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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6. Chapter 5

This chapter will evaluate the importance of remaining sane in a household full of brothers, the definition of toilet water and how to conquer the art of putting a seven-year-old to sleep. 

Wilda’s house was, in short, small. It had been glued on to the end of Eichmann Road, as an after-thought. It backed on to a predominant market road, which backed on to another road, which backed on to a park, which backed on to possibly the most famous stadium in the country. 

One of the reasons that the Engel family house was so small (other than the poverty that the walls were steeped in and the general low ceilings) was because of the number of books that it contained. The halls and rooms were stuffed with volumes and hardbacks and paperbacks and first-editions and leather-bounds and battered manuscripts and art catalogues and atlases and biographies and poetry anthologies. It had every book imaginable, from “Grimm Fairy Tales” to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. “Knowledge is Power”, Wilda’s Father had always told her. “The next Great War will be fought with words, rather than sticks and stones.” Wilda’s Father was a wise man, but he knew nothing of the future. It would take more than sticks, stones and words put together to fight that war. It would be like trying to fight time itself. 

Remember this small fact about Wilda’s Father: His name was not simply “Wilda’s Father”. His name was Ebner. Ebner Engel

He was blinded by mustard gas, in Ypres, 1917. A lot of people lost a lot of very important things in the trenches; fob-watches, socks, lives. Ebner lost his vision in the trenches and, though he waited patiently, he could never quite find all of it again. He suffered terribly from shell shock and on dark nights, he would sit upright and rigid in a cold sweat and watch his friends and brothers burn and implode and choke in seas of yellow fumes again and again. People pitied Ebner Engel for this but no one, not even his wife, could understand it. The thing that stung the most was not the fact that he could no longer draw or pursue an artist’s career or that all the books he had inherited from his father’s library were now worthless to him... it was the fact that he would come home to a two-year old son whom he would never watch grow up; he would never gaze upon the faces of the three other children that were to follow; he would never read a bedtime story to them.

The duty of story-time fell to Nikolas, the almost-17-year-old of the house. Nikolaus was the oldest out of Wilda’s three brothers, with Franz falling in line after that at 15 and Isaak at the end, just 12. Each had passed through Sonnenstrahl St. School in whirlwind succession, dabbling lightly in mischief and general buffoonery, but by the time Wilda arrived they had all moved on and only their ungodly legacy remained. Their Catholic secondary education at a local boy’s convent was meant to instil a sense of reverence and respect in them, but all that the Engel boys left with were bruised bottoms and a fear of monks. They were the most notoriously troublesome, good-hearted boys of their small corner of the world. Each had a skill: Nikolaus was a gifted artist, Franz a reluctant cellist and mathematician and Isaak... well, Isaak was Isaak. No one ever questioned that.

And, in the years to come, their Motherland would wrap each of them up in her arms and they would emerge changed, some of their Engel charm lost for good. If you search hard enough, bits of their stories are scattered all over the world; from the clouds over Stalingrad, to the beaches of the Mediterranean to tall, silent chimney blocks that loom over Poland in awkward reverence. 

***

Nikolaus was, by far, Wilda’s favourite. There wasn’t much competition, anyway. Franz was far too concerned with buying records and nice clothe, looking at pictures of beautiful German actresses and documenting football scores to listen to his youngest sister talk about tea-parties and dolls and how she was planning on savaging Isaak in a brutal ambush. As for Isaak, he was a painfully irritating boy. Puberty blossomed between his toes, which was of no help either. However...

Remember the details: Isaak was born with an anarchist’s chin-line and fire in his throat. “Evil is when a few good men do nothing.” Isaak may have been a pain in “der popo” but he stuck to that rule. 

Indeed, Nikolaus and Wilda had a raw mutual respect, crafted like an unbreakable silver chain. 

***

“Where’s the boy?” Four-year old Isaak had demanded, upon finding his Mother sitting up in bed. In her hands was a small, noticeably baby-shaped bundle. The blanket was a questionable shade of faded pink. “What’s she doing here?” He pointed accusingly at the baby, who had just burped and began to gurgle and snort. In all of history, it can be said that no one has ever been more surprised about anything than Isaak Engel, upon discovering the gender of his new-born sibling. 

