A ray of light reaches through the bars on the window and illuminates a chink of your face. I will carry this piecemeal image – eye scrunched shut, a miniature version of your late father’s nose, pink lips suckling an imaginary breast – with me to my executioner’s hands.
Our moments together are numbered, little one. You can’t comprehend that any more than I can, I know. You’ve kept me alive longer than I should have been. Pregnancy counts for something in these warped times, as does mother’s milk. Yes, I’ve done my job fattening you up for the Reich. Your cheeks are rosy. Your limbs robust. But another baby for the Führer you are not. I’ve clasped you close, whispered words you’ll never remember into your tiny ears. Be more. Resist. In all shades of darkness and dampness, I’ve told you about those who are still out there. I’ve spoken in codes, reassured you in Russian. I’ve equipped you as if you were eighteen years old, a new recruit, and not a helpless infant about to be handed over to a life that extends well beyond me.
I pace around the cell, rocking you gently. Sometimes I count the paces, singing each step into a makeshift lullaby you might remember by chance someday. Perhaps on a rainy Tuesday a window cleaner will pass, humming a note, and you’ll feel the walls close in around you, see how the light falls through the bars across the glass, smell my milky odour, hear my voice. Broken. Determined. Mutti.
A rat scurries from one of the corners; it stops in the middle of our confined space and eyes me as if it were my landlady and I’m behind on the rent. I want to stamp my feet, to chase it from my sight, but I turn my back and focus on you. You whimper. I kiss your forehead. Once. Twice. Three times. On and on and on. A kiss for every birthday I’ll miss. A kiss for every bruised knee and skinned elbow I won’t soothe. A kiss for every question you’ll have that will hang unanswered over the dining table until the time’s right and your grandmother spills forth what she can.
I shift you in my arms, move you so your head rests beneath my chin, your fists clench against my chest. I listen to your breath, deep and drowsy, enjoy the roughness of your cradle cap against my skin. Your grandmother will have a remedy for that. She will have a remedy for everything, but my absence. You will go to her arms, grow up to her shoulders, cry in her lap.
I sway to the sounds of the prison: the cough of the inmate next door, the shuffle of dirty feet across cold floors, the thud of metal on metal, the demands of the women who’ve not yet come to terms with their sentences. I have come to terms with mine. I know pleading with a madman is futile. I could wail and bang my wrists against the bars, but that would mean putting you down and I will not do that until they prise you from me white knuckle by white knuckle.
That moment won’t be long now. I can hear the crunch of heels on concrete, the gait of someone with a purpose. The eager jangle of keys slipping from a pocket. I wonder how you will remember me, or, rather, think of me, for you won’t remember me, but you will know I existed: every child has a mother – dead or living. I hope when you hear my story, our story, that you’re sat in a better time. I hope you bombard your grandmother with questions that go beyond the colour of my eyes and my favourite pair of shoes. She will tell you all that, but you must ask her why I’m not there and don’t accept that I died in childbirth or during a bombing raid. Don’t accept that I was caught up with the wrong people, that I went against the Führer and got what I deserved, that the leaflets I dropped spread lies. The world around you is a lie, little one and if, by the time you have grown up to your grandmother’s shoulders, this country is still red, white, and black, you must find your people, our people, and do what I have done. Be proud of the resistance thrumming through your bloodline. But take extra care of your life. Always look twice and then look twice again. Take detours. Cross busy streets. Never pause.
I turn at the screech of metal upon metal. The woman standing at the threshold inclines her head and extends her arms. You will go first. I hold you so we’re face to face. Your eyelids droop, saliva bubbles crowd the corners of your mouth. God bless, I say. I press my lips to the crinkle between your brows. Your weight slips from my hands.
You cry. Yes, I know. You will bawl your way out of this place into the daylight. Your grandmother will shush and reassure you on the walk to the U-Bahn, kiss your forehead on the train, sing a lullaby as she carries you up the stairs to her apartment. And then you will quieten and your life will go on, I hope.
I clench my fists in mid-air, close my eyes to your reddened cheeks, and turn away. The warden’s breath strains with the act of calming your flailing limbs. I smile despite the sudden loneliness I feel. I will remember you, in the time I have left between now and the noose, as rebellious.
Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in The Cabinet of Heed, MIR Online, Barren Magazine, The Nottingham Review and Mslexia. Her first novel will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020.
‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.
The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.
In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.
The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.
Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.
The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?
The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.
Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.
Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.
Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.
There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).
Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.
We have boarded the cattle car headed for Pusan. It takes us past Seoul Grand Park and I can see the bear. Having outlasted the poisoning of her fellow beasts and the fleeing of the zookeepers, she remains seated in her cage. Alone. The wind blows through the bars, tousling her fur. I imagine that she is thinking of cubs she once nursed who have gone on. Our cattle car stops and the conductor demands money to take us further. I see my sister tear open the lining of her yukata and collect 15 yen.
The cattle car doesn’t start again, not for a while so I watch the bear and wonder when it will eat next. Then there are children upon her, lollipop sticks jutting out from their lips. There is unruly laughter and suddenly I see them throw their lollipops at her. The bear looks down to see the candy which is now stuck helter skelter to her fur. There is no anger. There is no fight. She remains seated, face out to the cackling bipedal mammals.
The train is now moving. My thoughts turn to the Japan that waits. We will live with my grandparents, whom I’ve never met.
Overall, I can’t help but feel like this side of my heritage – my father’s side – is not really mine. All that is mine, I think, is my sister – and the affection between us. I have always regarded Japan as some distant motherland but as I leave Korea, I realize I am leaving the only home I have known. To my mainland relatives, I can’t possibly belong. They probably don’t even know who I am. No, surely they don’t know of me.
Beside me sits a family traveling from Pyongyang. You can barely tell the girls from the boys because all of their hair is cut so short. My sister rolls her eyes when she informs me that this is to protect them from the men, as if it’s an obvious fact. Obvious facts. An abandoned bear. A cattle car. Today I am ten years old.
My brother and I sit back to back. Eventually I drift into sleep, dreaming of the bear. This time she and I are alone in a shower of sakura blooms that are gently tumbling around us. I am wielding a hammer and she watches me swing, swing, swing until one bar is bent outward. I methodically bend another bar creating a diamond shape. She exits the cage, headfirst, and shakes her body, like a dog who has just been let outside. Bowing her head, she beckons me to ride. I climb up and off we go.
Stephanie Yoshiko Harper is a writer and an elementary school librarian. She holds an MA in English from California State University, Northridge. She lives with her partner, daughter, and three dogs in Ventura County, CA.
Diana Rubino is the author of For the Love of Hawthorne, a biographical romance thriller about House of the Seven Gables author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
Diana Rubino: I started writing short stories when I was about 8 years old, and always enjoyed telling stories about people who overcame odds to achieve their dreams.
I love history and meeting people from the past and how they fit into major events in the past. Writing novels about real people puts me into the past, but keeps me grounded in reality.
