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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5. Chapter 4

We’ll continue with the smell of soap, a worried wife and a lack of time. 

Contrary to popular belief, teachers do not sleep in school. Well, Mr. Fiedler certainly didn’t, as would have been made apparent if you had seen him jump off of the number thirteen tram at half past six on a particularly fuzzy-warm evening. Outside, the pavements were blanched with dappled rays of light. The sun cast out weak and feeble shades of yellow and white, which was synonymous with the termination of a golden summer. The trees along the avenue shook, their cumbersome leaves quaking softly in the wind: it was the start of a bitter autumn, cancerous and seething with hollow emptiness. I’d better invest in a better coat, Mr. Fiedler thought to himself and pocked his finger through a hole in one of his drab little pockets He chuckled, a little too loudly, thinking of the thinning and patched-up trench coat that was clamped under his forearm and how it would probably be of more use as a dog’s blanket. One Herr Unger, a green-grocer who had lived in Nuremberg his entire life and wasn’t quite used to middle-aged men laughing out loud to themselves in public at half past six in the evening as they walked down the street stared at him intently and then went back to the unloading a crate of bruised apples. 

It’s important that we establish where Mr. Fiedler lived, how it looked and what happened there. Because in the months to come, time would come visiting like a plague or death Himself and it would change everything. The whole country would be changed, but no home or road or town more than Mr. Fiedler’s. 

It was called Vogel Street which was, apparently, funny. Well, that depends on the calibre of your humour. The man who named the street clearly thought that it was hilarious. Vogel Street was built as an extra: like a surplus piece of construction material, it had been chained to the main city centre, partly annexed on its left side by the site of a disused church hall and a splattering of pine copses. Trapped like a caged bird. The big joke was? Vogel means bird. Ha ha ha. Let the hilarity ensue. 

Mr. Fiedler’s apartment was situated in the middle of the street, sandwiched between a grocery shop and his younger brother’s bookshop. The building was made of brick, the colour of dried blood, with black, moss-tainted gutters and white window boxes, dotted across the front side in disorderly positions. Opposite was a small, boxed area known as “The Green”. The irony there? It wasn’t green. It was paved, bare and grey, with patches of grass around the outskirts. The Street’s boys and girls would congregate there to play football and cards, make paper planes and arm-wrestle. Occasionally, they would gather behind the brick walls to drag on half-pieces of cigarettes that they found lying in the road, trying to stifles their chokes as they inhaled the tar and smoke. Half-empty bottles of gin were also considered hidden gems, branded immediately with their own “finder’s keeper’s” rule. The adolescents were only condemning themselves early to beating by wooden spoon once their Mothers found out. 

The awnings of the shop next to Mr. Fiedler’s flat billowed violently in the wind as he mounted the stone steps that led to the front door. They were steep and severed the building from the pavement, like a surgeon tying a ligature around an artery. His landlord, Herr. Reiniger was waiting by the steps. 

Something you should know about Herr. Reiniger: his name meant “to purify” and that was exactly what he meant to do; clean his flat of undesirables, as soon as he legally could. His wife had also fed him too much cake during their marriage, explaining his podginess. But it didn’t quite explain why he was so unnaturally short. His nose and chin were sharp and clean cut and his wide green eyes may have been considered an almost redeeming feature were he not so despicable. 

 “Good evening,” Mr. Fiedler grimaced, swinging his briefcase past the little man who now sat on the bottom step of the stair-well. 

“Is it really?” The man returned, wiping his nose on the cuff of his jumper. His tone was laced with venom. Herr. Reiniger hated Mr. Fiedler and Mr. Fiedler wanted to sit down and eat dinner with his wife, so it suited everybody that he left quickly. 

“Is there something you wish to discuss with me?” Asked Mr. Fiedler. He decided that a rounded cavalier approach was best. 

“Discuss? With you? What a notion!” Herr. Reiniger turned his lip upwards and folded his arms across his argyle jumper. “As if I have time for idle chat with someone like you.”

“Quite right. What was I thinking? Good evening to you.” Mr. Fiedler sighed and did not look back again. 

***

His flat was on the fourth floor, number 73. Immediately, having slid the key through the lock, Mr. Fiedler could tell that something was wrong. Everything smelt... clean. It smelt of hard soap and linen and acid and white noise. It was painful and foreign and refreshing all at the same time. And then he saw something, something that terrified him more than anything else in his entire existence: dinner was on the table. 

And worst of all, it smelt fantastic. 

“Miryam!” He cried, searching desperately for his wife around the flat. Miryam Fiedler was a writer of sorts, who had met her musical husband whilst working in the house of a Swedish poet in Munich. She studied the works of Karl Gutzkow and he was entranced by Bach. It took them 7 years to realise that they were in love. The Great War had been started, fought and lost in a shorter space of time.  

