Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Swan (Part 8): In pursuit of Chekhov's gun

VIII. In pursuit of Chekhov's Gun

The text of Part 4, which I titled "Delila and the Molotov Cocktail," trails off just before Lottie's birth.
It started peacefully enough in that I was born at home to the sound of music. Mother and the midwife were doing their bit whilst father sat at the piano and played the opening choir of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "Come ye Daughters..."
That narrative begins, 
Before I explain how the marmalade got onto the bannister...
but neither the marmalade nor the bannister are mentioned again, so we know the piece is incomplete. She's broken her promise to explain. Lottie's marmalade on the bannister is Chekhov's Gun—the plot device that demands that when starting a story with a seemingly trivial element (marmalade on the bannister), its true significance must be revealed by the end of the story. 

          This morning, stuffed into an unpromising folder containing pages of German, I found several pages, which pick up exactly where the Marmalade piece left off: 

The recorder

Mother and the midwife were doing their bit whilst father sat at the piano and played the opening choir of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "Come Ye Daughters." One daughter came and was forgiven for being a girl although the firstborn. Two boys followed.

          We have always been fond of music. I had piano lessons when I was five years old and could read music before I could read letters. My practice took place before I went to school, summer and winter, and the room was not heated in winter. Mother remarked one day that my scales sounded curiously muffled and discovered that I was playing them with woolen gloves on. At six I taught my brother who was then five to play the piano. Little brother, some eight years my junior, tended to have bronchitis and our old family doctor prescribed flute playing. We then took up recorders—treble, alto and tenor— and together with one friend who had a viola da gamba we made music deep into the night, bewitched by the sound we made.

          One day I decided that both piano and clavichord were a bit tame and that an organ might be preferable. I took lessons from the organist of our local church and had a glorious time until I had to use my feet as well. It made demands on the body and the mind, a division of attention which proved a bit too much for me. I persevered for some time and found it interesting to pull the stops for my teacher, turn over the music and occasionally accompany him on concert tours in the neighborhood.

          In one old church we went through the routine of all required stops and I came to one which was a bit stiff. I pulled with all my might and out came a moth-eaten fox tail and hit me in the face, a joke invented by the builder of that organ some 200 years before and regularly tried out on young and innocent helpers. The end came at a concert in a huge cathedral when I had to pull stops and turn over music at terrific speed. At one point the organist shouted "turn" and I was so unnerved that I dropped the music on his hands which made the organ give one mighty howl. The organist removed the heavy volume and continued to play as if nothing had happened. At the end of the concert I resigned and reverted to my recorder. At least I could not do any serious damage with it.

The house in Hamburg

          We lived in a comfortable house in the middle of the town, a small garden in front and a larger at the back. At the bottom of the staircase stood a large iron anthracite stove which in cold weather heated the whole house. Drawing and dining room had open fire places in which a special aromatic wood was burned. The nursery on the first floor had a large white-tiled stove with a recess which could be closed with a brass door. We could bake apples in it or it was used before Christmas to dry out a special kind of quince paste which was finally cut into all sorts of shapes, turned in rather coarse crystal sugar and which appeared usually on the Christmas tree with bright red string threaded through each one, hanging next to the glass icicles. 

          Rooms on this and the next floor had stoves in all shapes and forms, iron and tiled, and during the winter it was quite a job for one of the maids to remove the previous days' ashes and light a fresh fire, if required early in the morning. It never occurred to us that a bedroom should not be heated. In my very early years I remember gas lighting in all the rooms. Some required a match but the large rooms downstairs had a kind of pilot light burning and they lit up when one pulled a small chain. 

          We always had a telephone which was fixed to the wall in the most unsuitable place, namely the staircase, next to the large iron stove. One turned a handle to attract the attention of the exchange. I often blocked incoming and outgoing cals by endless chats with one of my school friends, comparing notes about homework, solutions of math problems (one of my particularly weak points) and idle gossip.

