Rap, rap, rap. Someone poking, prodding, demanding, ‘Frederick. Open your eyes,’ but I am powerless in the dark. As helpless as the tightly bound new-borns in Grossmutter’s dim parlour. Thin, brittle cries. There was always the sound of babies crying in the double fronted house in Footscray. Grossmutter, her thin hair tortured into a bun, sturdy boots tapping, scrubbed everything white-glove clean. The tightly propped wash struggled in the wind. Her long bloomers, split at the crotch, fighting with Grossvater’s singlet.
A split in the middle for Grosi to piddle,
A crack at the back for Grosi to kak.
Rap, rap, rap, at the front door.
‘Whatfor they come my front side when my backside always open?’ Grossmutter grumbles as she smoothes her skirt and hurries up the long hall to open the door.
‘Mrs. Schmidt, please help.’
Grossmutter runs with the bundle to the kitchen table. She looks through thick glasses. Her hands carefully touch. ‘Get bucket of water, Fredi.’ She grabs my slopping bucket and tips it over the baby. A loud wail. Water is spilling over the table, running off the baby, puddling on green lino squares. Grossmutter grumbles, ‘Ach. Temper, only temper,’ and she pushes past me to get to the mop.
‘How long will he be on life support?’
‘It depends on many factors. The important thing at the moment is
to keep him immobile.’
‘How is he?’
‘As well as can be expected.’
Lying here, seeing nothing, saying nothing, hearing everything. As well as can be expected? What do they expect? They race me into casualty and eight hours later open my chest, spread my ribs, stop my heart and now this.
Shoes squeaking, trays rattling. The smell of antiseptic. Somewhere in the hospital I hear a baby crying. Grossmutter said that I was squealing like a tortured mouse when she pulled me from my mother’s womb. One more squalling bundle in a crib in the dim parlour. It was Grossmutter who named me Frederick Joseph Heinrich Frank Fritschenburg. Over my cradle she sang of great ancestors and past riches. Told stories of Hänsel und Gretellost in the forest, of witches and goblins and Onkel Gustav andTanteTeresa singing Auf Wiedersehen.Of tears falling on her piano that last night in Magdeburg.
After she migrated to Australia the lid of the piano remained locked while many young women delivered new life with only Grossmutter to help them through their pain.
‘They know nothing,’ Grossmutter sighed when another baby was thrust into her arms by a trembling young mother.
‘What they know about the Kinder?’ She cradled the baby in the crook of her arm as she sat drinking herbal tea in her green and white kitchen.
Many times a camp bed was put up in the parlour for a pregnant girl who bore the burden of shame for what Grossmutter called, ‘The sinful passions of a pious man.’ The girl would stay until the whimpering bundle was born then disappeared into the shadows of Footscray.
Nurses shoes squeaking, one set heavy, one light.
‘Go round the other side, Lisa.’ ‘Dr Harris was in earlier. He thinks we should talk to the patient.’
‘No way, Gwen. That’s weird. I’d be talking to myself.’
‘He’s not dead, Lisa. He’s comatosed. Now straighten those blankets and get another pillow.’
What does that young one know about anything? That I’m already done for? Thinks I can’t hear what she says?
‘We’re just going to turn you on your side, Frederick. We don’t want you to get pressure sores. Make yourself useful, Lisa, and massage his heels. Here we go, Frederick. A new infusion bag with some special medication.’
More drugs. They make me drowsy, make me remember my childhood Those years spent with my grandparents in their neat white house. I wish Grossmutter were here now. Ten, nine, eight—my Grossmutter can fix everything—seven, seven. Seven years old and chanting to myself,
Nobody loves me,
Everybody hates me,
I think I’ll go eat worms.
Today a hot, hot wind is blowing the leaves of the fig tree Grossvater planted the day I was born. I’m playing with my soldiers in my cave under the bush. Grossvater is working in his vegetable garden. Neat-bordered squares contain tightly curled cabbages and plump tomatoes. Later we will pick golden heads of corn, and tonight butter will drip down my chin. Grossvater gardens in the same dark grey suit and white shirt he wears to slice the pickled pork for our Sunday dinner. Grossmutter says that a gentleman must always be well dressed. Little beads of sweat cling to the hairs of his bristly moustache.
Leaning on the handle of his spade he wipes his face with a big white handkerchief. He sees me in my hiding place, looks around, winks and then goes back to his digging. Grossmutter, waving a postcard, comes hurrying past the tomatoes. ‘I have news of the Weideckers,’ she calls. ‘Come listen,’ and I eavesdrop on familiar guttural German words as she reads:
Magdeburg, Erster Dezember 1912
Liebe Herta und lieber Heinrich,
I thank you with all my heart for your lovely letter. The fine views of
your new home in the strange earth are indeed fascinating. I can see that you are well pleased with your life. I was very glad to receive news of little Fredi and pray that his father will soon be well…
Grossmutter turns over the postcard and looks at the picture. ‘I would love to wander through the Museum again,’ she says. ‘And skate on theElbe river.’ Back in Magdeburg, she, Grossvater, Emma and Otto would lean into the wind, their boots crunching on crisp snow as they hurried towards theMarktplatz. ‘I miss the mouth-watering smell of Bratwurstsizzling in bacon-fat and a bottle of Schnappsto keep out the cold,’ she sighs. She sadly shakes her head. ‘We’d still be there but for Father. Shitkopf.’ Suddenly she calls in English, ‘Fredi, where you be?’
Even though I sit very still she sees me.
‘What you do?’
‘Playing. Always playing. I make cake, come help me in kitchen.’ I run inside and quickly climb onto a stool in front of the scrubbed wooden table. Grossmutter is the best cook and always lets me lick the wooden spoon. She puts a large mixing bowl in front of me. I groan when she hands me our family Bible. It smells just like her old boots.
I love the bright coloured pictures of sunburntpeople in long dressing gowns with towels wrapped around their heads but the words are so scratchy and hard to know. The thin pages with shiny gold edges keep sticking together and I’m not allowed to lick my fingers. Inside the black cover are a lot of names. I can see mine.
Grossmutter takes her mother’s cookbook down from the shelf, opens it where a postcard marks the page and says, ‘Today we make Scripture Cake. Jeremiah six, twenty. Look it up, Fredi’
‘To what purpose cometh there sweet cane from a far country.’
‘Here people have sinned and Gott is very angry.’ Grossmutter says, shaking the wooden spoon at me. ‘You must always obey Gott’slaws. You must always obey my laws. People must have laws or they sin and get into much trouble. One cup water, Genesis twenty four, sixteen.’
‘And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, no man had known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher with water. What is a virgin, Grossmutter?’ She looks hard at me and quickly says, ‘An angel. Beautiful angel. Make goot wife. Abraham looking for wife for Isaac.’ She taps the Bible. ‘You remember Isaac, don’t you? Gottgive him Rebecca. Maybe mit Gott’shelp I find you goot wife?’
‘I don’t want a wife.’
‘Later, Fredi, much later you want wife and may Gottbless you mitbeautiful angel.’ I’m glad I made her smile. Grossmutter doesn’t smile very often. She is too busy looking after sick babies and me. She is always washing, ironing and cooking; always cooking.
She laughs and ruffles my hair. Tucking a stray hair into her bun she says, ‘Always remember, Fredi, religion goot but all that counts is how you live.’