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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4. Chapter 3

The music and the laughter continued until the break-time bell began to echo throughout the corridors. “We’ll continue after lunchtime.” Mr. Fiedler promised as the uniforms piled out of the back-door. Wilda and her class were too young to be allowed out of the school for lunch, so they dispersed out around the playground (although it was some-what more of a dump, with bits of tyre and rubble strewn all over the place) and each found a corner to sit down and delve into their packed lunches. Wilda and Sofie did not separate from one another, their palms fastened together like buckles on a shoe. “How do you know so much about music?” Sofie cooed, her heavy eyes not yet confident enough to directly peer into Wilda’s face. “My family like music. All my brothers can play musical instruments, but I don’t play any, and my Oma was a singer, once. Then she got old and Opa died. Now she won’t sing for anybody.”

“Oh.” Sofie said. “That’s sad about your Oma and Opa. Maybe if you sung to her, your Oma would sing again.”

“Yes, maybe.” Wilda grasped the idea, and tucked it into her dress pocket, where it sat alongside the word “adventure” and “try not to bite Isaak, even if he is the most annoying brother in the world.”

“Well, I think that you are very clever.” Sofie announced. She was reeling with pride; never before had she plucked up the courage to engage in conversation with another child her age. Wilda beamed back. “And I think that you are very clever, too. And pretty. You have nice green eyes, like my Mama.”

The green and blue eyed girls scattered across the dump and sat down between a mixed group of boys and girls, who had already started to pick at their assortment of breads and cheeses and sausages and cartons of milk. They each introduced themselves, but soon it all became a jumble of names, like a snowball rolling down a hill. It got bigger and bigger, until the end result was something that resembled: “friedrickhanselguntermariagertaannikapavelherschelbrunosofiewildagudrunrosalie”.

Everything went as it should. The children shared out the little chocolates and biscuits that their mothers or cooks had packed them. They made jokes, complemented Wilda on her musical knowledge and asked each other about toys they played with, or what radio programmes they enjoyed. Rosalie, the girl who sat next to Sofie, had long eyelashes and pinched pale lips. She held out a metal container, filled with cold Frankfurter sausages that glistened with butter. She said: “Sofie, would you like one?” And Sofie just stared at her, trying to think of what she could possibly say. She knew about the questions that would follow, and how they would ask and stare at her like an animal in a zoo. Like she wasn’t a child. “My Papa says I’m not allowed to eat sausages. He says, because of our religion, it’s not allowed.” She blushed, like a drop of blood spreading and contaminating a glass of milk.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” The question was thick and cut straight through the air. It came from Herschel, a boy with gelled hair and a blossoming wart on the edge of his nose. It was safe to say that, as an un-diagnosed psychopath, Herschel knew nothing of the laughter of children and its healing properties. Herschel was of the pig-tail pulling, conker-smashing, pocket-money-stealing, highly pugnacious variety of young boys. Herschel knew everything that anyone could possibly want to know about bullying. He was a genius of the worst possible kind.

Jew: It was an unfamiliar phrase and although many of the children had heard their parents entertain the word a few times before in their speech, it was not one that they used themselves. No one could have foretold this, but in less than five years, the way in which you answered that question could determine whether you lived or died. Herschel pointed his plump fore-finger at Sofie, who had begun to busy herself in the task of unwrapping the red-chequered cloth that imprisoned her sandwich. “Yes. I... Yes. I am.”

Her eyes glazed over and her mouth twitched slightly as she met the gaze of everyone in the circle. It was not an innocent question; it was crafted to create maximum embarrassment.

“She looks like a Jew.” He said. “Look at that nose,” Herschel sneered, tracing the shape of Sofie’s nostrils. “It’s massive and all drooping. Like a number 6.” Sofie turned away, concealing the majority of her face with her hand. This was blunt, cold humiliation. Sofie looked Wilda in the eye, scared, bold, patient, afraid, disappointed. Wilda did not know what to do. The girl with all of the answers and none of them.

“My Papa says Jews are dirty. They’re wicked, too. They steal food from Germans.” Herschel said, translating his father’s words into his own speech. The things he said were bogus, fictitious, unnaturally right-wing for a nearly-eight-year-old and completely untrue:

And the children swallowed it as if they were being told that two plus two is four.

“She seems clean to me.” A girl named Gudrun queried, assessing Sofie in her cowering position. “Yes,” Sofie quivered, attempting to summon up as much bravery as she could generate. “My Mama bathes me every night. And we aren’t wicked. My Papa works in a bank, with money. He’s good at sums and he does important work. That’s not wicked.”

“My Papa says Jews spread disease. They take jobs from Germans.” Herschel confirmed, blatantly pushing away any evidence that had been presented by his victim. “Well, I did see her cough when we sat down in class, this morning.” Added another squeak of a voice, belonging to Gunter, the boy who had asked the question about Mozart earlier on. “I’d hide your food if I were you, you don’t know if she’ll cough all over it, or steal it. You can’t tell with Jews.” The children continued, as though Sofie was invisible, too incompetent to be fully aware of the venomous conversation. Wilda just stared at them all, wishing that she could stop the hatred, wishing that she could answer a question and she would not have to find herself in this position. She wanted to cry. Not for Sofie, but for her own lack of understanding. Some of the children covered their food with their hands, not actually knowing that Sofie would never steal it, not if her life depended on it.