M.A.: What is your latest novel about? How would you describe it to potential readers?
D.R.: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s courtship of Sophia Peabody lasted over three years because he insisted on keeping it secret. He had his reasons, none of which Sophia agreed with. But she knew they were destined for each other and he was worth the wait. When they married in 1842 “we became Adam and Eve alone in our Garden of Even” she wrote in her journal. But not all was paradise in their Eden—Nathaniel bore a burden that plagued his family since 1692. His ancestor Judge Hathorne condemned 19 innocent victims to death during the Salem witch trials. His heinous deeds brought shame and guilt upon the family through the centuries. In her last moments on earth, Sarah Good cursed the judge and his descendants from the hanging tree. Nathaniel’s belief in this curse haunted and tormented him until Sophia made it her quest to save him. I wanted to portray the lives of two kindred souls whose legacy endures through the ages.
M.A.: What makes this book different?
D.R.: It covers their courtship, marriage and struggles they endured, but also explores Nathaniel’s battle with the demons that haunted him until Sophia rescued him. Then he was able to forgive his ancestor Judge Hathorne, and everything came full circle at the end.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?
D.R.: My ‘overnight success’ took 18 years. My first novel, largely autobiographical, as most first novels are, featured my heroine who made it to the top of a brokerage firm. It was continually rejected on the grounds that I had an ax to grind—and of course I did.
After three more novels, which I consider practice at honing my craft, I wrote my first historical, The Jewels of Warwick, centered around Henry VIII and two fictional heroines. Jewels took 2 years to research and write, with no internet. It came very close to publication with several romance houses, but missed the mark for containing too little romance. When I finished Jewels, I scoured the history books for another legendary figure to write about. While I browsed the Cambridge Library stacks, a book snagged my eye. Lying, not standing, on the wrong shelf was Crown of Roses by Valerie Anand. It drew me like a magnet. Richard III is a central character in the story, and the author thanked the Richard III Society for helping her. Already hooked on Richard, his tragic death at 32 and his reputation as a usurper and a murderer of his little nephews, I joined this Richard III Society. As everyone else who has a story about how they ‘met’ Richard, he fascinated me. I’d found the subject of my next novel! And it tied in perfectly as a prequel to The Jewels of Warwick. Titled Thy Name is Love, it made the same rounds of publishers, remaining homeless after several rewrites and seven years.
In 1999 with the Internet making my life so much easier, I queried the many E-publishers that had recently set up shop, and British publisher Domhan Books responded with an offer for my two historicals. Fortunately, Domhan also published print books. I then wrote a time travel and a family saga set in New York City. I switched gears with the urban fantasy Fakin’ It, which won a Romantic Times Top Picks award.
After several more historical and paranormal romances, I am now writing biographical novels with no fictional characters.
M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?
D.R.: The joys are being transported through time to another era and meeting people who shaped history. The challenges are trying to stay as close as possible to the historical record, which at times is impossible, so I always put in that disclaimer ‘this is a work of fiction.’
M.A.: What is the research process like for you?
D.R.: After I’ve decided on my subject, I read as many biographies as possible about that person and those close to them, and books about that time period. I always try to find an expert or scholar who knows about the person—I was very lucky finding the Richard III Society, the Surratt Society (for my book about Lincoln) and the Aaron Burr Association. Many members of these groups are experts and are very happy to help out. I was also fortunate to have the help of Mary Thompson, the historian at Mount Vernon, who helped me with my book about Oney Judge, read the manuscript and made very useful suggestions.
M.A.: Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your writing process?
D.R.: I’ve been to all the locales of my stories. Especially visiting historical sites makes it easier to imagine how these places looked during the times of my stories, as some places, such as medieval towns in England, haven’t changed much over the centuries.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
D.R.: When I was researching my first historical THE JEWELS OF WARWICK, set around Henry VIII’s court, I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII by Margaret George. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Philippa Gregory and Sharon Kay Penman are authors whose historicals come to vivid life.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?
D.R.: The advice my agent gave me: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a great story.” But I also believe historical authors should keep the facts correct, i.e., no cell phones in colonial times—don’t mention a song or a band that didn’t exist yet—things that really question credibility. Check to make sure when things were invented.
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?
D.R.: I always enjoy connecting with readers and other authors, so please connect with me:
The Sins of Jubal Cooper is a 2018 historical novella by Mary Lingerfelt, a Christian author. Sitting at around 40,000 words, the novella is set in rural Georgia, during the height of the Great Depression. It follows the misadventures of eight-year-old Will Henry as he commits a crime and is then forced to work off his debt to society by working for the infamous Judge Jubal Cooper, a man Will considers to be like the devil.
Speaking historically, The Sins of Jubal Cooper accurately captures the feelings and themes of Depression-era America. The text deals with families doing it tough, the division of class between the rich and the poor, the treatment of African-Americans, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
The story is told from the perspective of Will and, as such, it uses literary techniques that immerse the reader in the mind of an eight-year-old. Words like scared as purposefully misspelled as skeered or killed as kilt. These types of misspellings aren’t overbearing, and they do a fantastic job of adding to the immersion. As a poor eight-year-old in Depression-era Georgia, Will certainly doesn’t speak as ‘proper’ as Jubal Cooper, for instance, and the divide between Will’s language and Jubal’s language definitely helps to reinforce the theme of class division.
As Mary Lingerfelt is a Christian author, The Sins of Jubal Cooper also discusses the concept of faith, particularly Will’s as he tries to repent for his crime and his belief that Jubal Cooper isn’t a very moral man. Personally, I am not a religious person, but I still found this novella thoroughly captivating. The religious themes are visible enough to tie the story together; but, if you’re non-religious like myself, the themes definitely aren’t overbearing.
For me, the line that best represents The Sins of Jubal Cooper (and its themes of religion, repentance, and Depression-era loss) is found about halfway through the text. Will says, “I was ‘sposed to repent right away, and I knew that; but it was a Depression on, and everybody had to dicker with their conscience the best they could.” All in all, this is a book about Will trying to repent for his crime and navigate the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous life that Jubal Cooper leads.
I genuinely liked this novella. At 40,000 words it isn’t that daunting to pick up, for those of you who like reading shorter stories. I look forward to reading more from Mary Lingerfelt in the future, as I am definitely interested in her writing style, and the way she uses historical fiction to paint a picture of different historical eras.
Harry Andrew Miller is a freelance history writer from Australia. He specializes in writing about the First World War, but his interests encapsulate all eras. Visit Harry online at www.harryandrewmiller.com.
Before the sun rises, the earth itself heaves out a long, moaning shudder. Mother’s bronze goblet clatters to the table, sending crystal droplets of water spraying across the wooden surface. The dented plates and tarnished silverware slide a few inches across the table, a few overturning and falling down to the floor. Stale bread crumbs scatter across the wooden planks. I feel my chair slide forward slightly, and I reach out and grab the edge of the table. For a fraction of a second, it trembles as well, but as quickly as the tremor comes, it disappears. I look down and see that my hands are clenched around the edge of the table, my knuckles white. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then look around. Mother sits frozen at the table, her face pale and ghostly, her hands gripping the fabric of her skirt. Father stands in the corner, frowning, the palm of his hand pressed against the cold stone wall, his fist clenched by his side. I stare at him for a second. He senses me watching, and our eyes meet. His gaze softens.