 The veranda

         At the back of the house there was a large veranda, overlooking the garden which contained a chestnut tree, some lower borders and a sandpit. On warm summer evenings we had supper on the veranda which was next to a small sitting room with the lift to the kitchen. It would only take trays with food. Cook loaded it in the basement and the housemaid would take it out and hand the dishes round. In other seasons we had our meals in the dining room next door. Only very favourite guests would have a seat at the large table on the veranda. Often on warm evenings mother would brush my hair on this veranda, we would sing together and watch the sky, clouds and swallows.


          During the first World War we kept rabbits in the garden but nothing would induce us children to eat one of our pets until we were assured that it was not one of ours, tastily dished up in caper sauce, but one of the neighbors whilst they were consuming one of ours which was missing from our rabbit hutch.
Henry and Minka
          We always kept at least one cat and the one that stayed with us for years, called Minka, was white and affectionate. It had one vice: it liked to descend to the cellar and visit the coal bunker and roll round and round until it was dark grey if not black. We had a special chamomile shampoo and used to wash Minka which she disliked intensely. She looked pathetic when wet, all dripping fur and bones, but she forgave us when we had rubbed her dry and put her in front of the stove where she began to bloom into a snow-white fluffy cat. The first person to leave the door open saw her disappear downstairs, straight to the coal cellar where she restored the status quo.

          Later we were adopted by a very large Police-trained Alsation, a beautiful, faithful creature. In those days I used to sit up late into the night working for an exam and before going to bed I went out for a walk with "Lord." There was one street which often contained some doubtful characters and I always remember how a man approached me and tried to stop me. The dog had been roaming free but he always kept a watchful eye on me and the moment he saw what happened he came rushing along, put himself between me and the man and began to growl. I bent down, put my had in his collar and said, "He is trained to kill. You better go." He ran.

          At that time I was a trainee teacher at the school where I spent many years as a pupil. One morning "Lord" decided to accompany me and he was cunning enough to hid himself from my view. I only became aware of him as we approached the schoolyard and I quickly closed the gate. The yard was surrounded by a very high wall and I was sure that the dog would have to sit outside and wait for me until I went home. He would not go without me, nor would he go with any other member of the family once he had decided that it was his duty to stay with me. I ran across the yard when I suddenly heard shouts from the street. There was "Lord," balancing on top of the wall and then gracefully descending on the inside and at my heels in no time. I had to go and see the headmaster and explain the situation. Fortunately, he laughed. 

          The second lesson I gave was gymnastics to a class of some 30 children. I had them lined up nice and orderly for a high ump when I suddenly beheld the dog in the queue. He did his jumps and easily outshone the children who were delighted. I prayed that no school inspector would come and we were lucky. After that I always made sure that he did not follow me.

Swimming lessons

          Living in a city with a huge lake in the centre and many canals and small rivers running into it, children were obliged to learn to swim before they were allowed near or on the river. Once a week my class went to the nearest swimming pool where we had to struggle along as best we could. I hated it. Even during my summer holidays I was pursued by swimming teachers, one being a retired army sergeant with a black moustache, who dropped me in a pretty little lake, held by a sort of angle from which I struggled like a fish, just hooked, all to no avail. I did not learn it until my brother and I went to a private swimming bath in the middle of the city where we were treated like precious little dears which we imagined we were and eventually persuaded that water did not mean immediate death. We actually enjoyed swimming in the end. 

          This meant that we were allowed to hire a rowing boat and go down one of the canals to the centre lake. We invariably misjudged the time for the return journey and were too late for a meal, causing our parents and poor Nanny no end of anguish. The last bit of the canal was done in Oxford/Cambridge style, beating all records, and we then had to run the whole length of our street, purple in the face and breathless.

The Baltic Sea

          Most of our summer holidays were spent on the shores of the Baltic Sea, sometimes in small hotels and sometimes in a house, rented for a few weeks. One of these was surrounded by trees and each morning we used to run through a small pine tree and birch wood which separated us from the water. After a brief swim we would run back again to our house where breakfast was awaiting us. The journey was always made by train and we had two compartments reserved for the family plus cook and one maid. We took our own bed linen, china, and cutlery.

          One year Mother and I stayed in one of her friends' small wooden house, a stone's throw from the water. The house was cleverly constructed in that it had a stove in the centre which went right through to the second floor and the rooms were arranged like the spikes of a wheel. Small vents enabled one to heat any room which required some warmth, especially in the evening. We used to sit on a bench outside the house and watch the Moon rise over the water.

