Saturday, 3 December 2011

A363 TMA 01

Tutor-Marked Assignment
  • Task 1: Write a 1500-word story or a poem of 30-36 lines. (Optional prompts: the pool, brief encounter, the waiting room, throwing stones, under ground.)
  • Task 2: Write a 350-word "commentary" about the process, describing how genre was chosen, research undertaken, and the editing/revision process.
  • Due date: 3 November 2011
  • Mark: 87% overall. Separate marks for the tasks are temporarily unavailable on a dead hard drive!


We probably have less than two minutes before the door gives way. The bolt might once have deterred casual visitors, but jackboots and rifle butts are another matter. Now that we have stopped running the sweat in my shirt begins to cool at an alarming rate. I am shivering already. Another kick rattles the door, and a muffled shout follows.
I have already pushed the sounds of our pursuers from my mind as I turn to face my son. There is a table in the middle of the room and Isaac stands by it. He grips the nearest table leg in his tiny hands and gazes at the snow-covered debris which covers it. I lift his face and gently touch my lips to his forehead, wondering whether his trembling is caused by cold or fear. Another crash at the door makes us both jump. His voice is a whisper as he asks the worst possible question:
‘Are they going to kill us Papa?’
‘Of course not,’ I try to laugh it off but the sound is brittle, and it cracks. Trying to ignore the sounds of boots and diesel engines from the nearby streets, I swallow and try again:
‘They’ve been told by their officers to chase us for a while. Just to frighten us.’
‘I am frightened Papa.’
 ‘They’ll get bored soon. And they hate the cold.’
‘But Kurt says it’s warm here after Stalingrad.’
I smile, inwardly cursing Kurt’s easy humour. ‘Well, if he’s on duty tonight he’ll be in a hurry to get back to the barracks and his schnapps, so we won’t be here long my love.’
I tell myself that Isaac believes me, and look away, in case his face tells a different story. Standing, I let my gaze flit over the room. Apart from the table and the litter upon it, the only feature is a large rusted bread oven set at waist height in the rear wall. This place must have been a bakery. From the outside, with its boarded-up windows, it had looked like just another ghetto house, except that the roof was gone.  I raise my face, squinting into the pricking sleet. There is no ceiling; just a few snow-dusted timber stumps protruding from the brickwork. Beyond them, the wet and sagging wallpaper is of a different pattern. Apart from a toilet, clinging ludicrously to one wall, there is only the white sky to be seen. 
Another bang brings me back to earth. The wall in which the oven is set leans threateningly, its single door blocked by fallen masonry. The snow-covered floor is lumpy with fragments of plaster, but the bulk of the collapsed upper floor has presumably long since been scavenged for firewood. Seizing Isaac, I heft him bodily into the oven. He fills it halfway, but is already drawing his knees up to his chest to make more room as I clamber in. I somehow manage to fold myself into the tiny space, which still has the unmistakable smell of vanilla and almond. I reach out, grasp the iron door, remembering to cover my fingers with my shirt cuff, and pull. The hinge gives a single, sharp screech.
The shouting from the other side of the door stops. The banging becomes a soft knocking - almost polite. Then comes an urgent whisper:
‘Wpuść mnie. Proszę!’ Let me in. Please!
Incredibly, Isaac releases his hold on my arm and moves as if to obey. It’s all I can do not to whimper aloud as I catch him by the collar. “Don’t make sound!” I hiss.  Then the banging resumes with fresh intensity. In the darkness of the oven, Isaac’s eyes widen in his grimy face at the sound of splintering wood. The gloom lifts and I realise the oven door is swinging open. I lunge and just manage to arrest its progress with my fingertips. As if in response to my movement, the whole oven seems to slip downward by an inch or so, with a grate of shifting masonry. Instinctively I hunch my already cramped shoulders, ready for the wall to come crashing down. But it holds. I draw the oven door closed quietly, feeling slightly foolish; a collapsing wall can’t hurt us in here. It might even protect us. The sleet has been replaced by rain that pings against the oven door like gunfire, but my exposed fingers are too numb to feel it.
Suddenly it’s all over. Booted feet stumble into the room. The door is slammed shut again. There’s a second or two of exhausted breathing, followed by an exultant cry. The oven door is yanked open, its freezing metal stripping skin from my fingertips. I clutch Isaac and pull him tight to me, screwing my eyes shut.
Shouts from the street reach us. Orders barked in German. From closer comes another voice; two unexpected syllables so charged with fear that they squeak like the wheels of the approaching tanks:
I open my eyes to look at the newcomer.  The face is too filthy to identify, but I recognise those eyes. For a moment, still assuming him to be a soldier, I think it must be Kurt, the jaded S.S. Oberscharführer who occasionally pushed a half loaf into Isaac’s hand during the ghetto’s early months. Then the cracked lips part, revealing a gap where front teeth used to be. It’s Jacob Eckstein – ‘Luka Żyd’ my other students affectionately used to call him. He’s grown into a young man in the years since the school was closed, but his voice is tremulous.
‘They’re coming. Let me in!’
I almost laugh at the absurd request. ‘There’s no room.’
I reach for the oven door once more, but he uses his elbow to nudge it beyond my reach.
‘Please!’ Jacob steps toward the oven and actually tries to insert a bony shoulder between me and Isaac. Awkwardly, I unfold a leg, plant the flapping sole of my shoe on Jacob’s chest, and shove. Jacob clutches my ankle as he starts to topple backward. I slither from the oven, which rocks precariously, and we hit the floor together. Our eyes meet and we lie motionless for a moment. The noise of the rain is loud, but surely the soldiers have heard.
I roll over and start to stand, but suddenly the world jolts and I’m sprawling in the slush again. The ear Jacob kicked is too cold to feel pain; the second kick – this one to my ribs – is also painless, but winds me. My cheek is pressed against the wet floorboards and I can feel the thunder of boots in the house next door. I’m spitting out mud and ice as I use the table to pull myself to my feet. I notice for the first time that the object upon the table is the frozen corpse of a baby boy. Jacob is back at the oven, pulling at my boy’s foot. Everything else fades. The sounds of rain and stamping boots are still there but I do not hear them. The icy wetness spreading through my clothing might as well be warm bathwater. Two strides bring me to Jacob and I grab him by his shoulders and I hurl him behind me and I stoop to embrace my boy.
I’m climbing back into the oven when Jacob’s body hits me. I’m momentarily pinned to the wall, and there’s an ominous creak from above. Jacob is already climbing into the oven when two bricks fall. One hits his head. It’s a glancing blow, but he sags, his head in the oven, his legs limp. As Isaac stares at the bricks, the voice next door abruptly changes in tone, and we know the soldiers heard this time. Jacob stiffens, turns, and looks up at me with childlike helplessness. The young man has now gone entirely. As booted feet descend the stairs next door, I scoop him in my arms and push him into the oven with Isaac, who opens his mouth to question me.
‘Hush, my love. They’ll be gone soon.’ I see realisation on my baby’s face, and bewildered relief on Jacob’s as I add, ‘Don’t move till after dark.’
The soldiers are back in the street now. Without looking at the front door, I close the oven. I walk to the table. I turn and I run at the oven as hard as I can.
When the soldiers drag me from the pile of rubble on which they found me lying, I surreptitiously look for the oven. I am horrified to see its door is plainly visible under the lightest possible dusting of fallen plaster. The whole pathetically-contrived scene is simply too fresh; the broken surfaces of the bricks are too clean; there is not enough icy filth. But as I am bundled into the back of a truck, the jaded Oberscharführer is already ordering his squad to the next street. And it won’t be dark for at least an hour.

