My brother died on a Saturday. That morning we’d left him and my sister to mind the shop while Mutti took me on her errands. In the summer of 1939 she’d only just started working as a seamstress of sorts. Letting out waistbands, taking in waistbands, changing the neckline of a dress to make it look entirely new – odd jobs that were quick but required an experienced hand to get those neat, parallel stitches. It was all the fault of the church coffee ladies. Mutti had taken over the social club at the start of the year, and the minute those crow-eyed omas got their claws on her embroidered napkins, her fate was sealed.
She’d tried to teach me once, during one of the long nights when she’d oversubscribed and was straining herself to work by the light of our gas lamp. I liked to sit by her and watch the steady motion of her thread, the push and pull, like a kind of ballet. She told me that you can’t attack the fabric, you have to listen to it, feel the grain, and let it tell you how to move. She passed me a piece she’d started on, and I pushed the needle through the patch, the white shirt beneath, and my thumb. So she started taking me out on deliveries instead.
The third, maybe fourth house we visited that day was the Oberhauser’s house. Frau Oberhauser was my godmother, a woman about ten years my mother’s senior. The Oberhausers had never had children, which was why they’d been chosen as godparents. One had to assume that was the reason, because in every other way Rudolf and Traudl Oberhauser were the last people on earth you’d choose to be in any way a religious guide to a child.
Mutti knocked on the door twice. A girl opened it. She looked us up and down. Mutti looked at me. I looked at Mutti. She looked back at the girl.
“Is this the Oberhauser house?” Mutti asked. We’d been coming to this house once a week every week for almost a decade.
“Anya? Is that you?” Frau Oberhauser came bounding through. She had an apron on and had managed to get flour on her arms, face, shirt, and everything except the apron. She grabbed hold of my mother and pulled her in, kissing her twice and hugging her tight. Mutti shook herself free and straightened her clothes.
“Elli’s brought a delivery for you, Traudl.”
Frau Oberhauser seemed to spot me now for the first time, still huddled at the bottom of the step. “Elli? Is that you? You’ve grown so much!”
It could only have been a week since we’d seen her. I smiled and kissed her on the cheek. Her perfume smelt like rubbing alcohol and lavender, and as it caught the inside of my nose I had to will myself not to sneeze. She beckoned us inside. Mutti said we’d have to leave in about ten minutes if we wanted to finish our rounds in time. Frau Oberhauser nodded, cantered into the kitchen and returned moments later with a platter of circular shortbread biscuits, charcoaled at the edges. I took one and bit into it. It bit back. I put it down.
The girl was stood at the periphery of the room, leaning against the doorframe. She was my height, shorter than Mutti and Frau Oberhauser but taller than a child. I was thirteen supposed she was the same, caught in that moment between moments. Her face was similarly so: at first glance it seemed angular, devoid of the tell-tale baby fat that still lingered at my own cheeks, but there were spots beginning to cluster on her chin and in the creases of the semi-scowl she’d worn since we’d walked in.
Frau Oberhauser followed my mother’s gaze and scowled a little, realising her mistake. “Oh, of course! You haven’t met my niece. This is Teresa, my sister’s youngest. She’s spending the summer with Rudolf and I. Wanted to experience Berlin a little, you know how it is with these things.”
Teresa stayed put. I nodded at her. She nodded back, and looked out the window. I dipped my biscuit into my mother’s cup of coffee.
“Thank you so much for doing this on such short notice Anya, I know how busy you’ve been.”
Frau Oberhauser laughed more than that joke was worth, and continued, “I got this fantastic book the other day from a friend, I thought you might like it. It’s on my bookshelf upstairs, I thought you could leaf through it and see whether it’s of interest while I grab my purse?”
The two women left the room and left the girls to themselves. Mutti gave me a look as she left, a sort of sorry, or maybe a you’ll be fine, though to my mother those two were almost always the same.
I tapped Mutti’s teaspoon around in her cup. “So, where are you from?”
“Ulm.” She kept her eyes on the window.
I sipped at the mug, trying to ignore the bitterness. I couldn’t see a sugar bowl. I wondered why Frau Oberhauser had even bothered to put a teaspoon in if there was nothing to stir.
The living room of the Oberhausers’ house was similar to ours – in fact, the whole house was similar to ours, the design of the house having been pasted across the rows of streets in our area. This street was a floor shorter, generally housing older couples with no kids and young couples soon to have kids who couldn’t afford to jump over a street yet. The walls of this particular house were painted bright yellow, which came across as bile or sunshine depending on the weather and mood of the observer. There was a large window that pointed out to the garden at the back of the house, where Rudolf Oberhauser’s green fingers had been had at work this summer. On the other wall, a grandfather clock, a small bookshelf for texts that had yet to be returned to the larger collection in the master bedroom.
There were a couple bare nails that stuck out from the wall, and I had vague memories of something having been hung there when I was younger, quite young, when we’d just moved to the area. I could only have been three. I asked Frau Oberhauser about it once, and she’d responded that the nails had been there for as long as they had been, remnants of the previous tenants, and she couldn’t think what she would’ve hung had she hung anything. No, there had once been a crucifix, she remembered, but that had been moved to the guest bedroom after her mother in law had thrown a fuss on a visit, and she’d forgotten to move it back later. But nothing more, and hopefully soon the nails would go too, once Rudolf finished tending to his runner beans. That had been three years ago.
The telephone rang in the kitchen. The stairs thumped, and Frau Oberhauser scuttled past us. Mutti followed down the stairs shortly after, book open, eyes down on the page in front of her. I willed her to shut the book and break the silence. Teresa was looking at the book from across the table, and I wondered if maybe she could read upside down. Upside down, at three metres, with the back of the book facing her. She seemed odd enough, though not odd in the typical Oberhauser way. Quieter.
The grandfather clock chimed two o’clock. Frau Oberhauser called for my mother. I picked up the book, glad to have anything to keep my hands and eyes occupied. I didn’t read it, just let my eyes rest on the page. Or maybe I did read it, but forgot what I was reading as I saw it. It didn’t seem to matter, but maybe I filled that in later, maybe it only seemed inconsequential later.
Mutti walked in and tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up.
“We should go home now. Something’s happened to Rudi.”