• Vol. 08
  • Chapter 06
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Double life

‘Be ready!’ – ‘Always ready!’ That is how the school day started. They shouted the answer, raising their right hands above their heads, fingers pressed together, palm flat, thumb pointing down as if they were about to split themselves down the middle.

Some mornings they assembled around the flag. Outside in the courtyard, their little bodies arranged into a perfect square. All eyes were supposed to be on the principal. When called forward, one wasn’t allowed to approach the flag in a diagonal line. Instead one had to walk in a straight line and turn at a right angle, and walk again in a straight line, always looking ahead, not at the rows of white and blue shirts, blue and red kerchiefs, left, right, behind, before.

It was an ordinary school, and they were ordinary children. Each class had a group council with a chair and several officers serving under him. Neat. Hierarchical. Tidy. Everyone was playing their role. Well, almost everyone.

After school, some of these children would gather in the shadow of an old church. St Luke’s. The top of one of its two towers had been damaged in the war. With its flat, stunted roof, it looked like a half-blind octagonal owl that watched over them, as they abandoned their satchels and began to play.

They journeyed into different worlds. Never just cowboys and natives, but Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, and their feisty followers. They had no inkling that the Apache chieftain bore a strange resemblance to Jesus, nor that his German blood brother was the alter ego of both their creator, Karl May. They didn’t mind he had never been to the Wild West. That he had only dreamed of it. That is what they did. That is all they could do.


Double life

One year, they decided to form a secret gang. The idea came from a film, a musical they had seen. Their badge was a little hand, cut out of paper and coloured in. Light blue, pink, orange, green, yellow, brown. They gave themselves rules. Not to tell anyone what they were up to. To be loyal to each other. To be kind. They wrote their law down and hid it under a loose brick in the pavement outside Church Door A.

Together, they went on new adventures. Climbed into the blackened skeleton of the church warden’s house to rescue papers from the cellars, singed and forgotten. Explored the ruins of a villa that had stood amidst a large estate at the back of one of their houses. Hunted with bears in an urban wilderness, on land that had been razed by bombs and left to its own devices.

The children ran, they laughed, they jumped across heaps of autumn leaves. They collected chestnuts for the local zoo, they built little bonfires and roasted potatoes in the embers. With their unruly, pleasant hands.

Hard to believe these were the same hands that each morning, without a second thought, almost split them down the middle.