Jun 2009 Journal

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‘What did you do when they put you in that cell?’, Hannah asked. ‘I did my nails. They let me keep my manicure wallet’, Eva replied. ‘How could you stay so cool?’ ‘What else could I do? I didn’t know where he’d gone, did I?’

Eva’s boss (some said he was more than that) had done a bunk. The Gestapo had hauled her in for questioning at their Berlin HQ. They put her in a cell to give her time to ‘think’. But she knew nothing.

It was bitterly cold as 1938 passed into 1939. The wind blew down the Kurfürstendamm. Eva knew nothing. Overnight he had packed up and disappeared, leaving her to clear up the office. Not that there was much left to clear up. Released by the Gestapo but still under surveillance, Eva consulted her sister. She had applied for a work permit to go to England.

Hannah advised: ‘You must pursue this. Soon the boys and I will be in England, God willing, and mother can go to Ruth in Amsterdam.’

A short while later, Eva’s papers arrived and she was off. She considered herself lucky. She had a talent – a talent apart from her piano-playing. She was an excellent cook and was to be employed with the title Cook General in the home of a dentist in Hemel Hempstead.

’Where is Hemel Hempstead?’ ‘North-west London, I think, near Swiss Cottage … where Lucie’s living.’

Eva arrived with her two suitcases at Liverpool Street Station on a cold grey afternoon and was met by her employers in an old Rover car. Her command of English was less than minimal. Formalities over, baggage in the ‘boot’ – there was a new word! – and off to her new home. ‘Bitte, pleess, how long to Hampstead?’, she asked. ‘No more than an hour,’ they answered. ‘My friend Lutsie she lives in Swiss “Kottidge” - that is by Hempstead, no?’ ‘No, dear, not Hemel Hempstead.’ And so a first confusion was unravelled. Hemel Hempstead was outside London, to the north. Lucie had written to Berlin that where she lodged there was a piano which Eva might practise on. But now that was too far away.

They arrived at her employers’ home as it grew dark and Mr Carrington helped her with a suitcase to her room at the top of a substantial Georgian villa set in ample grounds. She had an attic with a small dormer window, a washbasin, an iron bedstead, a cupboard and a chair. A jug and a small bowl sat on a dresser and a lonely light bulb beckoned from the ceiling. A long way from the comfortable flat in Berlin she’d shared with her mother - but also a long way from that cell in Gestapo headquarters with its lonely light bulb.

Eva settled down. A marvellous cook, she soon learned what Shepherds Pie was and how to make Spotted Dick! Sometimes she was allowed to produce her delicious Continental specialities – potato soup, goulash, stuffed cabbage leaves and so on. War and rationing came. She had news that her mother was in Holland. Her sister and the two boys had reached Newcastle. And the dentist had removed all her teeth, deducting his fee from her meagre wages.

Cook General was her title, but who was there to command? Only a part-time cleaning lady. She was expected to stay in her room, her cold little attic, on her time off. It was a lonely time. Gradually she went out a bit and made a few friends. London and Swiss Cottage were a world away.

One day, when her employers were out, Eva sneaked upstairs to the Music Room – she’d glimpsed a baby grand there. Tentatively she raised the lid. Yes, it was a Bechstein. She adjusted the stool, flexed her fingers and released them on to the keys. Old friends reunited, the fingers and keys produced music. Strauss, Bach, Chopin, Liszt - it all came back. Tears ran down her cheeks. She lost her sense of time. She played on and on, the pent-up tension of the past months flowing out of her.

It must have been an hour later when she stopped, sensing she was no longer alone. Her employers were standing in the doorway. She jumped up. ‘So sorry, I am so sorry!’, she said wiping a tear from her eyes. But the Carringtons clapped their hands. ‘Very good, Eva, where did you learn to play so beautifully?’, Madame asked. ‘At the Academy in Berlin.’ ‘Of course – the Academy’, the dentist said. ‘And what have you prepared for our dinner?’

If only they’d said she could play from time to time. Back in her kitchen, Eva wondered if they might let her. The weekend after she had prepared a delicious meal for her employers and their friends, Mrs Carrington asked: ‘Eva, when you have cleaned up and washed the dishes, would you play for us a little? You know, she’s quite good!’

Eva wanted to refuse but the Bechstein beckoned. And so the Cook General in Hemel Hempstead, miles away from Swiss Cottage, assumed a secondary role: tame pianist on nights when important guests were entertained. ‘What treasure - cabbage soup and Bach!’, a tall skinny lady guest said. ‘Can you get me that recipe for the apple desert, Dorothy? Delicious!’

Eva copied out the recipe before the guests left – omitting a vital ingredient.

Jo Maier

previous article:UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS (I)
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