A prisoner in my own country!

What mysterious scandals unfold, when hidden deep within the pages of privacy from a loved one’s own handwriting, after lying dormant for decades. The things we do for love! This amazing story will be sure to tug on your heartstrings, but don’t let your coffee go cold…

 

Several years ago, Susan Lyons was rummaging through an old metal trunk in the attic of her grandmother’s two-storey house in Melbourne. The home, one of three owned by the wonderful old lady, had been left to Susan in the will. The other two houses went to her parents and brother William, respectively. Unfortunately, Grandma Riedesel, as she was always referred to, had passed away at the ripe old age of ninety-four, of natural causes. Susan and her mother, Eve, had been given the unpleasant task of sorting through the deceased’s worldly possessions. Childhood memories flooded back to the thirty-eight-year-old bank teller, at the turn of every treasured item, which bore pertinence to her relationship with her mother’s mother. The fading photographs, all neatly stacked and tied with a piece of string, of herself and little William sitting proudly on the handsome woman’s knee at Christmas. The crumbly-cornered, black-and-white ones of her granny as a woman far younger than she. Several others brought tears to both women when stared at and fondled. These were of Eve’s father who had been taken by a sniper bullet during the Vietnam War in 1967. In the frame of one print he was cuddling his beloved. On the reverse side, written in his hand was the inscription: Us at the entrance to Royal Melbourne Zoo, 1963… together for life! Naturally, Susan had never met him because her mother was only a teen when he’d failed to return from service. His posthumous medals of honour brought further tears when they were unwrapped from the cushioned cloth inside an old shoebox.

“My he was a striking figure of a man, wasn’t he Mum?” said Susan, staring hard at the image, her fingers carefully gripping its broad white border.

“What I remember of him, yes. And a kinder gentleman you couldn’t wish to meet, either. Curse that wretched Asian war for taking him away. It wasn’t even our show!”

Around them the dust sat heavy, and a plethora of cobwebs spanned most corners of the ceiling and joined floor to walls. Tea chests and suitcases were stacked in precarious fashion, and shadows attempted to withhold their secrets. The bulb, hanging from its twisted-cloth wiring cable, was a dim one. Her clothes, many in plastic bags, others just folded in piles, had the smell of memory about them. They didn’t care — in these small confines lay the remanence of nearly a century of historic connection. In no hurry, Susan and Eve continued sorting through the tired objects that had meant so much at one point, casting comments between “ooohs” and “ahhhs”. An elbow out of place caused a large box to falter from its position atop four larger ones. When the lid fell away, a pair of crooked deep-brown eyes stared back at them. These eyes of love were set in a worn furry face with a piece of one ear missing and several stitches coming adrift from the black triangular nose. The fur used to be yellow but now appeared a more darkish ochre with splodges of brown.

Eve immediately reached in to raise the teddy in the dullish light. “It’s Ruxpin Cuddlesworth, oh-my-gosh!” she chirped, thrusting the dusty old bear to her cheek.

“Careful Mum, you don’t know where it’s been!” said Susan with concern.

“Not an ‘it’, dear. This was my first friend in the whole world. He used to belong to your Grandmother, and she passed him down to me. He is a 1920s model. I’d wondered what had become of him.” Smelly old Ruxpin’s weathered little face appeared to be smiling. “Oh, thank you Mum, for saving him all these years.” She eased him away and manipulated his paws and legs on their swivels, to sit him down in the typical teddy bear pose.

Susan looked at her mother’s excitement — remembering her own first serious teddy bear, received when she was four. Her name was Drop-stitch Gertie, because, even from new there was a loop in her nose triangle. She wondered about the coincidence between both soft toys and also thought how ironical it was that people never forget their names. She began opening boxes, in the hope of finding Gertie’s thick, shaggy, brown, mohair form amongst the paraphernalia. She stopped looking when an opened cardboard box revealed something of greater interest. Inside, was a mahogany jewellery box alongside a fawn leather-bound blank-page-style diary. Stuck to the diary by two rubber bands was a folded piece of paper. On the outside of the folds were the words:

Susan passed it to her mother and opened the drawers of the jewellery box which were stuffed with photographs. The wrinkly images were of Grandma Riedesel at a P.O.W. Camp. It was obvious to her because the figures were all lined up with slouch-hat-wearing soldiers patrolling, and in the background, she could plainly see the barbed wire fence. Susan leafed her way through, placing one behind the other, as her mother started reading the diary. “I never knew this about Grandma Gracie. Why was she locked up Mum?”

