“Hurry up with the boards, darling, the broadcast is about to begin.”
Serena stood outside on a kitchen step, and set the last of the wooden boards on the makeshift frame before the kitchen window. “This is the last one, mother!” she called out.
Her street was completely empty already, despite the sun still being up. It was September 1944, and it was still warm and light in the evenings. Usually the children would play outside a little more after dinner. But today, families had called their children in, and had boarded their houses up for the night a little earlier than usual. A child had left their wooden hoop on the streets, but that was fine. Gas was almost impossible to obtain these days, and bike tires and repair kits were equally impossible to find. There would likely not be any traffic through the street tonight. Even the street’s eldest resident, their honorary grandfather who lived three doors down, had already left his favourite spot on the bench in front of his house for a place around the kitchen table of his daughter’s family.
The Dutch and German nazis must all have been very aware that another broadcast of Radio Oranje was about to be sent out into the world from the exiled government in London. And although all radios had officially been confiscated, most households had managed to get hold of a new radio somehow, or had managed to keep an old little radio hidden in the house somewhere.
Serena hurried indoors, checking the boards from the inside. She was satisfied - no light would shine out tonight. No banging on the door from the nightwatch NSB tonight.
Her mother had already brought down their father’s old little radio from its hiding place in the attic. “Sit down, eat your dinner,” she said to her daughter, pointing at the plate with two slices of bread and some butter.
“You’ve given me all the butter!” admonished Serena.
“We’re getting some more at the weekend, I’m sure. No protesting - I’m not in the mood.” Her mother switched the radio on, softly so they could hear, but no sound would be heard in the street. And soon the familiar theme tune of Radio Oranje sounded in their kitchen. Serena ate, and listened quietly to the voice of one of their ministers speaking calmly and powerfully about keeping courage and withstanding the nazi regime. She was midbite when a nonsensical phrase was spoken by the minister. “De kinderen van Versteeg moeten onder de wol.” (“Versteeg’s children need to go under the wool/ go to sleep”) She looked at her mother with wide eyes. The minister kept on talking about the allied forces, planning to free the country, arriving from all sides - closer and closer. But Serena’s ears were ringing. She put down her bread, suddenly unable to eat more.
“Is this it, child?”
“This is it.”
“And will you respond?”
“Of course I will.” She didn’t need to think about it twice. Her government had just used the coded phrase to call all Railway personnel to put down their work and go into hiding. She didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. The nazis had been warning them all against it, many times. They said, and even put posters up to reinforce the message, that there would not be any transport of coal, and so there would not be electricity in the West. There would not be any transport of goods - there was going to be hunger and illness, and it was going to be their fault. But she was sure that the government wasn’t asking it of them now without keeping these things in mind. Something big was about to happen - she was sure of it. The allies were rumoured to be at the southern border. A general railway strike would help them. Of course she was going to heed the call, and go into hiding.
“Right.” Her mother patted her arm. “Right. Start packing. I will listen to the rest of the broadcast to hear if there are any more messages. And I will pack our leftovers.”
“Are you coming?”
“No, darling. We’ve been over this. I’m too old. I would slow you down. They have no business with me. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Besides, everyone here knows you work for the Railways. They will understand. They will help me. Hurry, go pack.”
Serena had not been able to sleep that night. She had packed her things, but only what was necessary. A few winter dresses and woolen tights, an extra pair of shoes. Her mother had brought her some of the leftovers, and she had refused to take all. It wasn’t going to fit in her pack anyway - not if she was going to bring her bible and rosary.
Thankfully her mother was devout enough to keep some of the food.
She had made Serena repeat their plan, over and over. She was to take the dirt road south, not speak to any strangers if it could be helped, walk as far south as the day would allow, then stop in a village and ask for the priest. Then they said their goodbyes.
But of course, upon the breaking of the dawn, her mother got up as soon as she opened her bedroom door. Another tearful goodbye took place. “See you after all this is over, darling. We’ll see each other again soon. Keep courage!”
And then she was on her way.
Her street was empty still. The wooden hoop still untouched, grandfather’s bench still unoccupied. She looked around her and prayed that she would be walking in this street again soon. Perhaps in a couple of weeks. The allied troops were on the south border! This nightmare would be over soon.
She walked through the town, which was mercifully empty, and then took the dirt road down to the south. Perhaps she could make it across the river in a day’s walk. She remembered how they used to bike to the river on summer’s days in her youth. It couldn’t have been too far.
After a couple of hours of walking, she reached a village where she sat on a bench by the church lawn. She took some food out of her pack, and drank some water from the village pump. Then she took her shoes and socks off for a moment. Her feet were none too pleased about all this walking. She normally only walked for 20 minutes to the train station, then travelled by train to the Railways main office, where she worked as the head of the typists. 120 girls (aged 16 till marriage) were under her supervision. She’d never got married herself, which is why she could continue to work. Always the mistress, never the bride. Somehow these unavailable men were attractive to her… A few of them had been ready to dump wife and brood to move in with her, but there was something so deeply unattractive about that idea, that she had always cut it short, right then. A little fun in the bedroom never hurt anyone, but living together with the same man, day in day out… it made her cringe. It suited her just fine to be a Miss for the rest of her life.
She put her socks and shoes back on and continued her walk. By the time the sun began to set, her legs were stinging and she was sure she had several blisters. A village had appeared on the horizon half an hour ago. She wasn’t sure where she was, but she hadn’t crossed the river yet. She could only but hope that she had actually traveled southwards.
When she arrived in the village, she saw a farmer taking his goat indoors.
“Hei!” she called out. “Good folk!”
“Hei!” he returned the call. “What do you need?”