Lottie's father, Siegfried, center
William and Lottie
          There were no noticeable tides and the water was usually as smooth as a millpond. But when there was a gale blowing, the Baltic Sea could be as frightening as any large ocean. We had occasion to observe it when we stayed in the northern tip of Denmark and saw the steps to the bathing hut demolished by huge waves. 

          Three things made this Danish holiday unforgettable: one could still read a book in


the garden at midnight as the Sun did not sink far under the horizon—I learned to ride a bicycle and I discovered a small guest house in the garden to which I could retire undisturbed, a valuable hide-out since I was supposed to do a certain amount of math homework, not that it helped. Not one of my generation was any good at figures and we put the blame on our grandfather who was an astronomer and first-rate mathematician.

Siegfried and William

Traveling alone in a delightfully aimless way

         As soon as I had drawn my first salary as a teacher I went on a holiday in a delightfully aimless way. I studied the various destination signs at the central railway station, picked one which sounded attractive and bought a ticket third class which meant wooden seats. I once travelled all through the night with a group of actors and caused a certain amount of confusion. Every time the manager or director counted his sheep he found that there was one too many, having me included. I did not enlighten him nor did the actors around me who enjoyed his dismay.

          At about 3 o'clock in the morning we stopped at a main station, brightly lit and quite empty except for one or two trollies with hot drinks, sandwiches, cigarettes, newspapers and chocolates. On arrival at my destination I looked up an hotel, booked a room and went sightseeing. Sometimes I stayed for a day, sometimes I left again in the evening. I once arrived at a small town near the Swiss border and as it was a hot summer day I walked into the dark and cool woods, surrounding a lake. Eventually I came to a barrier across a lonely road and was greeted by two Customs officials who informed me that I had reached the frontier and could only proceed after they had seen my passport.

Crossing the border illegally

          I could not oblige as I had left it in my hotel room and I regretfully turned round as I would have liked to see a bit of Switzerland and could not go back to Germany and my hotel. The men finally relented. I made a mental note of the way I had taken in case I would ever have to cross a frontier in a hurry without being noticed. 

          When it came to flight I crossed the Dutch border illegally. What made it possible was the fact that we had lived in Holland for many years and that I could speak the language without an accent which is rare. As I got out of the train at the Dutch border an official asked me for my passport and I told him in a very convincing Dutch that he had already seen it and I could see no sense in my producing it a second time. He saluted and said, "Sorry Madam!"

In case the Germans felt like invading

          I stayed in Holland for a few years without a visa and constantly afraid that I might be discovered. It gradually dawned on me that my friends' maid went through my correspondence and as we suspected her of Nazi sympathies I got the wind up and put the Channel between myself and the Germans in case they suddenly felt like invading the Low Countries.

To Prussia in a pram

          The very first border I crossed was in my pram. Hamburg was a Republic, surrounded by Prussian territory. We had our own constitution, postage stamps, coins and even national anthem. The Prussian border Police was some 15 minutes' walk from our house and our children's maid must have found it rather attractive to cross into foreign territory. Mother told me later that the answer to her question "where have you been today?" was quite often "abroad" with the smug expression on her face, indicating the courageous explorer.

Travel on father's diplomatic passport

          In contrast to this illegal entry into Holland, we used to travel on father's diplomatic passport as long as he was attached to the Embassy in the Hague. We stayed in the train and watched the other passengers streaming to the passport and customs points. Our luggage was never touched and father insisted that we never packed anything that might be subject to duty. With us were usually other diplomats and one or two members of the royal family. All very cosy.

Northern Ireland

         I crossed another border although not in flight and that was in Northern Ireland when I stayed with friends in County Donegal. They lived in a small village and practically all social events and all our shopping was lying in Londonderry. I joined a choral society in Derry and used to drive my friends' car to the bottom of a fairly steep incline in the centre of the city. There I disembarked as I could not trust myself to get to the top of the moderate hill as once I stopped I could not get into gear again and slowly but inevitably rolled down to the bottom.


