Tuesday 19 February 2013

Letter to Albertine

Letter to Albertine

Angela South

Bitter Espresso 

December 1946

My darling Albertine,

I know it is some while since I visited or wrote to you at Chartham Hospital and I have no excuse for my tardiness. The doctor in charge of your mental well-being has kept me informed of your progress and I think about you constantly. Indeed when I return to England, I hope to visit you very soon.
Time seems to be racing ahead but whether this is because I am older or busier, the jury is still out. Please be assured I still find much affection for you and think over the many happy memories we shared from our early married life. Do you remember the time when Dad fell in the fish pond? I think he gave the fish quite a scare. Unfortunately there are no fish in the pond now as our house has been empty for some years.
My darling, this is not an easy letter for me to write but it would be most unfair to you if I did not tell you what is happening in my life as soon as possible even if you are unable to understand all its meanings and I am currently unable to tell you in person. Life, as it habitually does. has moved on and I need to explain my current circumstances not just to you but also to organise my thoughts for my own sanity for what a truly mad world this is. I do not even know if I will send this letter but it needs writing.
          I hope you have safely received the French books I managed to acquire and perhaps you are able to comprehend some of it or find someone at the hospital who is able to interpret this for you. I will be sending another parcel very soon. Do you remember the winter evenings when we sat together by the fire and read? My French certainly improved.
          I am sorry you have had to spend so long in the asylum and I had sincerely hoped your condition would improve but the doctor tells me you are still very “noisy”. I am not sure what that means except you are still unwell and need the care the hospital can give and I am unable to.
I thought there would be no more horror in Europe after the turmoil and chaos of the Great War but I was wrong. Would you believe at the grand old age of forty -nine when the Second World War broke out I was deemed too old to fight? Nevertheless, I found a niche for myself working as a civil servant in the War Office so it was essential I left our lovely home temporarily to live in the capital.
London suffered badly during the almost nightly bombing raids. The civilian bombing was very intense and I am sorry to say our precious dog, Whistler, was killed when a bomb hit my Holborn flat in 1943 while I myself only suffered an injured foot, which is still painful. I am pleased to say our home in River remains unaffected but, of course, it is at present an empty shell and not the loving home it once was.
Unfortunately, our family had two sad losses during 1944, which we kept from you at the time in case it made your condition worse. My father died in December at the age of seventy-six but he had a good life and you will recall his frequent visits to us at River and how well we all worked together in the garden with Whistler constantly getting under our feet. Dad felt great affection for you.
Our young nephew, Laurence, was also taken. I remember you were always fond of him when he was a small child and he loved you in return but he was never in the bloom of full health. It’s hard to believe it is over ten years when you took him out for his first picnic but I remember how excited he was and how much he enjoyed it. Pneumonia resulting from his diabetes and epilepsy caused his premature death. He had been unwell for some time and I am glad you were spared the unpleasantness of seeing him so ailing. Not having children myself I cannot begin to imagine the anguish his parents must be suffering although it must be tinged with the relief that his suffering is now over. I went to visit Sid and Rita recently and as there are no more children their tiny bungalow seemed very empty.
Do you remember the pretty little church at the end of the road? Well that is now Laurence’s final resting place and when I went to visit found it tranquil and beautiful. Unfortunately, Sid and Rita have been unable to afford a headstone but we all know Laurence is there so that is all that matters.
I am living and working in the British sector of West Berlin and my beautiful green England seems so very far away. I miss our lovely home we shared in River particularly our joy at tending to our garden. I am afraid, my love, that the garden will be very over-grown by now and need some intensive care.
After the Allies’ success Berlin was divided to help Germany govern itself eventually and to oversee peace in a bid not to repeat the terrible mistakes of 1919. Naturally, I am living and working in the British sector, which is in West Berlin.
As you would expect Germany today is in total crisis and home to a hungry, depressed and demoralised population of mainly women, old men and children. Hitler decreed the Germans must fight to the bitter end and this decree they faithfully carried out even though they only had the most basic of weapons and it was obvious the war had been lost by them months previously.
