The Sign of Hatred
The woman who was signing ran down the landing of her house. The walls on either side of her were blazing from floor to ceiling. Thick smoke obscured everything behind her. She threw her arms around John Stafford and dug her fingers into his back,
"Is there anyone else in here?" John asked, hands siluetted against roaring flames. John could hear but had grown up with deaf neighbours and so understood signing. He had a tough decision to make. Should he rush her outside or go forward in search of more people? He had to ask, but people in a state of panic didn't always answer correctly. His choice could mean the difference between life and death, for himself and others.
The woman jabbed her fingers towards the smoke. Then a man charged out of the grey, collided with the other two and knocked them both down timber stairs. The wind was knocked out of John. He banged his head but his fireman's helmet prevented serious injury. In a cramped entrance hall the other two lay on top of him, sobbing and trembling. They felt as heavy as American bison. One of her knees pressed hard on his belly. There was a crash as an upstairs ceiling collapsed, sending vibrations through bare floorboards and into John's body. He would be scared later as delayed shock took hold. He couldn't afford to give in to it now. Somehow he got out from under the couple, tasting a drop of his own sweat. Waves of intense heat struck his back, almost burning it. Then he pulled the woman upright. Her husband scrambled to his feet. John bundled them both outside, onto a street lined with stone built, slate roofed cottages. Smells of burning clung to all of them. Up above, the sky was dark and the moon was new. Thankfully the couple's children had all been rescued.
Neighbours woken by the commotion took charge of the family and brought cups of tea. The inferno looked like a trainee volcano. John and his colleagues took rubber hoses and, after a struggle, finally doused it. The building was a wreck but they had saved a number of homes close by it. Then they sat down on hard pavements, leaning on low stone walls of cottage gardens. They peeled woolen tunics off soaking backs and laid shiny helmets aside. A horsedrawn appliance stood parked nearby.
"We've lost everything," said the woman whom John had saved. She expressed herself in sign language. John understood and he felt for her.
Next day, John and his comrades settled down for dinner, in the canteen of their red brick fire station. They didn't see themselves as heroes but as ordinary people doing what was necessary. Before they could start the Station Officer, Mr Hartley, marched in and, angry as a starving hyena, laid something on the communal table. It was a pile of shards of blue glass.
"See this!" he barked. "The family whose house burnt down last night bought it. It was sold as a grenade of carbon dioxide!"
John was familiar with those devices and indeed had used them on fires. They were glass containers filled with carbon dioxide that you threw onto blazes. They broke on hitting the floor and released gasses that cut off the supply of oxygen to hungry flames.
"it wasn't anything of the sort," the Station Officer explained. "It was full of salt and water. Throwing this onto burning fat -which they did - would make matters worse. This is the third time that someone has been sold such a device. If this goes on, somebody will die because of it!"
There followed silence. White shirt sleeves reflected in steel knife blades. Then John asked "sir, is there any pattern to these cases? Same location? Same sort of customers buying them?"
His boss replied using John's nickname. "Yes Boot Boy there is. All the families that bought one had a deaf member."
John felt anger rising in his brain, hot as a meteorite, against whoever might be conning people. Looking around the rectangular canteen, he saw that all his colleagues felt as he did. Aromas of roast beef tempted him to tuck in, but he asked another question.
"Why havn't they arrested the man or woman who sells these things?"
"Because he's clever. He doesn't keep them on his shelves, he stores them out of sight until a likely victim comes in. We think we know who he is, but nobody's managed to prove it. His victims are in shock and the lawyers keep saying they couldn't cope with appearing in court."
Boot Boy shook his head in despair.
A large country house stood amongst pleasure gardens and rolling parkland. The said gardens featured terraces, fountains, topiary, flowerbeds and kitchen gardens. At the back of the stable block, in a long rectangular room, the Head Gardener prepared to address his staff. They sat in groups around plain, circular tables. He stood by a long sash window.
The boss, Mr Orme, welcomed his employees and announced "there's still a place open on t' visit to Germany. If anybody wants to go..."
There came a knock on the door. Heads turned towards it in surprise. A young man opened it and strode in. Everyone recognised him, he was a colleague of there's called Nathan Bennett. The Head Gardener walked over to him and was joined by one of the rank and file. That second man would translate for Nathan was a deaf signer, the boss had only recently been appointed and so hadn't learned all of the signing.
"I;m sorry I'm late sir," Nathan signed. "Somebody didn't notice that I hadn't arrived so they locked the courtyard gates before I got here."
"How did you get in 'ere then?"
"Well sir, we've got plenty of boxes for fruit and veg," Nathan explained, "so I piled some up against a courtyard wall and climbed over that way. I know where the bales of hay on the other side are, so I jumped down and landed on those and made it after all."
He smiled, clearly expecting to be congratulated for this. The others noticed that pieces of hay still clung to his black trousers. Outside a bee flew past as though following a road in the air and an orange slug crawled on white gravel.
