In November the wide and fertile flatlands of the Northern Rhineland cower in the path of angry storms, which travel unimpeded for thousands of miles across the North European plains from as far away as the Urals, mercilessly sweeping a never-ending army of lowering clouds before them; when they arrive, trees in the woods huddle close together, bending their crowns and weeping raindrops into muddy puddles; October’s fireworks are dead and gone. Fallen leaves rot underfoot, the air is dank and in the lanes, along the banks of hidden brooks and by secretive ponds, in the copses and clearings in the woods, where timeless mosses grow deep and soft, the smell of mould is all pervasive. Grey days lean heavily on the bony backs of black and white cows, listlessly standing in damp meadows, yearning for shelter, while white mists rise from the ground like shrouds abandoned by the long dead.
November wears a mourning band.
The feast of All Saints on the first of the month is followed by the feast day of All Souls, the day when tradition demands that we remember our dead. It is the day when families get together at the graveside of those they have lost.
In my childhood, we travelled to my mother’s home village; Allerheiligen or All Saints was a solemn public holiday. Early in the morning of the feast day, before daylight had fully woken, we stood out in the open on a draughty station platform, stamping our feet and rubbing mittened hands curled into fists to keep warm, clouds of breath visible in the morning chill. The station consisted of a wooden hut, where the stationmaster sheltered from the worst of the weather, and a pair of wooden benches for the convenience of passengers, one each on the down line and the up line. Here we waited on the edge of the down line for the train to transport us from St Toenis, the small village where we lived, to the sleepy little hamlet crouching among aspen lined streams and mist shrouded fields, where grandfather’s house stood. Muehlhausen was no more than one long street, a continuous row of houses lining it on both sides; occasionally a farmyard interrupted this line, leaving a broad strip of muddy, grassy verge free between it and the road. Wherever a break occurred, a ditch ran along the side of the road, nearly always half full of stagnant water. In winter the ditch froze over and children, their feet shod in clogs, skated upon the run of ice. Halfway along the village street stood a chapel dedicated to St Vitus. Every time we passed the tiny chapel, which was really more a shrine than a chapel, I expected to be smitten with St. Vitus’ Dance and start jerking uncontrollably. I had been warned not to get too near the Saint’s statue and certainly never to touch the icon or remove the flowers devout villagers had placed in his niche. Grown-ups always assumed children would do damage and needed dire warnings to stop them.
A long slow whistle pierced the gloom of the station platform, announcing the arrival of the smoke plumed train, the engine showing its displeasure at being forced to stop by hissing hot steam in all directions. We were usually the only people embarking; knots of people alighted, pulling their coats close about them as they stood for a moment on the platform; the men settling hats more firmly and women fussing with children’s shawls and woolen caps and securing their own scarves more tightly under their chins, before they started the cold walk down the Chaussee into the village and thence the cemetery, bound to perform the same offices for their dead as we were.
The stationmaster held aloft his red signal disk, and put the whistle to his lips. Doors slammed shut, a short blast on the whistle sent out a shrill warning and the disk slapped down. The locomotive hissed once more, the train chug-chugged into motion. The smoky plume renewed itself triumphantly above the carriages.
Black and white cows floating on deep cushions of pure white mists briefly looked up as the train drifted past and an occasional avenue of poplars marched into the distance. Farmhouses, embraced by barns on three sides, lay low, broad and solid among them, sheltered from the prevailing East wind by a stand of oak or beech.
Inside the stuffy carriage with its wooden seats you could smell the smoke snaking back from the engine; the fug and regular rat-tat-tat of the wheels induced a light doze. “Don’t fall asleep,” father chided me, “you know it takes you forever to shift yourself.” Father had to stay alert, it took less than an hour to reach the small market town where we had to change to a branch line which would take us to just one village away from the hamlet where mother’s family home stood. The train’s destination was Kaldenkirchen, a town on the Dutch border. Up to now it had been slow, with frequent stops at villages along the way, but once past the junction with the branch line, where we would have to change trains, it would gather speed and make for the border without further delay.
Although it was fully daylight now, I found it hard to alight into the cold, damp, air at our destination. The open road from the station to grandfather’s house was the part of the journey I liked the least; the wind blew across the fields, the mist clung in cold droplets to my nose and eyelashes, blurring my vision. I constantly wiped my sleeve across my face.
to be continued tomorrow