This ensured that little infrastructure remains in place particularly in Berlin. Barely any buildings are still in their original state and those that are left standing have walls or roofs missing. Domestic pets and the magnificent zoo animals were utilised long ago as food and looting is a way of life as the people are starving. When you are hungry all you can think about is where the next meal might come from.
I thought I had seen it all in the last war but I was not prepared for the conditions I find here. I see this clearly in Berlin daily as I walk to work or carry out visits as part of my duties. Any animal that drops dead in the street is immediately set upon by the people as they try to get their share of the meat and much of their time is spent looking for wood to burn to keep themselves warm.
The smell of the unburied dead lying beneath the rubble lingers in my nostrils. It is the distinctive smell I remember from the Great War and prayed that I would never encounter again. There is some form of transport but it is slow and unpredictable and, of course, Germans have no access to petrol. I am glad you are safe in Kent with kindly people to look after you.
The Russians are in the east of Berlin where their cruelty, indiscriminate raping of women, young and old, and looting of anything belonging to Berliners is rife. I do know they suffered significantly when Germany invaded them in 1941 so there is much anger and resentment in their hearts and minds so the desire for revenge is strong. Who can blame them?
The news of the German treatment of Jews and the liberating of the extermination camps has devastated us all – how can such cruelty exist? We fought so hard for a better world in 1914 – did all those young men die in vain? The news of Hitler’s suicide came with mixed feelings as he has escaped the hangman’s noose and the retribution of a trial. Moreover, I fear for Berlin and the rest of the world in this new peace. The Russians have a stronghold in the east and Stalin, another cruel man to rival Hitler, is likely to tighten this grip even further. Winston warned us all.
My work here is not too arduous so I do have time to write, read or socialise. We have sufficient food but electricity and hot water are very unreliable and although we grumble we consider ourselves to be very lucky.
Now comes the moment when I fear I may hurt your feelings. Not to tell you would be unfair and although I should do it in person this is not possible at present. It was in February of this year that my life changed completely. I was in the Service Personnel Club during a cold, wet evening nursing a pint of beer with my companion and colleague Frank, when I first saw Christa standing at the bar. Although we are not supposed to fraternise with the enemy, young German women are usually welcomed into the club and their presence is a welcome relief from our largely male majority. The atmosphere in the club is always thick with tobacco smoke, the smell of stale beer and unwashed bodies so is not the most comfortable of places.
What I must tell you now and may cause you great sadness is that I fell in love on that day and from that moment onwards I was suddenly transformed into a lovesick school boy.
As I looked over at Christa I could see that she was looking over at us. I was overwhelmed by her warm smile and at Frank’s insistence went over to introduce myself and offer her a drink. How can I describe her or describe how I felt? I will try though. She is twenty-one years old, my height, has dark wavy hair which frames her perfect features, but if I was going to be critical I would say her nose is rather too long and pointed. Her lips are well formed and when she smiles I feel thirty years drop off me. She is very thin from being undernourished and the work she does here.
I could see Frank watching me so I invited her to join us. Did I think about you at the time? Yes, of course I did and I felt remorse but by now you felt so far removed from my life it was as though you were in another universe entirely. Christa and I spent the evening together and this silly boy then asked to see her again and my heart leapt for joy when she accepted.
Our friendship quickly developed over the weeks, despite our thirty-six year age difference. If I keep mentioning the age difference it is because it feels more than a little awkward to me. Christa makes me laugh and I love her youthful exuberance; it allows me to forget how homesick I am. Her cheerful disposition belies what she and her family have been through since Hitler came to power and through all the deprivations of the war years.
In many respects, she reminds me of you in the early years of our marriage. Now, much to my amazement, I find that I am in love – just as I was with you, my dear Albertine, when we first met in France during that very cold, wet miserable winter of 1917. How we tried to keep ourselves warm and dry but rarely succeeding but we managed to laugh together despite the adversity.
Christa and I meet as regularly as our work permit. When you want to spend twenty four hours a day with someone it is not as often as I would like. Sometimes we take walks amid the crumbling ruins of Berlin, or a drink in one of the very few cafes still standing and occasionally we go dancing to the British club although I confess I cannot keep pace with her youth. I met her parents last month and I get on particularly well with her father, who at fifty five is just one year younger than me. After his first wife’s untimely death in 1930 he appears to have quickly married her older sister probably more out of convenience than love but that is an opinion I keep to myself. Christa adores her father but does not seem so loving towards her step-mother.