[Word count: 1495]

Without any game plan, I composed an opening sentence intended to convey tension and intrigue the reader. Only with that done did I know the setting and genre, and begin research. As predicted by Greenwell (2009, p.34) most of my notes went unused. (Or unwritten; I know the story’s exact date1 but do not share it with the reader.) The remainder were used only subtly2. As advised by Greenwell (2009, p.34) I did not resist being led off at tangents during my research. One tangent led me to an anecdote – which I adapted - concerning a soldier who survived an explosion by sheltering in an oven. (Cornwell, 1981.)
I found myself writing with a fairly formal voice, which, with Neale (2009, p.8) influenced my decision to make the narrator a teacher. A first-person narrator is likely to be taken as trustworthy by default, so, apart from showing his efforts to comfort Jacob, I did not go to great lengths to present him as ‘decent and trustworthy.’ (See Neale, 2009, p.20). To make Jacob seem realistic before gaining the sympathy of the narrator and reader, I adapted Activity 2.8 (Greenwell, 2009) and wrote an account of the story through his eyes. This gave me his ridiculous attempt to cram himself into the oven with the other two characters. There is little dialogue in the story, but on the advice of Greenwell (2009 p.23) I did try to contrast Jacob’s speech with the narrator’s attempts to speak reassuringly.

When writing the story I was aware that I could not keep the reader continuously excited. As suggested by Greenwell (2009, p.26) I varied the pace by allowing the narrator to periodically distract himself; his defence mechanism gives the reader a pause before the next piece of action, as well as the writer an opportunity to slip in bits of description.
 I originally meant to name only Isaac, to help focus the reader on his plight, but ended up naming Jacob for the same reason. Kurt, whilst a ‘good guy’ was named purely for mechanical reasons, allowing the narrator to credibly describe his kindness. When he actually appears he is only identified only by the reprise of the adjective ‘jaded.’
[Word count: 366]

  1. Friday 19 February 1943
  2. The smells in the oven come from a particular type of Polish seed cake.)


Cornwell, B. (1981) Sharpe’s Gold, London: Collins
Greenwell, B. (2009) ‘Conflict and contrast’, in D. Neale (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook, London: A & C Black
 Neale, D. (2009) ‘Playing with genre’, in D. Neale (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook, London: A & C Black