A shadow had been cast over the group, obstructing the faint and pallid rays of light that had placidly washed the backs of the sitting children. It encased the children and when they looked up, they saw that it had belonged to Bruno, the seven year old boy who did not look like a seven year old boy. His presence was omnipotent, god-like, ruthless, yet somehow kind, misunderstood. “I think that you should shut up, Herschel.” Bruno spoke softly, the lack of pugnacity in his voice surprising the party. His accent was certainly not German, possibly Hungarian or Czechoslovakian but he spoke the language flawlessly. He concentrated the majority of his shadow onto his target. “In fact, you are going to shut up. You’re a dirty, thieving, lying, cheat, so don’t even bother saying anything at all. Now, are you going to keep your mouth buttoned, or do I have to do that myself?” Herschel looked into Bruno, the giant’s eyebrows furrowed and unmoving, just like the rest of his body. It took a few moments for the idea to creep up behind him, and bite him on the shoulder: Bruno wasn’t moving, because it was Herschel who had to. Gathering his lunch, he muttered “I didn’t want to sit next a dirty Jew, anyway,” and moved to the obstructive shade of a sycamore tree, near the alley gate that concluded the west side of the school. Gudrun, Gunter, Hansel and Maria followed in suit, awkwardly gathering up their food and bumbling off in the same direction.

And do you know something, reader? It was funny. They all would have stayed. They didn’t care that Sofie was a Jew. They wanted to laugh and share out their food and get to learn each other’s names. But Herschel seemed to know what he was talking about, Herschel seemed powerful and knowledgeable and terrifying and correct. Herschel  wanted what was best for them, yes, Herschel was right, yes.

So they followed Herschel.

Bruno resumed his position, bordering on the outskirts of the group circle, as if he had just returned from a trip to the toilet. “Problem?” He inquired almost innocently, meeting everyone’s stares after tearing off a mouthful of a cured-beef sandwich. The children’s heads shook vigorously and the glaze over their eyes was somewhere between admiration and unadulterated fear.

The conversation began to flow again; it was hasty and clipped at first, but it soon became refined and gentle, smooth and tangible. Having finished their food, the uniforms sprang up out of their places and raced over to a wooden crate filled with ragged skipping-ropes, made out of odd bits of rope and leather footballs, cracked and thread-bare, apart from a few stitches. Three remained in their original places: Bruno, Sofie and Wilda.

“Bruno?” Sofie asked.

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

Bruno began to pick at the strands of yellow grass, slightly abashed and grateful and glowing and unsure what on Earth he was meant to say.

“I don’t like mean little people.” They all evaluated the remark and paused, mid-way between their sandwiches. Bruno chuckled lightly to himself, and his company smiled at him, expecting him to share the joke. “There was a boy in my own town, back home in Hungary. He barely came up to my ankle, but he used to pick on me every day. It seems silly, but he really scared me!” They all laughed.

The Elephant and the Mouse.

“What happened?” Wilda enquired, batting the crumbs off of her dress, half-heartedly.

“One day, I just turned around and kicked him in the shins. My Mama shouted at me for that.” Bruno burst out laughing, the girls chorusing. Wilda and Sofie were fearless and apprehensive. “But he stopped picking on me. But we moved to Germany anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” His laughter dwindled, taking a fall from its hearty crescendo.

Sofie’s eyes darted around and she asked “Why did you move away from Hungary?” And Bruno responded “My Papa’s business wasn’t doing very well. My Mama is German, so I’ve always spoken it. We decided that we should move here, because my Unko is sick now, and there is only Mama left to look after him.”

“Do you miss home?” Wilda chirped softly, her voice hushed and respectful. She was talking about Hungary. Yes, thought Bruno,Yes, I do. I miss my Papa’s ice-cream shop that sat beneath the linden tree. I miss the other children and their songs and their names and my beautiful language. I miss the running boots that I left at the bottom of my wardrobe, that were too big to take on the train. I miss my Grambaba and the harp that he played and the stories that he wrote. I miss my Danube; my twinkling Blue Danube, who sang me to sleep and listened to my hopes and my fears and my dreams.

“I suppose. I miss the Danube river, most of all. It was... it was pretty.” Said Bruno. He licked his fingers and stood up, just as the bell that was synonymous with the end of lunch rang. They lined up together, Wilda and Sofie next to each other, but not as close together as they were.

That afternoon, Mr. Fiedler handed out sheets of blank drawing paper and pencils and instructed the class to draw a picture or write a poem that was based on one of the songs they had heard that morning. “Herr. Fiedler?” Wilda raised her hand tentatively, its presence almost awkward in the open air. “How can I help?” Mr. Fiedler responded, filling each desk up with an assortment of pastels. “I was wondering if you could maybe play another song. For us.” Mr. Fiedler raised an eyebrow and sunk into the leather bound chair inside his desk. “Yes, I think so. Which song is it that you want me to play? I do hope that it’s not that jazz that all the young people are interested in. Because, in that case, I-“

“It’s “The Blue Danube Waltz”. By Johann Strauss.” Her Grandfather would play this song on the violin as her lullaby each night. She remembered the violin now and how it collected dust on top of the bookshelf in the dining room, while its owner was in a somewhere between the Earth and the Sky. She thought of Bruno and his feelings about home and Hungary and maybe the Danube and how they were kept enveloped and sealed.

“Yes, I think I can.” Mr. Fiedler took his place at the piano once more, opening up the instrument and anointing the tips of the keys with his yellowing, calloused fingers. The melody began, cloud-like and sweet and sad and poignant.

Wilda didn’t turn around, but if she had, she would have seen two things: the first was a seven year old boy, who did not look like a monster. He looked like a lost child, who had finally found his way home. The second was a smile. A smile that did not forget the actions of the past, but forgave them.

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