Authors: Amanda Hodgkinson
Amanda Hodgkinson was born in Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset and grew up in Essex and Suffolk. She currently lives in south-west France with her husband and two daughters. This is her first novel.
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Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2011
Copyright © Amanda Hodgkinson, 2011
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
To my mother and father. With love.
The dead have need of fairytales too.
The boy was everything to her. Small and unruly, he had a nervy way about him like a wild creature caught in the open. All the dark hearts of the lost, the found and the never forgotten lived in his child’s body, in his quick eyes. She loved him with the same unforgiving force that pushes forests from the deep ground, but still she feared it was not enough to keep him. So she was taking him to England, determined Janusz would love him and keep him safe.
On the ship’s sailing list she was named as Silvana Nowak. Twenty-seven years old. Married. Mother of a son, Aurek Josef, aged seven years.
‘What is your profession?’ the British soldier asked her, checking the identity papers she put before him.
She looked at the documents on his desk and saw pages of women’s names. All were listed as housewives or housekeepers.
Behind her, hundreds more women, dressed as she was in donated clothes, stood silently with their children. Above the soldier’s head, a sign in several languages, including Polish, detailed the ship’s rules.
All blankets and sheets remain the property of the ship. All stolen items will be confiscated.
Silvana tightened her grasp on her son. The soldier glanced at her quickly and then looked back to his papers. She knew why. It embarrassed him to see a woman so unkempt and a child with such restless ways. She touched her headscarf, checking it was in place, and pressed her other hand into Aurek’s back, trying to make him stand up straight.
‘Survivor,’ she whispered, the first word that came to her.
The soldier didn’t look up. He lifted his pen. ‘Housekeeper or housewife?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, and then, aware of the queue shifting impatiently behind her, ‘Housewife.’
So that was it. She was recorded, written neatly into a book in indelible black ink. She was given a transport number, a label pinned on her lapel that corresponded with the details on the ship’s passenger list. Proof that she and the boy were mother and son. That was a good start. Nobody, after all, could disagree with or dispute an official document. Only the title
looked questionable. Together or separate, Silvana was sure nobody would believe the words
had anything to do with her.
All night, while the sea carried the ship and its passengers towards another land, Silvana worked at remembering. She found herself a space in one of the crowded corridors below deck and sat, arms crossed, legs tucked under her. Curled into herself in this way, with Aurek hidden under her coat, she breathed through the odour of sweat and diesel fumes, the throb of the engines marking time, while she tried to recall her life with Janusz. Always, though, the same memories came to her. The ones she didn’t want to own. A road she didn’t want to travel. A filthy sky full of rain, and planes coming out of the clouds. She shook her head, tried to think of other things, to cut off the image that would surely come. And then there it was. The wet mud shining underfoot. Trees twisting in the wind and the child swaddled in a jumble of blankets, lying in a wooden handcart.
Silvana pulled Aurek tighter to her, rocking him back and forth, the memories departing. He snaked a bony hand out from under her coat and she felt his small fingers searching her face. And how was it that love and loss were so close together? Because no matter how she loved the boy – and she did, furiously, as if her own life depended on him – loss was always there, following at her heels.
By the time the dawn sky leaked light into the darkness, Silvana was too tired to think any more and finally closed her eyes, letting the heartbeat drone of the engines settle her to a thankfully dreamless slumber.
Morning brought with it a pale sun and salt-laden winds. Silvana pushed her way through the crowds to the upper decks, Aurek hanging on her coat-tail. Gripping the handrail, she let him settle in a
crouch between her feet, the weight of him against her legs. Green waves lay far below and she stared down at them, trying to imagine what England would be like, a place she knew nothing of except that this was where her husband Janusz now lived.
She had been lost and he had found her. He must have thought he was reaching back into the past; that she would be as she was when he left her, his young wife, red hair pinned up in curls, a smile on her face and their darling son in her arms. He couldn’t know that the past was dead and she was the ghost of the wife he once had.
The heaving of the ship made her dizzy and she leaned against the handrail. She had left her country far behind and now there was no shoreline, no land to mourn, only water as far as the horizon and shards of dazzling light splintering the waves. She hadn’t seen Janusz since the day he left Warsaw six long years ago. Would she even recognize him now? She could recall the day they met, the date they married, his shoe size; that he was right-handed. But where did this awkward grabbing of dates and facts get her?
