The Seat Where Mr. Fiedler Sat

Each morning, the girl would see Mr. Fiedler on the number thirteen tram, seated on the same left-hand side window seat as the morning before and every morning as far back as she could remember.
This is the story about a young girl named Wilda, who sees her teacher on the tram to school every morning; a teacher who loves music and stories and making children smile. This is a story about a poor country and some powerful, scared men and time and how it changes. It is a story about fear and friendship and forgiveness.
So, yeah. Just read it.

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3. Chapter 2

If anybody had bothered to ask, (which, in case you’re wondering, they don’t) I would have told them that the stories feel cold at first. All frosted and hard to crack open. This story was like that. It bit my fingers and then began to de-frost and speak a little. There is always some fear in the beginning. In the best stories, it gets taken away and replaced by laughter. And the best laughter? The laughter of children. Of course, they smell terrible, take money from their parents and run around with poo in their nappies for hours, but if anyone knows how to smile, it’s a child. Their laughs cure blindness, stop wars and above all, throw away prejudice and first impressions.

Now, shall we continue?

Wilda’s Headmaster was a medium sized man with a tinted moustache, who kept a concealed cigarette tin of sadism in his small breast-pocket. He told himself everyday that he loved his job, because it softened the fact that he actually hated it. He was a clever, cowardly man who was neither admired nor hated by his pupils. He was simply a necessity of their school life, commonly referred to as Heinz.

He stood in front of a crowd of children dressed identically to Wilda herself; a crowd double the size of one that you would expect to see at playground, perhaps. They were stony faced, with buds of nervousness or cold bleeding through their fat cheeks. The milky sun that would have warmed them was obstructed by a cherry tree whose bony boughs were sad and weak. Heinz coughed violently. This year, he thought, remembering the pep talk his wife had delivered a few nights ago, this year I’ll show them who’s boss. No more nice Heinz for these little dummkopfs. I’ll be stamping down on them like a boot on an ant hill.

“Heinz, is it true that your Mother still irons your trousers and makes your packed lunch?” A voice in the exact shape of a bumptious ten year-old boy named Albert flew from the other side of the schoolyard.

Heinz’s moustache bristled with rage. “Shut up, boy! Get your arse into class!” His forgotten audience giggled and he shuffled around quickly. “That’s enough.” His eyebrows flat-lined but his scowl did not scare the children, least of all Wilda who laughed the loudest. Her brothers had passed down the fact-file on Heinz like a hand-me-down. Wilda was scared of many things; immediately she knew that Heinz was not one of them.

“I am Herr Eberhart. This is my name and you will use no other when addressing me, is that understood?” Nods from all. “As I thought. I am your Headmaster and everything you do during your time at Sonnenstrahl will be watched by me. No action will go unnoticed, each corridor will be inspected. Trouble-making will be punished accordingly and I expect you as young citizens of Germany and this establishment to report it. My word is law and none of you are to question that, understood?” A sea of nods again. It was a sad microcosmic affair.

“Can I use the toilet?” A small voice from the back said.

“Didn’t I just tell you not to question me?” Flames ebbed around Heinz’s mouth. “See me afterwards. Moving on, you have been split into class groups. You will remain with the same teacher and peers until the end of this school term in late June. You will listen and work efficiently, consistently and precisely. Failure to do this will be met with a punishment decided by your teacher. A continual dismal record will result in referral to me.” He dislodged a crust of bread from one of his molars and buried his chokes with an expression that made him look like a victim of either constipation or whooping cough. “I have nothing left to say to you other than to direct you to your class groups.” He paused momentarily and then remembered something. “If ever you need anything, don’t ask me.”

A register was called and inbetween the Ackermanns and Baums and Dietrichs and Hirchs and Kirchs and Kleins and Offeneins and Schiffers and Schultes and Vogels and Weisses Wilda heard her name called, followed by “Herr Fiedler’s class.” She joined an ever growing line.

***

Inside, the classroom was warm and carpeted with maps of the world and charts on human anatomy and musical notes and fractions dotting the wall. It wasn’t home but it smelt of musk and cool milk and there was a shelf with more than a few books on it. There was a large oak-wood cupboard in the corner of the room; a fat-bottomed stove near the door that crackled and flaked each time a whimpering gasp of wind seeped through the crevices in the frosted window. Near the front desk, there was a piano; a small one, albeit, but it looked loved and worn with its cherry-wood gloss and clean curves; and, naturally, row upon row of sealed desks inhibited the slim belly of the classroom. The blackboard in the left-hand side corner was matt and scuffed and looked in need of an early retirement. The room was old; but it wasn’t new which was already a bonus for Wilda. “Herr Fiedler” was written in a white, rigid script across the board like blunt teeth.

