Olga was a few paces ahead of Possum. Her long legs picked through the gentle swell like a cautious water bird. She had always been thin but old age had sucked the flesh from her bones, pronouncing the angular shape of her long limbs and knobby joints. The wet suit she wore was ripped under the arms and so loose it gave her the appearance of a walking scarecrow. Possum’s wetsuit was also loose but only because her mother had bought it large so she’d grow into it.
Olga waded until the swell reached the top of her thighs. Possum quickly caught up and stood quietly next to her. Together they looked out at the water. This was the moment that Possum loved the best. So many times she’d stood in this water with Olga and each time was as exciting as the first. Her eyes scanned the smooth surface of the bay, searching for the first ripple of movement or quick blast of spray. She knew it didn’t matter who saw them first and she knew that Olga didn’t care one way or the other. But still, she wanted to be the one to cry out, “There they are,” and point to the place in the ocean where the dolphins were rising for air.
Possum carried a small bucket of fish bought that morning from the fishers’ co-operative on the mainland. She dropped her hand into the bucket and felt the slip and slide of shiny fish between her fingers. She lifted a plump sardine by the tail and threw it as far as she could into the water in front of her. Olga saw the small fish splash and glanced back at Possum.
“ I thought they might smell it and come running,” Possum explained.
It was a joke but Olga didn’t smile. She had a tendency to take everything literally.
“ They’ll be here soon,” Olga announced. “I can feel them.”
Possum would have liked to be able to “feel” the dolphins. She concentrated on the water in front of her and tried to sense the presence of dolphins below the surface. She was pretty sure she didn’t feel a thing. Without speaking Olga waded further out and swished her hands from side to side. The bracelet she’d made rushed through the water, a strange collection of dull metal sinkers strung together on heavy nylon fishing line. She wore the cap she’d found washed up on shore one day, faded yellow with a logo from a power tool company on the front. It had probably been lost off a fishing boat half way to Antarctica. Anyone other than Olga would have thrown it out. But it wasn’t possible for Olga to waste anything. The cap had been promptly washed and parked on her head. Stella’s comment was that a person who’d been through a world war, famine and the forced occupation of their homeland could wear whatever they liked on their head. Possum could hardly argue. Stella was Olga’s younger sister, although they were both now old women. Old enough to be grandmothers if they’d ever had children. But they just had each other and their cat, Tookie, if a cat can be included as a member of the family.
In the corner of her eye Possum noticed a flash of movement on the smooth surface of the water. She knew what this flash had been. Often enough she’d seen the dolphins arch out of the bay. In the right light the water sparkled on their fins like the flash of a mirror in the dull sea. There was also another sign that dolphins were swimming below. Dolphin footprints, circular ripples that slowly expanded then disappeared on the surface of the water. Possum stretched her hand across the short distance to Olga but kept her eyes on the rippled water. Olga followed her gaze and almost immediately they saw the shining arcs of two more dolphins lift into the air. A few seconds later another pair of dolphins breathed in synchrony then disappeared again. The footprints on the water expanded into nothing. Olga and Possum glanced at each other. The dolphins were on their way.
Possum tried not to smile, but it was difficult. It was like waiting to be tickled. She knew the dolphins were now charging her way underwater but where they were or when they’d appear she didn’t know. If she was looking in the right direction she might see their dark shape in the shallows before they were upon her but more often than not she’d be surprised by their sudden appearance. Olga reached across for some fish and Possum held out the bucket for her.
“ Looks like they’re up to their old tricks,” Possum commented happily and Olga responded with a curt nod.
There was magic in this. Possum was sure of it. Magic she didn’t understand. Once, when Olga had been on the mainland for a few days, Possum had tried to feed the dolphins on her own. She had stood with her own bucket of fish and waited and waited. She could see the dolphins in the bay, arching out of the water for breath but they wouldn’t come in. The sun went down and the water turned cold but still the dolphins stayed away. In the end Possum upended her bucket into the sea and walked home across the sand. Somehow, the dolphins had known she was on her own in the water.
