‘Heidi’, was to become my Standard Model for how the world worked. I read and re-read it.Written in two parts, in 1880, by the Swiss writer, Johanna Spyri, the first book was entitied: Heidi’s Years of Learning and Travelling’. This seemed apt. Here was a heroine I could identify with completely.
I was 5 years old; so was Heidi. Her parents were dead; mine were soon to divorce. She had an aunt called Dete; I had an aunt Dorothy. She was raised by the ‘Alm-Uncle; I was being raised by Elsa the cook, Willi the gardener; and Cecilia, our maid. We four would all congregate in the warm kitchen of our last home in Germany at Wahn- a -Heide, near Koln, after I came back to the empty house from school. I then became ‘Mandylein’ – cuddled, kissed, fed, loved. My hair in golden plaits; speaking in German to my loving, makeshift family.
I still remember the 30’s geometric black and white tiling in the kitchen; the warm grange, the high stools at the breakfast table. Love,security, warmth. The central heating. Apples stored in the attic to ripen; red squirrels jumping from tree to tree. Elsa, scooping me up in her arms, decorating a six-foot Christmas tree, with magical white candles, secretly for me, then opening the door to show it to me – and my gasps of joy, wonder and surprise. Weihnachten.
One day, I wrote in my exercise book at school, stamped with Overseas Services Personnel Only on its cover that: ‘ My mummy has gone to the UK’. And that was it. She had left My father was nowhere to be seen.
Now I spent more and more time with my ‘adopted’ family. I visited Elsa and Willi’s home. They were so poor. They seemed to own nothing. Elsa’s legs were blue and mottled with cold. I adored Cecilia – a sixteen-year-old Polish refugee. How had she ended up here in Germany? What was her story? She would chase me round the house; we’d skate on the beautiful, polished, parquet floors. I’d slide down the magnificent bannisters of our ‘sweeping,marble staircase’. A cliche. But true. I’d hide in cupboards. I adored her; she adored me. She had bare legs even in the bitter winters. Old, broken boots, One day, Elsa arrived wearing stockings – with many holes. We found some old shoes, in the garden; stuffed them with straw and left them outside my bedroom door one night.
For the imaginary reindeer.
We were all refugees.