How long now? It’s hard to tell. I lost count of the days a long time ago. More than a month, certainly, since I pulled myself through that tiny gap in the fence and wriggled away. Since then, it’s been an endless road. My shoes, not really what I would have called ‘shoes’ before anyway, have fallen away to nothing and my feet sting with every step.
The rooftops of Grodno shimmer in the distance. Perhaps. I’m probably just delirious. I heard that in the desert, when people get too hot and too thirsty, they start seeing visions. I haven’t been able to swallow for days. The grass on the verge is crisp and brown, and there’s nothing but sour, under-ripe berries that even children have left. I keep my eyes down. I don’t want to see it, not if it isn’t real.
When I next look up, thick dark clouds have gathered over the city. They collect tantalisingly. Finally, as evening drifts into night, the rain comes. And what rain! I lie in the drenched grass, fronds clinging to my arms, gulping at the water as it plummets onto me. At last the burn in my throat is quenched. I stand up, pull off the shapeless faded dress and spread out my arms, inviting the rain. It flows over my skin and for the first time in two years, I feel clean.
I take a quick glance along the road before settling down to sleep. The rooftops are still there, slick now and glistening grey. Ignoring them still, I crawl into the undergrowth, thorns catching at my hair.
In the morning, the world gleams, green again. The city is still there, unchanged, winking at me in the sun. It must be real. I’ve arrived.
Memories assault me as soon as I enter the city. Josef’s house passes me on the left. That large white house. Perhaps I could stop to rest, just for a little while. It would be nice to have a bath and some food before I see my father again. Even potatoes would be welcome. But Josef will be away with the army, and I might frighten his mother, turning up like this. No. I drag myself onwards, into the centre.
As I get further in, an odd smell develops. Like rubbish, or the dog when he hasn’t been bathed for a while. When I remembered home, there was the bread baking and the coffee brewing, but this is different, stale. There are a lot of people just sitting on the road, watching me pass with blank eyes. They’re strewn on every street. Some of them hardly look like people. All the old shops are still here, but they’re practically empty! The baker has one loaf in the window. Only one! It looks beautiful though. Crusty and brown, it stands regally, benevolently permitting the eyes of the tattered children nearby to feast on it. I stop with them for a bit. As I gaze on the bread, I catch a glimpse of myself. It’s a shock. I can’t remember the last time I saw my reflection properly, not wavering in a pool of muddy water or distorted in a sheet of metal. I’m so thin! I knew this, of course, I could see my ribs when I bathed. But to see the whole of me is different. You could break my arm with a whisper. My face is hollow and my eyes aren’t right. They look… dull somehow. I shiver in the sunshine and move on. It’s probably just the window. It hasn’t been cleaned for a while judging by the host of fingerprints on the glass.
As I get closer to home things start to look more normal. The houses are bigger, cleaner, more intact. I’m relieved. I didn’t like to think that the house might have been damaged. I can feel my feet moving quicker and hurting less the closer I get.
There it is! And nothing has changed! The lovely duck egg blue walls rise out of the grass proudly, the sun dancing off the windows. The flowers are blooming wonderfully. It’s that time of year. It hurts my eyes a little, but I’ve just got accustomed to grey. I’ll soon become accustomed to colour again. I run up the last few steps up the path, and ring the doorbell furiously.
It takes forever for him to come. I am practically hopping. When the door is jerked open I throw myself towards him. But it isn’t him. It’s a sharp nosed woman instead, and I only just manage to stop myself. She looks startled, but that soon becomes a frown.
‘No beggars,’ she says, starting to shut the door.
‘Who are you?’ I am outraged.
The woman stares. ‘I beg your pardon? Surely the more pertinent question is who are you?’
‘I am Bronia Gorski! I am aware that I do not look as I once did, however I have travelled a long way. But I do not recognise you.’
The woman swallowed. A voice calls from within, ‘Who is it?’ and the impatient tapping of heels immediately follows. The door is wrenched open wider, and another woman I don’t recognise glares out. This one has blonde hair, pinned very high.
‘What, more charity?’ She tuts. Her accent is strange. ‘Get rid of her.’
‘I am Bronia Gorski,’ I repeat, ‘and this is my father’s house.’
The woman laughs. ‘I’m sure it was. But no longer. This is my house. You have no business here.’
I can see past her. All the paintings are still on the walls. All the ornaments are exactly where I left them
‘Our possessions are still here,’ I state flatly. ‘You are lying.’
The woman raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m afraid not. This is my house. These are my possessions. There is nothing for you here.’
She goes to shut the door.
‘I demand to speak to my father!’
The woman leans towards me, wrinkling her nose. ‘He is not here,’ she says very slowly, as though I am stupid.
‘Where is he then?’
She shrugs. ‘How should I know?’ She laughs again. ‘Try Russia.’
The door slams. I jam my finger onto the doorbell and hold it there. When I am too tired to continue, I sit down on the porch. If I remain someone will have to come and give me an explanation.
Eventually, I return to the road. I knew the boys would be gone, of course, but Papa? He is too old for war. He should be here. I stop when I reach the gate, gazing at the houses across the street. It all looks the same, but so does my house. Have they all been taken over by foreign women?
I am very heavy now. It is all such a burden, even down to my fingertips. I’m sitting on the pavement. I don’t remember sitting. My back digs into the garden wall. And my stomach, oh, it burns!
Something moves out of the corner of my eye as it slides closed. I manage to force it open again. It’s a woman. Plump, with brilliantly dark hair. I know her! I scrabble at the paving, desperately trying to pull myself upright. I manage it just she reaches me.
‘Pani Wysocki? Excuse me, Pani Wysocki? Is that you?’ The woman glances at me, and speeds up.