The first dolphin to arrive swam directly towards Olga. Possum knew it was Blossom just from the slow careful way she swam. This dolphin was heavily pregnant and her large belly hung low in the water. Olga leaned forward as Blossom arrived at her side, her face softening with pleasure.
“ Good evening,” she whispered, in her deep, guttural accent.
Blossom was now over ten and carrying her fourth calf. Possum was hoping that Olga might let her name this calf when it was born. She had a name in mind, “Tulip”. A good name she thought when your mother was called Blossom and also a name she thought that Olga might like.
The next dolphin to appear rushed through the water towards Possum. He moved so quickly it was hard to follow him with your eye. As soon as Possum recognised the marks on his dorsal fin she smiled in welcome.
“ Hello Splash,” she greeted, running her hand down his sleek body as he passed by.
Possum reached into the bucket for a fish as Splash circled back towards her. She held the garfish just below the surface of the water and Splash swam forward to take it in his mouth. The flap of skin over his blowhole opened and closed making a sneezing sound that Possum accepted as thanks.
“ You’re welcome,” she smiled.
Possum tried not to have favourites but Splash was special. She had the same sort of bond with Splash that Olga had with Blossom. When he looked at her with his lovely brown eyes she was sure he was looking right at her. He always came straight to her and would stay to play even though she might have no more fish to give. She gave him another garfish and patted his side as he worked it down his gullet. His skin was smooth, cool to the touch even though he was warm blooded, like she was. If she pressed there was the slight give of dense foam, soft and firm at the same time.
Possum would have liked to throw her arms around Splash and hug him tight. Grab onto his dorsal fin and leap through the waves. But Olga wouldn’t let her. She wasn’t allowed in deep water with the dolphins. She had to stand still and wait until they approached her. She wasn’t allowed to feed them more than a few fish each and she mustn’t make them beg. If she had a fish for a dolphin she had to hand it over without any fuss. Nothing was expected of the dolphins in return.
Olga’s mother pulled open the front door of the bakery. The chill air rushed to her face as she looked outside. It was early evening but already the light was fading. A few people hurried down the street, rugged up against the cold. In other parts of the city there’d be soldiers out in the restaurants and nightclubs spending money like there was no tomorrow. But these streets were quiet after dark. Their neighbours had a new baby and Olga’s mother had promised to drop off some cot blankets. The day had passed in such a rush that she’d not had a chance and now the cold night was upon them. Their neighbours were just around the corner. She could be there and back in a few minutes.
Mrs. Velden called out to Olga in the kitchen.
“ Come and lock this door behind me, Olga. I have to run down to the Van den Hoorn’s. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Olga appeared in the light from the kitchen and nodded. As she crossed the floor her mother slipped out and hurried down the road. The small bell hanging from the door jingled behind her.
Olga had one hand on the doorknob and the fingers of her other hand on the key ready to turn the lock when a Nazi soldier appeared at the door. They looked at each other through the glass. She knew him. He came into the bakery all the time but usually with other soldiers. Very rarely had she seen him on his own. There was snow across his shoulders and he looked cold. Olga looked at him a moment longer than necessary. His face was pale under his cap but his eyes were bright and expectant. Anyone else she’d happily let in for a last minute purchase but this was not anyone else.
Immediately she thought of the stolen food stamps hidden in a jar of salt in the kitchen cupboard. Olga and her mother were now so involved in the resistance that there was usually something in the house to be worried about; a news bulletin, false identity papers or even a person lying low in their attic. Henk had brought the resistance to their door and himself to the attention of the Gestapo. They had taken him in for questioning and when he was released he immediately went into hiding at their uncle’s farm outside the city. It seemed clear that if he stayed in Rotterdam that it would only be a matter of time before he was either arrested or sent to a labour camp in Germany along with the thousands of other Dutch men who’d disappeared. The only way Olga and her mother could now help him was to help the resistance.