Eve’s fingers had parted the tardy-looking secret-holder near its centre. It separated there because of a photograph, fading into sepia, of four teenage girls dressed in Charleston-style flapper regalia, inclusive with hats and fake cigarette holders, lay quietly. “Shhh, listen to this,” she said, gradually turning the pages. “That I did know about. It was because of her surname, even though she was a third-generation Aussie, it is of German heritage. They arrested thousands of people at the start of World War Two — if they suspected them of anything whatsoever. Men, women and children of many nationalities were sent to camps just like those ones you are looking at. Not really prisoners of war — more detainees, at least, that’s what Mum always called it… Yes, I knew all about it, but I most certainly did not know about this!”

Eve went back through the pages — to begin at the paragraph below 17th December 1940. “After the outbreak of war last year, Australia fell into absolute chaos. Troops had been enlisted and sent to the far-reaching corners of the globe. Women now did the work of men and many enlisted to begin training as nurses. I do not properly understand and neither do my friends. We had learned about World War One at school, although, still could not grasp the idea of it reoccurring.”

Susan, Eve and Ruxpin sat in a small circle facing each other as the story came to life…

She cleared her throat to commence reading the dossier, which had the dates at the top of each page, but they were in random daily, weekly and monthly accounts. “We had been rounded up at an ungodly hour of the night and sent to an internment camp at Rushworth, Tatura. A lost little town in the Goulbourn Valley. It is a date that I shall never forget. The weather was stinking hot and I cried. It took ages to get there and we were all made to feel like criminals. Men and women are segregated. I am located in Camp 3 along with my Mother, older sister Hilda, and two of our friends, Anne-Maree Schmidt and Gwenaël Ludendorff who is a very pretty girl, although sadly, she has a slight mental disorder. It is some sort of autistic syndrome and she loves everybody but can’t stand being touched by anyone except me. Gwen is terrified. We, along with all of the other women, and I presume the men in the other camps, have been interrogated. The Australian authorities are extremely suspicious of spies. This is not what a respectable sixteen-year-old expects to have happen in her own country of birth, but in some strange way, I understand it all. We each have an area about the size of a bathroom to exist in, with three communal washrooms. The food is very basic, and many of the vegetables are grown in the farm section.

25th December 1940. Well, what can I say… I have just experienced the saddest Christmas of my whole life. The entire camp tried their hardest to make it a joyous occasion, but nobody wanted to be here. We all wanted to be at home celebrating with dinner and cake. Mother is wonderful and I think right now I would be shattered without her love and support. Perhaps New Year’s will be a little more enticing. Apparently, there is a bit of a bash being put on at the main hall. We have been told we can attend but have to return to the barracks immediately after midnight. Never mind, I will be able to bury my nose back into the last few chapters of Huckleberry Finn. I have fallen in love with novel reading recently and find Mark Twain to be particularly good.”

Eve continued reading aloud. Each page was filled with the emotional turmoil which all these unfortunate victims of the war effort were experiencing in their cloistered environment. It was a dirty and unpleasant habitat. Susan listened intently feeling the grip of the conflict around her. After thirty minutes, Eve was nearing the flapper photograph. She continued…

“12th July 1942. Still no sign to the end of the war, which we all thought might be over by now. The crude tin sheds are very hot in summer and very cold in winter. I have written about this a number of times, but it can’t be expressed how miserable it makes us all. All the girls are pitching in to help, whether it is cleaning or cooking, washing clothes or mending them. A routine has been enforced to simplify our work. A few close friendships have developed for me and I am slowly growing accustomed to internment lifestyle. The boredom and loneliness of stolen freedom feels unbearable. To ease this, the Australian Army holds monthly dances with live swing bands playing, but our dance partners are always garrison soldiers. We are treated fairly respectfully.

Sue interrupted her mother. “Sounds dreadful to me. What on earth was the government of the time thinking? Obviously, these innocent women had no secrets. They would have been far better off allowing them to continue with their productive civilian lives! Don’t you think, Mum?”

