The Story of Hannah's Clock
By Diane Chorley
THE BACK STORY
World War II has cast a long shadow on the lives of many families, including ours, stretching out to young people today. Many families have a long-buried secret which defines them, but the facts and characters would not seem shocking in today's world should the story be discovered.
When my father died, my sister and I inherited a beautiful clock, which we had always admired, but had taken for granted along with several other interesting clocks. My father also gave me (as a would-be writer) his mother's diary, which she (our grandmother) had kept intermittently from 1936 for nearly 60 years. She was a sweet little old lady when we knew her, but we had no idea of her life until I read her diary. How I wish I had enquired more of her and my father!
This is one story conjured from the dry entries of that little journal.
This clock now, it was my father's. It's the only thing I have left from my childhood. I remember bringing it from Vienna in 1938 to Swiss Cottage in our suitcase. Father wrapped it and packed it as carefully as a hen settles on her eggs, hoping nobody would search us. They were turbulent times. My mother wanted to leave with nothing - but I'm glad we brought it. It gave Papa much pleasure through the years - and Mutti too. Now there's just me.
It's a French carriage clock, very collectable. I'm told it's unusual for them to chime, that's what makes it valuable. There it goes again! It can't be twelve o'clock already! I must have a look. It's not so easy getting out of an armchair at my age. If I were only young and slim again! Just eleven o'clock. That's better, and allowing for the ten minutes fast...
Clocks were my father's business. I can picture him back in Vienna, running his fingers through his sparse hair. He had this habit of putting his head on one side, and making a regular metronome movement with his first finger, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, in time to each clock in the workroom. There were so many being repaired. He had his favourites too, like a father with many children. He would take out his hunter watch and check the time of each one, scolding if it was more than a minute or two wrong. Oh yes, all over Vienna people would say if their watch or clock went wrong, take it to Mr Rosenberg, he'll fix it for you.
Who shall I leave it to when I die, my clock? That's my dilemma. There's my cousin's boy David, although I don't like him much. Even as a boy he was sneaky. I still feel he is up to no good. He looked at the bottom of my ornaments to see if they're Dresden or something. I'm sure he's after my clock. Greedy boy. Why else would he ask to take it to his friend Joe Freeman to have it valued? Oh no, I said, you send Joe here to me.
Such a nice man, Joe. Took my clock in his hands so gently, examined it, and then told me what it was worth. I could have whistled if I'd had my own teeth. It's exceedingly valuable it seems. My fingers trembled so much he had to pour his own glass of sherry! He promised not to tell my nephew its worth. I can picture David's eyes getting bigger and his mouth small as a cat's bottom if he knew the value. No, I don't want David to have my clock.
But on the other hand, there's his wife, Sophie. She'd be pleased to sell my clock. I think she spends money faster than David earns it. Her hair's like a sheet of glass down her back. It's in stripes. "Why do you have the blond done in pieces," I asked her once, "in my day we had it done all over." She shrugged her shoulders, "It's the fashion." She smiled kindly, but I felt she looked at me as if I was an old fool.
There's no need to leave her my clock. She's not family. Not really. Just my cousin's son's wife. It would only encourage her bad habits. She plays bridge. In the afternoons. For money. The children let themselves in the house after school, with a key.
But Sophie's a kind girl. She always brings me an apfelstrudel, and we have a glass of wine together. She kisses my cheek when she goes. She's not a bad girl. Foolish perhaps, but I understand foolishness. I was foolish once ... and at least she knew David would marry her. I've turned into a suspicious creature! Maybe I should have put it in that auction last year after all? The money would have given me a comfortable old age.
I remember our original flat in 1938, with the red flocked wallpaper in the sitting room, the soft brown leather and velvet three-piece suite, set off by the gold silk cushions with tassels at each corner. By 1943 it was looking shabby, but I remember thinking the only sign Mac had even been there was the indentation where his head had rested on the gold silk cushion, and I quickly plumped that up before my parents returned. My one and only lover. The sorrow of my life. If things could have been different...
