Reyah Martin  - Nikolaus

 
NIKOLAUS
JULY 1917

There’s no danger of being seen after midnight, except by ghosts and night wanderers.  But tonight could be different, so Lily goes with Michael.  Because of the time, the dark, and maybe what they’re doing, her son takes her hand over the cliffs.  He holds onto it up Montgomery Hill, and on the sand.  He pulls her toward the caves, where there might have been hidden treasure long ago.  She shivers.  
He says, ‘you should have brought your coat,’ because she always says that.  She says he should have brought his own coat; he’s freezing.  
He shrugs, ‘It’s not far,’ which is the truth and a lie all at once.  They’ll reach the biggest cave in twenty steps, but it’s hard climbing over the rocks.  He lets her go, scrambles across quick as anything.  His foot falls once; it lands in a pool near the back.  The splash echoes, louder than breaking a glass.  

Then he disappears, and Lily finds herself worrying.  She stands with her back to the sea, making herself ill with the heaviness of the silence, her head full of everything that could happen in the seconds he is gone.  She’s never felt a silence so heavy.  
‘Now for God’s sake, don’t be ridiculous.’  Her eyes harden; her grip tightens on Veronica’s shoulder, and her pulse taps into her ribs.  She turns to Michael.  ‘Bring him in, quickly.’  Darkness shrouds them, stagnant in the street.  There is no moonlight.  A man heaves against him, mouth gaping, gasping, lashes skimming the pale bottom lids.  
‘Danke.’
Veronica leaps in, before her sister.  ‘What?’
Michael said not to be frightened of the frightening one, but still he doesn’t answer her.  He answers the woman with the softer face, who hasn’t spoken at all. ‘Thank you, madam.’  
‘It’s no trouble.’  His hair, his face, his eyes; everything drips.  And it is trouble, but the soft face can’t say it, and the frightening one doesn’t dare.  ‘Put him... put him in with me.  And get him something of your father’s.’   
They are slow, up and up.  

Michael chucks a look over the banister, outside the door.  She motions him to go in; a quick flick of her wrist.  And she follows because there are so many things she cannot trust.  She takes half of him.  Her boy puts a finger to his lips, the man with the wounds pressing against him, down on him, dripping and limping and muttering in some foreign tongue.  He sways to the left.  Lily moves and he clutches at the wall.  He stumbles, falls.  His boots thud.  

She has been listening for a reason to say it, besides that he is nameless, and could do anything in the night.  ‘Take Thomas.  Try not to wake him.’  The stranger makes no more noise than a breath.  And even then, only when he needs it to live.  
She dithers round the lamp, decides it’s better to be in the dark.  

The door hinges squeal; the bairn shifts a bit, and murmurs, but nothing happens.  The man sways again, always to the left, clutching at the wall.  He falls onto the bed, collapses and leans, breathes, bleeds into Michael.  He moans.  The boy rescues himself, puts the finger back to his lips.  He asks if it’s better to leave him like that, let him sleep.  She says no, don’t be stupid.  He’ll catch his death if he hasn’t already.  So they wake him.  

He curses them with all sorts of foreign words, shoves their hands, but he’s not strong enough to keep them away.  He lies there like a fallen tree.  Moaning, moaning, moaning.   They have to drag him back, with the thudding boots, the breath he does not dare to breathe, and everything strange around him.  He yells, weeps, and the words run.  ‘Nein, bitte neine Ich...Ich kann nicht.’
They are slow, down and down.   

Veronica has not moved.  She opens her mouth, closes it.  Lily asks her to go run the water, and be sure it’s warm.  She doesn’t.  She stands, opens her mouth, closes it again.  She looks at Michael; some of that blood has fallen onto him.  She looks at the man it fell from.  It dyes rain red on his skin, and those pale lashes.  Everything drips from everywhere.
Lily snaps at her.  ‘Christ, will you go?’  
Now she does.  

The softer face has gentle hands, and holds them up to him.  She presses a cloth against his face; round his eyes, down his cheeks, over his jaw, with pressure enough that a little of it comes away.  It scrapes off, like rust from rocks, and stings.  
He tries to speak.  
‘Shush,’ she says.  ‘It hurts more if you talk.’  But he won’t stop, because he can’t understand, or doesn’t, or he’s terrified.  He pulls away.  She tries again.  He knocks the cloth to the side, more of the words running.  They topple over each other to escape him.  
Neine.  Bitte neine, neine...

The two doing nothing look ahead.  Michael tries not to watch; he stares at the wall, the pendulum swinging below the clock face.  He wishes he was in bed, a heavy tiredness coming over him.  Lily raises her gentle hands, presses down again, but he yells about it.  At last she whispers, ‘tomorrow.’  

She sends Michael up himself, to find anything of David’s that might fit.  He catches his breath at the squealing hinges, but Thomas never moves.  He thinks about how strange it is; the bairn will cry when the front door slams, but not when a German who can’t walk moans and collapses in the bedroom.  Not when there is a man downstairs with wounds and fear all round him, screaming and swaying to the left, clutching at the wall.  He won’t cry, won’t even wake, for that.  

The thudding boots were gone when Michael returned.  Mother took the clothes from him, half-smiling over the last time she remembered them on her husband.  The German shook his head.  Everything shook, even the breaths he dared take.  He begged her with no more words, for they only seemed to get him in trouble, to let him be.  And she let him, the cloth out of sight.  

She told her sister to take the little one out; to stay in with him and Michael; either that or sleep in the kitchen, the cold.  Veronica swept away with the look from the train station, the kind she’d give a cockroach before she killed it, but she hadn’t the energy to protest.  Nothing moved, until Lily worried the German would fall asleep where he was.  Then he’d freeze, and she wouldn’t be able to live with herself.  

She said she’d take him to bed herself, but Michael wouldn’t let her, even with the heavy tiredness.  She had the left half of him, the leaning side, and her son had the right.  He stumbled, almost barefoot besides the muck on his feet, and he moaned.  He moaned, moaned, moaned.  

Lily never slept.  She stayed down in the kitchen with the cold, blowing into her hands and biting her nails.  She worried that night, and every other night, up with every noise.  The worst hours were the wee ones, when nothing else was alive.  She talked to herself then, and perhaps some of the old Madness came back, but there were so many mad people in those days it took a while for anyone to notice.  

She talked and worried and worried and talked, till the morning when it was light, and she could make sense of things if she wanted.  Michael found her the first time, shook her.  She stood up too quick, sat again to get rid of the dizziness from it, and stood again.  ‘You know he’s...’ she cleared her throat; it had gone hoarse with all the talking, the worrying.  
‘You know he’s German?  You know for sure?’  He wouldn’t meet her eye.  It was enough.  ‘And you know it’s...it’s against the law to be...’
‘Of course I know.’
They decided that morning, quietly.  He stayed.