“Easy for us to think so, Susan… but these were desperate times, my dear. Now, let me proceed.” Eve knew she was reaching the section which had caught her attention. “14th August 1942. During the middle of a bitterly cold winter, word came through to the detainees that a new detachment of soldiers would be taking over part of Camp 3. This was not important to us because although some half-decent friendships with the troops had been established, they were often rotated for various reasons. Some of the women managed to acquire a few extra rations on occasion, as well as the odd weekly bar of chocolate from two or three of the more-manipulatable Quartermasters. They were always careful to keep space between us though. Fraternisation with detainees was not permitted for the boys in uniform by their superior officers, and as I’m led to believe, punishable by court-martial. As I lay awake at night on so many occasions with only Ruxpin Cuddlesworth to keep me warm, my mind races with worry about our foreseeable future. My mother has been taken ill with Pneumonia and been transferred to an army hospital but neither Hilda nor I have been able to visit her. I have grave concerns for her wellbeing. Hilda has taken over the role as our main guardian. I am now eighteen and playing nursemaid to my dear friend Gwen who is struggling with the claustrophobic feeling of living behind the wire. She is a very poor reader, so I read out loud to her every afternoon. 21st August 1942. It was freezing last Wednesday night. An officer entered our quarters around six o’clock. We had never seen him before. This man is unattractive to look at, however, he seems gentle and kind. He arrived with two other soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands, announcing himself as Medical Corps Officer, Major Rivan Janus PsyD. He said he was doing ground-breaking research in the field of psychiatry and was going to help Gwen. She was very unhappy about the discussion which occurred. The psychiatrist major said he needed to work closely with her at the makeshift hospital for about one week each month. I mentioned to him that my mother was there and he said he would see what he could do for us. I am hoping to tie a visit with her and my mother in a few days. They took Gwen away.”

“That should cheer her up a bit,” remarked Susan, shuffling her bottom about. She was getting pins-and-needles from sitting cross-legged on the floor. “This Major Janus seems to be quite a reasonable fellow!”

“Stop interrupting Susan, or I shall save it for later. We have a lot to do here and haven’t got all day. Would you rather hear the story afterwards, downstairs?”

“Gosh no! This is far more in the genre of things… cooped up here in the attic. Golly, I almost feel like I’m right with her!”

“Good. The next section is dated 29th August 1942. They would not let me visit the hospital last week, and when Gwen finally did arrive back at the camp last night, something was clearly wrong. Major Janus told us she was responding well to the therapy and said he needed to see her again in early September. She refused to communicate with anyone. Instead, no matter what I asked her, she just shook her head and cried into her pillow. Hilda and Anne-Marie are going to talk to her tomorrow. All else is managing fine in our barracks. I have just finished reading The Prince and the Pauper, another classic historical fiction book by Twain. 12th September 1942. It is very late at night and I am writing secretly under candlelight. Our curfew has long since removed the lighting. Several hours ago, Major Janus brought Gwenaël back to the camp. She is worse than ever. The therapy isn’t working at all. Gwen has some bruising, which Major Janus reported to his superior officer as attempted self-harm. She has never done anything like that before. When he removed her five days ago, the poor girl fought like a cat to prevent him. The other two soldiers, who were always the same two, held her down to receive a needle. This pacified her. He is very aloof towards the other women in our barracks and tells us nothing of her progress, other than; ‘It’s going well’. Again, he refused to help me get to see my mother. I do not like him anymore.”

Eve fell silent, running her fingers down the pages until she reached the page just before the dress-up photograph.

The stoutly built bank teller appeared concerned. “What’s wrong Mum?”

