The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 19, No. 2

The Family Whistle

by Gerard Woodward

It had been a good day for Florian. She'd had some success in the shops, being among the first in the queue when she heard there was real coffee for sale in Faber's, and had managed to buy half a kilo of arabica. Then she had found a pair of white silk stockings in Schmidt's and didn't even have to queue for them. On her way back, she had dropped briefly into her husband's bar on the Promenadeplatz and had shown him—in a furtive moment, while she sat chatting with his weatherworn manageress, Myra—the stockings, and he had given her a quick, appreciative kiss, promising to bring home something good when he closed that afternoon. But then he always did, if only a single sweet pastry left over from the day, or one slice of black ham. By means of such little luxuries they felt richer than they had ever been before the war, though, by any accepted standards, they were far poorer.
     By the time Florian returned to their third–floor apartment on Max Joseph Strasse, closing the reassuringly solid oak door behind her, it would be just half an hour or so before Wilhelm joined her. She may as well have waited in the café so they could come home together, but Wilhelm never liked her doing this, since she always got involved in the clearing up. Florian enjoyed helping, but Wilhelm insisted that his own wife should never be an employee, no matter how casual.
     Florian went into the dining room and placed her gleanings of the day on the table, laying them out like a little trove. She spent a while arranging them, as though she were an artist preparing a still life. The tin of coffee formed the centerpiece. The silk stockings, still folded, shimmered beside it. A packet of eggs. A handful of black cherries. A block of butter. Everything so perfect, beautiful, promising.
     There was a knock at the door. A quiet, rather tentative knock, like that of a nervous child expecting to be told off. Was Wilhelm back so early—had he forgotten his key? It had happened once or twice before, so Florian went straight to the door and opened it.
     A man stood outside. Tall but desperately thin, with vague, hollow eyes and sucked–in cheeks. He wore a nearly new, unbuttoned greatcoat over filthy, tattered clothing. A few years ago, one frequently saw this sort of man wandering hopelessly in the city, led sometimes by a stern–looking woman, sometimes by children. The returning soldiers, starved and stunned, often from years in captivity, struggling to recognize the country for which they had fought. They were turning up even now, mostly from Soviet labor camps. After the war, the Russians had hung on to their prisoners with a grim, sulky determination. She presumed this man was one such, and had forgotten where he lived. She wondered if she should give him something—perhaps a piece of cake—before sending him on his way.
     "Florian," came the surprisingly deep though trembling voice. It was not a voice she recognized, any more than the face from which it came; and the shock of hearing her own name spoken, and of seeing the smile forming on that same mouth to reveal gray, broken teeth, made her cling to the door ever tighter. The smile hung on the face like a pinned memo, expecting the same in return. When she didn't oblige, the expression changed to one of hardened disappointment. The head cocked itself, the chin turned up, bathing the face in light from the apartment's hallway, which allowed Florian to examine the man's eyes closely for the first time. Little, distant pearls. "What's wrong, Florian? Don't you know your own husband?"

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