         After shopping and a joyful rehearsal of one of Handel's lesser known works I drove back to the Republic. The frontier was closed at dusk but one could obtain permission to cross up to an hour later on payment of half a crown. The frontier was invariably closed by the time I arrived and the closure was achieved by a large iron gate between two pillars at each side of the road. The Customs people had gone home and all was peace and quiet. No latecomer ever stopped perplexed outside the forbidding gate. It was perfectly easy to drive off the road into a potato field, around one of the pillars and up again on the other side. Deep ruts indicated quite clearly how one had to proceed.

          A certain amount of smuggling was going on all the time. I once went by bus and opposite me sat an old woman who had bought a pair of boots in Derry and had tied them with a string round her middle under her skirt. As long as she was sitting down the boots were visible to the Customs officials. The moment she was told that she would have to pay duty she stood up and the boots disappeared under her skirt. She looked incredibly innocent and enquired, "What boots?" The bobbing up and down exercise was repeated several times and the old lady was quite safe as no male Customs official was allowed to touch a female traveller. We knew which posts occasionally had a woman and avoided them if we had anything stuffed into our pockets which we did not want to declare.

My collections

          The only thing I ever collected was not so much a concrete object but a view and it was a special view from a lavatory. It began with a small wooden hut where one could settle down and look at the sky and trees through a heart-shaped aperture in the door. In one hotel on the Rhine all comfort stations were situated on the side of the cathedral and it was awe-inspiring to look up to the huge tower. One house in Brabant stood completely isolated from the world and the view from the lavatory which was raised on a sort of dais ranged for miles over flat land and somewhere near the horizon there tidily lined up some seven villages with tiny church spires. One house was built into a hill and the first time I saw it I could not believe it: a miniature white horse was galloping along the window sill. It was an optical illusion as I gradually discovered—the horse was miles away, halfway up the hill.

          The view to round off my collector's zeal was of a different nature altogether. It was in an old farmhouse. I looked round for a chain to pull but there was nothing there. It worried me and I could not quite make out what one had to do. As I bent over the bowl I looked straight into a pair of beautiful blue eyes with pale golden lashes. The loo was built over the pig sty.

Being a domestic servant

          The only work I was permitted to do was as a domestic servant and I therefore hired myself out as a cook-general to a middle-aged couple who kept a stationery and newspaper shop in north London. I had never learned to cook but it is astonishing what one can gather from books as one goes along. The first time I had to wash the laundry I carefully read the instructions on the packet of soap powder. What it did not say was that one was supposed to rinse the soap out of the bits and pieces. I put them on the line to dry in very hot weather and in a short time I had a handsome collection of weird shapes, stiff like boards. Nobody saw my mistake and I hurriedly began to rinse. Second time lucky.

          At 11 each morning I had to have tea ready for the newspaper sellers who praised my brew as I tended to make it fairly strong. I was reprimanded and told not to waste expensive tea. It was not really my line of business and I found another post, this time in the country to look after a little boy. We disliked each other on sight and I managed to swap jobs with cook who adored the small monster and I wrestled with fairly large meals. 

          Family and guests liked to go about in the nude and bathe in a fairly large pond in the garden. Their morals left much to be desired and when I went round in the morning with cups of tea or fruit juice I never knew who was sharing a bed with whom. The local rector met me one day and advised me to depart with all possible speed. "My daughter, you have landed in Satan's nest." I thanked him kindly and stayed, at least for a while.

Lottie's bookplate
The owl

          The house cat was an outsize tom who attached himself to me and accompanied me on my regular evening walk when I needed some fresh air after a day in the hot kitchen. He feared nobody and nothing, an impressive animal, black with bright green eyes. If I had a tendency to being a witch he would have made excellent familiar. One evening as we were peacefully walking through a nearby wood he suddenly dashed between my feet with every sign of fright. The next moment a large white sheet fell down over me and I instinctively raised my arm to protect my head. As quickly as it fell the sheet removed itself and I saw a huge white owl. The cat and I turned and walked home with some speed and never entered that particular wood again.