“Isaak, this is your baby sister. Her name is Wilda.” Their Mother cooed tiredly and she grazed her fingers against her daughter’s marble cheeks. The woman smiled, and in that smile you could have seen everything: the patience, the waiting, the relief and the irrevocable joy, crowned by her damp side plait and pasty, worn-out skin. 

“You promised it’d be a boy.” Isaak skulked and retreated back to his Grandmother’s lap. 

“Wilda? Why did you choose that name?” Franz, who did not bother to disguise his disappointment at being presented with a baby sister, groaned. Having been left under the care of his Father for less than a day, his hair was already dishevelled, his shirt crumpled and his brown lace-up boots scoffed. 

“I chose it.” Their Father said.”It was your great-Aunt’s name. Besides, it’s a lovely name. Your Mother and I decided that it sounded quite proper.”

“I suppose, if you’re 80 years old. I wanted a brother, anyway.” Muttered 11-year old Nikolaus who crossed his arms sulkily across his waist and had apparently forgotten that he did indeed have several brothers already. Moreover, it had clearly escaped everyone’s notice that it was his birthday too. He was important, as well as this pink, fat, snot-nosed, gurgling, drooling, attention-seeking, potty-breathed fluffy girl-creature. 

“What does she look like, Klaudia?” Ebner leant on the bed next to his wife.

Wilda’s mother knew her daughter indefinitely, as well as a Thespian knows his soliloquy. She is soft and peach coloured and her cheeks are like frosted glass. They droop a little at the corners of her mouth, where her tiny red lips flower and a smile germinates across her face every now and then. She closes her eyes often, as though she has a secret that she is not yet willing to share with me, but when she lets me see them, they are blue and cloudy, like the sky after a sea-storm. But this is something that Mothers keep tightly to their chests, so instead she recited sweetly: “She is beautiful and she is ours.” 

“Come and see her, darling.” She motioned with her head and he reluctantly followed.  Nikolaus scowled at the baby with a determination that he reserved only for special occasions such as this. I see through your guise, you little brat. His eyebrows were furrowed in contempt, You think that you can come along and steal my birthday? I’ve been here longer than you and they’re been my parents longer, so don’t expect any love from me. You’re nothing but trouble, do you hear? Nothing but troub- 

And then Wilda Engel farted. 

It was the loudest, foulest, most abominable noise, like the running of stagnant water through a sluice. Not much can be said for the smell that followed either. It made you wonder what the effects of being trapped inside a womb for 9 months can have on a child. Wilda starred at Nikolaus in quiet defiance for a lingering moment, burped again and fell asleep. 

“You’re alright.” Nikolaus said. “As little sisters go.”

***

The house was still but not quiet. Their Grandmother’s snores reverberated around the walls of the house. Down stairs, Mother and Father Engel were arguing and Wilda was convinced that their family must be crumbling apart. She sat at the top of the stairs in her night-gown, Nikolaus perched beside her, both clinging furiously to the railing. Her mind was fraught with the worries of her parent’s arguments and the gurgling of her stomach from an unsatisfactory dinner was unhelpful also. Mama and Papa Engel spoke in rushed, hushed tones and Wilda did not like it one bit.

“I just don’t think I can.” It was Klaudia, Mama Engel, who spoke. Her hair was down and flowed like an ebbing tide against the back of her seamstress’s apron.

“A month more, maybe. With the insurance and the laundry money, it will all work out.” Papa Engel stood upright, agitated and frantic. His prescription frames were balanced on the table, the obscenely large lenses refracting an iridescent marking onto the kitchen table. 

“And I’m afraid it won’t. Ebner, please, I want this as much as you. Dearly, I do. But I can’t work anymore hours and the laundry money is hardly sustainable. And what about your treatment and your Mother’s health? ”

“My boy has a chance to study at University and all you can say is no! Nikolaus will be a scholar, Klaudia, more intelligent than both of us.” He slammed his palm on the table, but the effect ricocheted and a dull pain spread to the tips of his fingers.  

