Try to Tell the Story
Knopf Publishing Group. 304 pp. $23.95
Feb. 8, 2008
Chapter OneMy grandmother told me one morning that Hitler might be hiding on Tooting Bec Common. "Adolf Hitler," she added. I was four, but it was the spring of 1945 and boys knew who Hitler was. Nearly every day in the papers there was a picture of him, the unsmiling pale face stamped on the page, the mustache like a scar. He was missing. He might be dead-shot, burned, poisoned, whatever anyone could think of. But we did not know that then. There was no official report. He might have been taken by the Russians, for sport or research. And so the word had spread that he might have slipped through the closing trap in Berlin. Such magic would make it more plausible that he was the Devil. And there were hiding places on Tooting Bec Common, the surprising extent of open land that began at the end of our road. The Common was my playground, and I knew dells and glades where the desperate might hide.
I say the word had spread, and my grandmother had her way of suggesting that she led a rich and full life, with many chatting acquaintances. But I never saw them, and never really read any message save for her solitude, her loneliness. I should have guessed that she had made it up. She made everything up, including her own superiority in life-and that can prove an odd training for a grandson. But it was tough enough to regard it as my duty, to go out there on the Common, beating the bushes for the sleeping Adolf. Wouldn't he have Alsatians sitting at his side, too grave to wake him, but so alert as to seize me silently? I knew the Alsatian was a German dog. I wondered why Grannie didn't speak to people and have Hitler dealt with. She read my thoughts.
"Of course," she said, "the glory could be all yours." You may begin to appreciate my perilous state-that, still only four, I was reckoned to be susceptible to "glory." But the word and its power had reached into me already, and I think Grannie had put it in, like the doctor with the wooden spatula looking for bad tonsils. "Glory" shone from the newspaper pictures of the Victory parade in London later that summer. It must have been a Saturday march, for the Sunday papers were full of it, and we took half a dozen Sunday papers (instead of any church attendance). Representative troops of the Empire had come to London: the Aussies in their slouch hats, Indians in turbans, Greeks in dresses, and the Gurkhas, little fellows with moon faces and what Grannie called "wicked knives." We cut out pictures of these florid regiments for a scrapbook, and there was Grannie, supervising the work, saying "Glorious" under her sour breath. It was as if the war had been fought to rescue her. N And it was glorious, too, when she had taken me out to a street corner not far from where we lived, and she had ordered the gathering crowd aside with, "Let the boy see Winnie!"
So I had been sucked to the front and I had seen him, the Prime Minister, sitting in an open car, Winnie, Churchill, a pink face in a black suit-and I was pretty sure that he had seen me, picked me out, and given me not just his "V" signal but a special grin of encouragement. And when I was restored to Grannie, she had whispered, "Glorious." I felt sure she must knowWinnie personally- and I did wonder, if Hitler was on the Common, whether it wasn't really more up to Churchill to find him than to me. Presumably he had bulldogs ready to stare those Alsatians into whimpering Nazi dismay.
There was "glory" too in a blue-bound book that sat on Grannie's shelf. It was a famous book, as it happened, the journals of Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his disastrous expedition to the South Pole that ended in 1912. Grannie read to me from the book in her clear, piercing voice- about the hard sledging, the cold days when motors, ponies, and dogs all having failed, Scott and his last few men had begun to pull the sledges themselves. Grannie did not read the end of the story to me. I think it was regarded as something I could not bear. But Scott's bleak words and her tragic delivery left me in little doubt. It was a disaster. Albeit one couched in "glory."
I played the Scott game. I took the clotheshorse and draped it with a blanket. That was my tent. I had a cushion for a sleeping bag. And then, with iron rations-a digestive biscuit, most likely-I lay shivering in my tent, waiting for the blizzard to abate. I was quietly amazed at my courage, and sustained by the "glory" of it all, and Grannie peeped in occasionally to make sure I was not dead yet. She would feel my pulse, with the hand on which she had only three fingers. She had been born with that distinction-I daresay our line was unsound (it helps explain a lot). And I was used to just the three fingers, though I noticed every time that while I was on the brink of South Polar freezing, her hand was far colder than mine.