“That’s the second one this week.”
Caecilia begins to wail from the corner. Mother rises from her seat and hurries over to the cradle, and just like that, life begins again.
I sit on the rough, worn wood of the circular stool and stare down at the lopsided pot before me. My eyes narrow in concentration and I bite my lip, reaching out and attempting to mold the clay into the right shape. The simple rounded structure of the vase collapses in on itself the second I touch it. I hear Father calling out my name.
I look up from the wheel, relieved to get away from the pottery. He stands in the doorway to the shop, leaning against the frame of the door.
“I’ve got a chore for you.”
Though most shops and buildings in Pompeii are covered in graffiti, my father insists on removing every bit of the writing that appears on our walls. Erasing the painted scribbles is the only task I hate more than making pots. I drag my feet over to the corner of the room and grab a rag and a bucket of water. Then, with one last glance at Father’s retreating back, I step outside.
The sky is a clear blue, misted over with streaks of pale gray. The air is luke-warm, relaxed, and a faint breeze tickles the back of my neck. The sun hangs halfway between the horizon and its highest point, causing gentle shadows to flit in between buildings and under towering trees. It illuminates the hasty red scrawl spreading across the side of our shop, standing out against the rough stone. I walk over to the words and dunk the rag into the bucket.
Before I can begin scrubbing, the earth shakes again. The bucket of water clatters onto its side, the spilling liquid quickly absorbed by the paved ground. I drop the rag and press my palm into the wall for stability, but the wall itself is shuddering. The earth seems to shift under my feet, and I swallow and squeeze my eyes shut. I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. My breath comes out in short, sudden bursts. My eyes stay closed, my palm continues to press against the trembling wall. Then, after a few seconds, it is over. I hesitantly open my eyes and pick up the rag, turning the bucket right side up. I wet the rag with what little water remains and quickly wipe away the inscription, my heart still caught in my throat. When I am done, I turn around and race back into the shop, not caring that the faint pink traces linger on the stone.
It is midday and every street corner, every alleyway, should be filled with life and light. There certainly shouldn’t be a dark mass of clouds reaching out with long fingers, spreading like galloping black horses across the horizon. The city should not be shrouded in darkness, the sun should not be a faint, almost invisible glow from behind the wall of black, the mountain should not be emitting streams of deep, dark smoke. There should not be a faint rumbling erupting from the earth itself, a deep, low growl like the first murmurs of thunder before a raging storm. And yet, there is.
I turn away from the window, swallowing. Mother stands behind me, her hand cupped around the flame of a flickering candle, the soft light illuminating the lines of worry on her face. She stares out of the window for a second longer, then turns to Father.
“We’re leaving the city for a while.”
“No!” Father shouts. “This has gone far enough, we’re not going anywhere!”
Mother glares at him, and I feel dread building in my stomach. When they start arguing, they can go on for hours.
“The mountain is smoking. There were two tremors this morning. Two, in one day! The sky is dark, like it’s night, but it’s only midday! The…”
Father bangs his fist on the table. “Enough! The gods do not punish those who have committed no crime. We have made the proper sacrifices, broken no laws.”
“I know.” Mother suddenly looks tired. “Believe me, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is happening. If we don’t leave, all of Pompeii will fall, including us.” Mother is still calm. Her face in mostly expressionless, but I can see a trace of fear flickering in and out of her eyes with the light of the candle.
Father grits his teeth. “And leave the shop? Our customers?”
Mother stares back at him. “Your customers are likely halfway out their doors by now. We will be the only ones left in this city!”
Father glares at her. “No. We are not leaving.”
A tense silence fills the room.
Finally, after an eternity, Mother speaks.
“Julius. Come.” She carefully lifts Caecilia out of her cradle and moves toward the door.
Avoiding Father’s gaze, I follow her.
Father takes a step forward. “We’re not going anywhere-”
Mother whirls around, her jaw set. “No, you don’t have to leave, you don’t have to, but I am going to make sure that my children survive this!”
She meets Father’s eyes, and without another word, turns and steps out the door, into the darkness. I follow her without looking back, and as soon as the door closes, Caecilia bursts into tears.
It’s been a while since we left. The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination.
I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever-burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.
I’ve stopped keeping track of the sun, the sky, the time, of anything but the mountain and the distance to the dock. The smell of smoke hangs in the air, seeming to get stronger and stronger with each second, each step I take. The crowd has lessened. Most people have gone south, to the larger dock, the one with more boats. Mother and I turned North, to the closer, smaller dock.
My legs ache from the long walk, my arms feel like lead from carrying Caecilia. I want to stop, but I know we can’t. Mother pushes ahead, never seeming to tire, holding the candle out in front of her. Caecilia is asleep in my arms, soft and warm, breathing lightly. With each step I take, she feels ten times heavier. My joints seem to be made of stone, hard to move, more difficult to pick up with every step. I don’t think I can keep it up much longer.
I stop to catch my breath and look over my shoulder. I can see the mountain looming in the distance, a huge dark mound of pure black rock, coated in a layer of ash. It spits out stream after stream of what looks like liquid flame, erupting out of the rock along with huge chunks of debris and hardened ash. More smoke rises up from the mountain, joining the swirling mass of dark clouds and scattered ash clustered around it, the mass that seems to spread out as far as the eye can see. The surrounding countryside is shrouded in never-ending blackness, dark as night itself. Then the first stream of liquid fire rolls onto the land, glowing with reds and oranges and yellows, and the ground is alight with crackling flames, golden, dancing in the night, spreading outward from the looming mountain. Something like a whimper escapes my throat.
Father, I think.
Mother grips my arm and pulls me forward “Only a bit farther. Just under a mile to the dock.”
I try to reply, but as soon as I open my mouth, I begin to cough uncontrollably. My lungs seem to constrict inside of my chest, and I can’t bring myself to take another breath. I fall to my knees and Mother crouches down beside me, her eyes panicked.
“Julius!” she shouts, but the sound seems to come from far away, blurry, faint, echoing in my ears. I’m vaguely aware of the crowd swerving around us, too, of a sharp, cold voice snapping at Mother to get off of the path, of her hissed response.
I feel her hands taking my sister from my arms, feel her fist pounding on my back, and finally air rushes into my lungs, smoke filled and dense, but air all the same.
I gasp, relieved, and we stay there for a few minutes until I regain my breath, Mother’s arms around me. When I’ve finally recovered, Mother glances up at the sky warily and stands up, the worry lines on her face more prominent than I’ve ever seen them before.
