Max, Erich, and the Summer Novella Challenge
In my final year of high school, we were set a writing prompt: Shooting Stars. We could do whatever we liked with it as long as we had a story at the end with that title.
Looking back, Mrs B. must have dreaded my essays. I never was one for taking things at face value and, needless to say, I dismissed out of hand the common classroom themes of wish fulfilment. That essay was my first encounter with Max and Erich, two Jewish German boys trying to survive in war-torn Germany.
In Shooting Stars, the boys were running, fleeing a concentration camp. How they escaped, I’ll never know, but they did because Max had promised he would protect his little brother and if they were going to die, they’d die free. I don’t think Mrs B. meant literally shooting and metaphorical stars but I received a good grade (and probably an eye-roll).
As the years went by, Max and Erich stayed with me. I played out in my head the different ways their stories would go and the different people they would meet. A couple of years ago, after writing another short about the two of them living in a basement in Munich, I considered writing a novel for them. They deserved to have their story told after what they’d been through in all my many imaginings.
But I never did write about the boys.
Then, this summer, my writing group decided we’d do a novella challenge in which we write a novella over three weeks and swap them for critique. We’re going to do this three times, each version from a different point of view, and as I toyed with different ideas, I realised that it was time to tell the truth about what happened to my (fictional) boys.
In this version, Erich is now called Jimmy (his English name, he was Jakob when he lived in Munich) and he is no longer Max’s brother but his best friend. You find out through the novel that Max’s family were sold-out Nazis and he ran away with Jimmy, promising Jimmy’s parents that he’d keep him safe.
The story takes place about seventy years later, with an old man called Jimmy, living in a care home. The plot centres around his guilt over what happened during the War and the bitter truth is uncovered when a curious young woman begins to dig into his past. It’s just Jimmy now, it has been for a long time, so the question is, what happened to Max and to the rest of Jimmy’s family? And what is Jimmy hiding?
For your reading pleasure, here is the first scene:
* * *
The light from the hallway is what wakes me. A figure is silhouetted in the doorway, momentarily shading my face from the glare. I knew this day would come, if not for the crime of friendship then that of failure.
“Are you too scared to do it in the daylight?” I ask, though it comes out more feebly than I might hope. The figure hesitates, closing the door. I can hear him, moving across the floor softly toward my bed. “Have you come to kill me at last? I knew you would.”
“Close your eyes,” says a voice, a woman.
I don’t close my eyes, thrown by this unexpected twist, and with a click, I am blinded for a few seconds by the bedside lamp.
“I told you to close your eyes,” she chides as I squint up at her. I realise now that my hands and legs are not bound to the bed, they’re stiff from lying so long. They crackle as I push myself into a sitting position and peer around the room. My room. I remember now.
The wall behind me is papered with a birch pattern and the other three painted in pale grey and hung with colourful landscapes. Four armchairs huddle around a table by the window and when I look down, my fingers are twisted in my sheets. Real sheets, soft and clean and made of cotton. And old fingers tangled there.
“Mr Rose, are you all right?”
I blink slowly and turn to the child hovering by the bed. She seems a child to me and I must appear a fossil in her eyes. She can’t be much more than twenty years old, a few years older than my dear Sophie was. With a jolt, I remember where I am and the aching sorrow recedes a little in the night. I blush as it dawns on me we’ve been speaking German this whole time, and I speak to her in English instead.
“Green eyes,” I murmur, peering at her in the dim light of the lamp, “Not dangerous, but not wholly safe either.”
She has a Germanic look to her. She tugs at the hem of her uniform and I remember I need to be where I am and not wander with my thoughts.
“Mr Rose, are you all right? I was just checking in on you, you sleep so still I wasn’t sure if you were breathing. Was it a bad dream?”
I shake my head and reach out to pat her hand.
“No, no. Is it time to get up now?”
I begin to pull back the covers but she stops me gently.
“No, Mr Rose. It’s three in the morning. I was just doing my rounds.”
“Making sure no one has died in the night,” I whisper, sinking back down beneath the warm covers. She laughs nervously and tucks the duvet around my shoulders.
“Morbid, maybe but partly, yes.”
I roll over so that I’m lying with my face to the window and my back to her as she switches off the light.
“They never used to care,” I murmur into the night.
I feel rather than hear the sorrow she leaves behind her when she goes. It lingers in the air like an unwelcome friend and I slip out from beneath my covers to escape the feeling’s choke-hold. It is only a few shuffled steps to the window and for a moment, the feeling of my pyjamas against my skin frightens me and makes me think that I am back There.
With practised stealth, I peel back the corner of the curtain ever so slightly.
A great weight lifts from my chest when I see that it is still England outside, rolling and green, and I return to my bed.
But part of me still misses the Munich of my childhood, though I have never, in all these years, been back. That place exists no more. It died, like me, a long time ago of a swastika to the heart, and was buried in the dust of enemy bombs.