“Oh, that’s it. Blame me for thinking practically. Cut out my tongue for placing my family’s wellbeing over education. Pardon my rationality.” Klaudia’s scythe-sharp sardonic tone sliced Ebner in half. 

“Well, I can sell some of the books. They’re collecting dust.” He cleaned his spectacles lovingly, with a sort of craftsmanship. They had served him for the last few years as a means of salvation and of hope, by being able to gaze upon the coloured outlines of his children’s faces, as though viewing them under water. He looked to his glasses once more to solve his troubles, but no answer did he receive. 

“Ebner, I don’t think they’re yours to give. Your Mother wouldn’t be happy, especially since they were your Father’s.”

“Will you kindly make up your mind? We have to make sacrifices, Klaudia, as you’ve just said and I’m sure that Papa would have preferred to see his eldest Grandchild go to Munich University.” 

A floorboard creaked above their heads and both parents eyes shot upwards and then back to each other. Wilda clamped her hand over her mouth, somewhere between shock and apology. 

“Wilda, go to bed.” Klaudia commanded. Know thy child’s footstep was Frau Engel’s number one policy. Well, there were a few others. “Nikolaus?” She questioned, guilt lacing her speech. “You too, go on.”

They went into their bedroom and closed the door shut. The little girl giggled but she soon stooped, noticing the vacancy and sadness that pinched her brother’s face. Quickly, she handed him the book she had chosen, pointing proudly to the front cover, that said “Peter Pan and Wendy” by J.M Barrie. An English man had given it to her Father on Christmas Day, 1915, while he was fighting in the trenches. That day was special, because there was no fighting and no blood and no hatred, only peace and hope and the best game of football in the entire world. The man’s little son had sent him the book, in the light that it might help him sleep well at night, but the man decided that there was a German who needed it more than him. It was a peculiar present for a soldier to give, but Ebner Engel loved stories. So he kept it. 

Nikolaus laughed, as he skimmed through the pages, his blue eyes swimming with a kind of private entertainment. “Look, Wilda. This is an Inselaffe’s book. Papa’s written the translation under the lines. It’s pretty old, though. Are you sure you want me to read this?” 

Something that you may wish to know if you are not a patriotic Englishman: The Germans have a certain name for their British “buddies”. It’s called “Inselaffe”. “Inselaffe” means “Island-Monkey”. Quaint, isn’t it?

“Oh, Please, Nikolaus!” Wilda urged, leaning forward on her knees, her hands clasped together as though in prayer. “There are fairies in this book, Papa told me. And children who can fly. And a boy with a lost shadow who never grows old. Please, Nikolaus, I know that you can do it! No Inselaffe’s book is too big for you.” 

“Alright, little sister. If it was anybody else, then I wouldn’t bother.” Nikolaus licked his finger, and flicked quickly to the first page. Wilda’s eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of the sketches and prettily drawn water-colours of pixies and elfin-creatures, all festooned with miniature acorn hats, that littered the inside cover. In the left-hand corner of the top page was a small message, written in a thin and slanted script. Nikolaus read it out: “”To Fritz, From Tommy. Merry Christmas 1915”. The year I was born, Wilda. Dad left for France two weeks after our birthday, you know.” Wilda thought long and hard about this strange Inselaffe called Tommy, and why he had called her Father “Fritz” when his name was Ebner. It was all very odd. 

“What did Papa do in France?” She pouted, half-way between her thought. 

“He’s told you before, Wilda. Everyone knows. Once, there war-”

“No, but what did Papa do? No one talks about what Papa did in the books or anything. He did important things too, didn’t he? He helped to fight the people who hated Germany. I just thought that he did something wrong, because no one ever talks about Papa when they tell the story about the War or when they talk about France. It’s like they forgot all about him.”

“Yes, Wilda, but there were lots of people in that war. Not just Papa. Millions and millions of them and their voices just got mushed up together into... well, noise. Papa is important, but not everyone knows that.” Nikolaus always knew what to say, somehow. It was a very rare and special gift that he possessed. 

“Tommy thought that Papa was important.” 

“He did. Now, hush. Do you want me to read this story or not?” Wilda sat upright and attentively and she flattened out the pleats in her night-gown. 