“Come on. We have to make it before the boats leave.” I swallow. We’ve lost precious minutes, and the wind seems stronger than ever. As I struggle to get up, our candle gutters out, plunging us into almost complete darkness. There is a moment of silence. Then Mother drops the unlit candle and takes my hand.
“Come on. We have to go.” I nod and swallow.
We begin to walk again.
The sky is black when we reach the beach. Not the black of night, soft and dark as ink, bathed in dancing starlight. No, this black is closer to gray than the sky should be, rolling outward in a way the sky never does and never should. And it’s all coming from the mountain. The boats sit on the dock, almost invisible in the darkness, but not quite, some already halfway out to sea, a few lit candles bobbing up and down from each, shining beacons against the shadow of the clouds.
The sand jitters under my feet, shifting with the rumbling of the earth. I take a step forward, carefully. The tangy scent of sea salt carried on the ocean breeze mingles with the acrid stench of thick, dark smoke, creating a pungent odor that fills my lungs and my mouth, making me want to gag. The ground shifts again and I lose my balance, falling into the sand. It cushions me, but when I scramble up, there are small grains plastered to my cheek, my elbows, and knees. The taste of wet sand fills my mouth, and I spit onto the ground trying to get rid of it.
I feel a hand on my arm. Mother. Together, we make our way to the wood of the dock, closer and closer to the boats. Finally, we’re piled onto a craft, along with nine others. It’s a simple, wooden vessel called The Spirit. The boat barely seats all of us with two crammed into each seat meant for one. And as the oars begin to turn, as the boat gently kisses the rippling waterfront goodbye, the mountain towers over us, watching. And laughing.
The boat ride is long, seemingly endless, the water underneath the craft dark and devoid of any life, shimmering with the reflections of gentle, flickering candlelight. Mother and I huddle in the corner of the boat, Mother gripping Caecilia, the ever-present shadow of the mountain still hanging above us. Beside us, a girl, no older than seven, leans into her mother, who clutches her younger brother, not five years of age, to her chest.
The oars reach into the inky water and sweep back out, over and over and over again. They lift up droplets, shimmering beads of saltwater that spray across us every few moments, showering down from above like drizzling rain, the mountain’s rumbling so much like distant thunder.
Caecilia feels warm, soft, gentle in my arms. A bead of water lands on her forehead, and I wipe it away. It’s strangely calm, almost peaceful, the only sounds the gentle dropping of the oars and the heavy breathing of the passengers. The men who move the oars stare straight, straight ahead at the endless expanse of water before them, or at the smoldering mountain behind them. The oars dip into the water and pull back out, over and over, forcing the boat forward. The water laps lightly at the sides of the boat, the gentle slapping of water against wood becoming repetitive, persistent. We’ve left the bay by now, the edge of the coast only a faint, thin line in the distance. The craft cuts through the water cleanly. The ocean is smooth and dark, like rippling folds of velvet. And always, there’s that unrelenting tension hanging over us, threatening to strangle us all.
And finally, listening to the oars, the breathing, the lapping water, I begin to cry. I let the tears come, let them fall onto the wooden planks, and somehow, after they’ve been absorbed by the boat, I feel lighter. Not better, not safer, but lighter. Maybe this craft is called The Spirit for a reason. I look up at the layer of dark clouds above us with my red-rimmed eyes, at the endless shadow it casts. It spreads over Pompeii, over the dock, over us. But there, near the horizon…
A trace of light.
When The Spirit pulls into the harbor hours later, the sky is filled with shimmering stars, almost fading with the coming of day, crafted by the gods and placed in the sky to light up the night until the break of dawn. I can see each one shining, bright and clear. The sun hangs just under the horizon, setting the heavens on fire with woven clouds of rose and gold. The sky shines through from underneath, the faded color of a nesting bluebird’s wing. I can see the sun. I can see the sky. No veil of darkness flows in front of them.
But I can also see the mountain, no longer pouring liquid flames onto the distant land, but still emitting wisps of thick, gray smoke. The cloud is no longer expanding but still hangs over the city. That’s my city. No, not just my city. My world. My father, my friends…the list is endless. Are any of them still alive?
I shudder, ropes of terror wrapping around my heart, spreading through my veins, each one stronger than the last. They close in on me, squeezing my heart, tighter and tighter and tighter, until I can’t breathe. I swallow and push down the feeling, and the ropes loosen, but they don’t disappear. I step out of the craft, onto land. The sand is firm and stable under my feet in comparison to the constant shaking of the boat. I gulp in the fresh salty air, and something fills me, something that I haven’t felt in a long time. Relief. Not full, overwhelming relief, but more like a muddled mixture of relief and guilt. But I let it take over. I know I shouldn’t feel it, and I know it’s wrong, but I do feel it, I do. I’m relieved that I’m out of Pompeii, away from the ash, the smoke, the mountain.
And so I run all the way to the edge of the beach, the wet sand clinging to the soles of my feet, run out onto the dry powder that the salt-tipped brush of the ocean has yet to paint, the fine, white grains spraying up to meet the air where my feet touch, coming to rest in the sandal-shaped indentations I leave in the ground. I turn around to Mother. There is sorrow on her face, and for the smallest fraction of a second, I can’t figure out why.
Then I remember, Father.
A bird pecks away at the sand behind me. The birds belong here, and the sand and the sea and the boat and the fish, but I don’t. I belong in Pompeii. But home does not exist anymore.
Prisha Mehta is a student at Millburn High School in New Jersey, and she is very passionate about her writing. She aspires to be a successful author one day, and she has won many writing awards. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in many places including Asymmetry, Ginosko, Blue Marble Review, Riggwelter, Gravel, Kairos, Five on Fifth, and Deracine. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or, of course, reading. You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com.
I carry my morning urine to the garden. Already, moisture hangs in the air, a portent of the oppressive heat that will grow as Ra reaches his zenith. Two bags of grain hide in the shade of our jasmine. I pour a portion of urine into each, as I have for the last five days, before checking for growth. Barley on the left, emmer wheat on the right. I bend closer to search for any sign of life even though the pungent aroma of waste makes me blink. Neither grain has sprouted from their foundation of sand and dates.
“Amsu,” my mother calls from inside. “You’ll be late for the festival unless you hurry.”
I bathe quickly and smooth lotus cream over my body, saving the strongest unguent to brush under my arms and on my thighs. Its minty fragrance fills the air and brings memories of the last festival and traveling the marshes with Adom.
I pack the memories in my shawl along with my best sheath dress, wig, and cosmetics. “Coming.”
Mother kisses me on the cheek. “I will petition Hathor for a favorable oracle.”
Hathor, the goddess of love and fertility. I have yet to tell my mother that the goddess has already blessed me with fertility. I return to Hathor’s festival today to confirm that she has blessed me with a love pairing as well.
