by Kitty Wenham
It’s four o’clock in the morning and Agnieszka is cold. She is the coldest she has ever been. There is no fire in the small wooden lodge, so she warms herself on the memory of the roaring hearth of her childhood home. She can hear the snow settling gently on the roof. She knows she has to leave whilst it is still dark. She takes one last look at the high peaks of the Tatras looming in the distance and wonders if she’ll ever see her family again.
Aileen walks barefoot on the hot ground. She surveys the landscape slowly to make sure she won’t get caught. The orange tree is just a few feet away now. The fruit is big, and ripe. The same colour as her dress. This will be her parting gift, she promises herself. She leaves next week. Another goodbye, another country, another home.
The landlord gives her a short look. Amy’s cheeks burn red. She is intensely aware of the bulging stomach underneath her T-shirt. She tries to ignore the unhidden judgement on the older woman’s face. The engineer is bent double over the stove. He points at the dark brown stains that have collected around the rings. “Carbon monoxide,” he mutters.
Katy presses the pillow around her ears, but she can still hear the arguing. She hopes she won’t have to leave. She likes her room. She looks out of the bunk bed at the only home she has ever known. She puts on a brave face and decides to make a promise. “I’ll be extra good,” she practices telling them, “just please don’t shout anymore.” The front door slams, everything goes quiet, and she knows she is too late.
The boat rocks back and forth as it carries Agnieszka away on the stormy winter seas. Away from her family. Away from her life. Away from her motherland. She doesn’t know where she is going. She doesn’t know when it will be safe to come back. The war has only just begun. Who knows when it will end. If it will end. In her hand she holds a letter from her sister, Stasia.
“I am safe, at last. We hid in the forests for five nights. My daughter is gone. She was shot. I could hear the young boy crying next door. He is four years old. I took him with me. We keep each other warm. We give each other strength.”
They have an army issued house. It’s small, but it’s a start. Matthew had left at 6am. This is her first day alone since they arrived. Aileen wonders how long they will be here. She wonders how long it will take her to make friends. A wave of loneliness crashes over her. She holds back the tears. She stands up and rips the tape from the first cardboard box. She doesn’t have time to be sad, she thinks to herself. She has work to do.
The contractions start at 3am. Her boyfriend has only just gotten home. He is asleep on the sofa. There is a strong smell of alcohol on his breath. Amy tries to wake him.
“The baby isn’t due for another month,” he tells her. “She’s probably just moving.”
“I’m serious, Darren,” she pleads, doubled over with pain. He doesn’t respond. She shakes him. He’s already fallen back asleep.
Amy draws in a long breath and rubs her stomach. “Please just wait,” she whispers. She opens the door, thankful for the warm breeze of the August night. Next to the pub is a payphone. She slides in one coin. Calls an ambulance. Hangs up. She slides in another coin. Aileen answers straight away.
“Please, Mum,” Amy says, “I need you.”
Katy finds her seat on the train. She goes back over the conversation she just had with her mother.
“Are you enjoying London?” Amy had asked.
“Yes,” Katy lied.
“And how are you feeling?” Amy followed up.
“Great,” Katy lied again.
“Going to all of your classes?”
Katy was a very good liar. The train picks up speed. Begins to hurtle away from Katy’s hometown. The air suddenly feels colder. The anxiety begins to cloud her brain. The emptiness begins to grow again. Katy pictures a dark cloud consuming her body. She puts her headphones in and pretends to sleep.
The children are loud, and excited. Agnieszka watches them open their Christmas presents. She tries to be happy with them, but it is too much. She thinks about Christmas in her motherland. It was so different. So much better. It has been nearly ten years since she spent Christmas at home. She quietly leaves the sofa. She pulls the lock on the bedroom door. Sits on the bed. She can hear the children tiptoeing around. They softly knock. Ask her to come back downstairs. Agnieszka tries to stifle her sobs.
“Okay kids,” Matthew says. “I’ll be back soon.” He hugs Amy. Pats Vanessa on the head. He turns around to the three boys. Shakes Ben’s hand. Gives Robert and Patrick a hard pat on the back.
“I promise I’ll be okay,” he tells Aileen.
And then he is gone. She watches him disappear into a sea of green. It’s only six months, Aileen tells herself. It’s not a dangerous tour. He told her he will be okay. But, Aileen quietly thinks, I don’t know if I will.
The children stop waving goodbye. Aileen picks Vanessa up from the floor. Cradles her round her hip. “Come on,” she tells them, softly. “It’s time to go back home.”
Amy watches Katy and Jacob playing in the pool. She lies back on the sun lounger. Closes her eyes. “You’re mental,” her best friend had told her, “taking those kids on holiday all alone.”
“I look after them every day on my own anyway,” Amy had retorted. “What difference does a bit of sun make?” She remembers the things she didn’t tell her friends. Like how scared she was, still. Even after nine years of being a mother. Or how proud she was that she could give her children these experiences. No one would ever believe a teenage mum could do something like this. Especially not by herself. She had always wanted to come back to Cyprus. She didn’t remember much of it, but her mother had always talked about how beautiful it was. The hot sand, the sun, the orange trees.
