[The continuation of the Survivor Short Story “project” in the War On Boris the Bytrode series. This time, back in time, 1967, following the adventures of middle-aged mum, Letitia…
In this episode (3.1) Letitia meets an old friend…]
The Point of Batteries
‘You must come to my place. You must!’ the blonde said.
Letitia glanced around the almost empty street. The crowds had dwindled to nothing in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. Her suggestion was not a bad one under the circumstances.
‘You must come for tea.’ The lady grabbed Letitia’s arm and dragged her along the road lined by warehouses. ‘We’ll grab takeaway on the way home. There’s a lovely little fish’n chip shop just up the road near our place. Remember when we were kids and we used to ride our bikes up to The Rocks and get a three-pence bag of chips? They were the best chips, weren’t they?’ The blonde ferried her up some steep steps.
‘Hmm!’ Letitia tried to remain polite and in the know. Rocks? Riding bikes? Fish and chips? Three-pence? All familiar images that hinted at the nameless friend’s identity. Her fuzzing mind tried to stretch her still frozen memory to capture who this woman was. The harder she tried, the more futile her efforts at name retrieval became. ‘How embarrassing! I apparently knew this lady from childhood,’ she muttered.
The blonde gave a tiny snort of laughter. ‘Gunter loved those chips. Remember? He said they were the best chips in Australia.’ She paused and for a moment gazed over the cove which spread beneath the hilltop vantage point. ‘Poor Gunter!’ she remarked, ‘Boris got him, ya know.’
The sun had crept behind Mount Wellington casting muted shadows over the historic houses, the pebble-strewn beach and the calm waters in hues of purple and blue. ‘Hmm! Poor Gunter!’ Letitia parroted. She paused in thought. Gunter, my half-brother?
Bright, colourful sails of boats dotted the river. The vivid reds, yellows, and whites pitted against the deep blue of the waters almost succeeded in converting Letitia to cheerfulness. However, the reality that she may have left her old world permanently behind, lurked in the shadows of her subconscious and troubled her. Letitia tried to agree to sound as if she knew what the blonde was talking about. She tried in vain to match Gunter with this lady’s elusive name. Perhaps it’s a case of mistaken identity.
How did anyone from the past recognise her? Mirror World and nanobot repair from the burns in her first accident had darkened her skin. Letitia checked her hand. Still the colour of cedar.
‘Poor Gunter, we haven’t been able to find him. He left after the disaster, you know, the bombing of our ship. He blamed himself for your disappearance.’ The lady guided her, striding towards the banks of the river. ‘But…it was my fault; I should’ve never…’ She stopped at a corner and announced, ‘Here we are! The Fish’n Chip shop!’
She led the way through the open white-framed doorway to the full-bodied aroma of sizzling oil, batter and chips, tessellated tiles and stainless-steel benches. A few bored customers reclined on a wooden bench seat that lined the shopfront, reading Readers Digests from the 1950’s.
Letitia peered at the magazine of a disinterested patron to the left of her. “Behind the Iron Curtain” the cover advertised. Letitia leaned back to check what that article was all about. The man narrowed his eyes and glared at her. Then, he stood up, marched to the counter, and spoke to the manageress in muffled tones, furtive glances and fingers pointed in her direction.
Letitia’s chest tightened. They’re going to ask me to leave, she thought.
‘Do you want whiting, Letitia?’ her blonde friend, also standing at the counter, called back over her shoulder.
‘Yeah, okay,’ while waiting for the inevitable directive to move outside. After all, it was the 1960’s and Letitia was the wrong colour.
Letitia noticed the blonde make an emphasised gesture in her direction, and say, ‘My friend will have one piece of whiting and I’ll have one piece of garfish with minimum chips.’
The manageress, a woman with bottled auburn waves, and olive-toned skin, looked at Letitia, and opened her mouth to speak.
The blonde cut off her unspoken words and in her best German accent, said, ‘Listen lady, she’s my friend, got it? We’re better than that, aren’t we? That’s why we come to Australia. We are all different, but we are all human beings. Besides, I don’t know why she’s so tanned, but she is as white as me; I know her parents, they come from Europe, migrants from Germany, just as you are a migrant from Greece, am I right? So, just make those fish and chips, okay?’
Something clicked. A key turned in her mind. Letitia studied the blonde lady handing over the cash to the Greek vendor. Frieda. Only Frieda Muller would have the courage to stand up for her rights; human rights. Frieda who tolerated no nonsense. Frieda, who once confided that she’d defied Hitler, and somehow survived. Something to do with being Lebensborn, she remembered. Admittedly the last time she met Frieda, she had become Frieda Thumm and was well into her fifties (give or take a decade or two with the distortion of light-speed travel). Letitia wondered how she could have struggled to recognise her. She who defended her in the fish and chip shop and now stood before her with a newspaper parcel of battered fish and chips was Frieda. But which Frieda? Letitia assumed this world’s Frieda.