A man in blue pyjamas

          At night the tom would appear on my bedroom window sill where he sat for a while before jumping on  my bed and curling up on my feet. One night I woke up because he began to growl and in the dim light I beheld a man in blue pyjamas who had entered quietly as I could not lock or bolt my door. I said in a very loud voice "No!" and as the cat continued to growl, the blue pyjamas turned and left as quietly as they had come in. Peace reigned again after I had wedged a chair under the door handle.


          Shortly after the end of the first World War we moved to Holland where father was attached to the Embassy. He worked with the Society of Friends in America and his contact was Jane Addams. They arranged for supplies of food, especially condensed milk, to be sent to the Ruhr where children were severely undernourished as a result of the blockade. The Embassy was in a very beautiful old house, facing a small ornamental lake in the city centre. Next door was the Belgian Embassy and we were told that they had fixed a device to the back of their fireplace which backed onto ours so that they could listen to our conversations.

          Every time there was a confidential meeting I had to kneel in front of our fireplace and make a crackling noise with some paper as a sort of protective shield. I was also entrusted with carrying confidential papers and I was thrilled to know that I was followed by a detective although I never discovered whether it was friend or foe. I was really still a school girl and had nothing much to do.

Diplomatic life

          At embassy receptions I joined the ambassador's son who was about my age and we helped to hand round dishes in spite of a surfeit of servants. Official dinners lasted for hours and as mother was ill I had to take her place and had to work my way through one course after another, making polite conversation. It soon took away all illusion a young girl could have about the joys of diplomatic life and elegant international society. 

Lottie's father, Siegfried, 2nd from right
          An official meal in the restaurant of the five-star hotels had the added horror for me that a gipsy group was making music in the background and I was asked what song I would like to hear when the leading gipsy would come to our table, stand behind me and played for me. I blushed furiously when I saw that people turned round, looked at me and smiled. Even snails in wine sauce would not comfort me.

The milkman

          The first morning in Holland we saw the milk arrive. It came in large copper urns on a small vehicle drawn by two sturdy dogs and the milkman filled jugs and saucepans held out to him by all the maids of the neighbourhood. Something else was new to us: the huge barrel organs which made their attractive music even when pushed from one street to the next. I can only remember the figures of one: King David playing the harp with jerky movements of one arm.

The Royal Academy of Arts

          Eventually my lazing about came to an end when I was enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts where I followed classes in drawing, painting, engraving and anatomy. The latter took place in a huge room and I was told that Rembrandt had been there which I did not believe. It was a cold winter and we all gathered about one small iron stove. The model on which our teacher demonstrated was a young fisherman on whose back were drawn lines with chalk to show the outline of the muscles. He was blue with cold and the teacher used blue chalk and I never learned much about the back muscles.

          Later I joined a group of Dutch girls in the private studio of a Czech artist who specialized in portraits. She had a very individual style which we tried to imitate and I never quite got it out of my system. I have often envied "primitive" painters who knew nothing of technique and could express themselves unhampered by too much knowledge.

Wind, and small cream cakes

          Our house was not far from the North Sea and during the last years of our stay in Holland we lived in a comfortable boarding house on top of the dyke. When a gale blew from the sea we could not use the front door and had to sneak in through the back. We could open the door but were unable to close it again. 

          The Dutch make the most delicious small cream cakes and we were able to look into a nearby bakery with binoculars. One of us used to go and point at various cakes and when the one which was fancied was reached, one simply raised an arm.

Special permission from the Queen

          At one point our parents went back to Germany and left brother William and me in an hotel. I was still too young to sign cheques and special permission from the Queen had to be obtained to make an exception. The bank cashiers proudly pointed out to other customers that they had orders from the Queen to honour my checques.

          William got it into his head that smoking a pipe would be a manly thing to do although he was still a schoolboy. He could not get the pipe going and I had to light it for him in the corridor and then dash into the so-called lounge where to the astonishment of all guests I waved the pipe, scattering ashes, and shouted "it is alight—here your are!"

The Dutch

          The Dutch have always been a down-to-earth nation. When the elastic in my knickers gave and they dropped to my feet, people did not discretely avert their eyes—on the contrary—they pointed at me, nudged each other, laughed uproariously and demanded an encore. I must admit that this happened in a fishing village where the mothers suckled their young in public and older children sometimes came and cadged a drink from mother. Curtains were not drawn at dusk and passersby could look into the main room on street level without let or hindrance. The explanation was "we have nothing to hide." 

