For years the pages of a manuscript about the life of Gerti Baldwin lay untouched in a drawer. When she reread them recently she added a final chapter to a story of abject poverty in a wartime Viennese slum to happier times.
Slipping into my bathrobe after a lovely hot shower, all I wanted was a nice cup of tea. With a long evening ahead of me I could take my time, watch TV, and perhaps read for a while. Taking it easy was not only a pleasure after a lifetime of working; it had become a necessity since my car accident. I was still in a lot of pain and easily exhausted. But tonight I would ignore the muddle and leave everything as it was. Living alone had its advantages I told myself, but I missed my son who just came home during holidays now, since working in London.
Two weeks ago I had moved here to the Pembrokeshire coast, and though quite a few packing cases still stood around, I had what I needed. Tonight I’d relax in my recliner, placed strategically by the patio door, so I could look down the wooded hills leading to Amroth Beach, with its silvery sliver of sea in the distance. My house was close to the wood, the last in a row of small dwellings, right in the countryside. It was quiet here, almost deserted most of the time. People only came for weekends or holidays, as commuting to work was too far. For me it was ideal, I needed peace and quiet to help me heal, cope with my pain, to think, and perhaps find a different way of earning a living in case I couldn’t return to my social work job.
Somehow, I’d have to start a new life.
It was a miracle I had survived. In my mind I was back on the motorway, overtaking an articulated lorry which suddenly changed lanes and went into the side of my car. I saw the giant wheel coming towards me through the metal of my car, heard this terrible grating and crashing noise, and knew nothing more for quite some time.
I have survived, I told myself again, and I will get better, and now I’ll go downstairs and make myself a cup of tea. Chamomile would be good, or lemon-balm, to help me relax.
I tried opening the bathroom door, but it wouldn’t budge. I pressed and I pushed, but try as I might, neither the door handle moved, nor the door. I checked the bolt, but it stood open as usual. I never bolted the door, living alone. Panic rose but I had to stay calm. I couldn’t really be locked in. Again I tried, pressing the handle down and pushing the door, but in vain. I had to face it, I was locked in.
How was it possible – the door had no lock, the only bolt was here on my side, and it stood open?
Again and again I tried, pushing and pulling and shoving, but to no use. The door stayed shut. Now panic was really threatening to overcome and suffocate me. I had trouble breathing. There was no window – how long would I have enough air?
Somehow I swallowed my panic and fear; to get out of here I needed my brain, to think clearly.
There must be a way out. The door handle was stuck, there was no doubt in my mind anymore. Perhaps something inside had come apart, broken off. I pulled the handle very gently, pressed on it gingerly, and then shook it as hard as I could. But whatever I tried made no difference. I really was locked in.
Weakness overcame me, and I sat down on the floor. Not even a chair was in this room. Suddenly I was angry with myself about having put this small matter off for so long. Then the seriousness of my situation hit me. No one would hear my cries for help, the bathroom lay between two bedrooms – not that it mattered, no one went past anyway, as my house was the last in the row.
No one would hear me. My neighbors were away, even if they came at the weekend, they would not look for me, or hear my screams.
My son phoned rarely. Only last night I had called him, and told him how lovely it was here. For a week or two he would not think something was wrong if he couldn’t reach me.
I had no friends here, and my old friends would not come looking soon enough. I could be locked in for days, even weeks, die here in the end. But not quickly, because I had water.
At least I had a toilet, I reflected, so when I was found – I pushed this frightening thought far away. This was not the direction I wanted my thoughts to meander, at least not now, when I had to find a way out of here.
But these thoughts were not so easily banished; they persisted, focusing on death and pain. It was not death I feared most, but pain. I had no medication here in this room, and knew from experience that my pains would get worse, especially with no comfortable chair to sit on and no bed. I’d have to sit on the toilet or the floor, where, eventually, I would die, going crazy with pain, or suffocating because no air came in.
Pull yourself together Gerti, I told myself. There has to be a way out, and you must find it.