Something about the Head Gardener's manner troubled Nathan. Mr Orme looked surprised but not pleasantly so. Nathan signed again saying "is there still a vacancy on the trip to Germany? If so I'd like to put my name down for it."
The trip in question was a chance to learn about gardens and public parks in continental Europe, and he was looking forward to going. Men at circular tables looked uneasy. Did they know something he didn't?
The Head Gardener spoke and his companion translated words into signs, lit by sash windows.
"Mr Bennett, I'd sooner you didn't go to Germany. The folk out there.... well, they wouldn't be so understanding as folk round 'ere. His brow furrowed and his speech was clumsy as a drunken turkey. They wouldn't know your sign language. If you got into trouble an' neede a bit of 'elp, they wouldn't understand if you see what I mean."
Nathan paused to let this sink in. Then he signed "are you saying I can't go because I can't hear?"
"I'm saying it's in your beat interests not to go."
"But I'll be with friends who can translate for me! I'd stay out of trouble, I promise. I'm twenty-three, don't you think I 'm old enough to look out for myself?"
"I'm sorry Bennett but that's my final word."
He marched back to the front of the group and talked about plans to install a new statue in their gardens. Slumped in a spare chair, Nathan didn't take much of it in, all he could think about was his surprise and disappointment. Was it his fault? Had he not done enough to impress this new boss? Smells of tobacco smoke reached him but he was used to that. Those gates had been locked... he was no longer sure that was a mistake and so became incensed at Mr Orme. He didn't dare to show it.
Nathan spent much of that day dredging a pond where dragonflies hunted. After that he lumbered out of the gardens, boarded a cart and drove to a nearby market town. Once there he parked the vehicle and set off for a hardware shop. He was under orders to buy some new tools from there. Stone cottages with small gardens lined his route. Wood smoke rose from chimneys. A little girl ran past. lively as a hare, bowling a hoop along. Nathan glanced over his shoulder, realised that someone else's cart was coming up behind him and jumped aside, thus avoiding it in the nick of time.
While Nathan cursed himself, an older man emerged from a nearby shop called Mr Honeker's.
"Are you all right my friend?" the newcomer asked. "Come inside for a moment." He used signing immediately, presumably he had deduced from the near miss that Nathan was deaf.
The shop contained brooms, cooking utensils, bars of soap and feather dusters. A brightly coloured poster showed a little boy blowing bubbles; it advertised Pears soap.
"You poor devil,* the shopkeeper began. "What are you up to in this part of town?"
"My boss sent me on an errand to buy some tools. I'm a gardener and we need new spades and rakes."
"So you've solved the problem of talking in signs at one establishment, but what if you need other things besides tools for work? What the deuce would you do if a fire were to start in your domicile?"
"I don't often think about it," Nathan shrugged.
A third man stood just outside, looking through the shop window. He pretended to examine a poster advertising matches, but kept glancing furtively at Nathan. It was hard to see his eyes under his flat cap.
The shopkeeper signed "I generally have devices about that are called carbon dioxide grenades. Throwing water over burning fat is valueless, but don't you see that dousing such fire with carbon dioxide will put it out?"
"Yes you're right. Can I see one of these grenades?"
"Of course." Honeker passed a rack of brooms, entered a back room and returned with a ball of blue glass. It held some kind of fluid and was shaped rather like an explosive grenade. Parts of it caught black shadow, others held white light captive.
"There was a blaze at a cottage last year in which two children were killed. Then there was a fire at a stables where a valuable thoroughbred died. I could name a score of tragedies which a device like this would have prevented.
Before long Nathan had purchased two of these grenades. Queen Victoria's portrait was on his coins. That man in the cap watched with interest. The cart driver joined him at the window. Honeker didn't notice this. When Nathan completed his purchase, Flat Cap and carter walked away, past houses crusted with lichens.
"So far, so good," Flat Cap said. "Wait till Bennett's round that corner, then we make our move."
Nathan trudged past roses in cottage gardens and ivy on house walls. A piece had broken off one stone, leaving a mark like a ship's prow. He was thinking about Germany and other countries. At school they had taught him it was the Romans who had brought civilisation to Britain. When he started work, his colleagues had said those columns on the big house and various statues in extensive gardens were based on Classical art. Greece and Rome had apparently laid the foundations of modern civilisation. Then a different image loomed in his memory. He had recently discovered a golden belt buckle, under the roots of a fallen tree, and it had been made by Anglo-Saxons who had come from Germany and invaded Britain, like like comets hitting a planet. It was the Saxons not those Romans who had given England her mother tongue. As he passed little boys kicking a ball across a street, the young gardener concluded that his cultural heritage was mixed rather than purely Greco-Roman.
Then he imagined, with a smile, John saying "never mind the language of Shakespeare, did they bring any excuses for coming home drunk at two in the morning?"
Nathan rounded a corner and found himself alone, until Flat Cap and the carter came up behind him.