Amy’s brain wave is interrupted, and she sits up suddenly, in fear. They haven’t reapplied their sunscreen since this morning. “Katy! Jacob!” she calls. “Over here!”
Katy tries to think about her English exam tomorrow. She tries to think about anything else except what is about to happen. The doctor tells her to place her legs in the holsters. “This will probably hurt a little,” the doctor says. It does hurt. It hurts, and it is cold. Katy doesn’t know how she will face the shame of going to school tomorrow. “This happens more often than you think,” the doctor tries to reassure her. It doesn’t help. “Is the boyfriend still in the picture?” Katy doesn’t answer and focuses her mind on holding back the tears.
“As they edge closer, she wonders how much has changed in fifty years. How much could have changed in fifty years.”
The plane begins to descend. Through the window, Agnieszka watches as the outline of her motherland begins to form in the distance. As they edge closer, she wonders how much has changed in fifty years. How much could have changed in fifty years. In her hand, she holds another letter. A letter from her only living relative. Stasia.
“The country is full of hope. How could we not be? We never thought we would have the strength to survive so long. I always believed I would perish in Siberia, like our mother. But I am alive. The boy looks after me now. I can’t wait for you to meet him. How will we ever have the time to catch up?”
She thanks the Lord that it is so different from the last.
Aileen and Amy begin to worry they are lost. There is supposed to be a museum here, but it just looks like another house. Aileen asks Amy to check the address on her phone.
“Kensington?” she says. “It should be right here.” They press the doorbell.
A young blonde woman lets them in. She sits behind the reception desk with a man who looks even older than Aileen. “The archive is closed, but we are open for another half hour,” the woman says.
“I just wanted to learn about my mother,” Aileen tells them. “I was told there might be records here?”
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “The archive is closed. You will have to come back tomorrow.”
“Please,” Amy says, “We’ve come all the way down here. We’re only around for the day.”
“She was a nurse,” Aileen adds.
The old man gazes at them intensely. He leans on his walking stick. Stands up. “What was her name?” he asks them, in a heavy accent. He leads them upstairs.
In a dark, cold room, he pulls out a box of records. The Women’s Auxiliary Service. He begins to translate the records into English. Service dates. Movements. Tales of bravery. No one tries to hide their tears this time.
Amy holds the binders in her hands. 240 pages. 3 years’ worth of work. Her children are with her when she goes to pick it up. She shows them the dedication inside. Points out their names. She thinks back ten years. Remembers the head teacher’s office. Remembers the shame. The looks of disappointment, of unreserved judgement. It doesn’t make her feel sad anymore. She goes home and practices writing the letters ‘Dr’ in front of her name.
“I will warn you,” she says on the phone, “he’s in a bad state. It will probably be a shock. It will probably be a bit scary.”
Katy answers with an uncertain silence.
“Would you like me to come with you?” she prompts.
“No,” Katy answers. “I can do it alone.”
The oncology ward is cold. It smells of damp. In the corner of the room, a man retches into a cardboard bowl. Katy can see the outline of his bones. Another man shouts at the TV screen. A grandfather whimpers in pain. “This is bad,” he cries. “This is bad, this is bad, this is bad.” Katy holds her father’s hand whilst he sleeps.
When the visiting hours are over, Katy waits until she is in the elevator before she lets herself cry. Her mother is in the café downstairs. She glances up. “Okay,” Amy says. “Let’s go.”
Aileen, Amy, and Katy step out of the cable car in silence. The peak is covered in snow. A skier zooms past at full speed. Katy almost slips. “I can’t do it,” Aileen says. Katy nods in agreement.
“We have to!” Amy tells them. “For her. Come on. The path is huge. It’s not even that dangerous.”
Katy’s mother shoots her a stern look. Katy links arms with Aileen. She takes a deep breath. They start to walk. Very, very slowly.
They come across a wooden signpost. The word “Slovakia” is painted in red. They follow it onwards. There are children making snow angels on the floor.
“Can you believe she did this all on her own?” Amy says.
“In the middle of winter,” Katy adds.
They both smile at Aileen. They reach an edge. They peer over the border. “It must have been so scary,” Amy says. “Leaving everything behind.” They decide to head back.
At the café, Aileen talks to the waiter. “You know, my mother was Polish,” she tells him.
He feigns interest. “Oh? Do you know any words?”
Aileen’s strong Scottish accent is full of playful laughter. “Well,” she says, “let me tell you a funny story…”
Kitty Wenham | @kittywenham | @kittywenham
Kitty is a 21-year-old reader and writer from the North of England, passionate about Eastern-European surrealism, magic realism, and the Harlem Renaissance. She’s most likely to be found lost in a book, thinking about books, or buying more books.