Tattoos and Rubber Gloves
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her stories “Silver Bangles,” “In the Interim,” and “The Good News” have been published by Amarillo Bay. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
On the day of the funeral, Elsa vowed that the end of Arthur’s life wouldn’t presage the withering of hers. It wasn’t that she didn’t miss him, didn’t feel the ache of his loss with the dawn of each new day, but she’d learnt, long ago, that life was not to be squandered. She had a duty to carry on.
She decided to seek out some voluntary work—something to take her out of the house and out of herself. She imagined perching on a low stool reading stories to tousle-haired children or in the office of a charity putting the filing system to rights. But those kinds of jobs required typed applications, security checks, and references, even for volunteers, and Elsa hadn’t the patience to track down the employers who’d praised her work twenty years before.
Eventually, she found a few hours a week at the old folks’ luncheon club in the church hall round the corner from the place she got her hair done: Tuesdays and Fridays, ten till half past two. The work provided colleagues and a sense of purpose, and a greater appreciation of the intervening days when she was responsible to no one but herself.
The luncheon club was managed, in the loosest sense of the word, by a young man in his mid-thirties who might have been handsome had he not succumbed to the unfortunate fashion of ridding himself of his hair before nature did it for him, and of adorning his arms with tattoos. Gavin seemed tickled to recruit someone who was older than half the punters, and he didn’t object when Elsa said she’d happily wait on tables and chop onions until her eyes streamed, but that she wasn’t prepared to roll up her sleeves and plunge her hands into a bowl of greasy dishwater. He’d teased her for it mercilessly however, bringing her gifts of rubber gloves in unlikely colors when he wasn’t goading her to admire a new piece of artwork on his arm. “You could’ve bought us a dishwasher with all the money you’ve frittered away,” she told him. Gavin only laughed.
Not everyone found it amusing. Ferrying stacks of dirty plates to the kitchen, Elsa had overheard Joan mutter to Margaret that some people considered themselves far too lah-di-dah to assist with the washing up. Elsa didn’t care what they thought of her, although she’d have loved to see their jaws drop had she revealed that as a child in Berlin, they’d had servants to deal with that kind of thing. But she had no desire to spark their curiosity about her background. Elsa was of a generation that preferred to keep the personal to themselves.
She felt the volunteers badgered the proper old people, those who came twice a week for their meat and two veg. Gavin insisted that the club was as much about social interaction as nutrition, and that he expected the volunteers to nudge the quieter members to join in. Chloe, young enough to be their granddaughter, quizzed the old folk about outdoor privies and learning to write with chalk on slates. Elsa tried to divert them onto grown-up subjects, like the work they used to do, or travel. Yet few of the attendees had had anything that could be termed a career, and their travels, whether to Blackpool, Benidorm, or Bermuda, had been in search of sun instead of culture; so she tended to make do with asking about their grandchildren while stifling a yawn.
What made Elsa continue with her voluntary job was her unexpected friendship with Chloe. Amidst Gavin’s ribbing and Joan and Margaret’s grumbling, she relished the way the younger woman seemed to look up to her, soliciting her advice on all sorts of matters from how to get a chocolate stain out of a T-shirt to her son’s education. Never having had children of her own, Elsa was initially reluctant to express an opinion on William’s development, but when what was asked of her was so straightforward and the child was so endearing, she couldn’t resist. Hosting mother and son for tea the other week, pouring over her holiday photos for the boy’s school project on volcanoes, she hadn’t missed Arthur for the entire afternoon.
So when Chloe asked at the beginning of one Tuesday’s shift if she’d help with another project, Elsa had readily agreed. As she peeled potatoes for the mash and apples for the crumble, as she listened yet again to the saga of Mrs Sanderson’s hip replacement and half-smiled at Gavin’s jokes, she wondered which of the photo albums lined up on her bookshelves would be called into service. Her traveling days were far behind her, but the memories were still strong.
Collecting the tea and coffee cups with Chloe at the end of the meal, Elsa broached the subject of William’s project.
