One of the things in this crazy old life is that you never can tell when you’re going to come face to face with a Nazi hoard. I was round a mate’s house for supper and she was baking beetroots from scratch for a puy lentil salad. Yes that’s right. I do health now. But I put cheese on almost all of it.
We’d been having a Michael Jackson dance off with her son on the kitchen tiles and I’d come the closest I’ve ever come to doing the moonwalk. Which was about as close as the moon actually is to my feet. So still quite far but not as far as, say, Mars. Or Uranus. Never has there been a more felicitous way to kill time before the beetroot’s done. Four women attempting the moonwalk arm-in-arm while a seven year old watches shaking his head. (He can do the moonwalk easily, see. Maybe it’s just something some people are born with. Like a full head of hair, or six toes.)
It was a long-awaited girly catch-up night and we’d been dashing from topic to topic like dragonflies, skimming lightly across the tops before moving on to the next thing. Work, love, food, romance, garden furniture, T K Maxx.
There was a natural lull.
“Ooh! Do you want a glimpse into my dark past?” My friend and host suddenly offered out of nowhere.
“Er. YES!” We shrilled back as she dashed out of the room.
She returned moments later with an old biscuit tin. She laid it on the table, and opened it up. It was packed to bursting with old cigarette cards of movie stars from the 1930s. Gold embossed things little bigger than the face of a matchbox. The colours were turned up to technicolour, vibrant emerald greens and corals and peacock blues, eyes blackened, vermilion lips, coquettish little smiles and beaming gleams of white teeth. Some character types in big quirky costumes, with knowing looks as if that was what had made them famous enough to be on a cigarette card and they were damn well going to keep wearing it. Most of them were strange names we’d never heard of. Mostly Germans, though some were your usual suspects. Gable. Dietrich. Garbo. You know the types. And, oh, was that…Hitler? Yes. That looked a bit like Hitler.
Then she pulled out the piece de resistance. An album of photos once owned by her German grandmother. From 1933. “Aw!”, we all cooed. Then she went to the page she had been meaning to show us. And there was a Nazi rally. Hundreds of German soldiers lined up in a great expanse of concrete doing the famous salute under billowing flags. Under the photo was written in a cute old-fashioned hand – ‘Heil Hitler’.
We all went a bit quiet. I think the sight of a swastika will always cause a chill in the blood for years to come til this small phase of history is as obscure as Ghengis Khan or the Egyptians – if humans make it that far – but you’re usually used to seeing it in books and documentaries, not in an old biscuit tin on your mate’s kitchen table. I pointed out that the album was from 1933 and that Hitler had not perpetrated any of the world-changing havoc and cruelty at that point and had been seemingly the one who would save Germany. He had been…a hero. He had been Hope.
We went back to the cigarette cards and soon began chatting about something else.
Would I keep souvenirs of a terrible part of history, or would I throw them out in disgust, as though there is a dark complicity in the keeping of things. But sometimes it’s the tangible items from the past that make us think. Sometimes a biscuit tin in the attic wields more power than a lesson.
And it just goes to prove that you can never tell where an evening will go. Conversation moves on. The world moves on.