At first Mrs. Velden tried to limit their involvement. She just let resistance members meet in the bakery. It happened to be a good meeting place. They could easily mingle in the shop and exchange information or stolen food coupons to feed the many people in hiding. Mrs. Velden and Olga had a signal to let them know whether or not it was safe to approach the bakery. If the large basket was in the front window it was safe to enter the shop. If not, there were soldiers around. Moving the basket was something they could do naturally without arousing suspicion. They would keep a few bread rolls in the basket and they could easily wander across the floor to either place or remove the basket, as they needed.
Very gradually and probably inevitably they were drawn in deeper. They found it impossible to be at the centre of activity and not be involved. A document might be left with them for safe keeping or a message entrusted for a third party until the time came when Mrs. Velden and Olga knew exactly what was going on, when and why. They learned to live in two different worlds and presume the worst of everyone they met. They had to hide their thoughts and feelings, which was not always easy for Olga. Already these thoughts had flashed through her mind as she held the door closed against the German soldier. She’d hesitated too long. Had he noticed the fear in her eyes? If she now locked the door in his face what might he think? Possibly the worst and she couldn’t take that risk.
The bell jingled lightly as she opened the door.
“ Thank you,” he smiled as he came into the warmth of the room. “It’s cold out there.”
He was attempting to speak in Dutch but the words were faltering and his pronunciation difficult to understand.
“ It’s lovely in here.” The soldier turned, smiling in approval. “Very warm.”
The walls of the shop were panelled in walnut and the counter was made from a solid piece of the same wood. It had come on a boat down the Rhine, probably from a forest in Russia or even his own Germany. Olga’s father used to run his hand over the fine grain and ask Olga to imagine the tree it must have once been. Of course, now that he was gone whenever she touched the rich wood she thought only of him. Outside the snow was softly falling but inside was still warm from the kitchen ovens. With the richness of wood surrounding them, the room was lovely. But Olga ignored the soldier’s comment and moved quickly across the floor. She wasn’t interested in his opinion of their shop.
Olga knew why he came to the bakery. The moment he crossed the threshold his eyes sought her out. If ever she looked up she’d catch him looking at her. Then he’d glance away, flushed with embarrassment. His fingers would fumble over the coins he’d try to press gently into her hand. His Dutch was so terrible that his attempts at small talk bewildered her. Once he had asked for something and all she could do was stare in horror wondering what he might want with a cabbage and why he thought she could provide him with one? Even though her German was fluent she never helped him. A language barrier worked to her advantage.
Eventually, his attraction became so awkward that Olga tried to avoid him altogether. The moment he’d arrive at the door she’d scurry into the kitchen. Sometimes he did manage to catch her at the counter in the task of serving someone else. Her mother would bustle in to take his order but he’d always hesitate hoping that Olga might finish with her customer and be free to serve him herself. She knew that he would have been waiting until she was alone in the shop. Standing somewhere out on the street in the hope that her mother would step out and they could be on their own.
Olga moved behind the counter and was grateful to place her father’s thick slab of wood between them. The soldier dropped the rifle from his shoulder and rested it against the counter. Then he removed his overcoat and cap, ruffling his fingers through his hair. Olga tried not to appear alarmed. There was no need for him to remove his warm clothes. He could just buy something and leave but he seemed determined to take his time.
Without the cap and greatcoat he looked quite different. His hair was thick and curled, the colour of butter. In the heated room his face warmed to a ruddy glow. Olga hadn’t realised how young he was, possibly only a few years older than her, eighteen or nineteen at the most. He caught her looking at him and held her eyes with his own.
“ It gets heavy,” he explained, indicating the coat.
Olga nodded in understanding but wasn’t sure what he expected from her. Sympathy? Good humour? He was going to be disappointed in either case.
He leaned forward on the counter, supposedly to better see the bread on display. There was very little to choose from, a few rolls and loaf of sourdough. Before the war they’d baked all sorts of things; Krentenbrood, Broedertjes and different types of tarts with lemon or jam. But with the restrictions of rationing they rarely made anything other than their plain sourdough. People couldn’t afford to buy as much and they came in less often with their own loaves to be baked.