“It’s history this time,” said Chloe. “The Holocaust.”
Elsa shook her head as the dregs of coffee from an undrained cup splashed onto her shoe. “I’m sorry. Arthur and I never fancied those concentration camp tours.”
“It wouldn’t be my idea of a holiday either,” said Chloe. She inclined her head towards Elsa’s feet. “Shall I get a cloth?”
Elsa glanced down, bewildered by the brown stain creeping across her burgundy court shoe. She blinked hard. Somehow she’d expected to find her feet clad in heavy wooden clogs. “Please tell William I can’t help him this time.”
Chloe took the cups from Elsa’s hands and stacked them on the trolley. “Of course you can. Don’t worry about photos, he can get them from the internet. But you’ll have memories… ” Chloe blushed. “I suppose you’d be only a child in the war, but you’d have heard the grown-ups talking. Especially when the news broke about what they’d done to the Jews.”
“It was not good manners to talk. Even more, it was not polite to ask.”
Chloe stared at her strangely, her head cocked to the side. Elsa had surprised herself with the harshness of her tone, but it wasn’t only that. It was the accent, much parodied in the post-war years, that she thought she had shed along with her maiden name.
“Funny how I always forget you’re German.”
Elsa turned to walk away, but Chloe laid a restraining hand on her shoulder. “It would be ever so interesting for William to learn about it from the other side.” Chloe looked so sure of herself, so confident of obtaining whatever she needed for her child.
“Interesting is not polite.” Elsa grabbed the trolley and rattled it away towards the kitchen.
Arthur would have liked children; she hadn’t been blind to the yearning in his eyes as he bounced his nephew on his knee. But he hadn’t pressed her. He hadn’t badgered her to tell him what became of mothers denied the power to keep their children safe.
Margaret and Joan stood with their backs to her at the far end of the kitchen, tackling a mountain of dirty crockery. At the sound of the trolley, Joan spun round, splashing soapsuds on to the rubber floor. “The second shift’s arrived. Come on, Elsa, get those sleeves rolled up!”
Elsa parked the trolley alongside the stainless steel draining board. “Wouldn’t that be interesting?”
Margaret’s expression was not dissimilar to the one she used with Mr Hepworth, who didn’t know which way was up half the time. “I’ve never heard it called that before.”
Joan laughed. “Well, if you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding it you probably would find washing-up a novelty.”
The heat in Elsa’s cheeks came from more than the steam rising from the sinks. She fumbled with the button on the cuff of her blouse. They wanted interesting? She’d give them interesting. It wasn’t only William who could use a lesson on the Holocaust.
“All right ladies?” Gavin beamed from the doorway. His bald head shone in the artificial light, and his T-shirt, with no more than a flap for sleeves, exposed the graffiti that ran down his arms from his shoulders to his knuckles.
The mass of inked skin made Elsa’s stomach churn. “Stupid boy! You’ll be saddled with those damn tattoos for the rest of your life.”
Gavin rolled his eyes, stepping aside as Chloe entered the kitchen, concern written across her face. Elsa could’ve slapped it. The young woman’s sympathy was no use to her now. It couldn’t give her back her childhood.
She clutched the cuff of her blouse, as if she were trying to read her pulse through the fabric. Arthur had urged her to wear short sleeves in the summer heat, but Elsa had no desire to make herself a prop in a history lesson or an object of pity.
Joan and Margaret were muttering in the background. Chloe was gazing at Elsa with puppy eyes. “Has anything upset you?” said Gavin.
Elsa laughed; she’d left her capacity for tears behind in the camp. “I’m sorry.” She focused on her fingers as they secured the button on her sleeve. “This work isn’t right for me.”
“Nonsense!” said Gavin. “You’re my star worker.”
She edged past them to the recess where they hung their coats. She hadn’t felt so old and raw since back then, when the guards pushed her mother one way and her the other. As she slipped her cold arms through the sleeves of her mac, it hit her, as if for the first time, that her husband was dead.