That clock's chiming again. I must get up and see the right time. Such an effort. My feet are so bad today. Mirror, mirror on the wall, why is my face like a pale puffy ball? I was never a beauty, but I was young, and people admired my dark eyes. Now my skin is ivory parchment, my hair like an unraveled grey wool jumper. My eyes are still bright enough to read that letter though! Where is it, I'm sure I tucked it behind the clock. Yes, I have it. Says he will call today.
What a bombshell. After all these years! Thinks he may be my son. Why would he want to find me after all this time? Nobody wants you when you're old, unless they're after your money. He must think I'm worth plenty. Well, he'll find out. Says he's been trying to trace me for years. I'm certainly curious, but maybe I'd rather leave things as they are. If he ever does call, that is. I'm nervous! Well it was over fifty years ago!
I better put some lipstick on. I'd like to look my best. There's the doorbell. Goodness me! Already! "I'm coming." Such an effort. "I'm coming." The light out on that landing is so dim; I can hardly see anything through this spy hole. "Hello. Who is it?"
"It's me, Suzie, your home help. It's Wednesday, remember."
How could I have forgotten?
"Today's the day you're expecting your important visitor, isn't it? We must make sure everywhere is sparkling!"
She's right, as usual. She's Polish, and a good worker. She doesn't mind what she does for me. Sometimes she will wash my hair, or take my special blouse home to wash and iron for me. Last week I'd lost my glasses for three days, and she found them under the bed. Suzie and I have a regard for each other. We have the same concerns. We will always be foreigners, but she's young, will marry, have children, so she'll put down roots. Or she'll save money, go back to Poland, and belong there again. She paid me a great compliment. She said she learns good English from me because I have no accent. No accent! I've been here many years, but English people still ask me where I was born.
We always finish her visit with a coffee together. She understands real coffee. No jars of instant! We were half-way through when the doorbell made us jump. Suzie answered it.
"It's Joanna," Suzie called over her shoulder. Joanna lives across the landing, and often brings me a spot of lunch.
"Here's a chicken sandwich, Hannah." She peered round, and both Suzie and I laughed. "He's not here - yet," Suzie swept her arm around the freshly polished sitting room to show Joanna its emptiness.
"I heard your doorbell go earlier, and I wasn't quick enough to see who it was."
I feel protected by these two young women. Joanna wants me to get one of those devices you put round your neck and press if you fall over, but I haven't come to that yet. "I'm always here, across the landing," she'd said.
"Well then, I can call out. I don't need to press a device." But it was a kind offer.
I must have dozed off for a minute or two because when I looked at my clock it said three o'clock. It chimed just as the doorbell rang. I took a deep breath and struggled to the door.
"Hello. I want Hannah Rosenberg. Have I come to the right place?
"Yes. Who wants her?" That's what these detectives ask on television. I've heard them. He had a pleasant voice.
"My name is Howard Simms. I want to talk to Han-nah Rose-en-berg. I think she may be my mother." He said my name so slowly, as if it was difficult to say. "Can I come in please?" He seemed solid and prosperous. He looked happy. I struggled not to cry. Should I have kissed him?
"Come in? Yes of course." I rattled the chain to show him that I don't let just anyone in. "Please sit. What makes you think I'm your mother?"
"I'll tell you everything I know. But first, could I please ask, did you have a son in 1944?" His brown eyes were beseeching, over bright and full of hope. It would have been so easy to say 'no', and our conversation would have been at an end, but I had to be truthful, or I would never discover the truth. "Yes, I did." Pandora's Box creaked open, after all this time! I trembled in my uneasiness. He began.
"I was born in 1944, and put in an orphanage when I was three weeks old."
As he spoke I studied his face. There was nothing to remind me of myself when young, but he certainly was tall, so he could be Mac's son, although I cannot now recall Mac's features clearly.
"I was adopted by Dr Simms and his wife, and I have had a good life. Twelve years ago they died, within weeks of each other, and I had to sort out their papers. Everything was there, my original birth certificate, my adoption papers, even correspondence between Dr Simms - Dad - and the orphanage. Here, have a look. I've brought them all for you to see."
