Matzlingen, Switzerland, 1947
At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland, at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects–or even people–she had not prepared herself to encounter.
The second-floor apartment, reached by a stone staircase too grand for the building, overlooked the River Emme in the town of Matzlingen, in an area of Switzerland known as Mittelland, between the Jura and the Alps. On the wall of Gustav’s tiny room was a map of Mittelland, which displayed itself as hilly and green and populated by cattle and waterwheels and little shingled churches. Sometimes, Emilie would take Gustav’s hand and guide it to the north bank of the river where Matzlingen was marked in. The symbol for Matzlingen was a wheel of cheese with one slice cut out of it. Gustav could remember asking Emilie who had eaten the slice that had been cut out. But Emilie had told him not to waste her time with silly questions.
On an oak sideboard in the living room, stood a photograph of Erich Perle, Gustav’s father, who had died before Gustav was old enough to remember him.
Every year, on August 1st, Swiss National Day, Emilie set posies of gentian flowers round the photograph and made Gustav kneel down in front of it and pray for his father’s soul. Gustav didn’t understand what a soul was. He could see only that Erich was a good-looking man with a confident smile, wearing a police uniform with shiny buttons. So Gustav decided to pray for the buttons–that they would keep their shine, and that his father’s proud smile wouldn’t fade as the years passed.
‘He was a hero,’ Emilie would remind her son every year. ‘I didn’t understand it at first, but he was. He was a good man in a rotten world. If anybody tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.’
Sometimes, with her eyes closed and her hands pressed together, she would mumble other things she remembered about Erich. One day, she said, ‘It was so unfair. Justice was never done. And it never will be done.’
* * * *
Wearing a smock, with his short hair neatly combed, Gustav was taken each morning to the local kindergarten. At the door of the schoolhouse, he would stand absolutely still, watching Emilie walk away down the path. He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable man; he had mastered himself. In this way, Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland, where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.
‘So you see,’ she said, ‘you have to be like Switzerland. Do you understand me? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.’
Gustav had no idea what ‘the right kind of life’ was. All he knew was the life he had, the one with Emilie in the second-floor apartment, with the map of Mittelland on his bedroom wall and Emilie’s stockings drying on a string above the iron bath. He wanted them always to be there, those stockings. He wanted the taste and texture of the knödel they ate for supper never to change. Even the smell of cheese in Emilie’s hair, which he didn’t particularly like–he knew this had to linger there because Emilie’s job at the Matzlingen Cheese Co-operative was the thing that kept them alive.
The speciality of the Matzlingen Co-operative was Emmental, made from the milk of the Emme valleys. Sounding like a tour guide, Emilie announced to Gustav, ‘There are many fine inventions in Switzerland and Emmental cheese is one of them.’ But in spite of its fineness, the sales of Emmental – both within Switzerland and to all those countries outside it, still struggling to rebuild themselves after the war – were unreliable. And if sales were down, the bonuses paid to the cheese workers at Christmas and on National Day could be disappointing.
Waiting to see what her bonus was going to be would put Emilie Perle into a trance of anxiety. She would sit at the kitchen shelf (it wasn’t a table, just a shelf on a hinge, where she and Gustav sat to eat their meals) doing her sums on the grey edges of the Matzlingerzeitung, the local newspaper. The newsprint always blurred her arithmetic. Nor did her figures keep to their columns, but wandered over the réportage of Schwingen Competitions and the sightings of wolves in the nearby forests. Sometimes, the hectic scribblings were blurred a second time by Emilie’s tears. She’d told Gustav never to cry. But it seemed that this rule didn’t apply to her, because there were times, late at night, when Gustav would creep out of his room to find Emilie weeping over the pages of the Matzlingerzeitung.
At these moments, her breath often smelled of aniseed and she would be clutching a glass clouded with yellow liquid, and Gustav felt afraid of these things–of her aniseed breath and the dirty glass and his mother’s tears. He would climb onto a stool beside her and watch her out of the corner of his grey eyes, and soon, Emilie would blow her nose and reach out to him and say she was sorry. He would kiss her moist, burning cheek and then she would lift him up, staggering a little under the weight of him, and carry him back to his room.
