Jo Bedingfield


Jo Bedingfield has a background working in journalism and the voluntary sector. She lived abroad for many years – in East Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and later in Mexico – experiences that inspire her writing.

She is currently working on a love story based on the relationship she had with a foreign correspondent who reported on the wars in Central America in the mid-1980s.


View as PDF: Jo Bedingfield - Returning Florence

Returning Florence

The box containing Florence is on the Piccadilly line. It sits quietly in the space by the carriage door reserved for luggage. It is an ordinary brown cardboard box, large enough to contain a dozen books or perhaps a cage for a small pet. It sits there patiently with the rest of our bags.

The train stops, the carriage doors open. We spill out onto the platform and get swept along by the crush of travellers struggling to move themselves and their suitcases towards the escalator, Johnny and I and our two children. “Heard this riddle,” says Emilia poking her teenage step-brother who has Karl Marx embossed on his T-shirt. He smiles indifferently. “Listen, it’s really good,” she pleads. A usually gregarious Johnny is silent today, tense. His face is overcome with an emotion I can’t quite make out. Seconds later he is diving back down the escalators and pushing people travelling upstream out of his way. I quickly tell the children to wait at the top of the stairs and chase after my husband whose long legs are running as if his life depended on it.

"The box," Johnny cries at a member of the station staff. "I've left a box on the train. I've got to get it,” he says in desperation. "It's my mother."

Looks like you've got here just in time," says the uniformed woman. She's used to people forgetting things on trains, but usually not their mothers, she says dryly. "Where did you leave her?"

Without answering Johnny boards the train and steps out a few seconds later with a box under his arm and a face drained of tension. Clasping it tightly to his heart we walk back up the moving staircase towards check-in.

The children are relieved to see us. Emilia runs up and throws her arms around me. Johnny jokes that the just-averted disaster was Florence’s beyond-the-grave bid for freedom, a final rebellion. “She probably wanted to head back to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus,” he says. Although she was in London during the bombing raids, it was the place where Florence spent some of her happiest years. She escaped from a provincial town in Cambridgeshire to the capital where she had fallen in love for the first time. John, a left-wing journalist who Johnny is named after, was one of several loves before she married Johnny’s father Georg and moved to East Germany after the war. When Georg died she moved back to London and into Johnny’s house, then a nursing home. It’s time to return Florence to her final resting place in a meadow of unmarked graves in a suburb south of Berlin where Georg lies.

We are in the aeroplane and the box is now situated above Johnny in the overhead locker. He has stayed particularly close to it since this morning’s misadventure.

I first met Florence and Georg in their house over 20 years ago in the Berlin suburb of Grϋnau. I remember a petite woman in her seventies with short, chopped grey hair, a contrast to the sketch of her as a young woman hanging in our London flat. Her light brown hair is pinned back into rolls both sides of her forehead and coiled into one long ringlet at her shoulder. Florence with her intelligent, determined look. A hairstyle from another era.

We land at Tegel airport and are soon encased in the warmth of a Berlin taxi on the next leg of our journey. From the front seat Johnny remarks on the city's ugliness. It's not like him to talk negatively, but he has mixed feelings returning to a country where his parents were outsiders, Florence being English and Georg an Austrian Jew who escaped to England with the rise of Nazism. After the war Georg was invited to establish a new music conservatoire in East Berlin. But the war had left a strong culture of anti-Semitism across both Germanies, including the half that stood for socialism, a brand new world. Johnny remembers snide comments from school bullies resenting his family’s special status as victims of fascism.

"There was a concentration camp there," says Johnny pointing to his right. He’s a hunched figure, his head buried in a scarf and overcoat staring at the road ahead. “There’s a sign there,” he says. He has inherited his mother’s sharp, discerning eyes. The Mercedes softly purrs on. Johnny grew up in East Berlin but he says he never feels like he's returning home. I wonder if Florence does.

The next morning Johnny is at the wheel speeding us south to Grϋnau. Emilia pokes her head through the car window. Her hair flies around in thin strips and whips her face. She looks up at the TV tower, the thin silver stem with an onion bulge at the top.

It looks other-worldly, like an alien spaceship that seems to glow, especially at night when it is lit from below by emerald lights. Like the moon it draws your gaze. Every so often you want to know where you are in relation to the silver globe and check its silhouette against the skyline to reassure yourself that, like the moon, it is still there safely hanging in the sky.

The tallest building in the country is a reference point for a city once divided by a wall that fell five years before Reuben was born and 13 years before his step-sister arrived. The terms East and West don’t mean much to them. “We’ll have to explain to our kids what socialism was,” says Johnny, turning to me.

The Cold War baby had fewer restrictions than his peers. His Austrian passport meant he was free to shuttle back and forth between communism and capitalism. In the end he had a yen for the bright lights of London like his mother.

There’s an old industrial site the colour of brown silt on our left. We're rushing Florence back to an enclave in the woods in a country where she lived in self-imposed exile for more than half a century. Johnny is also driving us back to his childhood.