With the Nile river on my left, I face into the warm breeze and begin my half day journey to the Temple of Mut, the location of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s bi-annual Festival of Drunkenness. Already the twentieth day of Thoth, the Nile swells from the marshes, bringing fertility to Egypt, just as my stomach swells with new life. I wonder what Adom will say when I tell him. My heart urges me forward, despite the sweltering heat from Ra’s rays.
I reach the temple grounds and weave my way through the seven-hundred-and-sixty lion-headed statues—two for each day of the year—of Sakhmet, Hathor’s counterpart. A peace offering so the lion goddess won’t rampage against us once again.
Inside the temple, I dress with the other Mistresses of Drunkenness. The temple priests anoint us with myrrh oil and weave flowers into our hair: blue lotus, poppy, jasmine, mandrake, and daisies. They divide us into two groups and bid us wait on either side of the temple near the large cisterns of beer. If not for the bestowing of this honor, I would never have met Adom.
The festival goers, royalty and commoners alike, admire our beauty until Queen Hatshepsut arrives. She wears the traditional Nemes headdress, beard, and Shendyt of a Pharaoh even though she is female. Here is a woman who has taken destiny into her own hands and been blessed by the gods for it.
“Ra was unhappy with Egypt because of her rebelliousness,” she begins. “He commanded his daughter Hathor to punish mankind. In her true form she could not, so she became Sakhmet. As a lion, she terrorized the Nile, slicing and eating mankind.
“The council of gods beseeched Ra to stop Sakhmet before there were no people left. Ra commanded her to desist, but blood lust consumed her, so she could not hear him. In their wisdom, the council flooded the Nile valley with ochre-colored beer so that when Sakhmet came upon it, she believed it to be blood. She drank her fill, became inebriated, and fell asleep. When she awoke, she was the benevolent Hathor once again.
“This is why we celebrate the Festival of Drunkenness.” Hatshepsut raises her arms. “Drink to appease Sakhmet so she does not return to destroy us. Drink again to commune with Hathor, the goddess who brings fertility to Egypt and her people. Drink so the gods may grant your supplications.”
She concludes her invocation, and the priests light kyphi incense. The heady aroma, a mix of frankincense, myrrh, and pine resin, produces euphoria in the crowd as they wait for us to serve them beer. I submerge my serving faience, a lion-shaped container colored lotus blue, into the closest beer cistern until air bubbles rise and pop and rise no more.
As I meander through the temple and porch areas filling cups, I search for Adom. I’ve refilled my faience more than twenty times before I spy him. He sits in the corner of the patio among a group of young men. Dressed in the same wig, kilt, and roguish half-smile as last festival, he raises his cup with a wink when he sees me.
My cheeks heat with pleasure, and I ignore the cups shoved in my path as I wind my way toward him.
“Hello, beautiful,” he slurs.
I refill his cup and those of his friends. “Adom, I have news.”
He pulls me down onto his lap. His words caress my ear. “I’m anxious to hear anything you have to say.”
I swivel on his lap so I can peer into his date-colored eyes. I lean in to whisper, “Hathor blessed our travels through the marshes at the last festival. I’m pregnant.”
His gaze drops to my belly, where my sheath dress pulls tightly, and returns to my face. His eyes struggle to focus on me. Once he does, his brows furrow then smooth. “I remember you.”
My shoulders relax. Hopefully he will agree that Hathor has ordained us for one another.
His head wobbles on his neck as he nods. “More beer, Amnu.” His voice is gentle. “Then we can go someplace and discuss your… our situation.”
I return to the temple, where the sweet-spicy kyphi hangs thick in the air. Its aroma coils through me, churning my stomach. Before I can draw more beer from the cistern, my stomach expels its contents. Cursed kyphi!
I roll the contaminated cistern outside and dump it onto the bushes lining the porch. Hopefully the goddess will understand that I wasn’t trying to spoil her offering. It was she, after all, who blessed me with this condition.
I hold my breath as I re-enter the temple and hurry to fill the lion-shaped container before my stomach revolts again. Bodies of the revelers who have already succumbed to their cups litter the floor as I make my way back to Adom. When I return, his friends sleep, propped against one another with their backs to the temple wall. One snores loud enough to wake the gods, but not loudly enough to wake his companions. Adom is not among them. Neither is he anywhere on the porch or in the temple. I brave the bushes in case he’s gone to relieve himself, but there is no sign of him. I’m at a loss of where to search next when his voice carries to me on the wind.
I head into the breeze until I find him… travelling through the marshes with a different Mistress of Drunkenness. Her beflowered hair sways in time with their movements.
You were gone too long, my brain supplies. The beer caused him to forget. Or caused him to mistake her for you.Whatever the reason, I cannot stay here and watch them. I stumble backward and my movement catches his attention.
Adom smiles when he sees me. “Amnu,” he calls over his companion’s shoulder, “did you bring more beer?”
I can’t breathe. Can’t think. I’m frozen as completely as the seven-hundred-and-sixty statues of Sakhmet.
He knew. The thoughts come. He knew and he went with her anyway. Then my body is free. My feet carry me away from Adom and the girl he chose over me.
I’m almost to the temple when I find Pharaoh Hatshepsut gazing at the night sky from a bench in the gardens. She holds her ornate cup out to me, and I refill it.
“So many tears for such a pretty girl.” She takes a large swallow. “Have some beer; it will make you feel better.”
So, I do. I sit next to her on the bench and drink directly from the lion-shaped faience. I tell her of Adom and his treachery. When I finish, she is silent for so long that I don’t think she will comment. I’m not even sure whether she was listening to me.
“The waters of the Nile may bring fertility to the land,” she finally says, “but they also harbor danger. Some get swept away and drown. Others are devoured by the beasts who live within her. The Nile is like the two sides of our goddess: the gentle Hathor, goddess of love and fertility, and Sakhmet, Ra’s lion goddess of judgment.”
When she leaves, I stare at the heavens and contemplate my future. I ponder Hatshepsut, the queen who claimed her own destiny as Pharaoh. Perhaps the time has come for me to grasp my own destiny.
One by one, I pull the flowers from my hair. As I crush mandrake leaves and poppy seeds into the remaining beer, I beseech the goddess. Not Hathor, whose blessing Adom rejected. I call on Sakhmet.
Adom is groggy when I refill his cup. He tries to smile at me, but he’s too drunk. He drinks, but the beer dribbles down his chin and onto his naked chest. I wipe it away with his kilt, then I help him finish the rest of it. The naked girl draped across him doesn’t stir. When he passes out, I leave the faience with them and head for home.
The Nile flows on my right, the breeze pushes against my back, and the temple drums call the revelers to wake at sunrise. I wonder when Adom’s companion will realize he will never wake from his slumber. Will she understand that Sakhmet has judged him unworthy?
When I reach my home, I check the twin bags of grain curled under the jasmine. I have no urine to give them, but, as I have for the last six days, I check for growth. Barley on the left, emmer wheat on the right. I bend closer to search for any sign of life even though the pungent aroma makes my stomach recoil. Small green shoots greet me from the barley. My child will be a son.