Two mornings later, Herr Honeker awoke in a bedroom with a cast iron fireplace and floral wallpaper. He got dressed, ate breakfast and opened up the mossy roofed shop. He had scarcely unlocked his front door when a policeman and a fireman came walking down the street together. Their strides were purposeful and they were heading straight for Honeker. He realised what must be afoot and panic surged through him. He shot thick bolts on his door back into place, then ran behind the counter, across his stock room and out through the back door. He threw himself over a low stone wall and charged down a narrow alley. There came a loud crash as the shop door was kicked down. Another man came cycling down the thoroughfare, swerved to avoid Honeker and came off his bike. Both police officer and firefighter pounded by, ignoring the cyclist's cry of rage. Startled pigeons took flight to avoid them.
Honeker darted across a wider street. He only just escaped being run over by a heavy horse and cart. Shocked at his own idiocy, his heart went into overdrive. If he could get out of town, past two-storied houses with honeysuckle on their walls, and into nearby woods then he just might evade his pursuers. He glanced over his shoulder, blundered onto some reeking horse dung, slipped and fell over. Honeker struggled to his feet, put his weight on the right foot and yelped in pain. He had twisted his ankle. After hobbling a short distance he was seized by the two men in uniforms. Brown trousers felt wet and heavy on his rear. Honeker had never felt so small. Vile flavours of sick rose in his throat but then subsided.
Albert Honeker was taken to a police station with pointy arches over its doors and windows. Inside the walls were white and austere; furniture dark brown. Honeker was made to sit in a back room with not only police officers but two firefighters. One was the Station Officer, the other was John Stafford. Mr Hartley held a ball of blue glass, which he laid on a table in front of the shopkeeper.
"Do you know what this is Mr Honeker?"
"No, I -I've never seen it before."
"Yes you have, you sold it to a young man two days ago. I was at the window of your shop, in plain clothes, and I saw you doing so."
Honeker reacted by sweating and trying to speak but failing to get a word out.
The Station Officer asked "have you any idea what happens if you douse burning fat in water? It makes the fire burn more, not less - is that not so?"
"Am - am I to be convicted on one man's word?" Honeker wailed. "This is serious. Have you no other witnesses?"
One of the police officers spoke.
"I was there in civilian clothes as well," he announced. "It was me who drove the cart that Mr Bennett jumped to avoid."
John added "you've been set up Mr Honeker. We asked my friend Nathan to go and buy some of your death traps, accompanied by these two, and he agreed to do it,"
Nathan entered the room and closed a panelled oak door behind him. "Why did you do it?" he asked in signs. "Why were you picking on deaf people?"
Albert Honeker's manner changed from fear to contempt. He stared at Nathan, across the simple table, with eyes cold as the moons of Saturn.
"Why do think?" he snapped, speaking and signing simultaniously. "I needed victims who wouldn't be taken seriously!"
Nathan's stomach churned as he signed again, but he needed to know. "What made you think I wouldn't be taken seriously?" he demanded.
"Because you sign instead of lipreading," came the reply. "Back in Germany, people like you are ranked among the lowest on the scale of humanity. Had you ever signed in school, your hand would've been tied behind your back. Instruments that made your tongue bleed would've been forced into your mouth so you would talk."
"I don't speak because I can't!" Nathan retorted angrily. "I was born deaf and I've never heard speech in my life. What am I supposed to do, under the circumstances?"
"Go to the workhouse or some other institution," Honeker ansewrerd from his hard wooden seat. "Where I come from, no one would....."
"But you chose to deceive people rather than be honest about your beliefs," one of the police snarled. "You must've realised signing can be complex, since you picked some up. Are you a hypocrite?"
Honeker's rage evaporated as he remembered he was on the back foot here.
"Surely not everyone in Germany hates signers?" Nathan signed. He raised a hand to his chest to express the concept of hate.
"Everybody in my home town did. I'm not goading you Mr Bennett, I'm stating a fact."
"Come outside mate," John suggested to Nathan. "We could both do with some fresh air."
They left the building and walked down a street. Outside of town they could see a long, flat topped hill with drystone walls on green slopes. Closer to the friends, a tabby cat sprawled on a cottage windowsill and weeds sprouted between paving stones.
"I've known for a while now that some people are prejudiced against deaf people," Nathan explained, "but I thought it was only a minority. Now I'm told its a whole community or even a whole country. I never thought it could be that bad."
"I found it disturbing as well mate," John replied.
"Only yesterday I-I wanted to go and visit Germany. I thought that with our ancestors coming from there it would be all right. Now I'm not sure anymore. Should I risk it or stay at home?"
"I've never bin to Germany so I can't be sure," said John, "but if it worries you that much there are other countries you could go to. France; Italy; Spain; they've all got fine gardens. If I were you, I'd aim for one of those."
Feline limbs stretched and their owner dropped down from the sill. Two women walked past carrying baskets. The young gardener nodded but stayed tense. John didn't attempt to touch his friend, but he gave Nathan a hug with his smile.