From his coat pocket Len produced a brown paper package and placed it carefully on the shiny table in front of them. He proceeded to untie the string which secured the packaging, slowly and cautiously opening up the paper so that it was flat enough to reveal the shabby cloth-covered Tanakh inside. The Hebrew bible was fragile, almost threadbare in places, and its cover was limp and loose, obviously much used and much loved by its previous owner. Len discarded the brown paper as the men leaned forward uniformly to inspect the item more closely. He opened the front cover tenderly, almost reverently, to reveal, tucked inside the front page a collection of small black and white photographs, each one measuring about two inches square. He proceeded to lift them out, one by one, laying them on the table in a small semi-circle around the Tanakh. Finally, Len tipped out the contents of a small brown envelope hidden beneath the Tanakh to reveal a leather-strapped watch, a Star of David pendant, and a plain gold wedding ring.
As Len continued to study the upturned, petulant face of his bad-tempered wife it seemed to morph grotesquely into the face of the guard and he quickly closed his eyes to rid himself of that abhorrent memory.
I was born and grew up in St Albans in Hertfordshire and had a strong religious upbringing. My beliefs have waxed and waned over the years but I have always had a fascination and admiration for people’s steadfast faith, particularly in adversity.
Around twenty years ago on a warm summer’s day I was working alone in a small parish council office in Thaxted when I received an unexpected visitor. I looked up to see an elderly man, probably around seventy years old, standing quietly in the doorway. I was surprised to see that he was naked from the waist up and I couldn’t help but notice the tattooed numbers on his arm and chest. When he realised I was looking at the tattoos a strangely insightful smile seemed to form on his face. We exchanged a few polite words about the parish councillor he was looking for and then he turned and left. I suppose at the time I knew what those tattoos meant but I was far too embarrassed to ask him about them. But I wondered why would he show them off like that, did he want people to ask about them, he obviously wasn’t ashamed of them, perhaps he was proud of them?
My life went on as a busy wife and mother of three growing children but it was an important moment in time and one that has always stayed with me and to this day I go over and over that meeting and wish I could go back in time and ask him that question.
I started to write in 2010 after the death of my father who I was very close to. It seemed a good way to remember him and bring him back to me somehow. My first novel, ‘The Pilgrims Rest’, is a ghostly fictional tale, based on fact, about our family restaurant and the accommodation above it where we lived. The restaurant was at Number 1, Holywell Hill in St Albans, a sixteenth century building not far from the Abbey, and very near to the site of the Saint’s martyrdom. ‘The Pilgrims Rest’ received good reviews and so I was inspired to write another.
The initial inspiration for my second novel was to write about my visitor, the quiet man who stood in the doorway of the parish council, to write about his life and what he might have been through and I knew I wanted him to be my next protagonist. I began to research the holocaust and its survivors, I learned of the tricks played by the Nazis to get the ‘Mischling’ on board the trains and of them being told a scandalous lie that they were going on a journey to a better life. Because of that promise they withdrew all their savings from their banks, taking their valuables with them, gold and jewellery, and everything that was important to them, only for the Nazis to confiscate it as soon as they arrived at the death camps.
I tried to put myself in the position of the survivors after liberation and I learned about the importance of the Red Cross, the displaced persons camps set up to help survivors return to a normal life, and the training that was on offer to give them new skills and learn new languages for onward passage to other countries where they could begin their lives again.
I wondered how they managed to cope with the normality of life after that dreadful time, particularly the younger ones and how they went on to live and work, fall in love, have children, and even continue to worship, keeping their faith after all the horrors they’d endured. I wondered whether they were ever given the opportunity to talk about their past, describe details of what they’d been through and I discovered that many hadn’t or couldn’t. So many were never able to speak of it, always keeping the trauma buried deep inside them and it distressed me to think how that would have affected their mental health. The marital strife between Len and his wife Nancy are mainly due to her inability to have a child and Nancy’s loss of faith because of it was also drawn from my own experience.
A second source of inspiration for ‘The Caretaker’ and what helped me choose the time period was when I met my husband, David. During the seventies David lived in a strange old mansion house on the outskirts of a small village called Sandridge near St Albans. The house was called Fairshot Court, an old school house that was converted into ‘halls of residence’ for the local college, Hatfield Polytechnic, where David was studying for his Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree. It was a very unusual location for ‘halls’ as they were quite a long way from the college and very isolated, surrounded by farmland, and so the accommodation was only for students who had their own transport, either motorbikes or cars.
These two poignant incidents in my life were brought together in my book and that is how Len Shulman became ‘The Caretaker’ and Luke was the student he despised.
The story is about Len’s journey to redemption, how his misunderstandings and bad judgement of character send him down the wrong path. Len loses his way and his world starts to unravel because the trauma from his past can no longer be suppressed. The troubles with his wife and his lustful feelings towards Luke’s girlfriend push him in a sinful direction towards a disastrous outcome, his mistrust and unhealthy jealousy of the youth around him turning him into a virtual psychopath.
Len’s only salvation is his belief in Adonai, and that a plan has been laid out for him, and so he waits for signs in his place of sanctuary beneath the Eagle statue at the far eastern corner of the grounds. Under the ancient statue is Len’s secret, a hoard of possessions taken by the Nazis from the Mischling which Len has been able to recover. His fervent wish is to return these items to the families of those who died and he feels this is the only chance he has to give his life meaning.