But now something was most definitely amiss: the flat had been blanched head to toe in a way that rivalled even the most sanitary of hospitals. It was not a proud sort of clean; no. Rather an empty, bottomless one. Dinner had always been a trite and unexceptional affair; Miryam saw it as her duty to cook and so Moritz felt obliged to eat whatever was put in front of him, for better or for worse. 

Mr. Fiedler peered into his wife’s decrepit study. The floor was bare, not littered with papers and chicken-scratch letters as he had been so used to. Manuscripts stacked like building blocks in the corner shied away from him like a shunned child. He picked a memory that fell just after the day that Miryam Fiedler had miscarried their only child. Sixteen years ago, grief took her by the hand and she had cleansed the apartment to the ashen bone. Books and chairs were burnt and crockery and souls were broken. 

The short of it was: Miryam only cleaned like this when something was deeply, deeply wrong. 

“Miryam!” He belted out again and swivelled around, catching his wife his wife by the shoulder as she stooped out of their bedroom. “Good evening, Moritz.” She replied sternly and placidly. Miryam squirmed quickly out of her husband’s frantic grip. Her dress was black and knee length, with small pink roses adorning the hem of the waist, skirt and sleeves. It was old and pretty. “Miryam, what’s wrong?” The question was fortified with acid, designed to strip the answer down to its bare bone. Miryam paused and stared blankly into a vacuum of space that only she could see and thought about how she could possibly answer that question. She scratched an imaginary mole on her chin absent-mindedly and replied: “Come and have dinner, Moritz.” Moritz Fiedler was not the type of man to disagree with his wife. Miryam Fiedler was a strong and forceful woman; desperately empathetic and poignant when she wanted to be, but ruthless when there was a need. 

The table was situated the middle of the flat, jutting out of the open kitchen. It was small, and had at one time been designed for three people, not two. But life tended to work in peculiar ways. Miryam had made potato-pancakes, with sauerkraut, which was her husband’s favourite meal. Mr. Fiedler dug into it ravenously and the enjoyment that he had from eating almost rendered the question he had previously asked obsolete. “Mathias has dropped me.” Miryam said nonchalantly, almost as though she was commenting on the weather or asking her husband to pass the salt. She poked at a stray morsel of potato with her fork as her husband stared at her blankly. She put her cutlery down and folded her hands upon her lap. It was her mode position. If she sat still enough, Miryam was sure that the moment would simply wash over her. “Dropped. Permanently.” He returned; he wasn’t asking a question, just stating the obvious.

“Mathias telephoned just after you’d left for work. They’re sending some documentation in the post. He wasn’t too specific about it; he isn’t one to beat around the bush. 14 years is a long time."

“I don’t believe this.” 

“I’m afraid you better had. They’re letting me go, Moritz.” But Miryam, much like Wilda hanging on to her Mother’s hand on her first day of school, did not want to let go.  

“But that’s stupid. It’s only one play! There must be another reason; you’ve been working with these publishers nigh on a decade and they haven’t had gripes with anything before, have they?”

“Apparently I’ve become too... political. Yes, that was the word that Matthias used. When did this transfer occur, I wonder? When did I stop writing for the fun of it and start writing to make some bureaucratic noise? He never had a problem with it when my writing was making him money.”

“My dear, that is because Mathias is scared.”  Mr. Fiedler reached over the table and clasped his wife’s slender hand in his rugged one. “He knows that the rich pigs up in the Reichstag building don’t give a damn about us. He knows that after a bit of back-scratching, those damned fascists might just get their way if Hindenburg feels like it. And Mathias can’t afford a writer like you, the wife of... of a Jew, to cause a stir and get on the wrong side of the NSDAP.”

“It’s not right, Moritz, so I write. Those damned NSDAP bastards. I tell you, they serve the soup colder than it’s cooked.” 

Oh, Miryam. 

They served it piping hot. 

Miryam bowed her head into her palms again and she cradled her thoughts in an ashen cloud she had made for herself. “I’ve had my time, Moritz. I would have given it two or three years before they cut the tether, anyway. No use worrying. Who needs writers when people are drinking out of gutters and living in cardboard boxes?”Miryam’s blunt dissection was baron and harsh, but truthful and Mr. Fiedler had never been one to question what he knew as true. 

“Darling, I know that. But don’t forget about hope. Never forget it.” He caught a glimpse of three straggling strands of grey hair that sat perfectly on Miryam’s right ear. They were foreign and unwelcome in her predominantly black crop of hair, and they scared Mr. Fiedler. 

“And until I remember it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Start a Communist revolution if you must.”

“Oh do shut up, darling.” Miryam said kindly. “Look where that got Russia.” 

“I think that you’d make an excellent Rosa Luxembourg.” Mr. Fiedler retorted, clearing the plates of partially touched food off of the table. 

“Yes, darling, but the world can have too many Josef Stalins.” Miryam smiled a watery grimace but it was a smile nonetheless. And in that moment she was 20 years younger. She was the girl with the thick black hair and hazel eyes, who stood outside the white-bricked house on Baedecker Road, with a copy of “The Greatest Works from Biedermeier and Vormärz” in her arms. A girl who did not care for the future but rather bathed in the crystalline waters of the present.