Again I concentrated on the door, pushing carefully and gently at first, then with force, again and again, but I was just wasting my strength. I tried thinking of another way out of here, but couldn’t find one. No window, the walls were thick, the ceiling solid, and all the tools at my disposal were my back-brush, the toilet-brush, a plastic beaker, and my toothbrush. None of it was any help, though I poked around a bit at walls and ceiling and tried pushing the brush-handle under the door to lever it, but it was no good. Defeated, I sat down on the floor again, exhausted, in pain, my brain switched off, my mind almost blank.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a clear picture appeared in my mind. I saw another door, white painted wood like this one. I remembered seeing it, when I visited a couple who had problems with their boy. I was their social worker. As I entered, the husband stood in front of the living room door, blocking my way. When I looked at him, he stepped aside to let me pass, and I noticed a dent in the door.
Like a little boy found out in a misdemeanor, he grinned self-consciously. “I lost control,” he admitted. “I hit the door with my fist – or I might have hit her.”
Looking sideways at his wife, he added, but very quietly: “She deserved it.”
The picture vanished as fast as it had come, but it gave me an idea. If he could make a dent in his door, I could do it in mine. And a dent can be the beginning of a hole.
I hit the door as hard as I could with the brush, but it broke, and the other brush followed suit. I too had to hit the door with my fist.
But I was no young and strong man, but a woman of fifty, and the accident had made me weak.
This is the way to get out of here, perhaps the only way. I have to do it, I told myself. Forget about weakness and pain, Gerti, and gather your strength.
I concentrated, took a deep breath in, and with all my power hit the middle of the door with my fist. The pain was enormous, engulfing me in a red cloud. But through the red, I saw a minute crack in the white of the paint. I hit this spot with my other fist, and then with the broken bits of the brushes, but it made little difference. I had to use my right fist again and then again, before the crack in the paint became a small dent.
Scraping minute bits of paint from the wood with my nails, eventually I succeeded in getting to the pressed wood underneath, carrying on, dislodging tiny pieces of wood with fingertips and nails. I did not stop until I had dug a small hole, just big enough to push a finger through. But a new problem confronted me: there were two panels to this door; I had only broken through the inner part. With my fingertip I could feel the space between the inner panel and the outer, which I also needed to break. But now I had hope. Somehow I would break through the second panel too.
But not yet. I was so exhausted, I collapsed on the floor, and for a while just lay there, unable to move. Eventually I did manage to get up, and drank some water. I longed to bathe my hands and wrap them in towels, the pain was hard to bear, especially where the splinters stuck under my nails.
Not now, I told myself. I have to carry on, however much I hurt.
So I forced my bleeding hands to continue their work. The hole grew slowly bigger, but very slowly.
Painful hours went by as I carried on in this way, but finally my hole was big enough to attack the outer panel with my fist. Eventually I broke through, and the broken handle of my brush went all the way through the door. I turned it around and around, angling it, to increase the hole, but it just removed some splinters. But now I could look through. I couldn’t see anything, the hall was in darkness. It was already night.
I put my nose to the hole, breathing in, feeling fresh, cool air in my nostrils going down to my lungs. For a while I stayed like this, the deep breathing calming me down. I’d get out of here, everything would be all right.
I drank some water again, and lay down on the floor to rest for a while. I tried to recover a little, but the pain in my hands and in my whole body, did not allow it. Afraid of losing consciousness, I got up to carry on with my task. And finally, after what seemed a lifetime, my hole was big enough to squeeze my whole body through.
I collapsed on the other side of the door, totally exhausted, and totally happy. I had made it.
Much later when I had some control of my body again, I went down the stairs to the kitchen, put the kettle on, and sat down in my recliner. It was half past four in the morning, soon it would get light. Only ten hours had passed since going to the bathroom, but it seemed an eternity.
The kettle had long turned itself off, and still I sat here, my whole body shaking. The fear and the panic I had not allowed myself to feel, had me fully in its power, engulfing me now.
Finally I did get up and, with great difficulty, made the tea. Then I swallowed two Tramadol tablets to lessen the pain. My hands were so swollen and bloody, I couldn’t hold the mug, but had to bring my head down to where it stood.
