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Alex Barr’s recent short fiction is in Tears in the Fence, The Lampeter Review, The Interpreter’s House, New Welsh Reader, The Last Line Journal, Otherwise Engaged Journal, Sixfold Fiction, Mechanics Institute Review, Litro Magazine, Feed Literary Magazine, Reflex Press, and Samyukta Fiction. His short story collection ‘My Life With Eva’ is published by Parthian in Wales, where he lives.


Trigger Warning

Auntie Barbara is crying again. Peter Born and I are behind the settee on the carpet playing snakes and ladders. Auntie and Mother forget we’re there. We stop rolling dice to listen.

“The egg yolks were the same color as the star on his coat.”

“Horrible,” says Mother.

“The boys” faces as they threw the eggs – that’s what I found so awful. Closed looks with no room for pity. As if the man was wrong to be a Jew in Görlitz.”

Peter’s mouth twists in a grimace. His eyes behind his round wire-rimmed glasses look enormous. I peek over the settee and watch Auntie stroke the auburn braid coiled on her head.

“My God,” she says through clenched teeth, “those kids would give anything for eggs when the Russians came.”

When Mother and Auntie go out I say, “Jerry bastards.”

Peter says, “Yes, Davy. No-one knew what ordinary people are capable of.”

Auntie Barbara went to Germany before the war to marry a missionary in the Moravian community in Herrnhut. When he was sent to the Congo – “no place for a woman” – he broke off the engagement. She stayed in England and married Jack. When Jack was killed in action she came to live with us.

Paul Oswald pesters me about Jack.

“Davy, how many Nazis did he kill?”


“When he was shot down in his Mosquito was he burned alive in the crash?”

“How would I know?”


Paul has big front teeth and hair like Abyssinian guinea pig fur. Always wears the same baggy Fair Isle pullover. Isn’t interested in getting minnows out of the ditch like Peter and me. He’s two years older and knows more than us. Shows us an abandoned brickworks, where we can channel water through rusty pipes and enjoy being chased by the watchman. Says he’s felt inside June Roscoe’s knickers.

“I know where couples park up for a shag,” he announces.

Peter Born, John Savage, Rob Woodford, and I follow him through trouser-tearing gorse to a lay-by. We creep like commandos towards a brown Ford Anglia, each pick a window, and at Paul’s command rise up. The couple roll away from each other, cursing. I’ve seen the long legs of dancers at the pantomime and just thought how clean they look, but the woman’s pale flesh above stocking tops disturbs me.

The kind of mating that interests Peter and me is the mating of dragonflies. I go to his house and we read about them and what their larvae feed on. It’s my book, but he likes it so much I lend it to him. He’s pale with high cheekbones and freckles, and his fair hair is cut straight across his forehead. We compare collections – matchbox tops for him, cigarette packets for me. Paul collects cigarette packets as well, not just the usual Players’ Weights, Capstan Full Strength, Passing Clouds, Bachelors, and Balkan Sobranie but more unusual brands. I envy his collection, so I’m excited by an offer from Peter.

“Like this one, Davy?”

The name on the packet in silver is hard to read.

“Melatch Rhino, Peter?”

“What will you give me for it?”

“My six-shooter and two rolls of caps?”


“My magnifying glass.”


After school when Mother is busy in the kitchen I spend time with Auntie Barbara. When I was younger she told me Grimm’s fairy tales. She didn’t read them from a book, just said them from memory. Now I’m nine, we play dominoes and listen to music and Dick Barton, Special Agent on her console radio. When ‘Under Paris Skies’ comes on, played by George Melachrino, I perk up.

“Auntie, how do you spell his name?”

She obliges. It’s the name on the cigarette packet! A piece of the world’s great jigsaw suddenly fits. I can’t wait to show my new treasure to Paul. But when I do, he scowls.

“Where’d you get that?”


“Where did he get it?”

“His cousin.”

Paul sniffs. “Foreign rubbish.”

It’s Saturday. Peter appears at my house, excited.

“Guess what, Davy. Dad saw me using that magnifying glass to look at woodlice, and says . . .” he pauses for breath. “He might borrow the microscope from his lab.”

“Flipping heck!”

And drive us to Whinstone Pond tomorrow, with nets to collect larvae.”


I plead with my parents to let me miss Sunday School, and off we go. Peter’s dad is tall and thin with dark bushy hair round a bald crown, and wears glasses just like Peter’s. His car is a Morris Minor. He smokes a pipe and the seats smell of leather and tobacco smoke. Peter’s holding a glass container like a miniature aquarium so we’ll see the specimens clearly in it.

The sun flashes between the poplars beside the road, warming me through the car window. I’ve never been to Whinstone Pond. It’s not on a bus route and my dad doesn’t own a car. It’s even better than I imagined – instead of a muddy edge there’s a small wooden jetty we can kneel on to dip our nets. The sun is so warm I can take off my jumper. There are moorhens busy among the rushes and mallards diving with just their bottoms showing.

When we’ve filled the glass container with creatures and watched them for a long time as they wriggle, curl and uncurl, or just dart about, Peter’s dad opens his knapsack. He brings out bottles of dandelion and burdock, tomato sandwiches, and slices of Dundee cake.

“This is the best day ever,” I say.

He smiles and rubs his bald crown.