This was in a place called Streatham, SW16, a bit of London's infinity, in a small section of residential houses named for lakes in the Lake District-so there was Ambleside, Rydal, Riggindale, and Thirlmere, and the last contained our house, number 10, about halfway down the road. Our house was semidetached with number 8, but there were some single houses on Thirlmere and I would guess that when the street was made, early in the twentieth century, it was a well-to-do development. The houses- maybe they were called villas-were built with large rooms and high ceilings on the ground floor and had cellars and attics. There was a manhole for coal delivery in front of the house where I could get in in an emergency, working my way over coal heaps, through the cellar and up to the ground floor.
It was a nice, quiet road. In those days hardly anyone there had a car and the kids learned soccer, playing with a tennis ball on the steeply cambered streets. Each house had a front garden and a back and there were old men-tanned and calm-who worked as gardeners. There was a dairy delivery every day except Sunday-nothing happened on Sunday then-and a horse-drawn greengrocer's cart came round twice a week. I had the glorious task of shifting the providential manure onto the roses in our front garden. And, as I said, there was the Common at the end of the street. All this and Streatham High Road with its shops within easy walking distance. So it was just bad luck that there had been a war, with the main railway line to the South Coast ports only a few hundred yards away. Diligent Germans aimed at that rail link for years, with the result that our house was hit three times by bombs or bits of their fire. Or so I was told. It was my father's straight-faced humor to suggest that Hitler was targeting me personally because somehow if I survived he knew his Reich was curtains. It was not a joke he was telling. It was a strange, hopeful gesture-a way of saying don't worry if you're unknown. Even the great ones, like Hitler, need to think you might be a hero. A lifetime later, I remember being strangely moved by the story line of the film The Terminator, where an agent of the future has come back in time to destroy the seedling of the boy who may make a great rebellion.
I do not really doubt the three blows to the house. After the war, due to the damage, about six feet was chopped off one wing. And the attic was burnt out. I remember the smell as well as the Sunday-afternoon incident when a manon the street waved to my father at an upstairs window. My father opened the window and the man down below said, "Excuse me, sir, but I believe your roof is on fire."
"Good Lord!" said my father. "So it is! Thank you, very much." For it was Sunday and all agencies ran slow on that day. The fire was put out but the attic was useless and it was very hard to get repair workers during the war. So three is plausible.
I was apparently there at the time, but I cannot remember any explosions or fires. I do recall the discovery, on some frosty morning, that the house at the end of the street was no more than a shambles of black, smoking timbers. There were bomb sites all over the neighborhood. Why not us tomorrow?
I do remember lying in the air-raid shelter. It was an iron cage, a rectangle, with sleeping places and survival rations and drinking water, too. The theory was that if the house was hit by a bomb and collapsed then the shelter's structure would stay intact and there would be a chance to dig the survivors out. I lay in that cage, with my mother, and Grannie and Miss Jane Davis, hearing the great sounds in the sky. Perhaps it was German bombing raids, perhaps it was Allied flights going the other way a year or two later. I know now that Streatham-whatever its perils-was a holiday next to Dresden. But Germany had asked for it, hadn't they?
I don't list my father in the air-raid shelter because it was family legend that he didn't use it-not just because he didn't use the house itself that much, but because when he was there and the air-raid siren sounded, he disdained safety or precaution. It was his contribution to wartime morale, I suppose, or some sublime mixture of arrogance and laziness. My mother said it was because he snored so badly-and, alas, as the same affliction has overtaken me, I suspect that may have been the case.
In later years, I recall my mother sometimes being asked whether she thought my father was sleeping with other women.
"Not likely," she said-she had a nice South London voice, proper but a bit sly. "He'd wake up bears in January."
Our house, number 10, was three floors on an open plan. Grannie lived on the ground floor. I lived on the middle floor, with my parents. And Miss Jane Davis lived on the upper floor. That meant that when Miss Davis came home from work, she came in the front door, walked down Grannie's hall, went up one staircase, proceeded through our hall, and took another staircase up to her floor. There was not a lot of privacy. Let me add that there was one bathroom and lavatory in the whole house, on our floor. So all bathroom trips, day or night, involved this small but distinct transgression on someone else's living space. You are wondering whether one bathroom in a house like that was against the law? Or something Hitler had done away with in Germany? I don't know. But there was an extra reason for feeling a little squeezed.