He hugs the road that runs parallel to the Wall, which is now a tourist attraction painted kindergarten colours. Streaks of primary reds, blues and yellows flash past. In the kaleidoscope of colours I catch a white dove, an olive branch, the Star of David.

Florence liked the Wall better without pictures or graffiti. It was a welcome safety blanket after the horrors of war. The Wall blocked out all the bad things from the West like poverty, greed, violence, drugs, inequality. Friends said she was even more upset than her husband when it came down. She had stuck it out living in a foreign country, but the social experiment to create a better society must have helped justify that choice. It made the hardship of her exile, her homesickness for family and friends, for London, more bearable because she was part of a noble cause. When the Wall collapsed so too did her belief that her destiny was part of a higher calling to create a better world.

It was a personal as well as a political tragedy that struck more deeply than with politically-minded Georg, friends said. It could have triggered her short-term memory loss. It was her way of blocking out the shock and pain of what had happened.

We arrive in Grϋnau which has had something of a face-lift since the West took over. There's a supermarket by the train station that looks so shiny and plastic it was probably a flatpack helicoptered in and erected in days like a giant Lego bungalow, the colour of fluorescent tomato ketchup. It sticks out weirdly against the old railway station and the muted browns of the surrounding forest. A foreign implant. A hexagonal pod spawned by the alien TV Tower perhaps.

We walk to the cemetery and find a dozen people waiting by the entrance. They are shifting around on their feet to keep warm in their winter coats. One man is shaking hands and smiling so much I have time to count his teeth. Most people are Johnny’s friends who knew Florence through him, though there is a former English student of hers who graciously presents us with a gift. We hear of a wheelchair-bound 90-year-old too ill to attend.

The raised soil that covers Florence resembles a human body tapered at the head and feet. The ground looks like it has just received a sarcophagus rather than an urn 25 centimetres in diameter. Bunches of flowers, still in their plastic wrapping, are strewn over the top.

Johnny draws apart from this small crowd to create his audience. Reuben looks taller standing next to him. He was close to both grandparents. Everyone is ready to hear the précis of Florence's life wash over them while they quietly have their own thoughts.

Johnny is reading Florence's CV, one she had to submit to the East German authorities every year to prove she was a suitable foreign resident. To the communists she emphasised her humble background as the daughter of a farmer, Bauer, who grew up with her five siblings in a small cottage in rural England. Florence’s curriculum is an historical document, a relic from a country that existed for only 40 years. She lived longer, 101 years and one month.

In her twenties Florence got involved in the socialist politics of 1930s’ London. She worked for the Joint Committee for Soviet Aid at a time when, as part of the war effort, women in Britain were doing their patriotic duty by knitting socks for the Red Army. The farmer's daughter began mixing in bohemian circles.

Family folklore had it that one time Florence's mother knocked on the door of her daughter's flat only to have the door opened by a handsome man who was naked to the waist. Allegedly he was an Abyssinian prince, the royal family having fled their country, now called Ethiopia, due to the invasion of Mussolini's Army. Florence was known for her sociability and her attractiveness to men.

Towards the end of this informal gathering Johnny roots inside a plastic bag and brings out a thermos flask and a tin of homemade shortbread, Florence’s favourite biscuit. It was her habit in the afternoons when she wasn't working to take out of her kitchen cupboards a teapot, a tablecloth and crockery and set the table for tea. Emilia becomes a willing waitress and walks around inviting everyone to join in the English afternoon ritual. Her smile charms.

Afterwards group of mourners walk into the forest. Some of us stop in front of the detached house that was the family home. Johnny quickly walks ahead to the restaurant we have booked for lunch. Later in bed he turns his long pale body to me and confesses he couldn’t look at the house that holds more than 50 years of memories. “Every time I went back my parents looked older, more decrepit,” he says.

The tall pine trees that surround Grϋnau vault thirty meters up into the sky. The strain to glimpse the top of them makes you feel dizzy. It's hard to imagine that when Johnny was a small boy the trees were hardly higher than him. Maybe with an outstretched arm he could get the measure of them.

I imagine his skinny self (he has always been slim) in a pair of shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He's running through the forest stretching out his arms to mimic an aeroplane, bursting through the forest paths and trying to ruffle the tops of the trees, a king of his universe. Fifty years later and the forest canopy seems nearer to the clouds than to us who are left behind small, insignificant, bolted to the ground.

After everyone has hugged and said their goodbyes we return to the car. Johnny drives us through the suburb where he grew up. "Oh my God. That used to be my old kindergarten," he exclaims, pointing at a large glass-and-steel structure. “How dare they knock it down."

We turn the corner and arrive at another important landmark, the bakery where Florence used to send him to buy bread. Reuben and Emilia want to stop for hot chocolate but it's too late, our memory-lane car has moved on. Without realising it we have re-entered the slipstream of the city where there are few trees and lights blink against a darkening sky.