She squinted at the sea, the waves churning, over and over. She had loved him once. That much she was sure of. But so much lost time stretched between them. Six years might as well be a hundred. Could she really lay claim to a man simply because she remembered his collar size?
Aurek pulled at her hand and Silvana dropped to her knees, wiping her mouth with the back of her sleeve, trying to smile. The boy was the reason she was making this journey. A boy must have a father. Soon the past would be behind them and England would become their present. There she was sure they would be able to live each day with no yesterdays and no memories to threaten or histories to follow them. She ran her fingers through Aurek’s cropped hair, and he wrapped his arms around her neck. She was on her way to a new life, and her one piece of Poland was still with her.
Janusz thinks the house looks lucky. He steps back to get a better look at Number 22 Britannia Road, and admires the narrow red-brick property with its three windows and blue door. The door has a pane of coloured glass set in it: a yellow sunrise sitting in a green border with a bluebird in its centre. It’s so typically English it makes him smile. It’s just what he has been searching for.
It is the last house in a terrace, and although it stands next to a bomb site, somehow it has escaped any real damage itself. The only sign is a crack in the coloured glass pane, a line running through the bluebird that makes it look as if it might have problems if it tried to fly. Apart from that, it is possible to believe the war has never touched this building. It’s a fanciful idea, he knows, but one he likes. Maybe the house will share some of its luck with him and his wife and son.
‘Don’t you worry about that eyesore,’ says the estate agent beside him, waving his hand at the wasteland where dirty-faced children are playing. ‘That’ll be cleared in no time. We’ll have this town back on her feet quick enough.’ He straightens the cuffs of his tweed jacket and hands Janusz a bunch of keys. ‘There you are. All yours. I hope you like living here. Can I ask you where you’re from?’
Janusz has been waiting for this question. The first thing people want to know is where you come from.
‘Poland,’ he says. ‘I’m Polish.’
The estate agent pulls out a cigarette case from the inside pocket of his jacket. ‘You speak damned good English. In the army, were you?’
And that is the second thing they ask:
What are you doing here?
Janusz is at ease in this country. He knows the manners and ways of things. Keep everything simple and to the point. Let them know you are on their side, and they’re happy.
The first time someone had asked him where he came from, back when he had been anxious about his foreignness, seeing it like a birthmark, a facial port-wine stain visible to all, he had mistakenly tried to answer them. He’d not been in England very long – a year, if that – and the loud, bloody enthusiasm for war he found among his new comrades had lit a kind of fire in his heart. A rich blazing ran through his veins and flared in him an outgoing recklessness he’d never experienced before. He was in a smoky hall with a noisy crowd of RAF men, drinking beer the colour of engine oil, and launched into his own story, the whole journey from Poland at the very start of the war, to France and then England.
Too late, he realized he’d made it too complicated and in any case nobody was listening. Nobody wanted to know about the women he’d left behind. He carried on, stumbling over vocabulary, finishing up lost in his own regrets, mumbling into his beer in Polish, talking of painful things like love and honour. When he left the hall and stood in the sobering night air, looking up at a sky littered with stars, he regretted every foolish word he had uttered.
He squares his shoulders and closes his mind to those memories. ‘I served with the Royal Air Force,’ he says, his voice clear and steady. ‘The Polish Corps. I came over in 1940. I’ve been here ever since.’
‘Ah. Right you are.’ The man smiles and offers him a cigarette. ‘I was in the army, myself. I met quite a few of your lads. Great drinkers, the Poles.’
He lights his cigarette, flicks the match onto the ground and hands the box to Janusz.
‘Stationed around here, were you?’
‘No,’ says Janusz, taking the matchbox, giving a brief nod of thanks. ‘We moved about a lot. I was demobbed in Devon and offered work here or up in the North.’
‘Well, you’ll find this is a decent enough area. Ipswich is a nice little market town. And you got this house just in time. I’ve a list as long as my arm of people wanting this property. If you hadn’t been
there, banging on my door before I’d even opened up, it would’ve been some other fellow who’d have got it. It’s a nice family house. Have you, er … any …?’
‘Family? I have a wife and a son. They are coming to Britain next month.’
‘Reunited, heh? That’s good to hear.’