Again and again new waves of panic hit me. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling of being locked in, never to breathe fresh air again.
It was over, it was in the past, I told myself. But somehow it was not. Suddenly I realized these terrible feelings were not new, they had been with me a long time, hidden so deeply within me and only rarely raising their head. I didn’t know they were there. The trauma of being locked in had brought them back, re-awoken them fully.
I knew where I had felt like this. And though it was so long ago, in my mind I was there now. It was all happening now. I was split in two pieces, divided. The adult Gerti sat right here and the other Gerti, the small Gerti was here too, but somewhere else at the same time. And suddenly I was just this Gerti, the child.
I was small, lying close to my mother and holding her hand. It was dark, I was struggling to breathe, as so much dust was in the air. We lay buried in the cellar, this much I knew. The bomb had hit our building, and here we were, under a whole house of rubble and debris.
It was the last year of the war, and I was not quite three.
As I lived through it all again, I knew, that what I had buried a lifetime ago, was still somewhere inside of me, even now. And with it, came all the feelings, the emotions I had felt then. They were engulfing me now.
For a long time I just sat, overwhelmed. Only much later I thought: and what now?
Should I bury it all again? Could I keep it all for another time when I was stronger?
But I was stronger, I told myself, at least mentally. I had to face my past, and with it my emotions, which were alive again and threatening to engulf me and overcome me. I shivered, I was suddenly very afraid.
All my old feelings of panic and fear had erupted; they would not disappear, if I tried pushing them down – this much I knew. I had to relive it, face what had happened. By transforming the trauma into memories, they’d lose their power over me.
For a long time I sat in silence – lost. I was totally in the past. But this past was alive, and I was in it, a little girl.
The pain in my hands and my whole body brought me back to the present. I would face my past; remember it all, because being bombed in the war was not the only trauma. There was so much more. And by remembering it, I’d come to terms with what happened. Writing it down might help.
I’d write about my childhood, my siblings and my mother and the people in Vienna, the panic and terror we felt, and how life carried on somehow.
For now, writing was impossible – my hands were too painful. They needed a week or two in order to heal. But I didn’t need to wait – only yesterday I had unpacked my tape recorder, and the dictating gadget from work. If I switched to voice activation, it would only tape when I spoke.
But first, after soaking my hands in warm water laced with Dettol, I’d try to get some splinters and bits of wood from under my nails, hoping I didn’t have to tell the doctor, who was bound to ask what had happened. And I was not yet ready to talk.
And I had to find someone to take the door off and replace it – I would not crawl through the hole again. For now, a bucket would have to do.
I knew a builder; he had looked over the property two days ago. It needed some minor changes. I would phone him.
With my plans in place, I soaked my hands, and then activated the recorder, ready to record.
I took another Tramadol, and as I felt the pain recede I began digging out the horrors in my hands, and then lay back in my recliner.
I began speaking, but didn’t know what I said. It could all wait, I thought, as sleep finally overcame me.
At first, as I started to remember, I got lost in dark, horrible emotions. Mostly I experienced fear, a huge living presence which I knew only too well. To me fear was a terrifying ‘She’ who would lurk anywhere; waiting and ready to pounce. The cellar was her domain, where she was at her strongest. Silently, like a huge black cat would she creep from a dark corner, come ever closer, touching each one of us. Reaching me, she’d wrap herself around me, until the real Gerti disappeared. Only fear would be left, mingling with my family’s fear, and the fear of other people sitting in the cellar, waiting like us. What we waited for, I did not know; until the bomb dropped. Then I knew, and every time thereafter I sat in a cellar, I too waited for the bomb.
And though no one ever talked of fear by her name, I knew that we all knew her well.
With my fresh emotions of panic still alive, mixing with similar feelings of the past, I remembered what it was like to lay buried in the cellar, in complete dark, with the rubble of a big building on top of us. Mama, next to me, was powerless, but holding her hand gave me some comfort.