Mr. Fiedler shut a few rattling windows and stood by his desk in a reposing stance. His face was creased like the sleeves of his tweed blazer. There was something about his smile that was tangible and the sense of relief from the children was palpable as it swooned around the room. “I’m going to take a register now and as I call your name I’d like you to say ‘present’ and file into the desks from left to right. These will be your seats for the foreseeable future weeks. We’ll start with this seat here and... Bruno Adler. Good morning.”

Someone, at some point in your existence will tell you that life is comprised of ordinary and extraordinary people. They’d be lying. There are just people and some other important things like fear and tea and love and fashionable hats, apparently. There are always, of course, exceptions to this rule and Bruno Adler was a damned big one. Literally. There were forty year-old men smaller than Bruno and young Rhinoceroses lighter.  He was a keen violinist and enjoyed gardening with his Grandmother on Sunday afternoons after Church. Problem? He didn’t think so. Following on from what her Mother had explicitly instructed her not to do, Wilda’s jaw dropped dangerously close to the floor and she stared impolitely. Maybe something told her that this boy would soon become one of her greatest friends. Maybe not.

***

Wilda was sat on the end of the second row next to one small little Sofie Sankt. Out of the two, one was short and one was tall; one was dark and one was fair; one’s knees were soft and rosy and one’s knees were grazed and cracked and; one’s Father was an affluent bank clerk and one’s was a labourer who used to draw before he was gassed in the trenches of a forgotten country; one’s parents told her that she believed in Yahweh and one’s told her that The Holy Trinity worked in mysterious ways. 

“I believe that’s everyone.” Mr. Fiedler put down the register and rolled up his sleeves. “So now there’s at least one thing that you know about me,” He smiled outwardly, “I am an appalling singer.” The class laughed half-heartedly, slightly worried about whether they should agree or not. “I can remember my first day at school, many, many years ago, a long time before any of you were born. I didn’t think I’d like it. In fact,” He chuckled to himself, swiping his glasses off of his nose to clean, “I tied myself to the post of my bed with a linen sheet and some chicken wire. It took my Father 45 minutes to untangle to the mess I’d made. I could barely walk on that leg and turned up half an hour late to my first lesson. Text book stuff, of course.” The children really did laugh then.

“But, I enjoyed it in the end. So much so, that I came back to teach. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this year as much as I’m going to and that we’ll all get on splendidly. We’ll be exploring foreign lands, discovering ancient treasure and learning about the stars and planets. And that’s just History, Geography and Science for a start. What I am most keen on teaching you about, however, is Music.” He gestured towards the piano next to his desk. Mr. Fiedler sat down by the cherry-red piano and tucked himself snugly inside, as though finding himself back in a place that was vaguely familiar and comforting. His fingers gently caressed the wooden curves as he opened the lid to reveal a set of white and black keys, a faint polish still apparent on their surface. “We’ll be studying the great composers,” He announced, cracking his knuckles and preparing to play.

And just like that Mr. Fiedler sprang into “Eine Kleine Naschtmusik”, arousing a bout of giggling in his premature audience. Even the ones who had never been near to a piano before in their lives could bumble along to this well known tune. “For one point, who can name the composer of this piece for me?”

Wilda’s hand shot up like a bullet, alone in a sea of blank, answerless faces. But his was common knowledge to Wilda: her oldest brother, Nikolaus, could play that song backwards from memory on the Cello. “Mozart!” She cried out and Mr. Fiedler grinned out of the corner of his eye. “Excellent, Wilda” His praise warmed and pleased her. “A composer is someone who writes music. Mozart was one of the most famous composers on the planet. He was born in Austria, a long, long time ago. In-”

“In 1756. I think that’s what Nikolaus told me.” Wilda mumbled, with as much assurance and nonchalance as if she was answering her name in the register.

“Yes, exactly, Wilda. In 1756.”

“Is Mozart still alive, Herr. Fiedler?” A clearly attentive and astute boy named Gunter called from the back of the class. All of the children erupted in cackles. Gunter looked a little crest-fallen, but joined in anyway.