I smile and pat my swelling belly. A child of barley. The main ingredient of beer, instrumental in both his conception and his father’s demise.
I will teach my son that, like the Nile and our goddess, everything has the propensity to nurture or destroy. He must learn to receive the blessings the gods send, as Hatshepsut did when she made herself Pharaoh, so that he does not bring destruction upon himself, lest he end up like his father.
Lisa Godfrees is the Operations Manager and a daily editor at Havok Publishing. Prior to that, she worked over a decade in a crime lab as both a DNA analyst and manager. Tired of technical writing, she hung up her lab coat to pen speculative fiction. Author of several short works of fiction and co-author of Mind Writer: A Novel, she posts short stories on her blog at lisagodfrees.com.
The disease interrupted a perfectly good war. A quarrel of kings had kept France and England in battle for over a decade, but then the plague ruined it. The plague ruined everything.
The disease started in the sea. Like a wave it slid a clear film over the shore, through the streets, and into the towns. It entered doors and flooded hearths. Then it began to eat. It wolfed down coastal towns until almost none were left alive. Ravenously, it ate parents. It ate children. It didn’t care. Nothing could satisfy its greed. Its sin was gluttony, and it craved towns. Cities, too. A tight wad of homes wrapped in a stonewall casing, with a castle as a topper…that was a special treat. After it picked a few towns and cities from its teeth, it developed a taste for countries. France. Spain. Portugal. England. It grew hungrier and ate Germany and Norway. It set its sights on Russia, and it ate and ate and ate. In Antioch people fled to the north but died on the road. No one could outrun its hunger.
In those days, a headache and a bit of nausea meant a person had two days left to live. Eight days, if God was feeling cruel. Egg-sized bulboes full of pus regularly protruded from groins, necks, and armpits. They oozed and they bled. Fingernails turned black and people tossed in bed, delirious with fever. Peasants and nobles alike were afraid of the air and kept their doors and windows closed tightly at night. They killed lepers and Jews. Nothing helped; dark spots covered skin, and bloody vomit splashed in the streets, in bowls, on floorboards. Even kings were sticky with it.
This hindered England’s war a great deal, nothing could stop them. They took Cadzand and Auberoche while nearby, weeping filled the streets. They took Calais and Crecy and Saint-Pol-de-Leon as doctors in bird-like masks stuffed herbs in their beaks to protect themselves from God’s wrath. They took La Roche-Derrien, Saintes, and Mauron after corpses had already become a part of everyday life. Loved ones were gently laid to rest in a pit on top of other loved ones. The bodies were so tangled that mothers couldn’t tell which arms belonged to which bodies, or whether the strands of hair lying across their daughters’ faces were theirs or someone else’s.
When it had reached every corner of the earth, the plague let out a large belch and it was gone. Its four-year feast was over. The table scraps it left behind was half of Europe.
Finally the city of Poitiers was lost and the British captured the king. France said stop, we beg of you. We’ll pay whatever you want. Twenty years of losing battles takes a heavy toll, but the toll of living with death is even heavier.
France returned from negotiations limping and tired, a shell of what it once was. That generation never recovered. Neither did the next. Even their grandchildren felt keenly the poverty and emptiness of France, the loss of so much land, so much money, and so many people. At least the British were gone.
But they would come back. This is one thing the plague and England had in common: they always came back.
Teralyn Pilgrim is an MFA candidate at Western New England University with a BA in English. She is currently querying Voodoo Queen, a novel of Marie Laveau. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and two girls.
Mambi, years dead, came to Chloe in the night and told her that Mr. Henry was a wooden paddle and Mistress Abitha was a wooden post. Having been beaten to a limp by Mr. Henry weeks before for eating the last of the root-cellared potatoes, Mistress Abitha standing by, Chloe had no reason to argue with her mother. Mambi rarely visited, so Chloe didn’t want to waste time on the evident. She would rather hear of Mambi’s roamings—her flight here to Plymouth, back to Barbados, back to Africa, and back again, a Black-winged Kite circling carrion, smelling of Caribbean sugar fields, fish rot, and blood.
For reasons, Mambi had killed Master Green’s overseer with a hoe to the neck. Master Green hung her from a Cassia tree for it. Chloe was only four years old, but she remembered her mother twitching and then dangling from the end of the noose, her head nestled in the flowering boughs of the tree, a limp queen with a festooned crown. Chloe remembered how Master Green cut Mambi down and then set her on fire. Keeping Mambi alive, barefoot, and bound to the sugar fields would have answered Mambi’s deed many-fold. Killing her increased her rage and gave her flight.
Killing her gave her schemes and she would fly to Chloe betimes to share them. Even though Chloe liked hearing Mambi’s plans to avenge herself, Chloe couldn’t say she approved of her mother’s murdering hands. God commanded slaves to obey their masters and roared, “Thou shalt not kill!” Many a Lord’s Day, Miss Abitha read those words aloud out of The Book. If Mr. Henry was a paddle and Miss Abitha was a post, Mambi was a closed fist—always fighting—and rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft! Miss Abitha read that out of The Book, too. Chloe believed witchery was the truth of Mambi, and she scorned her dead mother for it, even as Mambi sat in the dark corner of Chloe’s sleeping nook, the whites of her eyes piercing the dark like a cornered possum’s. For Mambi’s sins, Master Green, as good as God himself, erased her from the material world. Fair enough. Chloe knew that she, herself, wasn’t a fighter nor a murderer like Mambi. She was weepy, needy, and now lame, which was fair enough, too—she should not have taken the last of the potatoes.
Still, Mambi’s fighting spirit lit embers in Chloe’s stomach. Warmed her. But, the guilt of this sympathy cooled her a bit. Miss Abitha wouldn’t approve of Mambi’s incorporeal comings and goings, let alone her talk of revenge which was God’s property, just as sure as Mambi was Master Green’s and Chloe was Mr. Henry’s.
“I make him sick wit’ what he done,” Mambi rasped, the whites of her eyes and toothy smile glimmering. “I take it—me red rage—ball it up, send it to him, and he come down sick. Slow but sure, I lay him in de grave. Soon. And him send you here to this paddle and post after I gone? Nah suh! I put him low.”
Chloe turned her face away from Mambi, the leg Mr. Henry hobbled throbbing under the gingham. “Leave me,” she whispered.
“He beat you! And she watch!” Mambi threw up her hands. Her fingers looked like bony feathers.
“He meant it not. And she is sorry for it.”
Chloe kept her low tones. Mr. and Mistress were sleeping in the next room while she slept on a paletted hay mattress behind a makeshift curtain in the pantry. Making it up to the attic was nearly impossible after Mr. Henry’s pummeling work on the lower part of her leg. The pantry was not a likely place for a food thief, so Mr. Henry must have had faith in his power to apply proper and effective correction.
“You power ‘dem, gal. Lay ‘dem low.” Mambi’s eyes glittered in the dark, slim shafts of glow from the full moon striping her black face from between the slats in the wooden slab that covered one of the only windows in the house.