But in the year that Gustav turned five, no Christmas bonuses were paid at all and Emilie was forced to take a second job on Saturday mornings, as a cleaner in the Protestant Church of Sankt Johann.
* * * *
She said to Gustav, ‘This is work you can help me with.’
So they went out together very early, before the town was properly awake, before any light showed in the sky. They walked through the snow, following two frail torchlight beams, their breath condensing inside their woollen mufflers. When they arrived at the church, this, too, was dark and cold. Emilie turned on the two greenish strip lights on either side of the nave and they began their tasks, tidying the hymn books, dusting the pews, sweeping the stone floor, polishing the brass candlesticks. They could hear owls calling outside in the waning dark.
As the daylight grew stronger, Gustav always returned to his favourite task. Kneeling on a hassock, pushing the hassock along as he went, he’d clean the iron grating that ran down the length of the aisle. He pretended to Emilie that he had to do this job very carefully, because the ironwork had ornate patterns in it and his rag had to go round these and in and out of them, and she said, ‘All right, Gustav, that’s good. Doing your job carefully is good.’
But what she didn’t know was that Gustav was searching for objects which had fallen through the grating and which lay there in the dust. He thought of this strange collection as his ‘treasure’. Only hands as small as his could retrieve them. Now and again, he did find money, but it was always the kind of low-value money with which nothing could be bought. More usual items were hairpins, withered flower petals, cigarette stubs, sweet wrappings, paper clips and nails made of iron. He knew that these things were of no account, but he didn’t mind. One day, he found a brand-new lipstick in a golden case. He designated this his ‘chief treasure’.
He took everything home in the pockets of his coat and hid the objects in a wooden box that had once contained the cigars his father used to smoke. He smoothed out the sweet wrappers, liking the vibrant colours, and shook out the tobacco from the cigarette ends into a little tin.
When he was alone in his room, he would stare at the treasure. Sometimes, he touched it and smelled it. Keeping it hidden from Emilie–as though perhaps it was a present for her which he would one day surprise her with–was what excited him about it. The lipstick was a dark purple colour, almost black, like a boiled damson, and he found it beautiful.
He and Emilie had to spend two hours at the church, to get everything shipshape for the weekend services. During this time, a few people would come in, bundled up against the cold, and enter the pews and pray, or else go to the altar rail and stare at the amber-coloured stained-glass pietà in the west window.
Gustav saw that Emilie crept round them, as if trying to make herself invisible. Seldom did these people say ‘Grüezi’, or say Frau Perle’s name. He watched them from his hassock. He noticed that almost all of them were old. They appeared to him as unfortunate beings, who had no secret treasure. He thought that, perhaps, they hadn’t got ‘the right kind of life’. He wondered whether the ‘right life’ might lie in the things which he alone could see–the things underneath some grating or other, over which most people heedlessly trod.
When the cleaning was done, Gustav and Emilie walked home, side by side. The trams would be running by then, and a bell chiming somewhere, and a scatter of pigeons fluttering from roof to roof, and the flower stallholder setting out her vases and buckets on the corner of Unter der Egg. The flower seller, whose name was Frau Teller, would always greet them and smile, even if snow was falling.
Unter der Egg was the name of the street in which their apartment block stood. Before these blocks had been built, Unter der Egg (Under the Harrow) had been a rural strip, where the residents of Matzlingen had been able to rent allotments and grow vegetables, but these were long gone. Now, there was just a wide pavement and a metal drinking fountain and Frau Teller’s stall, which was the last reminder of green things growing in this place. Emilie sometimes said that she would have liked to grow vegetables–red cabbages, she said, and snow peas and marrows. ‘But at least,’ she would sigh, ‘the place wasn’t destroyed by the war.
She had shown Gustav some magazine pictures of destroyed places. She said they were all outside Switzerland. Dresden. Caen. There were no people in any of these photographs, but in one of these pictures there had been a white dog, sitting alone in a mound of rubble. Gustav asked what had happened to that dog and Emilie said, ‘It’s no use asking what happened, Gustav. Perhaps the dog found a good master, or perhaps it died of hunger. How can I possibly know? Everything, in the war, depended on who you were and where you were. And then destiny took over.’