“I should certainly hope not, Gunter.” Mr. Fiedler chuckled, referring to his register to identify who the question had come from. A palpable sense of relief flooded the classroom. This, the uniforms thought in uniformity (yes, I can be quite humorous when I want to be, dear readers), is a teacher that we can act ourselves with.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Fiedler had devised his very own poem to accompany the tune, designed to help the children appreciate the genius of Mozart, in under 40 words. “Ehem,” he cleared his throat boldly. His breathing rattled (a symptom of the unavoidable disease of old-age and from having a few too many cigarettes), but he managed to curb the way that his body shook.

There once was a musician named Mozart,

Who wrote symphonies with many, many parts,

A pianist by the time he was eight,

Everyone thought his songs were great,

But he was dead by thirty-five, the old fart!”

 

It was excruciatingly bad; painful; a travesty to the world of music: But Wilda and the rest of her class loved it. The bars of sunlight that struck themselves violently against the window frames were refracted, and seemed to dance across the classroom like miniature bolts of starlight in time with the laughter of the children.

“Mozart was from Austria.” Mr. Fiedler commenced, once the chuckling had began to subside, “But no one can beat us Germans when it comes to performing classical music.” All of a sudden, he fearlessly dived into “Beethoven’s 5th”. The foreboding, cut-throat tones paralysed the class with awe and wonderment. Mr. Fiedler’s fingers slotted on to each of the keys forcefully; he was in command of the instrument, a dictator, spurring it on. “Another point for the pupil who can tell the class who wrote this tune.” He shouted, his voice towering above the brash and domineering chords.

Yet again, Wilda’s hand was the first to emerge. “Beethoven.” She said, without any trace of doubt. “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.” Tribute nights were broadcast on her Grandmother’s favourite radio station, on the second Thursday of every month. She could remember times when she would fall asleep in her Grandmother’s lap, as she snored in time to the rhythm. Mr. Fiedler raised one eyebrow, forming an expression that was half-way between appreciation and surprise. The class mirrored this, eager to speculate at the girl who clearly had all the answers. “Right again, Wilda.” He paused for a second; the pause was so short, that no one was even aware of its presence, but it gave Mr. Fiedler enough time to think. He thought about the little girl from the tram this morning, and how she now raised her hand with such confidence, that it almost seemed impossible for the two little uniforms to be the same person. Music made her forget about her mother and home, because music acted as a surrogate: a surrogate home and a surrogate mother. A sort of comfort blanket. Mr. Fiedler was very fast when it came to thinking.

“I have another rhyme for you to remember about Beethoven.” Again, he cleared his throat, but this time prepared to sing. The result was a monstrous, gulping bulge.

“Beethoven wrote in the treble clef!

By twenty six, he began to go deaf!”

The class repeated the poem with gusto.

“Then again,” He pondered out loud, the vocal ordeal now over. “No one can say that the French don’t know how to have a good time.” Out of the lively and empowering world of Beethoven came the drone and ceaseless humming of Saint-Saen’s “The Snail”. It was desperately slow-paced, but Mr. Fiedler knew perfectly how to curb his class’s increasing boredom. The pace quickened gradually, getting ever faster, like a train on its journey out of the station and into the raw and bitter wilderness. It soon became impossibly fast, Mr. Fiedler’s fingers moving at a speed faster than that of a Race Horse. The tune bubbled and glistened in little gusts and soon every child was jumping in their seats with enthusiasm. Wilda gasped and laughed in amazement, but she saw something beyond what the others saw. Instead of seeing her teacher play the works of the great composers with admirable skill, she saw a piano and its soul. She saw it bend over backwards for its master; not out of blind obedience; but out of love. Out of the pleasure of watching an audience cry and laugh and dance to the music that it could spill out so gladly. Wilda, too, wanted to tickle the keys with her fingers. She wanted for it to love her and for her to love it.

“Wilda,” Mr. Fiedler called out, “Why don’t you tell us who wrote this piece?” He wasn’t teasing the child, or mimicking her knowledge. He asked the question with genuine interest, as simply as if he was asking her to recite a poem or ride a bike. “Saint-Saens.” She said bluntly. “My brother, Isaak, showed me a funny dance to this, once.” All the children stared at the little girl with wild blonde hair and blue eyes. They smiled at her, and the unfamiliar names that she could spill out with ease. They sounded so official, so adult and foreign. But Wilda thought nothing of it. She’d heard the song before and someone had simply told her who had written it. But she didn’t care much for composers or treble clefs or quaver rests or other such jargon. She loved the music: the sweet, raw, harsh, brutal, gentle rhythm. Smooth as silk, bitter as sleet. That was all that she wanted.

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