While Mambi rasped on, Chloe closed her eyes and called on the only Power. She recited the Lord’s prayer, over and over again, eventually drifting to sleep on Mambi’s smell of boiling sugar, on Mambi’s pain and its intangible power to waste, on the prayer’s promise of forgiveness and deliverance from evil.
The next morning, Mr. Henry, foot shod and clad with his field hat, glared at Chloe’s’ leg from the kitchen board. Mistress Abitha sat opposite him as she folded three cloth napkins lengthwise.
“Make haste, girl. I must to the fields.”
Mr. Henry, with his marvel of auburn curls peaking from under his hat and the matching wiry hair on his chin and cheeks would not look Chloe in the eyes as she limped to the table with the morning bread and cheese. But, Mistress Abitha looked at her kindly which heartened Chloe a bit. Miss Abitha laid two of the napkins on the table for Mr. Henry and Chloe, adjusting her white cap over the blonde hair that Chloe had braided into two long ropes a few days since.
“You mustn’t stand today, Chloe,” she said.
“She will stand, Abitha. It is her custom to stand and it is her place to stand.”
Mr. Henry stared at the table, his chin propped with elbows and folded hands, the unyielding stance looking oddly like the act of prayer. “There’s nothing wrong with her. She be play-acting.”
A root of hurt budded in Chloe’s abdomen as her leg throbbed. It sent a prickly tendril up through her throat and behind her eyes. She swallowed and blinked to smother it. She grit her teeth to kill it, red washing her vision. As she stood between Mr. Henry and Miss Abitha nibbling on a crust of bread as they ate, a boiling sweetness crept into the air, even after the breakfast prayer. She wondered if they could smell it, too. She wondered if they could sense the warmth blooming in her stomach as she listened for the rustling of black wings. Mambi could wither with her pain. Of a sudden, Chloe wondered if she could do the same with hers.
Auntie Win never says anything nice to me. It’s always “Joyce, take your elbows off the table.” “Joyce, don’t talk with your mouth full.” I don’t want to go and live with her in Brimley, but I suppose I must.
“You’re so lucky to have an aunt living in Essex,” my mother says, as we’re travelling up on the train. “You might’ve been evacuated.”
When she opens the door to us, Auntie Win’s wearing her bright blue district nurse’s uniform, ‘sensible’, black, lace-up shoes and wrinkled flesh-coloured stockings on her thick legs. “Expected you half an hour ago. I have to go out. One of my patients has had a fall. I’ve made you tea.” She waves her hand at a brown pot with minute white chips on its spout.
Moments later she’s swinging her leg over her bicycle and jingling her bell at a dog in the road, leaving us in the ill lit kitchen, me counting the faded black and white quarry tiles on the floor and trying to ignore the stale cabbage smell seeping up my nostrils. My mother smooths her silk dress and brushes the wicker seat of her chair before she sits down. I expect her to make her usual Auntie Win comments, about droopy skirts and outside lavatories, but, over the past few months, as war with Germany became more likely every hour, my parents have stopped saying this sort of thing.
We’re unpacking my suitcase in the little room where I am to sleep when we become aware of the hum of conversation and revving of engines in the street below. I step over to the window. “Buses,” I cry. “Red London buses.” I pull my mother, shaking her head, to the tiny casement. “Honestly. Look. It says ‘London Transport’ on them.” I want to add, “Aren’t they splendid? Aren’t they spiffing?” but then I think that would be a funny thing to say about buses.
My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs.
It takes me a moment realise that there’s something wrong about these ordinary red Route Masters, lined up behind each other as if in a queue. All the passengers are children. They’re tumbling off the landing platforms like ants, clutching gas masks in cardboard boxes and carrying brown paper parcels bundled up with string.
Turning away, my mother stoops down to examine her face in the looking-glass. “From the East End, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Proper evacuees, with brown luggage labels tied around their necks. Even though the sun has been shining down upon us all day, a reminder that summer is not yet over, and, earlier, my little bedroom seemed stiflingly hot, a shiver jolts down my spine. This war is really happening.
“Joyce, don’t stare.” My mother beckons me away from the window with a jerk of her head . “You be careful around those East Enders. Remember that you live in a nice house in Friern Barnet. And that your father’s the manager at the bank.”
“What’s the time?” My mother raises her wrist to her nose, and squints at her tiny silver-framed watch. She says that glasses don’t suit her. Picking up her handbag, she reaches over to kiss my cheek. “I’d better take the four thirty-two, darling. Daddy and I are going out to dinner tonight. You’ll be all right until Auntie Win comes home, won’t you?”
I gulp in a short breath. I want to scream, “Please don’t,” and “Please, please, please… take me home,” but I’m twelve. I force a smile. Wartime spirit and all that.
After she’s left, I continue to watch the buses. I wonder if I could stow away under one of the seats and I carry on thinking about this long after they’ve revved up and driven off, around the corner and out of sight. For a moment, I still hear their clattering engines… then nothing, only the shopkeeper over the road retracting his blind. If only I were fourteen. Fourteen year olds are allowed to stay in my wonderful London. If only we had relatives in America, like my friend, Eileen. She’s sailing on the Queen Mary tomorrow. Lucky thing.
Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.
* * * * *
6th September 1939
I’ve started at Brimley School for Girls. The buildings are old, with long corridors painted grass green and mustard yellow, hardly any playground, no tennis courts or hockey pitches, or anything like we had at my old school. There are so many of us in the form room that some pupils have to share a desk, or even kneel on the floor. The village girls have bagged all the places on one side of the room and the evacuees, all from Deptford, the other side. I sit at a single desk at the middle, in front of a pillar, beside me pipes which gurgle like someone being sick.
When Miss Clough asks us to introduce ourselves, I’m last. “Joyce Harper, Miss,” I say. “From Friern Barnet Ladies’ Academy.”
Someone behind me sniggers.
* * * * *
Everyone at school keeps calling me ‘Friern Barnet’. The Deptford girls started it. They say I talk posh and I’m stuck up. I don’t and I’m not.
I’ve just spoken to Mummy from the telephone box down the road. I asked her about coming home, just for a weekend, but she won’t let me. It’s not fair. The Germans haven’t dropped any bombs in London. I didn’t tell her anything about school, of course. She’s doing war work, knitting for the WRVS, and Daddy’s an air raid warden.
Auntie Win’s listening to ‘The News’ on the wireless when I get back, but then the announcer’s voice fades out and that horrid Lord Haw-Haw comes on. It’s disgusting the way he talks. Nobody knows who he is, or even if he’s one person or several. His accent’s British, though.
Afterwards, I feel cold inside, as if icy water is running through my veins. Auntie Win makes more cocoa. She makes very good cocoa. We don’t talk about Lord Haw-Haw. We don’t talk much at all. She reads the newspaper and I do my homework.