Letitia perched on the bench.
The man adjusted his black-rimmed glasses, and with head bowed, walked back to the space next to Letitia. He mumbled an apology which Letitia acknowledged with a slight nod.
Letitia rubbed her hands together and smiled at Frieda. She had retrieved the name. She had found her friend’s identity. At least that was one good outcome from an otherwise less than ordinary day. At least she had one friend in a world and time when she calculated to have few friends. There was Fritz. But where was Fritz?
Frieda strode up to her and she leapt up to follow her friend. ‘Come,’ she commanded, ‘Let’s get to my house before the chips get cold.’
In the lingering late afternoon sun, the sun that refused to go away, the sun that refused to set, the friends wended through the narrow streets of this aged and historic part of town. The roads were steep as they were narrow. Parked cars on both sides, blocked some roadways which had not caught up to the 20th Century. Letitia marvelled at the vintage nature of the vehicles. She had not seen a FJ Holden in decades. The place was cluttered with them. And brand-new Holden Premiers, the luxury version, a collector’s dream on Mirror World. And there, she mused, was a Ford Falcon, more angular than its Holden counterpart; commonly a hoon car on Mirror World (in the eastern states of Australia, mostly). In Mirror Baudin State (South Australia), only Renaults and Peugeots would do. Letitia had to hide the smirk on her face as she contemplated the ugly future of these carbon spewing air-polluting machines.
‘So, Frieda, what may I ask are you doing in this part of the world?’ Letitia ventured to enquire.
Frieda frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean…um…’ Letitia hesitated hoping to guess correctly, and whispered, ‘um, um, Hobart?’
‘Hobart? But Letitia, we’ve been here for ages,’ Frieda replied. ‘Thing is, how did you end up here?’ She made a sharp turn at a white rendered wall of a two-story bungalow overlooking the bay.
‘Long story,’ Letitia exhaled briefly, relieved that she had guessed correctly, about Hobart. ‘I mean, are you working?’
Frieda returned a pan-faced expression which read as “are you stupid?” Then she pressed the small hand-held device and magically the gate in the wall opened. ‘Nup, I don’t need to work. I’m a lady of leisure. I’ve achieved “effluence”.’ Frieda’s tongue remained firmly in her cheek.
‘You mean, affluence? Lucky you!’ Letitia remarked admiring the fine leadlight birds that framed the light-coloured pine door. She absorbed the unique brisk scent of pine and commented almost involuntarily, ‘Wow! What’s that smell?’
‘You mean the door? It’s Huon Pine. Solid…’ Frieda began to explain before another, fouler odour accompanied by a large darker four-legged creature, assaulted Letitia.
Frieda’s train of thought and keys were lost in her black Labrador’s excitement to greet the unfortunate visitor, namely Letitia. In between the fever of yelps and her face covered in fermented slobber, she could hear Frieda yell, ‘Jack! Off Jack! Down! Down! Sit Jack! Naughty boy! Get off Jack!’ But her commands were in vain. Jack, the dog kept on jumping all over Letitia, and slathering to his heart’s content.
As the torture by dog continued, Frieda’s tone changed from playful to serious and Letitia nostrils were disturbed by a particularly pungent smell that lingered on her clothes. It had that thin weedy, off-meaty, faecal, with a touch of compost aroma about it. She brushed her uniform defensively and shrieked, ‘Ugh! What’s that smell?’ Bits of pitch-black dirt the consistency of sludge clung to her fingertips.
The Labrador gave a final yelp and flung itself after a flying fried fish.
‘Quick, while he’s distracted.’ Frieda pushed her friend through the door and slammed it shut. Once inside in a darkened entrance hall, she exclaimed with disgust, ‘Pooh! What’s that smell? It’s revolting!’
Smeared over Letitia’s lime green pants and top were the tell-tale marks of a dog’s misadventure. ‘Ugh! What is this stuff?’ She choked on the strong stench of sewerage. ‘It’s worse than Boris! When you said that you was “effluent”, I didn’t think you meant literally.’ She pinched her nose with added effect.
‘Oh, gore! The bleeding dog’s got into the blood ‘n bone. Sheisse!’ Frieda’s language was becoming increasingly colourful, and Letitia had no doubt that she was indeed Frieda. She grabbed a hold of Letitia’s arm and escorted her up the stairs. ‘Come on, you better get out of these rags – have a shower – I’ll get a change of clothes – and put these…’ she covered her nose with her sleeve and breathed out a nasal cry, ‘Phew! These into the wash must go!’
[to be continued…]
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2021
Feature Photo: Battery Point, Hobart town behind harbour © L.M. Kling 2016