My grandfather-I never knew him-Alexander, he was called, had died in that very bathroom. The hot-water heaters in those days were inclined to give off poisonous fumes. He had fainted and then drowned. That was the story, though my mother could and did hint that maybe Alex just couldn't stand Grannie. (Hitler I know was very bad, but other people-relatives-might be harder to take.) It was my mother who had found him dead in the bath, and I sometimes used to play hell with her nerves when I was soaking in a bath by deliberately not answering when she knocked on the locked door and asked, "Are you all right, love?" That was wicked, but the drama took me. I mean, "all right" covers a lot of ground, doesn't it? So it takes a pretty stupid man to admit he's all right.
Grannie owned the house-at least I think she did, though Dad was a natural at taking the onerous cares of property ownership off your hands. Dad and Mum moved in sometime after they married in the mid-1930s. And Miss Jane Davis was the tenant upstairs. I was an only child. You only a child and an only child? they used to ask, and it was taken for granted that having no brothers or sisters put me at a horrible disadvantage. And technically the answer was no-or yes, depending on the question.
Then there was my uncle Brian, my father's brother. He was two or three years older than my father, who was born in 1908. I had seen Brian a few times at our house. He would come over to visit his mother, though I gathered that he was not welcome and that my father refused to see him. He hated his brother and never talked about him. The remarkable thing about this was not the hostility between brothers, but the implacable resolve that it exposed in my father.
To this day, I don't know the details of what had happened with Uncle Brian. I was led to believe that there had been a matter of fraud, with my father being compelled to pay back some money for which he had no responsibility except the need to save a worse fate. I don't see any reason now to trust what I was told. There were all manner of lies in the house. My mother said Uncle Brian had been to prison. I met him a couple of times and he seemed amiable enough-but I'm sure frauds are like that. It wasn't that I liked him, but he had three children-my cousins!-named Terry, Patricia, and Deirdre. I hardly knew them and they were all maybe ten years older than I was but I liked them in the silly, vague way that assumed they were on my side. Uncle Brian died while I was still in my teens, but the rift was complete and utter. I have not seen those cousins again in fifty years. Even now I wonder if any of them are left alive.
When I was a child, it was the way things were, so I did not question it much. But later on I came to realize how strange it was that a small family had willed itself that much smaller. But now we come to the big thing-the harder thing to explain. Why did my father, Kenneth, marry my mother, Norah? They were both attractive-my father not very tall, but an athletic powerhouse, dark, boyish, and apparently a source of laughter. He told jokes. My mother was his height, slim, dark, very pretty-I know, that's how I saw it, but there are pictures that back me up. She had a touch of Celia Johnson. They had met at a tennis club. My father was a very good club player and he had rather picked her as a partner. She told me she had loved him at the time, and it is the only possible explanation for a marriage between two people so ill-suited.
My mother had a secretarial job before they married, and she kept it afterwards. She enjoyed the work, but I think her great longing was to have a child. My father did not want children. And a time must have come when he made that clear.
"I tricked him," my mother told me years later. Not that she was a trickster character-not nearly as much as he was. But somehow she must have persuaded him that she was protected, or that the dates were wrong. Or did she get him drunk? Or drive him wild with lust? There is a photograph of my mother in a white nightdress in our back garden. It's a snap taken at night with just the light from the windows picking up her nightdress and her smile. It's inexplicable in terms of the mood of our other photographs. It's like a shot from a movie. Yet someone took that very romantic picture. Someone was there. At night. And I cannot believe that my father had that much longing in him.
At times in my life I played with the notion-the hope-that my father had been someone else. Like Orson Welles or Denis Compton. But this was a tough case to make in that I resembled my father in so many small, irritating ways. So Norah told Kenneth she was pregnant and he said he wasn't having any of it.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I'll leave," he said.
She went into the nursing home in Balham in February 1941 to have me. They were living at 10 Thirlmere, and that's where she took me afterwards. But my father was already gone. Just as he had said.
Excerpted from Try to Tell the Story by David Thomson Copyright © 2009 by David Thomson. Excerpted by permission.
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