* * * * *
They’re calling me names again. They stopped for a few days and now they’ve started again. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I mentioned my old school again during algebra. I’m not a tell-tale, but I did speak to Miss Clough this morning and she was jolly decent. This afternoon, she’s sent me out of class with a message for the headmistress’s secretary, and, when I go back in, she’s saying, “We must just call her ‘Joyce’. That’s her name.”
* * * * *
Nothing goes right for me.
It’s all over the papers that Lord Haw-Haw’s name is ‘William Joyce’. The girls in my class are following me around, chanting, “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”. I hate them all. The rotten thing is that, when Marjorie and Tilly come over at break this morning, I think they want to be friends and I smile at them, but immediately they start. “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”. I hate them. I hate them all so much.
I go back to Auntie Win’s and she’s moaning about clothes left on my bedroom floor. “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
I’ve had enough. I’ll tidy my bedroom, all right. I’ll tidy it so she won’t know I’ve ever been here.
* * * * *
31 October, later.
Auntie Win’s using the outside lavatory when I’m lugging my suitcase downstairs, bumping it over each step, one by one. So much noise and I can’t help it. I’m afraid of damaging the case, or the catch bursting open. I slip out the front door, but don’t slam it shut. I’ve 5s 2d in my purse. That’s going to be enough, surely. I trundle down the street, dragging my heavy suitcase. I never realised how uneven the Brimley pavement is, and the handles on my case are really hurting my hands. I have to keep swapping from left to right, but, like the poster says, I carry on. Into the station booking office at last. “Single to Liverpool Street, please.” Ah, the music of those words.
“Six shillings,” mutters the booking clerk, as I empty the contents of my purse on to the counter.
I push my coins towards him, shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits, pennies, halfpennies and farthings. I look up at him, studying the lines on his face and his sprouting eyebrows. He’s smiling. I’m sure he’s a nice man. He’s got to be a nice man. No, he’s not. He’s shaking his head. “But…” I plead.
“Six shillings, Miss.”
“Six shillings to you. Same as everybody else.” Calling “Yes?” over my head, to the soldier in uniform, he shoves my coins back across the wooden counter.
The Deptford girls – the real evacuees – would have argued the toss with a C’monnn Misterrrr.
I’m Joyce, from Friern Barnet. And still in Brimley.
I trudge back through the village, past the Co-op, the church, my school, and all the other horrible, dreary buildings. It’s autumn now. Dusk is falling and, with the blackout, it goes dark fast. Only the fish and chip shop gives out a faint glow. Mummy says, you can never get the smell of chip fat out of your clothes.
Ten minutes later, I’m staring at the leaded fanlight over Auntie Win’s porch, papered over in accordance with wartime regulations. I lift my hand to knock. I’ll do it. In a minute.
A piercing sound like splitting wood has me staggering backwards. The front door, swollen with October damp, rips open. My aunt, a yellow cardigan over her blue nurse’s dress, hovers in the doorway, her hand on the lintel. Her complexion, never beautiful like my mother’s, is drained of any colour, except for suddenly prominent freckles and pink broken veins.
“Joyce. Thank God.” Then she reaches out for my arm and pulls me inside, as if removing me from imminent danger.
“Your mother… What could I have said?” Her eyes light on my suitcase. She cannot tear them away.
“I’ll… I’ll take it upstairs.” I’m speaking so low I can hardly hear myself.
“I’ll make some cocoa.”
With my hurting hands, striped red and white, I drag my belongings back to my room. She calls up to me three times, even though I remain in my room only to remove my outdoor shoes – not allowed in her house. I sit at the kitchen table, once more counting the black and white quarry tiles, aware of her moving about and making cocoa, but not daring to look at her. “I’m afraid you do have to stay here, Joyce,” says Auntie Win, as she hands my cup to me.
I take a gulp of steaming chocolate froth. It scalds my throat. “I know.”
She sips her own, swallowing loudly. Usually, she’s a tea person. “Your bedroom… it wasn’t too untidy. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”
What did she just say? I shuffle in my seat.
“I’m a nurse. I’m afraid I expect everything to look like a hospital.”
“I’ll make all tidy when I put it everything back.” Grown-ups don’t apologise to children. It’s not the proper thing.
“Thank you.” She sits back in her chair, sliding forwards as if she’s lying on it. “Now, tell me. How are things at school?”
“Really? Unless things have changed a lot since my day, girls can be absolutely horrible.”
Her kind tone almost makes me cry, but I hold back, rushing upstairs again, then wishing I hadn’t because I want my cocoa. She follows me to my room, carrying my cup. When I do talk, she doesn’t put her arm around me and stroke my hair like Mummy would, just sits beside me on my bed. She already knew, of course. People talk in villages.
“Pity you mentioned the ‘Ladies Academy’ bit,” she says.
“It’s what my school’s called.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“I’m not stuck up.”
“I know, but think about how it sounds to other people.” She grabs her handbag. “With all this going on, I haven’t put tea on. Let’s buy fish and chips. We’ll sort out those girls. You see.”
* * * * *
31 October, still.
We’ve been waiting outside the chip shop for some time when Marjorie (from Brimley) and Tilly (from Deptford) join the queue. “Those two’re in my form,” I whisper to Auntie Win.
“Say hello then.”
“They’re waving to you.”
I shake my head.
“Come on, Joyce. Be friendly. Wave back.”
I don’t want to, but I do, because Auntie Win’s raising her eyebrows and looking at me.
I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.
An icy wind, straight off the North Sea, whips through my Friern Barnet coat. Tilly says it’s cold because it blows from Germany. Tilly can be nice sometimes. When I get my meal, wrapped up in the Daily Sketch, I clasp it to my chest like a hot water bottle. “Mummy doesn’t let me eat in the street, but would it be all right if we had a few chips?”
Auntie Win is already unravelling her bundle of newsprint. “Mum,” she says. “Mum.”
I frown. “Mummy wouldn’t like being called Mum.”
“Call her what you like… in Friern Barnet… and don’t eat in the streets… of Friern Barnet. But this is Brimley and I’m Auntie Win.”
“You and she don’t get along, do you?”
“Of course we do,” my aunt says almost before I’ve got my words out. She bites off a large piece of fish and chews it slowly. She nudges me as we’re about to pass Marjorie and Tilly. “Offer them some chips.”
My arm locks by my side.
I thrust my bag in front of them. “Er… would you like a chip.”
Tilly looks at Marjorie, at Auntie Win, at me, at Auntie Win again. “Watcha,” she giggles, grabbing two.
Rosemary is returning to short story writing after spending time writing a historical novel. She was inspired to write this short story after seeing photographs of red London buses bringing evacuees to a town near to where she lives in Essex, England. She has articles published in Christian Writer and Together. In real life, Rosemary lives with her husband and cat and teaches IT and maths. She blogs about writing and everyday life at Write On.
Why do I write historical fiction? Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins-that’s why. I’ll never forget how it felt to read those books. I want to write books with the same power to transport readers into another time and place.