          Everybody, including Queen Wilhelmina, went by bicycle, unless they used an ornate coach on state occasions. The old Queen Mother, Queen Emma, had her own coach and I once was the only person in sight during a gale on the promenade and I dropped her a deep curtsy. She smiled and waved a limp hand. Queen Wilhelmina's husband was Prince Hendrik and father once drove with him in a coach and as they passed the royal palace in the Hague, the Prince pointed at it and informed father that "my wife lives here."

          Dutch railways had then (and for all I know they still have) the habit of dividing their trains without previous warning and it could happen that one aimed at The Hague had arrived in Amsterdam instead. Embarrassing when one had no money left but I was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic porter who simply pushed me into the right train and enabled me to have supper, be it somewhat late, at home.


          When I went back to Holland in 1947, I found that I had forgotten most of my Dutch but I still managed to impress the passport control who shouted to a colleague: "Come here, Henk, there's an English lady who can speak Dutch." They stared at me with obvious admiration.

          On my arrival in Hook of Holland I was the last off the ferry as I knew that I was not in a hurry and the official quietly emptied my suitcase until he found a box with watercolours. He was a watercolour painter himself and we had a lengthy discussion about this form of art. In the end I realised I would have to run for my train and the official helped me to put all my belongings back, he kindly sat on the suitcase, which was bulging and would not close, and he carried it to the train with his own fair hands. I did not have anything to declare anyhow.

A hot knife through butter

          I have never tried to smuggle anything through Customs and on the whole went from one country to another like a hot knife through butter.


  1. This chapter is so full of history! Don't you feel for your aunt, having to feel like she should have been a boy and given so much responsibility? And she is so clever, the way she can illegally cross the border by using her Dutch and her cool. Prescribing flute-playing to cure bronchitis? I have never heard of that! As one who plays the organ I got such a kick out of the story about pulling the stop and the foxtail flying out! And it would not be the first time that all the music fell on an organ, causing a loud noise!!!!! Such an incident has lots of entertainment value although of course it is never intended. And guess what, my mother was born under the Dutch flag, Charlotte! The Dutch owned Aruba in 1936, and my mother's family was there working for Exxon to escape the Great Depression. Something we have in common in our families of origin! This excerpt is a true museum piece Charlotte. Your aunt wrote about this and you put it together to make this piece? I would say writing ability definitely runs in the family!

  2. Hi, Betsy! I'm so happy you're here. Uh-oh: starting to become dependent ;) Thank you so much for reading and responding.

    Aruba in 1936 sounds fascinating. You might have some writing and research to do. I think many people want to but keep putting it off (to live their lives and be in the present). I bet your daughter would be interested, and I think everyone loves to peer in at other people's experience, different times and places.

    On the other hand, I'm aware that this is very long and tedious to read, and, if I have the energy, I'll drastically trim and tweak and smooth things out once everything is transcribed. I'm not sure where my own voice fits in yet, either, so that, too, needs adjustment.

    Thanks for the moral support! xx

  3. Hi Charlotte!! I'm so glad I checked this spot and saw your message back. Almost didn't think to. I absolutely loved reading these pieces!! I liked seeing the pictures with them too. I will admit I have a few blocks in terms of writing about Aruba. While perhaps historically interesting, I have trouble warming up to the task for various reasons. My mother, however, is writing her own memoirs and I do enjoy reading hers!! I also have some from her father, who wrote to the Rockefellers looking for a job and was placed at Exxon in Aruba. I also have some writings of my husband's family which tell of a civil war soldier relative who ran away from the infirmary twice to continue fighting in the war and avoid having his injured arm amputated!! I tell Jim, that is definitely a story of his family lineage and not mine. I think mine would have stayed in the infirmary reading LOL, or quietly gone off duty.

  4. Perhaps my mother still being here to write her own stories is one reason I don't. She loves to do it!

    1. How wonderful that your mother is writing! (And it is pretty hard to imagine running back to the war...I wonder if he survived?)