“Glad you enjoy it, Davy.” He looks into the container. “That thing very agitated is a whirligig beetle. Those bright red things writhing are leeches.”

“What are the ones with amazing tails?”

“Mayfly nymphs.”

He has a slight foreign accent, but I don’t mind. Peter takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. I think he’s tearful but they must be happy tears.

“I can’t wait to see these little beasts under a microscope,” he says.

“Next weekend,” says his dad, “I bring it.”

One evening we take a break from looking at the creatures. Some have died and sunk to the bottom. We play with Peter’s toy locomotive, which I envy. It’s two feet long, red-enameled sheet steel, with an open tender.

“Hey Peter, did you know the Flying Scotsman can pick up water without stopping?”


“A trough between the tracks.”

“I don’t believe you.” He thinks for a moment, frowning, then says, “But this engine does need water.”

He suddenly unbuttons his fly and next moment is peeing in the tender. A lot of pee splashes on the floor, but he ignores it. When his mother comes in Peter disappears. She looks at the puddle on the lino and asks me what it is.

“I don’t like to say,” I mutter.

She always wears a flower-print apron and looks very solid. She has greying curly hair wrapped in a kind of bandana. She used to post copies of Peace News on the plank fence outside her house. Paul and I always tore them down.

“She’s weird,” he said. “They all are.”

One day she confronted us. “Why do you do this? I try to make a better world.”

I leave her frowning at the puddle before Peter reappears.

Next day Paul shows me what he got for his birthday: a Dinky Toy anti-aircraft gun on wheels. It swivels nicely and moves up and down. We take it to show Auntie Barbara, but she sends us away brusquely.

“Why?” Paul asks. “I thought she’d be glad we’re shooting down Dorniers and Heinkels.”

I say, “Dunno. Let’s show Peter.”

We meet up with Peter in the street outside his house. Paul says he can hold the flak gun, but Peter shakes his head.

“What’s the matter?” I ask.

“Nothing, Davy. Just leave it.”

John Savage and Rob Woodford turn up. Paul shows them his present, and they pass it between them admiringly, making gunfire noises and pointing it at the sky. When they give it back, Paul offers it to Peter again and gets the same response.

“I know why you don’t like it,” he says suddenly. “You don’t want to shoot down Nazi bombers. Your lot are Jerries.”

Peter stares at him.

I say, “Born’s not a German name.”

“Oh it bloody is, Davy. My dad says it is.” He thrusts his face against Peter’s. “Bloody Nazi.”

I say, “His parents don’t look like Nazis.”

Paul laughs. “The buggers don’t all look like Hitler!”

He sticks a finger under his nose to represent the Führer’s moustache and marches around Peter giving the Nazi salute.

He chants, “Peter Born, Nazi pig.”

John Savage and Rob Woodford join in the chant. There’s something exciting about it all. Heather Hall and June Roscoe have appeared but don’t seem to share the thrill.

I join in the chant. It feels good to march round and be part of a gang, a squad, like a soldier. I feel warm and happy.

Peter comes to me with a stunned look.

“Davy . . .” he protests.

I say, “You didn’t tell me Born’s a German name.”

Then I think of something else and shout, “Listen, you lot!”

They stop chanting and stare at me.

“Yesterday he pissed on his parents’ floor.”

Paul, John, and Rob burst out laughing.

“Pissed on his parents’ floor,” they chant. “Nazi bastard, pissed on his parents’ floor.”

Peter ducks his head and runs for home.

When I get home later, after kicking a ball around with the others, I go to Auntie Barbara’s room to listen to Dick Bartonas usual. At the door I hear a lively conversation in German. I go in and find Peter’s father, tall and severe in his dark shiny suit. I look at the carpet.

“Ah, Davy,” says my aunt. “Herr Born and I were discussing Goethe. He likes Faust, I prefer the poems.”

I stand rooted and manage to look at Herr Born’s face. It’s more lined than I remember and wears a sad expression.

“I think you know why I come here, Davy,” he says. “You play in our house, a guest. I take you out in my car. And what do you do?”

I don’t know where to look, or what to say.

When he leaves Auntie just stares at me. That look! I wish she’d just shout, like Dad when I broke a window. I feel my bones are melting.

After a long pause she says, “Do you know what’s going to happen to you now?”

It’s a relief to imagine some simple punishment – no pocket money or having to dust ornaments.


“You leave your toy cars, your Eagle Annual, your collection of cigarette packets, your school, Paul Oswald, John Savage, Rob Woodford, and me, and go to live where English isn’t spoken. You have to learn Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte, and  . . . yes, Warum verletzest du mich? You’re laughed at for your accent and your clothes.”

I feel a chill all over me.

She says, “Herr and Frau Born were lucky. They left in time. Their political views would have sent them somewhere like Belsen.”

Newsreel photos of skeletal beings fill my mind. My aunt carries on looking at me, stroking her auburn braid. I try to think of something else. I picture the tiny creatures wriggling among the pond weeds, coiling and uncoiling, living their strange lives not caring what humans think.

Auntie says, “Next time you see Peter you can throw eggs at him.”

“Eggs are rationed, Auntie,” I blurt, and rush out.

On the table in the hallway I see the insect book and the magnifying glass. Peter’s father must have returned them. The dust cover on the book is torn, and a dragonfly has lost a wing.

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