“”All children, except one, grow up...”” Her brother coughed. Though he would never dare to admit it, Nikolaus wanted to learn about the fairies and pixies and the children who could fly.  He wanted to know about the little boy who never grew up. It felt strange reading through the lines quite literally, but he wanted to make his sister happy. 

They’d managed to read five whole pages before Isaak and Franz padded into the room, unannounced. Much to their all-round disappointment, the Engel children were forced into sharing one cot-littered bedroom together until their beloved Grandmother either died or vacated herself to living in a tent next to their Mother’s vegetable patch. “Has anyone seen my toilet water?” Franz began to rummage through various drawers and bookshelves. Isaak jumped on Wilda’s bed and Wilda was left with no choice but to bite him on the arm. He screamed, which in turn woke up their Grandmother in the opposite room. 

“Franz, why would you want to smell like a toilet? What’s the matter with you?” Isaak retorted, kicking Wilda in the shins as he nursed his injury. 

“No, Isaak, he means cologne. And, honestly, Franz, I don’t know where you get the money for these things, when you could be using it to help Mama and Papa with the house. Toilet Water, my arse.” Nikolaus shut the book closed tiredly. 

“Well, he would smell like your arse if he was using toilet water.” Isaak scratched his head. His cluelessness really did nothing for him. “How was school today, Wilda?” Isaak moved on swiftly, turning his attentions to his sister. “Fine.” She answered bluntly. 

“Did you beat anyone else up today?” Isaak teased. 

“Wilda beat someone up?” Franz swivelled around in admiration, just as he began to rifle through a box of old photographs and records. “Good for you, little sister!”

“I did not beat anybody up! My friend, Bruno, simply gave a stupid little mean boy a warning about how he shouldn’t go around bullying people. That was all. Anyway, I need my sleep. I have Maths first thing tomorrow.” Wilda folded her arms and scowled and ducked under the covers.

“Who’s your teacher anyway?” Franz galumphed over his words. He was preoccupied with the task of pinning a postcard of Marlene Dietrich above his bed. It was all rather awkward, as though a small boy was completing the action. His blonde hair had been slicked and sculpted into the impenetrability of a rock, which was a very bad idea, just before bed.

“Herr. Fiedler.” She folded her arms across her body defensively but soon got up to fetch her satchel from the other side of the room. 

“I wonder if he remembers us.” Franz’s voice was light and rascally. Its odour amalgamated in the air before them and it smelt of mischief. 

“Of course he does. Herr. Fiedler remembers everything.” Justified Nikolaus and he allowed himself a small smirk. 

Wilda had become irate and bothersome as her brothers were doing the annoying thing of acting as though she wasn’t in the room. “What are you talking about?”

“Do you remember the time he caught me putting egg yolk in Heinz’s pockets?” Isaak couldn’t let that little triumph escape his brother’s notice. “He said ‘As appealing as detention sounds, Isaak, I’m sure you have better things to do after school.’ Didn’t even make me write lines or anything, just sent me outside.” 

“Herr. Baum would have had your arse on his knees for a year if he’d caught you.” 

“Yeah, Baum would have loved that, the old pervert...”

“Franz, shut up, sie dumm fuhrt.” 

“Oh, küss mein arsch.

“Franz!”

“I’m still here, you schweins.”Wilda stomped her foot hard, banging it bluntly on the leg of her on the way back up. The dance of pain that followed completely ruined the serious ambience she had tried to create. Isaak, fighting off a sudden bought of strangulation by laughter, fell backwards onto his pillow. “You kiss your Mama with that mouth, Wilda? Christ, schatzi!” 

Franz smirked. “To think that Papa wonders where you get that mouth of yours.”

Nikolaus made a large sweeping motion with his hands, ushering his brothers into bed. Franz plucked his cologne from between the skirting board in impeccable time. “He knows where she gets it from, he knows.”

And in that rarest, most precious of moments, Wilda was genuinely happy. Her filth-mouthed brothers, with their sharp idleness and ravenous protectiveness and holes in their socks and not nearly enough food in their bellies were hers.  And she knew she loved them. 

Even Isaak. 

Well. 

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