The gaunt old man in the pinstripe suit hovers over the microphone and starts speaking in a strange accent before they are ready. ‘It’s a ridiculous question, really, but have any of you every known hunger, true hunger?’
Bright eyes observe him. They filtered into the unheated school theatre with the stench of dampness dissipating as the seats banged up and filled with their warm presence.
The caved-in look of his face, his mouth working to reveal pink gums and the ravaging within, he stared at them greedily like a sick pariah dog, and silenced their chatter about missing a period of Maths.
Younger children in the front row of the school theatre titter with a sense of unease. Their feet shifting and covering sweet wrappers they’d dropped.
They look to the shadow region away from the desk light beside the lectern and wooden podium for clues. Assistant head, Baldy Burnett, stands guard in his double-breasted jacket and snazzy red tie with a blue anchor at the tip. He pokes the bridge of his thick tinted lenses and the nose pads settle higher up his bulbous nose before sliding down. Awaiting the thick- skulled class clown, letting rip with a fart sound or a joke about once missing breakfast, and he reaches for the leather tawse he does not conceal hanging over his shoulder.
His eyes settle on a shy face and a childlike smile, a girl with red hair like a sweet-smelling tropical blossom and he smiles back at her and into the shifting gloom.
A delicate wrist and the palest of skin as her blue uniform jacket slides up her arm as she puts her hand up. She stands, the seat bumping against her bum. ‘I’ve been hungry, but never really hungry.’
Another hand shoots up in the back rows and waves. Baldy Burnett flinches. The old man looks at the hand and the girl that has spoken but has now sat down, blushing. Her dark- haired friend leaning across and patting her arm.
‘Hunger is a cadaverous dog,’ said the old man, sighing. He has pages of bunched notes in one hand, but rubs his chin and glances at the writing on the paper with an expression of befuddlement. ‘That eats the bones from the inside and makes ashes of the body. You did well to say that you’ve never known hunger. For this generation has been truly blessed. Never—yet—to know that pain. But let me tell you a story about my sister, Golda. She would have been much your age.
'Typhoid got Golda. She was a beggar girl like the rest of us. You may think I would never beg. And you’d be right. I thought that too. Until your stomach cries out like a prophet. And your body whimpers. You can pray to God, but He never answers. Never, never will have you felt such a cold wind cutting through you, leaving your mouth sore from chittering. Some of the smaller children lean against unlit lampposts and call for their Mother. There’s no curfew on sunken cheeks, swollen bellies and teeth-bared dying.
The human heart is a strange beast. It cannot live without hope. A rouged face gives you hope. Golda kohled around her honey-coloured eyes to make her fuller faced and older or younger, when required. A ragged black dress and part of a velvet curtain thrown over her shoulder. She was always polite and smiled. She’d good teeth and one has to make the most of one’s assets, which included an ersatz ostrich feather.
She’d ask for a bit of bread. A melodious voice, she could play any musical instrument and make her voice stand out among the others. She had to be careful not to raise her eyes, to be caught looking. For these gentlemen in thick coats had stick-wielding thugs driving all before them. If you’ve no bread, perhaps part of a potato, or a bit of onion. By this means she hoped to drive up the price.’
A hand shot up from the back row, a large boy with long fringe he hid behind. He didn’t wait to be acknowledged. ‘The price of whit?’ he sniggered among his mates.
‘Life,’ said the old man, silencing him. ‘The price of life brought to the table by beauty. I hope it’s never a trade you have to make.’
‘Unlikely,’ said Mr Burnett, gawking at Quinn’s square head and outsized ears. Rising laughter from the fourth-year girls slouching low in their seats close to their class mate made the Assistant Head realise he had spoken too loudly.
The old man rested on the silence before continuing with the same strangulated urgency. ‘She’d lice, of course. We all did. The price of life. This was the winter of ’42, a freezing cold winter. Only the naked corpses, wrapped in paper—when we had paper—and left on the pavement for collection were spared the cold and vermin. The clothing they wore came to life when it found the heat of a new body. But the vermin crawled on pavements. Founds its way indoors. Dropped from the ceilings of public offices that had to be visited. Lice could be found in the folds of books and newspapers, in the currency of loose change passed hand to hand in small coins. In the crumbs of breads that sustained us. Each of these battalions of lice brought typhoid. And that was the topic of conversation between the rich that had enough to eat, and us poor that starved—how to protect yourself and your family and get a vaccine.
Only the soldiers in the East had access to a vaccine from the leading bacteriologist. And there wasn’t enough. Certainly not enough for the likes of us.
An epidemic broke out and the bodies on the pavement spilled onto the road. No one came to collect them. Even those that had enough to eat died in their finery.
The rich blamed the poor and with their armed thugs created a ghetto within our ghetto. And with full bellies, in their coffee-drinking panic, they created new and wonder cures for lice infection and typhoid. But still they died, as my sister Golda died. Nothing could be done about the swarm of vermin. People went inside and closed their doors and never came out again.