“Sorry Susan, but that section only spoke of the remainder of September. It was just elaborating about the mundane chores and camp discipline, plus a few more books she has read. We’ll get back to that when we show it to William and your father. Here’s the bit that caught my attention. 3rd October 1942. Gwen has finally opened up about her treatment to me. She has made me swear not to talk to the others. I am entering it in this manuscript, just in case anything ever happens to me. I am appalled by what is going on. Gwen said she is being ordered to wash, then she’s taken to a small padded room and locked inside. There are no windows and only a hard mattress on the floor with a wooden chair beside it. She does not know whether it is day or night. She told me that Doctor or Major Janus, whatever he is supposed to be, enters several times a day to have his way repeatedly with her under mild sedation. He forces her to perform all kinds of dastardly sexual acts at scalpel point. She said he calls her insulting sluttish names and says she is stupid. He warned her that if she ever spoke of his behaviour to anyone, he would take her somewhere in the night and cut out her tongue, then cut her to pieces. He told her that he would file a report saying she escaped, and that it was of her own doing. He told her his up-to-date examination report mentions irrational and aggressive behaviour. I know Gwen is not lying because we have been friends since we were three years of age. She has always told me everything, including the fact that right up until now she was a virgin, just as Anne-Marie and myself are. I hate what he is doing to her, but I feel quite helpless. I don’t think the authorities would believe her story. Doctor Janus has made it clear to all that the poor girl is delusional. Talk about an appropriate name. I cannot even tell the others in case they do something which puts her at risk of serious harm or perhaps even being killed. I shall never forget his face as long as I live. 21st October 1942. They came for Gwenaël, an hour ago. When I opened my mouth to confront the major, Gwen’s eyes begged me to shut up. She knew how angry I was, but she is terrified about the consequences of it being revealed. We hugged and she whispered; ‘I’ll be alright my friend — take care’. I feel more than just trapped behind the fence. I desperately need to see my poor mother before I go mad.”

Susan was gripping the other pictures of the P.O.W. Camp tightly. Connecting with it visually added to the horror of where her granny was. She saw the barbed wire even more clearly now and felt very sad for this ugly secret which had never been disclosed. “Mum, I could not go through what Granma Riedesel went through. I am so soft.”

Eve lifted out the eight-by-ten image, placing it between the rear of the diary’s cover and the last page. “You might be surprised, dear. 29th October 1942. This was the worst we have seen her. I think her spirit has been broken forever. All I can do is comfort her on her bed. She hardly speaks and will not eat. She is not interested in listening to me reading to her either. I thought it might help. It is very difficult for me to put pen to paper because Gwen’s circumstance is presiding over my every thought. Some good news is that my mother has recovered, according to Janus, and will be returning shortly. 5th November 1942. Last night it was raining very heavily. So heavily, in fact, that you could hardly see outside but I went for a walk regardless, to clear my mind. The campgrounds were deserted. I strolled amongst the crude gardens out at the front of the tin sheds. Suddenly, I saw that slight figure, whom I have grown to despise, just up ahead. He was approaching and wearing a raincoat, but I knew exactly who it was. We were both alone out there. He stopped in my path and I became scared. I looked around but saw no sign of life, except for the dull lights near the guard tower in the distance. He asked if Gwen was okay, and I don’t know what made me say it, but I accused him of raping my friend. He produced a scalpel and grinned right at me, calling her a foolish girl. I became very angry and reached down into the garden and picked up a large jagged rock. I rammed it hard as I could at the side of his head again and again. Before I knew what I was doing, Major Janus had fallen to the ground without a sound. I stared at him dead and bleeding, then turned and ran back to our hut without being seen. I was ashamed at what I had just done, and never told any of the other girls, but somehow, when we were all interviewed the following day, I think they knew. We all denied knowing anything.”

Susan Lyons sat with her mouth wide open. Was her beloved favourite grandmother a murderer? She couldn’t speak…

Eve did not read the account any further. She reopened the cover which was marked by the sepia-coloured print of the four girls. Opposite it, on the last page, she read out loud, “This is the only diary I have ever kept.” The emotionally moved woman looked at the photograph of her mother and Aunt Hilda, with Anne-Maree Schmidt and Gwen Ludendorff, pretending to attend a Great Gatsby party several years before the war’s outbreak. She hugged the diary tightly to her breast and stared down at the teddy bear’s long-since-hidden misty eyes. “You have known about this all along… haven’t you Ruxpin Cuddlesworth?”

Susan said, “At least she has closure, now that we know. Well, I for one forgive her. How brave she was. This diary is a symbol of real courage!”

Eve instantly replied, “Absolutely, I agree dear! Come to think of it now… I do recall Mum telling me about Gwen Ludendorff being properly diagnosed several decades after the war. Asperger’s Syndrome was not appropriately identified and named until 1981, I believe it was. Gwen never married and lived with us under Mum’s care until she passed away in the 1990s. Susan, do you think we should show this to the boys?”

Before Eve received her answer, the feeble bulb, dangling at the end of its twisted-cloth insulation wire, flickered several times then fizzled into blackness. The only glow shone like an eerie omen from the manhole entrance, hidden behind Gracie Riedesel’s hand-painted portrait…

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