Miryam laid a small apple cake on the table that glistened with wet golden syrup and hot sweet fat. The edges were fortified into the dish in a thick crust and the cross that marked the centre was encrusted with large granules of sugar. “Uh-uh. Hmm, yes. That reminds me.” Miryam pushed Mr. Fiedler’s eager hand away from the cake. “I need to fix the waist band on some of your trousers, dear, so please mind what you eat from now on, okay? And I would appreciate it if you had told me about the stains on your good linen jacket. Now, I’ve moved your ties into your sock drawer and, really, you ought to write your name in your vests.”

“Miryam, who steals vests from a middle-aged teacher?” 

“Desperate times, dear. Desperate times.” 

“Of course, Miryam. Whatever you say.” Miryam was nagging. God was in his heaven. 

“Hmm.” Miryam grumbled. “And only have a little bit of cake, Moritz, I’d rather not have to re-adjust your waist band again.” 

“Of course, Miryam. Whatever you say.” And Mr. Fiedler felt no guilt, piling a heaped second helping onto his plate. 

***

“Perhaps I’ll find a placement as a secretary somewhere. There’s a dental practice near Kolestr. Adela woks there, I’m sure that she can find me some work. I’ve always been useful on a type-writer.” Miryam’s voice sank much in the same way as her body did into the arm chair by the radio.   

“Or the department store. The Zimmermans will know of vacancies for seamstresses or cashiers.” 

His wife laughed painfully, the corners of her eyes crinkling softly. It was forced, but she needed it, just as a mountaineer needs energy and reserve. This morning, she was a writer. Tonight, she would rest her head on her pillow jobless. “I can barely add up and the only needle point I’m any handy at is darning your socks or letting down hemlines.” It was inevitable, of course, that Moritz Fiedler had married one of the most poignantly intelligent and mathematically inept women of the 20th century. “No, no, dear. I’ll telephone Adela tomorrow afternoon.”

Silencing his wife, Moritz turned on the radio. To his disgust, a vile Jazz concoction blared out, but that predicament was soon rectified by a little tuning. He offered his wife his hand and the Fiedlers danced by the light of the pale moon.

***

He lay in bed that night, Miryam curled over onto her side next to him. The air was thick and hazy and still. The ceiling that hung directly above Mr. Fiedler’s head was dark and fuzzy, and seemed to hum in the dim surroundings. The shrouds of covers that trapped the heat were triggering an onset of frustrating insomnia, so Mr. Fiedler sat up, trying not to disturb his partner. Miryam fell out of her slumber slowly and then all at once. After a while she crept up to his side; her hands were ashen and still and she looked as though she was trying to curb a sudden nerve. 

“It’s his birthday next month” She said. She was recounting her dream and the voice was quick and soft and definite. “Sixteen years old. I don’t know why I think of it now. I had a dream that he was outside the window and I had made him a cake for his birthday but he was weeping. He told me he had lost something and if I didn’t find it he would fall from the window. But for the life of me I couldn’t find it and I watched him die again.”

Moritz’s throat went cold and baron and the bitter lingering of a question nipped at the back of his neck. “You don’t talk about it, but... you named him, didn’t you?”

“Steingen.” She said. “His name was Steingen.” And they paused and breathed, because Steingen was Mr. Fiedler’s son and there was nothing that anyone could do to take that fact away. The man clung to that name desperately and wrapped it around his finger, just above his wedding band. His unremarkable day had ended with a pang of bitter-sweet satisfaction. 

“You never told me.” Moritz Fiedler said. They both looked ahead blankly, cupping the thought in their bare hands. 

“Yes.” Miryam’s sad uncertainty tainted the air. “Yes. I know. Perhaps I’m selfish. You weren’t there when it happened and it was just me and... and the baby. And it wasn’t your fault, no, but you weren’t there and I was afraid and I just wanted to be his Mother and hold him and keep him and you weren’t there, so... so he was mine. So I named him Steingen, and it was if it was just us two together. You don’t have to understand it. I’m not asking you to.”

But in the dark, he looked into her eyes and he understood.

“Tell me what he looked like.” He rested his neck on the headboard and shut his eyes tightly. 

“He had these tiny little marks that ran down the small of his back and it looked like there should have been wings there.” Miryam traced them in the air with her fingers and looked at her husband, who was watching the pattern she made intently.

“I always think of him.”

“So do I. Our son is a stranger to us, Moritz. And I hate it.”

“Hush, now.” The pillow Miryam laid her head on was damp and smooth and cold. The old man wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist and he stroked her hair that was so, so soft. He thought about Steingen, his son and a stranger who had lost his wings and was now alone and afraid with the weight of a headstone on his tiny little back. Time had taken his son and preserved him. And Mr. Fiedler did not thank it for that.  

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