a moment. I simply said, "I thought he killed himself."
"Yes -- that's what I wanted the world to think. I made it look that way."
He then told me an incredible tale of how, as a young boy, he had been driven to the edge of insanity by the murder of his family: a tale of confiscating two guns from the bodies of dead soldiers: of hiding in a stationery cupboard in the bunker until lthe guards had left the Fuhrer and his paramour alone, and of sneaking out and shooting the pair. "I wiped away my fingerprints, and pressed the guns into their hands," he said. "Forensic science was not very advanced in those days. They had no way of arriving at the truth, so the world was told that they committed suicide."
I had judged him to be in his fifties, but after hearing this story I realized that he must be much older. Even so, he must have been very young when the war ended. I voiced these thoughts in what I hoped was a calm voice, but my hands were shaking as I finished my tea and returned the cup and saucer to the coffee table.
"Oh yes," he agreed. "I was very young. But when one has suffered what I had suffered, and witnessed what I had witness, it tends to cause a young person to grow old very quickly."
I nodded in understanding, and murmured something sympathetic.
I wanted to leave, so I told him I had to go. I thanked him for the tea, and for letting me see the room again, and I rose to leave.
"Thank you for letting me tell you these things," he said. "I don't talk about them very often."
We were shaking hands when the knock came to the door. I could make out through the frosted glass door that there were two men standing there -- men in white coats -- and they were saying, "Come on Jurgen, it's time to go now. You've been a bad boy again, haven't you?"
He was scowling, and swearing, and his polish accent had quite disappeared. "Wouldn't you know it," he complained in as Aussie an accent as one could wish, "just when I was enjoying your company." He shrugged in resignation, took a coat from the back of a chair and struggled into it. "Nice to have met you," he said, then opened the door. "Okay fellers, I'll come quietly," and he allowed himself to be escorted to the van which was waiting at the kerb.
My dumbfounded expression led one of the white-coated men to ask, "You alright Ma'am? Has he been telling you stories?"
"Yes, I believe he has."
"Don't upset yourself Ma'am. He makes them up as he goes along -- used to be an actor in the old days, and quite a good one too. He's certainly good at taking folks in. But he means no harm. It's just a lark to him."
I watched in silence as my tragic war hero was locked inside the van, which had the name of a prominent psychiatric hospital painted on the side in large letters. As I gathered up my belongings: my hat and my handbag, I promised myself that I would never tell my husband how I had been duped by an escapee from a mental institution. I was heading for the entrance door when an elderly woman emerged from another room off the hall. "Can I help you dear?"
"Nol thank you. It's quite alright. I was just visiting the gentleman in that room," and I pointed to the glass door.
"Oh, do you know Jurgen, then?"
"No, not rreally, I just . . ."
"What a dear man he is," said the woman, who turned out to be the landlady. "He suffered so much during the war, you know. It's not surprising that it turned his head. For Mercy's sake, he was only a child at the time."
"You mean . . . it's true then?"
"What's that dear? Has he told you his story?"
"Well, he told me a story. Whether it was true or not, I can't say."
"Oh it was true alright. You can believe it dear -- I know. I've seen his pictures, and the documents from the medical authorities. The German doctors used to take the children's blood you know -- again and again -- to give transrfusions to the wounded soldiers. That's why he didn't grow very much. He showed me the photographs of his three little sisters. Such beautiful little girls they were. Can you imagine what he must have suffered?"
"Does he live here all the time then?"
"Oh no dear. He has been in the hospital for a long time now: about ten years I think, but I keep this place for him. He likes to break away from the hospital from time to time, and give himself a little bit of normal life. He always pays me everything owing on the room, whenever he comes home, but they always come and get him and take him back again. Such a pity!"
"He does a very good Polish accent," I said sarcastically.
"Oh yes," said the landlady. "He came here soon after the war, whilel he was still a child, and he usually has no accent at all, but when he becomes disturbed you can hear the Polish coming out. Poor man!"
I murmured a few polite words about injustice and inhumanity, and headed for the entrance door, thoroughly confused. War hero or confidence trickster? I had stopped trying to decide. One thing was certain though . . . I would never forget him.