My Brother the Enemy – extract

On their hike to school, Martin talked further of denouncing their father, of ‘ridding the family of its cancer.’ Peter thought of his mother and her loyalty to her husband, and tried to work out whether her loyalty was misguided or heroic. But he said nothing.

He turned round to see Monika following them only yards behind. Each day, she seemed to be closing in on them. He wanted to invite her to walk alongside them but, as always, allowed himself to be swayed by his prediction of Martin’s reaction.

As soon as they arrived at school, the twins realised that something unusual was happening – the teachers seemed agitated, the atmosphere tense. But when they asked round, none of the children knew why and the teachers weren’t saying.

They had to wait until mid-morning before they found out. The first lesson had been German literature with Miss Kretschmann, a dreadful old widow who lectured with such a shrill voice, Peter always came away from her lessons with a headache. It was rumoured her husband had committed suicide. Having to listen to a voice like that every day, Peter didn’t blame him.

Mr Rich took the second lesson, pulling nervously on his tie. His hair was so carefully parted, it made Peter think of a straight road running through a forest. The children settled down quickly hoping that Mr Rich would enlighten them as to why everything seemed out of the ordinary. They weren’t disappointed – what he said was both satisfying and intriguing at the same time. Mr Manstein, the headmaster, said Mr Rich, needed to speak to every child in the school – individually. When their name was called, they should report directly to his office, and when finished, come back to class. They were not permitted to speak to anyone about their conversation with the Head, and the severest of punishments would be meted out to those who were caught gossiping. Almost as soon as he’d finished, Miss Kippenberger, sometime teacher, sometime Headmaster’s secretary, knocked on the classroom door and entered without waiting for a reply. ‘Tomi Schücking,’ she said, without acknowledging the teacher.

Tomi looked at Mr Rich, waiting for permission to leave – an unusual show of obedience, thought Peter. ‘Well go on, then, boy. Off you go.’

Tomi rose from his desk and grinned at the rest of the class, but Peter could see the uncertainty under the bluster. He saw it because he was feeling it too. What on earth could Mr Manstein want with all of them? And to see each of them, one at a time, was unprecedented.

Pulling again on his tie, Mr Rich launched into his lesson – the perfidiousness of Stalin on his route to power. He spoke in a low, rambling voice, his nerves on display, rendering it almost impossible to listen or take in what he was saying.

‘And there he reamins to this day – enscouned in the Kremlin, surrounded by sycophants.’

After only a few minutes, Tomi returned; swinging open the classroom door, his shoulders swaggering with arrogance, because he’d been through it and come back unscathed – whatever ‘it’ was. His eyes gleamed with satisfaction of knowing that he was in on the secret and no one else in the class so far, possibly including Mr Rich, knew what it was.

‘It’s Peter’s turn,’ he said, without addressing Mr Rich.

‘OK, Peter – off you go.’

Peter went to tidy his books and papers.

‘Go on then, boy, don’t dilly-dally.’

*

The Headmaster began. ‘A situation has arisen, young Fischbacher, that needs the utmost integrity and honesty. I expect you to be frank with me and not to hide away any facts that may be of assistance. I expect you, also, to put aside any feelings of personal loyalty and to remember the country is, and must always remain, your first priority. Any other loyalties are irrelevant. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It has come to my attention, Martin, that a serious allegation has been made against one of the teachers in the school.’

Peter squirmed, reluctant to interrupt. He coughed, lightly, ‘Headmaster, sir–’

‘Yes, yes, what is it?’

‘I’m Peter, not Martin.’

The Head glanced down at his notes and then peered at Peter, as if trying to spot the difference between the twins. ‘Yes, of course – Peter.’ He cleared his throat. ‘The teacher concerned is Miss Hoffman. The allegation against her is that of anti-Party agitation.’ The Head paused for effect and Peter accordingly absorbed the revelation, his face reddening. ‘Miss Hoffman is, without doubt, a popular teacher but I must reiterate that her crime is as such that any misguided loyalty must be put to one side.’ Peter noticed the subtle switch from allegation to presumed guilt. ‘Our political system and our survival as a nation state under the glorious National Socialist system is still very much in its infancy. Like a flower, we need to nurture and protect it against the slightest digression from the rightful path. So, Peter, with this in mind, I have to ask you, what evidence can you provide me of Miss Hoffman’s political deviation?’

We’re safe now with our so-called saviour. His heart had skipped at her use of the phrase, uttered so casually, as if these dangerous words were but random, innocent words. Who had heard her say them? Martin, Monika and himself. Could someone else have overheard? Had she repeated them, or something similar, elsewhere? Was she in the habit of saying such dangerous things?

‘Well?’

Peter liked her, always had done; she had a heart, a personality, she stuck out from the other teachers for her individuality; and now she was being made to pay for it, for her lack of conformity. He didn’t care what Mr Manstein had said, she’d saved him from a beating and for that he’d always appreciate her. But what if Martin or Monika told Mr Manstein the truth? Then the Head would know of Peter’s concealment. The humiliation of taking the blame and the beating following his brother’s prank at the play still rankled.

‘For pity’s sake, boy, do you think I have all day? You know something; what is it?’

‘No, Headmaster, I don’t; I was just trying to remember.’

The Head leant forward, as if trying to see into his eyes. ‘Are you absolutely sure? I warn you, Fischbacher, you cannot afford to lie.’

‘I know, Headmaster, but it’s true.’

‘So, you have never heard Miss Hoffman utter or pronounce anything that could be construed as anti-Party?’

‘No, Headmaster.’

‘OK.’ Satisfied, the Head leant back in his chair and picked-up a sheet of paper from a pile on his desk. ‘Sign this and then you may go back to class.’ He pushed the paper across the desk, and pointed at a fountain pen.

Peter read the short typewritten document:

I, the undersigned, petition that Miss Hoffman should be tried and punished with the strongest possible sentence for anti-National Socialist agitation. No leniency should be afforded to the above named.

Long live Germany.

Long live our Führer.

Signed …………………………………………………

Peter’s hand shook as he scanned the words. Her fate was already as good as sealed. He looked up and was confronted by the Head’s face leering down at him. ‘Well, aren’t you going to sign it?’

He couldn’t possibly sign it, and equally he knew he couldn’t possibly not sign it. His hand reached out for the fountain pen.

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