Mathilde looks at her reflection in a shop window: hair wispy about her ears, bags laden beneath her eyes, a slight kink in her posture. She looks typical enough to blend in with all the other women walking this street in search of intact store fronts, stocked shelves; no one will notice the slight shake of her ankles, the way she leans on the pram’s bar a little too heavily.
She reaches down, tucks the blanket under Henni’s chin. The baby stirs but does not make a sound. Mathilde exhales a fraction louder than she intended, relieved that Henni sleeps. She strokes Henni’s cheek with an index finger, enjoys the smiles of the passersby admiring the propaganda worthy image of mother and infant: a reassuring sight in these uncertain times.
A car horn toots. A horse exhales and stomps its hooves against the ground. Two men walk past, laughing louder than necessary. Mathilde stops stroking Henni’s cheek, gets ready to shush the child’s fretting, but she sleeps on as if she already understands, has already been versed in what to expect, how to act. Mathilde looks around at the cracked facades, the split sandbags, the grey faces of the women around her. Some clutch their grocery bags to their chests as if they were their children and Mathilde wonders what they have lost in this headless war. She allows Johann a spot in her thoughts, allows him to unfurl. Long-limbed and straight-backed. His bottom lip puckers. Mathilde fiddles with her wedding band, tries to distract herself from the words that stamp across every thought she has of him, but they appear black and bold on his chest, arms, forehead: missing in action. She bites her lip, uses the pain as a way back onto this bombed-out Berlin street before she starts thinking of Horst too.
Mathilde carries on walking, the pram rattles over the cobbles. She keeps her eyes on the end of the street, where she has to turn right, look out for the alleyway on her left and walk into it in the manner of a woman who does so every day. She cannot see any obvious obstacles to this endeavour, no men watching her a little too closely over their newspapers, but one can never been too careful. She throws her shoulders back, manoeuvres the pram around a pothole, a pile of bricks, a cracked sink. A boy holds up a toy aeroplane he has discovered in the rubble. His mother tells him to put it back, but he does not and she does not pursue the discussion any further.
A steady rain begins to fall over the city; the cobbles take on an oil paint sheen. Mathilde knows she must watch her step, not be too hasty, and yet appear to be eager to get out of the rain. She does not have an umbrella to put up, could not push the pram with one hand if she tried. The back of her dress dampens.
A man steps out of Mathilde’s way. She apologises, he shrugs and smiles, points to the heavens as if they provide an explanation for her lack of awareness. Yes, she thinks, I am desperate to get home, to take off this dress and hang it up to dry, to gather my baby in my arms and rock her in time with a tune on the wireless. After all, that’s what we woman do, isn’t it? She returns his smile, shakes her head at the rain. Unexpected, like so many things.
Mathilde lifts her face up to the sky, breathes in the cool air. Her arms ache, but she cannot stop, cannot slip into a café and sip something ersatz while the rain eases, the clouds break. Then she wonders whether her determination, the bend of her elbows and knees makes her stand out, and she should cross the street, go into that café with the cracked windowpane, and sit her damp backside on an ill-cushioned chair. She recalls the advice: they spoke of blending in, of complications caused by people but not by the weather. She carries on, pulls the pram’s hood up further, tells the sleeping baby they are nearly home so as to keep up the act, to dispel the potential doubters walking beside her. She pushes the pram harder, tries not to wince at its weight, wonders if she can manage to push hard enough so she can break into a brisker pace, an almost-run.
Mathilde’s cheeks and chest burn with the effort. She looks around, no one seems to be concerned with her, the rumble of the pram wheels over the cobbles. She nears the end of the street. One right turn. Left into an alleyway. Walk it like a resident of the building. Someone will be there smoking a cigarette, will offer her a hand with the pram up the stairs to the third floor where the apartment door will be unlocked at the sound of her footsteps and locked at her back. Then a pleasant face will wait while she collects her slumbering baby from the pram, pulls back the mattress and reveals her cargo of anti-National Socialist leaflets. He will distribute them, make sure they get into the hands of the women she pretends to be right now as she navigates her way down this street.
The rain eases. Mathilde’s ankle wobbles over a cobble loosened by war. Her muscles strain at the unusual angle and she tries to tense them, to regain her footing. She grips the pram’s handle, but worries she might tip it up, might hurt her daughter, spill her secret. Her knees give way; she tries not to cry out as they meet the ground.
As people flock to her, the fallen mother, Mathilde wonders how Henni will remember her, for surely this is the moment everything unravels. She knows the child will go to parents with the right beliefs, the right place in society, knows one day Henni will be reminded of how she was saved from growing up with misguided notions. Will Henni see past all that to the injustice her mother was fighting against? Mathilde cannot fathom the answer. She feels a hand on her arm, pulling her up. She tries to listen over the cacophony of concern, to listen for Henni, for broken sleep. She looks past the people, their eyes on her torn stockings, bloodied shins, waves their concern away. She forces herself to walk despite the stiffness of her limbs, her grazed skin.
Henni’s pram has not rolled far. A man in a long winter coat holds the handle. He mutters words Mathilde cannot comprehend to the child.
‘No need to worry. She’s still sleeping,’ he says, stroking Henni’s cheek.
‘Thank you,’ Mathilde says, reaching out for the pram. Her pulse booms in her ears.
‘You’ve cut your knee pretty badly. Do you need me to help you get somewhere?’
‘That’s awfully kind, but I’m perfectly fine. Thank you, again,’ she says.
A Party badge adorns his lapel and Mathilde finds she cannot take her eyes off it.
‘Are you sure I can’t help in some way?’
‘No, thank you. I really must get the baby home.’
‘At least let me walk some of the way with you,’ he says.
Mathilde looks up at the man’s face – at the slight furrow of his brow, the rain dripping down his nose, the freckle on his upper lip. He cannot be much older than her, something in the tilt of his head reminds her of Horst and she finds herself squinting, seeking more of him within the contours of this stranger. She turns her head, looks down at the pram. Horst would scold her for this, remind her that he was hanged at Plötzensee for such a lapse, remind her that his blood still stains the wall. Don’t get sloppy now, he would say. You’ve got a job to do. Think of your brother another time.
Mathilde smiles as if she did not fall, did not let go of the pram; as if her leg is not throbbing and her heart not raging in her chest.
‘Really, I appreciate your concern, but it isn’t far,’ she says.
He shrugs, steps back. ‘Heil Hitler.’
Mathilde coughs, presses one hand to her mouth and waves her other hand at the gentleman in a gesture she hopes implies annoyance at not being able to return his salutation. She walks the remainder of the street, keeps her eyes on a lamppost ahead. She knows he watches her, knows she must not stop.
The rain resumes, heavier than before; drops bounce off the cobbles and the pram’s hood. Mathilde turns right, casts a glance at the man, but he has moved on in the opposite direction, head bent against the sudden downpour. She looks up at the sky – a thank you to Mother Nature – and quickens her pace.
In the entrance way to the apartment building she nods at the man in the flat cap, smoking a cigarette.
‘Hello,’ she says.
‘Do you need a hand getting the pram upstairs?’ he asks.
‘Yes, please. I’m on the third floor,’ she says.
‘No problem,’ he says, throwing his cigarette to the ground.
EMMA VENABLES’ short fiction has previously featured in The Gull, Litro Online, The Lampeter Review, Strix, The Fiction Pool, LossLit, Spelk, FlashBack Fiction, and Normal Deviation: A Weird Fiction Anthology. Her first novel, The Duties of Women, will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.