I have found great happiness and that is something I had not expected to experience again especially at my time of life. I look forward at some time in the future to making her my wife and I know she eventually hopes to have a family. If you are able to understand, please find it in your heart to forgive me for what must seem like treacherous behaviour.
I know what hardship prevailed during the Great War as you watched your home in Lille disintegrate under the constant bombardment from both sides on the Western Front and your sadness at the loss of your two younger brothers at Verdun. Courting was no easy matter for us in 1917 as I always seemed to be on the move but we managed to get to know each other despite the many hardships. I think I was afraid in those days that our love for each other would turn sour, as life on the Western Front was so unpredictable. I must have been very insecure.
I was delighted to bring you home to the relative peace of England and was proud to introduce you to my family. I fear though they found your ‘foreignness’ something of a challenge and were not as considerate as I had hoped. I was so happy the day we married in April 1918 and you looked so beautiful but I was saddened that I had to return so immediately to the Western Front. It must have been even more difficult for you being left behind in England, so far from your home and family.
Your English was at best limited and I fear at the time I did not truly appreciate the difficulties you faced when I left but thought only of myself and getting through the remainder of the war. I feel humbled by my selfishness. I thought we were so very happy when I returned in 1920. When your illness took such a firm and rapid hold I was devastated and helpless. I believe I did everything I could to make you happy and well but I suspect that our inability to have children may have contributed to your rapidly deteriorating mental state. It was a very difficult decision to have you committed to Chartham when I felt I could no longer look after you. You no longer felt like the woman I had married.
I now have the chance of happiness once again and how many men can say that at my age? My world is enchanting when I am with Christa and I intend to bring her to England as soon as possible. She has been through so much in her short life having lost her beloved mother when she was only five years old and then spending the war years in Berlin. She lost two well-loved cousins on the eastern front in 1942 and their bodies have never been recovered. I now feel such an urge to protect her from any more hardship in life.
She is currently one of the so-called ‘trummerfrauen’ or rubble women because she works hard all day cleaning bricks lifted from the rubble that was once a vibrant Berlin but this work is essential for rebuilding the city and the rubble is the only resource available for building. The work is very tough on her hands, which are constantly red and sore, but, with so many men dead or imprisoned, it is left to the women of Berlin to take on this very onerous task.
My dear Albertine, I promise I will not marry her while you still live. I know your religion will not allow me to divorce you and I will respect this. Christa and I do intend to start a family as soon as we are able, as I know she is anxious to do this before I get too old for such things. I do not know what such a wonderful young woman sees in this old man.
I am concerned that as a German citizen Christa may not be well received in England at the present time but I will do my best to protect her from any unpleasantness. She is a lovely girl and deserves to have a long and happy life and I hope to share as many of those years with her as possible.
If you have any perception of the contents of this letter I do hope you will forgive me and understand my need for affection. I will of course continue to support you in every way I can and ensure that you are kept safe. As soon as I have returned to the UK I will visit you. I do hope that on this occasion you are able to recognise me and perhaps find joy in my company once again even for a short time. Do not consider that I no longer find love in my heart for you but wars always bring change and as mere mortals we must change too.

All my love,

Johnnie x

Author Bio

Angela South originates from Dover, Kent. She started her career as a secretary mostly in London. But in 1978 she became lecturer in a further education college teaching Business Studies and IT, at the same time as bringing up a family.

She left teaching in 2008 to work as a PA to the director of a
national charity. She has since worked as a carer in a home for the elderly and is now happily retired although she does do some voluntary work. She now has time to develop her writing hobby and this is the first of what she hopes will be many short story successes.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful, bittersweet story - I was intrigued, and the ending didn't disappoint. It also seems very well researched. I'm not familiar with life in post-war Berlin but the details brought it to life. Thank you Angela - hope to see more. Jakki Bendell