The papers seemed all right, genuine enough. Could he be my son? I relished the thought
"I went to the orphanage. Oh I've been everywhere over the last twelve years, and somehow all roads have led to you."
"How did you become a man of fifty without seeing your original birth certificate?"
"I knew I had been adopted. I was happy about it. I was never curious. But somehow, once my parents had died it was the one thing I wanted to know. Who was I, where did I come from? Can you tell me about... then, please?"
"We both need a sherry. It's over there, look. I'm still not sure. You could have found all these papers. I've no money you know."
"I'm not after anything of yours. I've plenty of my own. I've my own Dental Practice. Please tell me about... 1944 and ... all that."
I hesitated, not knowing quite where to begin. Howard prompted, "Just start at the beginning." So I did.
"It was wartime. I was driving ambulances. It sounds crazy I know, but for the first time in my life I was enjoying myself. In 1938, life in Vienna had not been much fun for me, being short and rather plain, I knew only fear and suspicion. There was camaraderie here in London, and I, fearless, would drive anywhere, any time.
"I met Mac on a street corner after a raid. He had been wounded by flying glass. I took him to be stitched up. He wasn't in uniform, but I knew he was an American soldier, with beautiful white teeth, and eyes as blue as the Danube by moonlight.
"He was far from home and lonely. He said I was warm and comfortable. Homely was the word he used. No young man had ever paid me such a nice compliment before. We were both displaced persons, but he was an exotic, tall, handsome, always throwing his head back and laughing, and I wanted to nurse him, please him, love him.
"We had one night together, in our flat, while my parents were in the underground station for shelter. It was a bad raid, but we were charmed, unharmed. But I never saw him again after that, although he promised he would keep in touch. I never learned his name. Oh he told me at the time that it was Harvey Wallbanger, but months later I learned that was a cocktail. My English was very poor then. I've called him "Mac", to myself, ever since, because, you see, he wore one... I have nothing of him to give you, not even his name."
"So I am Harvey Wallbanger Junior, am I?"
He winked at me and I thought my heart would stop, but I carried on, "My father was outraged when he knew I was expecting a baby. He had heart trouble, and the vein stood out on his neck and he shouted. Mutti lapsed into silences too terrible to bear. So I agreed to sign the papers. I was only 21.
"I remember bathing my beautiful baby boy for the last time, and feeling how good and plump his arms were, succulent enough to sink my lips into. I cried into the water. But the fact that there were hundreds in my situation at that time made no difference. You had to go. A piece of my heart broke off and went with you. In those days that's what we did - gave our babies away. Nowadays everybody keeps their babies. And no husband. Everybody's doing it."
"That must have cost you a great deal to part with your baby. When I held my first child in my arms I felt a real belonging. A parting would have been unthinkable."
"You have children? I could be a grandmother?" My thoughts were swirling! I could be part of a family! I could visit! I could belong! How I hoped he was my son!
"You could even be a great-grandmother, Hannah! I've a grandson! You're crying Hannah. Have my handkerchief." We sat for a minute while I regained my composure. I was unsure where we should go from here. I had one burning question, "Tell me something, Howard Simms, are you disappointed with the Hannah Rosenberg you have found?"
"Never. I have everything. Good wife, lovely daughters, comfortable home, successful business, but there was this piece of the jigsaw missing. Now I am complete." He seemed so sure. "I shall never lose touch with you." He took my hand gently in his large one and kissed it." "Hannah," he said, smiling, "You smell of apple blossom."
I was overcome with desire to hold him, hug him, kiss him. He got up out of his chair, to have a look round.
"I must stretch my legs, Hannah." He went to the mantelpiece. "What a beautiful clock. I know a lot about clocks. My sitting room is full of them. This is a French carriage clock. Did you know? There was one supposed to be in the auction recently, but the vendor withdrew it at the last minute. I was very keen to buy it, or at least have a close look at it before someone else outbid me! I've never seen one as fine as this. Does it keep good time?"
"Oh yes. And it chimes."
He stood still and pushed his left sleeve up to see his watch more clearly, and put his head to one side. He checked the time by his watch, and made a metronome with his first finger, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
from the September 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine