Note: This chapter comes half way through the novel. Assia has returned from a clandestine trip to Spain with her lover, Ted Hughes. She and her husband are on a holiday in Germany, when Assia discovers she’s pregnant.
Chapter 13. SHIBBOLETH
Germany, October 1962
The countryside in autumn was beautiful; in the forest, russet and gold leaves quivered on the great pine trees, standing tall and straight like sentinels. After picnicking in the shaded woods on dark pumpernickel bread, and cream cheese with paprika, their walk had slowed. It was getting dark, and both of them were weary.
Towards nightfall they reached a pretty little township, straight out of Hansel and Gretel. Assia felt at home in this rural village, as if she’d returned to the enchanted life of her early childhood, when she was protected by her mother, adored by her father, and cossetted by her German grandparents. She felt faint, and in spite of her fears, protective of the tiny life that might be growing inside her. Her body craved rest. She imagined sinking into clean white sheets under an eiderdown filled with soft goose feathers.
‘Let’s stay here tonight, darling. I’m worn out, and that little gasthaus we passed just now looks so welcoming. Not nearly as dilapidated as some of the houses here. I remember those little inns, like our bed-and-breakfast cottages in England. Vati and Mutti used to take me and Cissy to little gasthausen just like this one, in the summer holidays. The innkeepers were always so friendly and welcoming – before everything changed here, that is, when we were never welcome anywhere.’
‘Well, as long as they’ve got room for us,’ David said anxiously. ‘ Otherwise, we could take a late train to Berlin. I’m sure there’s a coach from here which would get us to the station in time.’ He stopped in the narrow cobbled street to rummage in his rucksack for the maps and timetables he carried with him.
‘Please, darling, I’m exhausted. And it’s getting late. Anyway, why wouldn’t they have room for us? After all, I’m the real thing, a native-born German, and you could pass for pure Aryan – is that what they call being ‘one of them’ now? With your fair hair and good looks, like a blond Adonis, who could resist you? ‘
They entered the inn, its peaked roof and flowered entrance looking just like the original gingerbread house of Assia’s childhood fairy tales. In the wood-panelled foyer, she admired the old-fashioned furniture and pretty landscapes on the wall. ‘Guten abend, mein Herr,’ said the proprietor, a short stocky man with round spectacles. He continued to speak in German, while looking closely at them both. David looked to Assia to translate.
‘He says welcome, he is pleased we have found this place which has the highest reputation for cleanliness and comfort. He’s sure he can accommodate us. Would we mind waiting, while he talks to his wife first?’
As Assia was translating, the innkeeper’s eyes never left her face. Something in their expression made her skin crawl with foreboding.
She and David waited in the foyer. There was nowhere to sit in the small space and in her weariness, Assia leaned against David. He put his arm around her tenderly. ‘Wonder what the hold-up is,’ he whispered smoothing the velvety dark hair from her forehead. His hand felt cool against her clammy skin, and for the moment Assia let go her misgivings.
After waiting in silence for what seemed an interminable time, they heard footsteps on the stairway. Two sets. The innkeeper led the way down, followed by a rotund woman wearing a floral dirndl, her hair hidden under a matching scarf. There was a starched white apron tied around her expansive girth.
‘Hier ist meine Frau.’ The host gestured to his wife, then stood back so that her body shielded him. The woman’s eyes glittered, boring into Assia. There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence. Assia felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickling, and a cold shiver passed over her. The woman began to speak rapidly in German, addressing David. Assia’s face fell as she listened, then turned to David.
‘But –but- this is crazy! She says she’s very sorry, Sir, but her husband was mistaken. They have no room available tonight.’
‘For heaven’s sake, ask her why? What’s the reason? This place is as quiet as the grave – looks like there are no guests here at all.’
‘Probably not. But can’t you see? She probably suspects something. Maybe she can tell I’m part-Jewish, and she thinks the war’s still on.’
‘Don’t be silly, Assia, how on earth could she tell?’
The woman watched and waited, her thick arms folded across her capacious bosom. Her husband stood behind her, pretending to busy himself with the big open ledger on the counter.
‘You’d be surprised, darling.’ Assia said. ‘They can sniff us out. Don’t worry, I’ll explain that I’m a bona fide German. That might put her nasty mind at rest.’
Assia turned to the woman, her eyes blazing with anger. ‘Aber meine gute Frau, ich bin Berliner – but my good woman, I’m from Berlin,’ she said in her most polished Hochdeutsch.
‘Nein, du bist eine schmutzige Judin, du bist nicht willkommen hierin,’ and with that the woman turned away, leaving David and Assia standing open-mouthed.
‘She says I’m a dirty Jewess, and we are not welcome here,’ Assia said slowly. ‘She’s using the familiar ‘du’ to show her contempt. After all, I’m not even Jewish; only Vati is, or was. He doesn’t believe in any religion now, after what happened to his family.’ Assia spoke in a low voice to David. ‘I’m German, through and through, like my mother. Clearly my father’s race is still hated here.’
An old memory flooded Assia’s mind, of being kicked and pummelled by ill-smelling boys who had seemed giants to her then, when she was a six-year-old child. Suddenly she was back in the playground of her first day at school in Berlin, and heard the taunts of the children: ‘Brown eyes, pickle pies! Your father’s a dirty Jew.’ It made no difference to them that her eyes were grey, not brown.
‘My differences will never go away, ‘she thought bitterly. ‘I’ll never be the same as the English with their cool polite talk and their easy manners. Little does that woman know I’m good enough to be the mistress of one of England’s greatest poets.
David turned to her, his face ablaze with anger. ‘These people are crazy, sweetheart. They’re furious, because they lost the war, and they have to blame somebody. Anything, but take responsibility for failure themselves. You can sense it everywhere, the air of defeat, and underneath still the old hatred’s still lurking. It’s pathetic. Let’s get out of this place; it reeks of pure evil. Tell them we wouldn’t stay here if it were the last place on earth.’
Assia stood her ground. Glaring at the woman, she translated word for word what David had said, and saw the woman’s mouth curl in contempt. Then, with her head held high, she walked slowly out on David’s arm, with a sarcastic ‘Vielen Dank – many thanks.’