“Hmmm, there’s not a lot left is there?” the soldier commented, as he intently studied the remaining rolls. Olga glanced at him for only the briefest moment. She couldn’t risk eye contact. All she intended to do was maintain civility, serve him and hope that he would leave. She was reluctant even to answer his questions for fear of encouraging him. Every tiny morsel from her he’d try to turn into a meal. It was clear that there was only one reason why he was in the bakery and it was nothing to do with bread.
“I suppose it is the end of the day. I should have called by a bit earlier.”
Olga didn’t answer. She didn’t want to confirm that there was any time of the day that might be good for him to call. She tried to direct his attention to the left over loaf and rolls by looking at them herself but still he didn’t take his eyes off her.
“ I have a sister your age,” he told her.
Olga glanced at him, without responding.
“ I have four sisters.”
He helped along his poor Dutch by holding up the four fingers of his right hand.
“ One boy.”
He pointed to himself and smiled. Olga nodded but didn’t return his smile. Not that the soldier was put off by her serious face. He’d never seen her smile at anyone, not even her mother. When she served the other soldiers she was always respectful but not quite subservient. This reserve he liked. Yet even more he wanted to understand what was behind it. He wanted to be behind it himself. He wanted her to smile for him.
The shop was growing dim and the only light came from the gas lamps burning in the kitchen. The soldier could see jugs and mixing bowls on the kitchen table and wondered if he’d disturbed her from baking. The sight of the warm kitchen and the smell of baking made him ache with loneliness. Some of the soldiers were billeted with Dutch families but he was living at barracks. He knew that this girl lived alone in this small bakery with her mother and he had the hope that one day he might sit at their table. Perhaps slip off his jacket and undo the top buttons of his shirt? He might be offered a cup of tea or even a meal? It was a simple enough thing to hope for, at first.
“My family live near the border of Switzerland. We have a dairy farm. But I like the city more. It’s very lovely.”
Olga looked up with a sudden movement that jarred the stillness between them. Didn’t he realise that the centre of her lovely city had been completely destroyed by his bombs? So many people had suffered. Thousands of homes were lost. Olga stared at him unable to comprehend how he could make such a comment. Confusion and accusation rushed across her face until she realised that she was handling herself very badly. Her eyes were revealing everything she thought and it terrified her. But the soldier had immediately recognised his mistake and blushed a desperate red.
“ I’m sorry,” he apologised quickly.
Olga was now even more confused. A German soldier apologising for the bombing of Rotterdam? She wondered for a moment if he was far cleverer than she imagined. Was he just trying to gain her confidence? Befriending her to gather information? But no one could mistake his blushing face and shaking hands. He was too nervous to be a spy. His comments about her bombed city were guileless. His face completely transparent. Olga knew he was seeking her good opinion. But if she responded in the way he sought then it would never end. He’d be in the shop ever minute of the day. She had to limit their conversation to the bread.
“Would you like a roll or a loaf?” she asked him politely.
“ What sort of rolls are they?”
“ Sourdough,” she responded, flatly.
“ Is it beautiful?”
Again, Olga found herself staring at him like a child, her mouth agape. “Beautiful?” This was not a word most people would use to describe bread. “Who is this strange soldier?” she found herself wondering. “With the Dutch words for “lovely” and “beautiful” on his tongue?” Most soldiers had no need of those words. They simply barked at her in German but this soldier seemed quite willing to embarrass himself with his clumsy Dutch. He had set aside his cap and rifle and was doing his best to chat with her. It was so strange and extraordinary to be in this small room with him that at any moment she thought he might shrug off his jacket and start complaining about Hitler.
Olga reached for one of the rolls and held it in her hand. At that moment she felt a wave of sadness. She didn’t want to agree with the soldier. She didn’t want to share the word “beautiful” with him but she couldn’t deny that it was a good word for their bread. Her father’s bread. At that moment she had an acute sense of all they had lost. This soldier had managed to stir in her the most painful thoughts she tried everyday to suppress. He was working his way past her defences. Olga could feel a weakness entering her. A dangerous weakness.