“The priest?” she asked.
“The reverend?” he asked in return.
“Oh...eh…” She was taken aback for a moment. This village didn’t have a priest at all? Would a non-Catholic help her out? Surely it was the Christian duty of the reverend to help out, too? “Yes!” she called back. “Sorry, the reverend!”
“Wait there. I will take you.”
A little later he walked up to her and motioned her down the road. His wooden shoes clipclapped on the cobblestones. “You are a city girl, aren’t you? You are dressed too nicely to be from around here.”
“Uhm...not city as such…”
“A city girl,” he concluded nonetheless. “What has brought you here, by yourself, at this time of day?”
She didn’t respond, and they walked on in silence for a while.
“The Railways went on strike today,” the farmer said.
“Ah,” said Serena.
“Yes. They weren’t too pleased, the nazis. They told people to come back to work, or else. But the Railroad folk all went into hiding, or so it is said.” He glanced sideways. “And here you are. The reverend will know what to do with you. Don’t worry, girl.”
“You’re too kind.”
“So says my wife,” he muttered. “You’re too kind, Anton. Always helping everyone, before helping yourself.” He shrugged. “It is just my character, hm?” And they walked the rest of the way in silence.
Serena had expected the vicary, or however the Protestants called it, to be in the city center, close to the church, if not right next to it. So she was surprised and not a little disappointed to be led through the village and then out of it, following a winding dirt road through the fields. At long last the farmer led her onto a farmyard, and he knocked on the door of a boarded up house. A scuttling of chairs could be heard, and people talked hushedly.
“Good folk!” the farmer called out. “It is Anton, with a city girl!”
“One moment, Anton.” Locks were rattled on the inside of the door.
“A city girl?” a low voice sounded. “Not another one.”
“Don’t start, old grumbly bear,” the female voice responded. “Guests and food are my department. You stick to your sermons, do you hear? Read some more about the inns that were closed to our good Lord.”
“You will be the death of me, woman!”
And then the door opened and a bright light flooded out. A woman, looking a few years younger than Serena, was standing in the doorway, her arms crossed in front of her. Anton took off his cap.
“Anton! Good evening,” she said, talking quickly and loudly. “I would bid you in, but your wife will be worried sick if you don’t get back home soon. Is this the girl? You are rather older than a girl, I’d say! From the Railways, are you? Yes, we were expecting some people to come to our village from the Railway strike, in the next few days. You’re early though. And it’s just you, is it? Good, good. We can’t take many people in at once, but there will be space for you. Never mind my old bear of a husband. He hates change, but he’ll be fine once you are here for a few days. The government said that the Allies are at the borders. It won’t be long now. Don’t just stand there, come in, woman. Good evening to you, Anton! You did good work, tonight. Tell Hannie we said hello.”
And just like that, Serena was pulled into the hallway. The locks were closed firmly behind her.
“Sit, down at the table, miss. What is your name?”
“Uh...” said Serena.
“Sit! Sit, are you hungry? You must be tired. Did you walk very far? Which city did you come from? Make her some bread, Henk! And a cup of tea. Never mind, I will make the tea. You can only ever make weakly flavoured water, and call it tea. You are useless - just you get out of my way.” She shouted into the hallway: “Bernie, the coast is clear! Come down and finish your dinner!” Then spoke to Serena again: “You will like Bernie! She is your age, I should think. Has been in hiding here for a while. She was a professor at Utrecht University, you see. Didn’t sign the Declaration of Loyalty. Do you take sugar in your tea, miss? What did you say your name was?”
“Uh…” said Serena.
“Be silent for a moment, Bep.” Her husband interrupted. “Can you not see that this woman is exhausted? She has not turned her life upside down and walked all this way to be shouted at by you. Let’s leave her in peace. Here is your bread, miss. We will talk in the morning.”
A plate of bread slices was put in front of Serena. With butter. And cheese! Actual cheese!
“You’re right, Henk, you’re right. We’ll leave you two in peace in the kitchen. Bernie will fetch you a towel, I’m sure. Here she is now. Bernie, will you fetch our new guest a towel? She is from the Railways. She will sleep with you in the attic. Do you have everything you need?”
The other woman, who had just walked into the kitchen, nodded. “Thanks, eh...”
And before Bep was literally pushed out of the kitchen by her husband, she managed another “Good evening to you both.” From the hallway she shouted: “We will speak in the morning!”
Bernie sat opposite from Serena, and glanced at her through her fringe. “Rough day?”
“I’m Bernie,” she held out her hand across the table.
Serena took it. “I’m Serena. Funny, you don’t look like a professor.”
Bernie looked down at her farmer’s coveralls. “Oh, no!...I was helping out with the animals.”
“Suits you.” Serena smirked.
“Eh...thanks.” Bernie blushed brightly. “Uhm...so you are from the Railways?”
“Yeah, just a typist, nothing fancy. I’m sure they won’t be hindered by my absence.”
“Still, it’s a brave thing to all walk away. I wished the Railways had gone on strike sooner, though…”
“Yes, opinions have been divided. I’m not sure, though...even now… I hope it is just for a couple of days. I hate to think what will happen to good people if the trains don’t get going again soon…” Serena sighed and looked down at her plate. There was cheese on the bread, and yet suddenly she didn’t feel like eating, at all.
“I think you did the right thing. I’m sure the Allies have planned something. It will all be over soon.” Bernie placed her hand on Serena’s. They sat like that in silence for a while.
Then Bernie got up. “Come on, let’s put your plate in the cellar for tomorrow morning, and I’ll show you where we sleep. You must be tired. It’s wise to go to sleep early; we get up with the cows, here.”