‘Pani Wysocki? It’s me, Bronia Gorski. Do you remember me? Pani Wysocki!’ But she’s gone, hurrying towards town, scattering flustered little glances around her.
I drop back to the pavement.
A soft hiss.
I open my eyes a little. The sun has almost set. I turn my head and there it is, a round face peering around the gatepost.
‘Yes, yes. Hurry!’ An arm shoots out, grabs my shoulder and drags me through the gate. We stumble together into the gardener’s shed.
I can barely see. Inga is grasping my arm, whispering. ‘Panna Bronia! Panna Bronia!’
‘Inga! What is going on? Where is my father?’
‘They took him! Not a week after they took you.’
I feel it like a punch in the stomach. ‘But they promised!’
She shrugs. ‘They came back, and they stole some things, but not so many. Your father had planned though, and Pani Feldman moved in to look after things. But then the Germans came, and Pani Feldman was taken too. Then Herr Krause arrived.’
I slump against her. ‘That is it, then. They have taken everything.’
Inga looks sly. ‘That is not entirely so. After your father was taken, Pani Wlodarski and I packed up some things and moved them to the attic. Just in case.’
‘But how could I get them? And where could I take them?’
‘Perhaps you will find the kitchen door left open tonight. Perhaps you could find your way into the house and up to the attic. Perhaps you would be able to take the things you wanted, or perhaps you could remain there in the top of the house? I have heard of it happening, when the Germans are looking for someone.’ She looks anxious. ‘I know it would be less than you have been used to, but…’
I have to laugh at that. ‘I have been used to a lot less.’
Inga nods. ‘I suppose that is so.’ She pushes the shed door open a fraction and points upwards. ‘They are in your father’s old room. Once their light goes out… you are free to move.’
It’s cold and damp in the shed, and the floor rustles uncomfortably. A couple of times I drop into a doze, but each time I wake the light still burns. The moon is high by the time it is extinguished and I can ease myself out of the shed. My limbs are stiff and I hobble across the soft grass towards the kitchen door.
The room smells of sugar and baking. My stomach is howling, and I find myself slipping into the pantry. So much food! I snatch a sausage. It’s so rich and so spicy, the juice is exquisite. Too soon it is gone. I grab a basket from the corner and fill it with more sausage, bread, cheese, apples, anything I can fit into it. It’s full far too soon. It hurts to leave the room.
I tiptoe up the back stairs. It comes out at the opposite side of the landing to normal. The house is wreathed in shadows and none of it is different. There is my room, door slightly ajar. Just a few small steps away.
My vision blurs, and for a moment, I am in my bed. The house is banging and shaking. For a moment I think there is an earthquake but no. That is shouting. It doesn’t make sense. The accents are thick, grotesque. I hear Papa’s door and his shuffling step and I hasten out of bed and onto the landing, watching from the top of the stairs as he goes to open the front door. Men surge in, the babble with them. One of them grabs Papa, making him drop his stick. Without it he looks so frail and confused, so unlike himself. I hurtle down the stairs towards them, shouting something. One of them has picked up a photograph and is examining it. I snatch it out of his hand. Barks of laughter, directed at me. I am still in my nightgown and I can see that this interests some of them. I look around for the commander but all these men look alike.
‘Who is in charge?’
Papa shakes his head, but one of them is stepping forward.
‘What are you doing here? What is the meaning of this?’
‘We have a warrant.’
‘Who for. For Michal and Petyr Gorski.’
‘They are not here. They do not live here anymore. Something you could have discovered just as easily if you’d called during the day.’
The house is silent now. Papa looks alarmed, but I continue staring at the commander. He doesn’t move. I am just about to gesture towards the door when one of them points at Papa. The commander shrugs, and nods.
Men are moving everywhere now, and Papa is in the middle of them. I scream at the commander, but he is not listening. I grab his arm and his hand flies out and catches me across the face. My head crashes against the wall but almost immediately I am up.
‘He cannot work! That is all you want, and he cannot do it! Take me!’
Again the picture freezes, then with a brief nod the swarm descends on me.
This is not a good memory. I shake my head slightly and turn away along the corridor.
The attic stairs are wooden and bare, with a creak that echoes down to the cellar. I concentrate on treading as softly as I can, my stomach churning, but someone is being kind to me for I ascend as silent as a ghost.
Well! It was a warren before, but that hardly does it justice now. Pieces of furniture lurk under dust sheets and chests are scattered everywhere. Inga and Pani Wlodarski have certainly been busy. This will be an easy place to hide. Relief courses through me and I sink into an armchair. The cushions envelop me, snuggle around me. I could close my eyes now, but my stomach is insistent so I rummage through my basket. The bread! So thick, so solid. And apples, bursting with juice. I devour nearly the whole basket, barely managing to keep back the cheese for tomorrow. My stomach rolls under the weight of all the food, but it’s worth it. Perhaps I can return to the kitchen before dawn. I’ll have to arrange something with Inga.
I lean back, enjoying the novelty of digestion. How will I pass my days, I wonder. Are my books up here? I lift the lid of the nearest chest and catch my breath. On the top is my bunny. I lift him out, pressing him to my face. He smells the same, under the must. I breathe it in, my fingers digging into the fabric.
The stair creaks violently. I jerk to my feet, glancing frantically around. The air is full of thudding boots and all those perfect hiding places have vanished. Brown uniforms crowd through the door and I cling to my bunny as hands seize my arms and drag me from the room. I am crushed between bodies. They’re moving too fast for my feet and my legs crack against every stair. Down the corridor, out to the landing, so many people, so many voices. One screaming higher than the rest: ‘I knew it! I told you Hans, did I not? The little thief!’
My eyes rake through the crowd, searching. Just as we reach the front door, I finally see her. Inga’s face is hidden in the shadows but her hand is raised, as though in farewell.