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A novel based on the experiences of Alice Shrgai
(born Alice Roman; Michalovce, Czeckoslovakia 1923).
Andrew Bernhardt & Alice Shrgai

I am old and you are young. I have seen people born; I’ve seen them die.
Some were killed because they were brave, some because they were stupid and some just because they ran out of luck. You have seen none of this.
So let me do what grown ups always do to children: I will give you some precious advice and you will do what children always do – you will ignore it.
It has always been like this.
This is my advice, you should remember it as long as you live and may that be a very long time indeed: Never hide your pissy knickers in a piano.

Grandma Evelyn sweated. She sweated and spat. She always spat; she spat when she ate, when she talked and she talked all the time, mostly to herself. My best friend Lili said Grandma should have handed out umbrellas before she opened her mouth. This made us laugh but only to ourselves; if Grandma had known she would have flown into a rage and shouted – and then we’d all have drowned.

Lili and I laughed at anything then – sometimes we’d just meet up, look at each other and it would start. That runaway train of giggling, careering down a track, we just couldn’t stop. Mum said it was a phase that we’d grow out of; Grandma said: "Stupid little pischers".
Dad pretended to ignore us, though when Grandma turned her back he’d pull a silly face at her and set us off giggling all over again.
That morning Grandma was sweating and shouting. I heard her dragging something up the stairs.
"Alice, Alice!"
My mother reached down and wiped some cream from my chin. I always had cream cakes on Saturdays.
"Give her a hand for goodness sake." Which was another way of saying: "Whatever it takes, just stop her complaining,"
I tramped out to the landing.
The maid Lena – always brushing and scrubbing, elbows flying – scurried past into our apartment carrying a huge wooden crate.
"Alice, Alice!?" Grandma Evelyn was lugging another wooden box up the stairs, red knuckles crowned with white as she heaved at the polished brass handle, bumping the solid, stubborn crate upwards, step by step.
"What is it Grandma?"
"It’s heavy that’s what it is." She sent a fine mist of spittle cascading in the shafts of morning light that pierced the hallway gloom. "So I have to die here, on the stairs?"
I ducked under the spray and together we heaved the box up the steps and in to the drawing room - not the kitchen or the spare room but the drawing room, Grandma’s pride and joy. Whatever it was I reckoned it must be important, or expensive.
She flipped her hand at me. I stood back as she wrestled with the big box, then with a heave and a grunt dumped a large shiny, dark brown case on the table. I recognised it; I had seen one given pride of place in Minska‘s - the big Department store.
It was a wireless, a new wireless. I nearly screamed but managed to stop myself; Grandma hated children who scream. She grunted at me to help her with the other crate. Together we heaved out two impossibly heavy black boxes – batteries. Mum poked her head round the door and pleaded:
"Evelyn! Wait till Nandor gets home."
Grandma Evelyn laughed bitterly.
"Pah! Wait for the genius? What would he do? Blow us all up? Leave Mr Einstein to count his sacks of grain. I will do it."
Nandor – my dad – worked in a grain factory and I hated Grandam Evelyn for always criticising him. She worked on, I heard her breath rattling in her heaving chest and I hated her so much that I hoped she’d electrocute herself. It would have been great to see her frizzy hair fly up and her false teeth shoot across the room. But she didn’t and soon we had all gathered around as she prepared to switch on.
Grandma, Mum, myself and Lena the maid - we all crouched down, staring, amazed at this strange machine. Beautiful carved tulip shapes, like a delicate stencil, in glossy, dark brown wood twined across the oval cloth-covered speakers. Grandma, standing, rolled back her sleeves, basking in the attention. She paused, made some completely unnecessary adjustments to the dial and turned one of the two gorgeous wooden knobs on the front.
Mum smiled as a dull yellow light slowly illuminated the glass panel picking out the names of places from all around the world, some near to Kosice our own little town: Prague, Warsaw, Vienna, some far away: Minsk, London, Berlin, Moscow even!
We were hushed into silence – but I wasn’t very good at silence. "Nothing’s happening!"
"Stupid girl!" Grandma hissed, "It’s warming up". Mum stroked my back – I loved it when she did that - as I leant against her strong hands. A piercing howl suddenly cracked the air, Lena screamed, mum and Grandma leapt to their feet and, of course, I shrieked with laughter.
I was sent from the room in disgrace but I pressed my ear to the door and listened.
A man talked in some jittery language, strange whistlings and scratchy buzzes, piano music, more whistlings and buzzes, a snatch of an orchestra. Mum said excitedly: "Try Oslo mother!"
"So she understands Norwegian, my daughter." Grandma’s cutting replies always silenced mum. Another sound, a voice, loud now, odd words, a phrase half announced, half shouted, somebody with a lot to said. He seemed in a hurry to got it all out. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine him somewhere in a far off city, hundreds of kilometres away, speaking, shouting. I could hear him! I heard his little gasps of breath between sentences. His words came out in hard rows, like little wooden blocks, stamping out his thoughts. I listened intently though I could only understand the odd word. He sounded like one of our teachers – the one we call Bomb Head who gets angry at just about everything. I tried to imagine the man who was shouting at us through the wireless, as he stood lit by a long piercing spotlight raised high on a stage. It seemed like a miracle. It was a miracle.
He sounded stiff-shouldered, cross, as if his shirt were itchy and annoying. He seemed to be making himself angrier and angrier - then, with a sharp pop, the yelling stopped.
"Enough already, the man barks," hissed Grandma switching the wireless off.
Hearing her disbelieving muttering and cursing growing closer I leapt back and darted to my room and peered around the door.
"But Mother that’s Chancellor Hitler!"
My mother hated rudeness; she was honoured that Mr Hitler had taken the trouble to talk to us. Grandma emerged flapping a hand in disgust.
"I should pay good money to hear a man bark? And someone tell me, what is that smell?"

© Andrew Bernhardt & AliceShrgai 2001

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