Wilted Red Roses
written by: Michal Reibenbach
As a small child, I didn’t notice that my father, who when he left my poor mother had also abducted me from her, was weird. After all, what does a small child understand of such things? Obviously today children can’t be abducted, that is to say, it’s almost impossible, however during the WWII with the continual bombings and all the chaos, I suppose you could?
One of my first clear memories of being with my father was from the evening when he took me along to meet his girlfriend’s parents. It fell on a freezing cold winter’s London evening. My father had a terrible cold and a cold sore under his runny nose, which he continually wiped with a large handkerchief. In preparation for our visit, he wrapped himself up in several layers of clothing. Also, he wrapped a yellow, with brown stripes, Rupert scarf around his neck which he wore whenever the weather was cold. While a battered black hat with a wide orange band around its crown adorned his head. The last layer covering him was an old army coat which he had once dyed blue, unfortunately, the dye had turned out patchy. I was dressed in clothes which were several sizes too large for me, (after the war times were hard and clothes had to last as long as possible). My father had braided my hair so tightly into two thin plaits so that they stuck out sharply to the sides and in order to make me look pretty he had tied two large light blue ribbons at their ends.
We set out as darkness was falling, rushed along the pavements laid white with frost and a chill wind whipped around us. On our way, we stopped at an all-night co-op which also sold flowers. The last flowers in the shop were a rather wilted bunch of red roses, none the less my father decided to buy them. We then rushed off to the underground. Upon emerging out of the tube station we were greeted by a London suburb. I noticed that the houses and trees around us were veiled in a slight mist. My father almost ran along the icy pavement onto which the streetlamps radiated an orange glow. With one hand he held down his beloved hat so that it wouldn't blow away and with his other, he held the bunch of roses. I did my best to keep up with him, but when I did lag behind he’d wait for a while and encourage me on saying, “I know it’s hard going, little Shnoo, (which was his nickname for me,) but do your best, we’re rather late.” Finally, we arrived at our destination with cold faces and gasping so that our breath rose in white puffs of vapor. Before us, I discerned a little, tired looking, terraced house with a small garden that was obviously hibernating for the winter. My father rang the doorbell and the door was opened by a bald-headed, elderly gentleman. “Come on in, it’s freezing outside,” he urged us. We stepped over the threshold and into the hall, “Pleased to meet you, I’m Herbert, Andrea’s father, but please call me Herbie.”
“Pleased to meet you, Herbie, I’m Carl and this is my daughter Tilly,” answered my father and after the two men shook hands Herbie said, “Pleased to meet you too Tilly.”
Herbie then ushered us into the house. Once inside I noticed that both he and his wife were very well dressed and respectable looking. My father approached the wife, handed her the bunch of wilted red roses and said: “Roses for you Mrs. Fred.” She took them with a look of incredulity on her face and said a curt, “Thank you.”
His fiancée, Andrea quickly intervened and said to him, “Darling, Oh dear the flowers are rather droopy and you’ve got a terrible cold.”
“I’m sorry they’re all I could find,” said my father.
“Give them to me, I’ll sort them out,” said Andrea. With so saying she took the flowers from her mother and retreated into the kitchen.
As my father began to shed his various layers of clothes, my sharp little ears overheard Andrea’s mother whisper to her husband, “He looks so weird and he’s got a child.” To which he whispered back, “At least he’s Jewish.”
I noted that the sitting room was curiously dark with only a small standing lamp whose yellow beam lit up a small table. I thought to myself, “They’re saving electricity because of the server rationing.”
Herbie, Andrea, and my father settled themselves down in armchairs around the small table. At first, I felt intimidated and held myself back from them. Herbie beckoned to me and said, “What’s your name pretty little girl?” “Tilly,” I answered bashfully, still holding myself back. “Come, Tilly, I want to show you a game,” he said and he began to play a game with his hands under a couple of serviettes, making them seem to chase each other around the table, in order to amuse me. I warmed up to him and joined them at the table. As I watched him play I began to giggle louder and louder. Until his wife said sharply, “Herbie, stop that game, she’s becoming too excited.”
Herbie obediently folded the serviettes and I sat quietly munching some rather flaky biscuits which I found on the table. The men talked about Leipzig in Germany, a town from where they were all from and other boring adult stuff like their jobs so that I stopped listening to them. Mrs. Fred came into the room carrying a tray laid out with the things needed to make cups of tea and also a vase containing the few roses which Andrea had managed to salvage from the withered bunch and placed it on the table. She then poured out cups of tea with milk for everyone except for me. It seemed rather strange to me that she then remained to dither rather nervously by the side of the table. There was a bitter expression on her face. Through narrowed eyes, she watched me continuously as if churning the whole situation of her daughter’s engagement to a man with a little girl over in her mind. Suddenly she asked me, “Tilly, are you thirsty?”
I timidly answered, “No, thank you,” for I didn’t want to be a bother.
“I’ll heat up some milk for you anyway,” she said and then scurried off to the kitchen, soon to return with a mug of warm milk which she placed on the table in front of me. “There that’ll warm up your little stomach,” she said.
I said “Thank you,” and I thought to myself, “She’s decided to be kind to me.”
On our way home in the underground train, we were about the only passengers in our compartment. The train sped along rhythmically making a ‘clickety-clack’ sound. My father sat slumped down in his chair, silently brooding. He looked gloomy, dejected as if a dark cloud hung over him. He also looked poorly for the cold sore under his nose had grown even bigger. Selfishly I thought to myself, ‘Perhaps he’s depressed because Mrs. Fred, the wife had stopped Herbie from playing with me?’ Although in all probability between having a cold sore, the withered red roses and also perhaps me, he felt that the meeting with his fiancé’s parents hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped and he also felt lousy. Well, I couldn’t get inside his head. Since I adored him my heart went out to him. In an endeavor to cheer him up, I started to prance around in the aisle. I twirled around and threw out my arms and chanted, “Herbie was a funny mannn--a very funny man was heee-- he played with meee-- and he made me happyee-(or something of the sort.) Then I forcibly giggled long and loud. My giggles rolled out of me and around the compartment. They enveloped the few other commuters and made their faces light up and caused them to smile. However try as hard as I could I wasn’t able to cheer my father up.
Sadly soon after our visit, Herbie became ill and after a few months he died and I would never see him again.
Also all too soon my life would turn upside-down. My father would marry his charming, lovely fiancée, Andrea, a woman who in consideration of all the prevailing circumstances was extremely brave. She was also very young and naively thought that a young step-daughter would be like having a doll that she could sometimes play with and dress-up.
Spread over the span of the coming years, the couple became parents to several more children. My father would become too thinly spread. Even though I dearly loved my step-siblings, it was hurtful to change from being my father’s ‘special little girl’ into becoming nothing more than a nuisance to him. He’d bitterly regret that he’d abducted me from my mother. How did I know? He often told me so.