Ruth's Story

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Ali approached the front door. It was a fine-looking house, not built by company committee or public body but by one with an eye for detail: the line of the roof and proportion of the windows allowing light to flood the restrained, tasteful interior.

It was the home of Mrs Ruth Bachmeyer. She had lived there for fifty-nine years, her and husband Erich, though he had gone a long time back; returning from the office late one night his car had skidded, hit a tree. They did not have any children, and neither Ruth nor he knew of any relatives. As youngsters, they'd been taken to a station, her in Berlin and him in Hanover. There had been tears, hugs and kisses. There had been promises of a future reunion, just enough to hold on to and take with them. But, of course, it had never happened.

They had gone back seeking answers. The words over the main gate read, 'Arbeit Macht Frei'. They had stood for a long time, afraid to enter. They did not know the number that had worked enough to be set free: a number too momentous to contemplate. Closing her eyes, she could feel them fused with the unmoving, Polish air. In the end, they had found stories, lots of stories that had made them weep and they held one another knowing that they were the last threads. For a time, they had explored the country of their birth - their Heimat. Other than memorials, there was little sign of the dark pall of madness that had shrouded the Germany they had fled. They both felt a deep sense of connection, but there was no going back.

The pilgrimage completed, they had returned home and got on with their lives. They were happy; it was what the others would have wanted. And then he was gone but she was not, and for a long time, she too wished to be set free.

One morning she awoke and realised that happiness was a choice and decided to live, to laugh and not be sad any more. She did not know where the sudden change about her had come from, but she felt younger and more hopeful and desired more than anything to go back to work. Dusting off her teaching diploma, she began writing letters. There were rejections, but soon came an interview and a job: teaching art at a girl's secondary school.

Now fifty she began again, her renaissance and loved all of it, but most of all the girls. Ruth and her colourful art studio and its cosy side room with views out over the grounds, where she'd installed a kettle, a comfy chair or two, became an escape for those having a bad day or going through a testing time. Ruth, who knew more than almost anyone about difficulty, was perfect counsel. She'd make tea, and there was always cake. She never asked, just sat and listened. She only gave guidance when it asked to provide it, and the essence of her advice was nearly always the same: only pack what you can carry, and never act on anything important without first sleeping on it.

At seventy-five, Ruth called it a day. The new head had been suggesting it almost every time they'd bumped into one another. Truthfully, she'd have been happy to stay a year or two longer, but there were other things she wished to do before age and the will stopped her.

For the next five years, she travelled, painted, and improved her garden.

It was the day after her eighty-second birthday; the doorbell tinkled, one of those delightful mechanical bells with a decorative wrought iron handle. She opened the door to two teenage girls. She guessed that they were sixteen or seventeen. One was conventional, a little make-up, pretty in a girl-next-door way, a healthy glow; being neither fat nor slim. She smiled, gentleness in her warm brown eyes. The other was working more intently to proclaim her uniqueness. She had a nose stud and rings, one either side of her upper lip: Ruth thought they looked good on her. Her dyed-blond hair was short and edgy, designed to look untidy, but wasn't. It framed her sweet, oval face with its intense blue-eyes, black borders and red highlights heightening their sparkle. She wore a tartan blouse, a few buttons open revealing a silver chain with star-and-moon lockets; round her neck, choker-style, a petite string of pearls, and above her breast pocket four politically sloganeered-badges.

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