6. The Cruel month

By Peter Fraenkel

October was the cruellest month: the month before the rains came. The heat was bearable in our part of Africa but the humidity was at its worst. October was known as ‘suicide month’ and mortuaries could have confirmed it. At dusk flashes of lightening lit up the horizon but the rains only teased: “Wait! Wait a little longer. Not yet. Not quite yet.”

A few exotic plants started to flower. Can plants prophesy the storms yet to come? They probably sensed the high humidity. From time to time lightning struck (as people said) “out of the blue” – that is before the first rain. Ill-chosen words: the sky was not blue. It was heavy with dark, lazy clouds.

Behind our school was a mile or more of waste ground with a few scattered trees. People had not built there. It was too costly because of the limestone. Outcrops stuck out a few inches above the soil. Anyone wanting to build there would need dynamite to clear it before laying foundations. These outcrops, people said, attracted lightning.

Our headmaster, Mr Parks, warned us. “In a thunderstorm,” he said, “avoid this ground: And never, never take shelter under a tree. That’s where it will get you. As for those of you on bicycles, get away from metal – that is: if you value your life.” Then he paused for a moment: “Actually, the school has too many pupils – more than we can cope with – so: forget what I just said: Hold on to your bikes and stand under a tree …. and wait for it! ” And he laughed.

Half a century after his death all of us remember his words.  None of us ever took shelter under one of those trees!

Looking out of the classroom window bored – which was often – I often saw Gundelfinger passing. One could hardly miss him. He was very villainous-looking and very tall– so tall that he had to curve himself to talk to shorter folk. He was also broad-shouldered and powerfully built. They said he could carry a bull. He had a huge Jewish nose like those cartooned in the Nazi’s “Stuermer”.

He spoke a German that others had difficulty in following: a peasant dialect from Hessen. This was an area derided by other Jews from Germany as “Medineh Finster” – that “dark dump”.  Jews from Hessen were regarded with some disdain by those who came from the cities and were more sophisticated or believed themselves to be so. Behind his back they called Gundelfinger “the horse thief”. There was, however, nothing in his record to justify this slur.

Gundelfinger set up as a cattle dealer in Africa which was what he had been back in the “dark dump”. One often saw him hanging around the weighing machine, smoking while leaning against the railway sleepers that surrounded the corral. This corral was shaped like a funnel: only one beast at a time could approach the weighing platform. He would lean against the sleepers chatting to people – or trying to do so. They found it difficult to respond because of his incomprehensible dialect. However he always managed to make himself useful. He could calm an obstreperous beast brought in for slaughter. The beasts saw no reason see why they should be weighed – or perhaps they saw it only too well. He would help push any vehicle that would not start. He was also always available as the tenth man required for the quorum at a synagogue service.

Gundelfinger’s English was as incomprehensible as his Hessen dialect. When people made it obvious that they wanted to escape he became nervous and started to stammer.  This made it even more difficult to understand him. Once he stopped at the fence of our school playground and engaged me in conversation. Fortunately the bell went a few moments later, so I could escape without being rude.

It must have been a week or so after this that it happened. We were in class so none of us witnessed it though many claimed later to know precisely what had occurred. Lightening must have struck the metal sleepers around the corral. Perhaps some beasts received shocks or perhaps the deafening crack made them panic. Gundelfinger (we were told) calmly walked into the corral and tried to soothe the agitated beasts – speaking to them calmly. Did they understand his curious dialect? One ox was already on the metal weighing platform. The beast panicked. Gundelfinger stepped on to the platform.

His action was much discussed in the days that followed. “Of course he knew! He would have understood the risks, probably better than anyone else.”

Lightning struck a second time. One ox was killed outright. So was Gundelfinger.

The whole town turned up for his funeral. All sang his praises.

“One of the bravest men I ever knew.”

“…and one of the nicest.”

“… certainly the strongest.”

“Always ready to lend a helping hand.”

“Did you know he had an Iron Cross Class I?”

The alleged horse thief, this loneliest of men, had the largest funeral our town had seen in many a year.