Gustav stared at his mother. ‘Where were we?’ he said.
She closed the magazine and folded it away, like a soft garment she planned to wear again in the near future. She took Gustav’s face in her hands. ‘We were here,’ she said, ‘safe in Matzlingen. For a while, when your father was Assistant Police Chief, we even had a beautiful apartment on Fribourgstrasse. It had a balcony, where I grew geraniums. I can’t see a geranium plant without thinking of the ones I grew.
’‘Then we came to Unter der Egg?’ asked Gustav.
‘Yes. Then we came to Unter der Egg.’
‘Just you and me?’
‘No. At first there were the three of us. But not for long.’
After the cleaning of the church, Gustav and Emilie would sit at the folding shelf in the tiny kitchen and drink hot chocolate and eat black bread with butter. The long winter day stretched ahead of them, cold and empty. Sometimes Emilie would go back to bed and read her magazines. She made no apology for this. She said children had to learn to play on their own. She said if they didn’t learn to do this, they would never cultivate an imagination.
Gustav would stare out of the window of his room at the white sky. The only toy he owned was a little metal train, so he’d set the train on the windowsill and shunt it backwards and forwards. Often, it was so cold by the window that Gustav’s breath made realistic steam, which he puffed over the engine. At the carriage windows, people’s faces had been painted on, all of them given expressions of blank surprise. To these startled people, Gustav would occasionally whisper, ‘You have to master yourselves.’
* * * *
The strangest place in the apartment building was the bunker underneath it. This had been built as a nuclear shelter, more usually referred to as an ‘air protection cellar’. Soon, every building in Switzerland would be required to have one of these.
Once a year, the janitor summoned the residents of the building, including the children, and they descended all together into the shelter. Behind them, as they went down the stairs, heavy iron doors were closed.
Gustav clung to Emilie’s hand. Lights were turned on, but all they showed were more stairs going down and down. The janitor always reminded everybody that they should ‘breathe normally’, that the air filtration system was tested frequently for its absolutely perfect functioning. It wasn’t, he said, called an ‘air protection cellar’ for nothing. But there was a strange smell about it, an animal smell, as though foxes or rats had nested here, living off dust or off grey paint licked from the walls.
Beneath the countless stairs, the shelter opened into a large storeroom, stacked from floor to ceiling with sealed cardboard boxes. ‘You’ll remember what we keep in the boxes,’ the janitor said, ‘enough food for all of us for approximately two months. And the water supply will be in the tanks over there. Clean drinking water. Rationed of course, because the mains supply–even if it was functioning–would be disconnected, in case of radiation contamination, but sufficient for all.’
He led them on. He was a heavy man. He spoke loudly and emphatically, as though he assumed he was with a party of deaf people. The sound of his voice echoed round the concrete walls. Gustav noticed that the residents always fell silent during the nuclear shelter tours. Their expressions reminded him of the painted people on his train. Husbands and wives huddled together. Old people clutched at each other to steady themselves. Gustav always hoped that his mother wouldn’t let go of his hand.
When they got to the ‘dormitory’ part of the shelter, Gustav saw that the bunks had been built one above the other in stacks of five. To reach the top bunks, you had to climb a ladder, and he thought that he wouldn’t like this, to be so far from the ground. Supposing he woke in the night, in the dark, and couldn’t find Mutti? Supposing Mutti was on the very bottom bunk, or in a different row? Supposing he fell out of his bunk and landed on his head and his head exploded? He whispered that he didn’t want to live there, in an iron bunk and with cardboard food, and Mutti said, ‘It will probably never happen.’
‘What will never happen?’ he asked.
But Emilie didn’t wish to say. ‘You don’t need to think about it yet,’ she told him. ‘The shelter is just a place of safety, in case the Russians–or anybody at all–ever took it into their heads to harm Switzerland.’
Gustav lay in his bed at night and thought about what might happen if Switzerland were harmed. He wondered if Matzlingen would be turned to rubble and whether he would find himself all alone, like the white dog in the picture.
From THE GUSTAV SONATA. Used with permission of W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2016 by Rose Tremain.