CLAIR DE LUNE by John F Egan

"Been collaborating with the enemy again, Bobby?" My father smiled and ruffled my hair as I hung up my coat. I wished he wouldn't make jokes about Uncle Walter and Tante Hildy. I loved them both and knew they weren't our enemies While I ate my supper in the kitchen I explained to my mother that I'd been shown how the cuckoo worked in an old, carved wall clock. But I could tell she wasn't really interested.
When Walter and Hildegard Keitel came to England from Germany, Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Despite his age, Uncle Walter opened promptly for business every morning. His shop was a wonderland to me. I frequently called in after school, as did some of my friends The antique timepieces fascinated me. I loved to watch suns and moons moving across the faces of grandfather clocks, or to trace the intricate designs on the silver cases of old pocket watches.
Sometimes on a Saturday Uncle Walter would say, "So, Bobby. Now is the time for winding. " And I was allowed to wind and set the clocks on the lower shelves while he did the others. Then we would sit together waiting for the wonderful massed chiming to take place at noon. Without fail Tante Hildy would bring in delicious little home-made cakes.
"Gut morning, little Bobby," and she would always kiss me. "Please enjoy these while you help my Walter."
I have only to close my eyes, and I can taste her confections today.
They were a childless couple, but full of love. Love for each other and always love for their young visitors. In place of a son or daughter, they had a dachshund called Heidi. That little dog loved those sweet cakes as much as I did, and needed regular walks for exercise.
Children were always welcome at the shop, and old Walter would patiently answer all the questions about his wonderful clocks, until Tante Hildy came bustling in to remind him about his supper. When the weather was cold, she sometimes gave us all a bowl of warming soup before waving us off home.
Uncle Walter was of medium height, and plump. His sparse hair was grey and his thick moustache white. Tante Hildy was like an apple. She was small and fat, sort of roly-poly. Her round rosy face was topped with the whitest hair I've ever seen. And she was always smiling. I think I wasn't alone among my friends in considering her to be an extra mother.
The blitz was at its height. Together with the U-boats prowling the North Atlantic, the Luftwaffe was trying hard to bring Britain to its knees. Like all major ports, Liverpool was suffering terrible air raids. On many nights we pulled the blackout curtains aside to watch the battle. The enormous dockland fires caused by the bombing were easily seen from our side of the Mersey. My mother would hold me and hum her favourite tunes.
"Don't worry, Bobby," my father would say, as we watched the blaze across the water. "One day it'll be our turn, then we'll show Adolf what's what. Never forget, England always wins in the end."
I loved watching the searchlights probing the skies, hoping to spear an enemy in the beams. Twice I saw a blazing mass tumbling down as the ack-ack gunners scored successes. Invariably during those nights of the blitz I would fall asleep with my mother's tunes still in my head.
When Uncle Walter wasn't repairing people's clocks and watches, he would be tinkering with his musical boxes. There were always some in his workroom, and he kept more upstairs.
"When I was a young man in Chermany, Bobby, learning my trade," he explained, "my teacher had a beautiful one which played melodies by Mozart. He showed me how it worked and so I developed an interest in these little machines. It became my hobby and now I have a very nice collection."
"My mothers favourite music is Clair de Lune I told him. "She's always humming it. Can I buy a musical box that plays it, Uncle Walter? It would be for her Christmas present."
"Well, Bobby, I don't have one just now but I will keep my eyes open." He looked over his glasses at me and smiled. "I'll make sure it will not be too expensive. Now, vot about a little trink, neh?" And he let me have a sip from his glass of home-made wine.
One Sunday evening in late Autumn, four of us were heading home together after a game of football in the park. We were shuffling slowly through the dry leaves, postponing as long as possible the inevitable bedtime.
Ahead of us we noticed Uncle Walter with Heidi on her leash. As the little dog sniffed round the base of a tree, the old man heard us coming and turned.
Joey, our leader, whispered to us, 'Goose step, now.'
Uncle Walter had raised a hand in greeting, but his friendly smile froze as he must have seen, instead of four little boys, four small storm troopers marching towards him in the dusk. As we drew abreast of our old friend, we all raised our right arms in the Nazi salute and shouted, "Heil Hitler" as loudly as we could. We marched on, smothering giggles and raising our legs stiffly in imitation of the enemy soldiers, At the corner I turned and looked back. Uncle Walter stared after us, his mouth open. One hand was at his chest and he leaned against the tree. Heidi was uttering shrill barks,
I knew then that we had done something terribly wrong. I wanted to go back and tell that kind old man how sorry I was, but Joey shouted and the moment was gone. The gathering darkness swallowed us as we ran home.
I just couldn't visit the Keitels during that week. Apologies seemed feeble and useless. At school, none of us talked about the incident. Putting it off didn't help, so on Friday I plucked up courage and went round to the shop,
The blackout curtains were pulled, even though it was still light. I knocked at the door and rattled the latch. Finally, I heard footsteps and Tante Hildy opened the door. But this wasn't the Tante Hildy I knew. Dressed all in black she seemed to have shrunk. Her beautiful white hair, normally so tidy, was loose and needed brushing. Her normally rosy cheeks were pale and her eyes were red.
"Ach, little Bobby. Come in, come in. " She led me through to the workroom. We sat and Heidi sniffed around my feet before returning to her basket.
"My Walter is gone now, liebling, but I cannot get used to it." She started to cry.
"Gone. Gone where, Tante?" I asked, not understanding, but feeling a lump of ice forming in my stomach. 'What do you mean?"
"So, my poor Bobby." She hugged me closely, "I thought you would surely know. Your Uncle Walter died and I buried him on Wednesday." She patted the little dog. "Poor Heidi doesn't understand. Just a second, Bobby," she said, getting to her feet. As she left the room it dawned on me how old and lonely that little woman had suddenly become. When she came back she brought the inevitable cakes on a plate. She gave one to Heidi, then pressed me to take one. It was like sawdust in my mouth, but I tried to smile appreciatively.
"He came home last Sunday night after taking Heidi for a walk, I saw at once something was wrong. His face was white and I think his chest hurt. I made him a hot drink and wanted to go for the doctor but he forbade it. Something had happened while he was out but he refused to tell me what it was. It was very worrying Bobby, but finally I got him to bed. I gave him a nice hot water bottle and waited till he slept."
She began crying again and I felt tears pricking my eyes as misery and guilt enveloped me,
"In the morning I thought your Uncle Waiter was still sleeping, but he was cold. He had died in the night." She was really sobbing now and feeling dreadful, I put my arms around her. Finally, she took a deep breath and attempted a smile. I stood up as she fed another cake to Heidi.
"I'll have to go now, Tante Hildy. I'll come round to see you again on Sunday."
"All right, Bobby. It was good of you to come."
We were nearly at the door when she gave a gasp, and flew back to the workroom. She was holding out a small musical box when she returned,
"Walter made it for you, Bobby, You were always his favourite. Put some nice wrapping paper round it and your mother will love it," She hugged me to her, kissed me and let me out quickly. "Goodbye, Bobby."
Tears pouring down my cheeks and clutching my gift, I walked aimlessly around the neighbourhood until I was calm enough to go indoors.
I never did give my mother the musical box. Now, more than fifty years later I have it still. Alone in the evenings I sometimes hold it and admire again the beautiful carving and wonderful craftsmanship that went into its construction. I can imagine that old man working away late at night, but enjoying his labour of love because it was to please a small boy.
If I open the lid my shame washes over me like the haunting strains of Clair de Lune. Inevitably while I listen, tears sting my eyes as I contemplate the terrible price of a child's thoughtless cruelty.

ENDS © John F Egan

Back to library