Anna’s grandfather barely raises as a smile when she returns home. She places the weeds on the table and her grandmother begins to sort through them, tutting each time she finds one that has to be thrown away. The newspaper in front of her grandfather looks untouched. She sits on her bed, waiting for him to call her over but today it seems he has other things on his mind. She leans backwards slowly, trying to see if she can catch a glimpse of the ball under the bed. There’s nothing, he must have taken it away somewhere.
They sit at the table, a bowl in front of them, hot water filled with green leaves. Anna sips the tasteless liquid, watching her grandparents over the spoon, looking for a hint of what is wrong. Both of their faces are expressionless. Apart from occasionally scolding her or praising her when she reads, neither give off much emotion. Not like her father who would hug her each time he came home, or would toss her in the air outside, catching her and then swinging her around. She missed that. She knows they love her, but just a hug or a stroke of her hair would be nice.
When they have finished her grandfather motions for her grandmother to follow him outside, Anna stands up to join them but he waves her away with his hand, he gives her a weak smile in apology.
‘Read the newspaper, Anna. We will be back soon.’
She places the newspaper on the bed and tries to decipher the squiggly lines. On the front page is a man she knows well. The one who they all have to thank for their lives. She curses him in her head, looking around the room to make sure some unknown presence isn’t watching her, aware of her thoughts and ready to take her away.
‘More Food For The People!’, she says out loud. She wonders where that food is, there’s none here for her and her grandparents. She closes the newspaper and puts it back on her grandfather’s table, returning to her bed, covering herself in a light blanket and closing her eyes. She can hear them whispering outside, something must have happened, they don’t take to each other much. Finally the whispering stops and the come back inside, her grandfather opening up his newspaper, her grandmother sitting by the window and watching the road.
Cyril was a simple man, he wanted to live his last few years free from worry, but in a land where food is scarce and thoughts themselves create trouble, this was not an easy task. When his son had left him in charge of his granddaughter he vowed to make sure she at least made it to a woman. Not all of them make it to adulthood but his granddaughter would. He loved to teach her to read, he held the hope that one day this would all collapse and she wouldn’t have to read the meaningless words of the government propaganda.
He worried about her, she was going to get herself in trouble. The ball she had taken home may have been a simple thing but it had come from over the border. A soldier or an official would take great delight in accusing her of collaborating with the enemy. They have little regard for age, as soon as you are born you are their property and obedience is the only way to survive. He used a knife to burst the ball, hiding it under his coat. Far enough away from the house he buried it. He hopes it’s not found, they’ll count out the steps to the nearest house and it will be they who will take the blame. Someone always takes the blame, nothing is innocent.
Not a day goes by where he doesn’t curse them to himself. Survival has replaced all which was pure and innocent. He looks at the child lying on her bed, if she was ignorant, foolish even stupid it would be easier. She wouldn’t ask questions and he wouldn’t have to worry so much. He shakes his head, annoyed at himself for thinking such things, a nuisance she may be, but she reminds him of himself when he was a child. Tomorrow he has to go to the village, there’s a message which has been left at the house of the cadre. He is dreading going, not only is the cadre a horrible man, messages are never good. One never receives good news.
Anna is planning her little escape. She promises herself it will only be for a few minutes. When the soldier has passed she’ll run for the fence and squeeze under, stand on the other side and then she’ll come back. She doesn’t want to leave her grandparents and she could never leave without seeing her father again. Maybe the boy will be there on the other side. She fidgets in her bed, excitement too much for her to sleep.
The soldier is being lazy today, he keeps stopping and squatting down. Only twenty metres in front of her he is squatting and smoking. They give the soldiers cigarettes when they have no money to pay them. He puts the cigarette out on the ground, stands up straight, looks around and begins to move along the fence. Anna’s heart is beating fast, she’s stuck to the ground unable to move, this is her chance but she’s frightened, the enormity of what she is doing suddenly hitting her. She pushes herself up from the ground and runs to the fence, her eyes closed, waiting to hear the sound of a bang.
She opens her eyes and there in front of her is the fence. She pushes a finger through, a tiny part of her now on the other side. She looks left and right, no soldiers are there, she bends down putting her head through the hole which the fox departed from. Her head through she tries to squeeze the rest of her body but it’s stuck, her dress rips as she struggles. She reaches out to pull herself with a clump of grass but it comes away from the ground. She has failed. Energy drained her face falls into the mud. In that moment all she can see is her father, she won’t be able to see him again. Her grandparents too, her grandfather will be shamed, shunned or even worse.
Cyril stands before the cadre, he holds his cap in his hand, looking down at the floor. He hates himself for doing it, he does not want to show this man any respect. He had grown up with him, as a boy the cadre was hated, he would run and tell tales to his mother, the other boys would then receive the wooden spoon from their parents for something which they had never done. During the war he played both sides, telling tales and receiving money. Now he was the most important man in town, your life depended on him and his whims.
‘You know why you are here?’
‘You have a message for me.’
‘Yes. Yesterday we received word your son has been in accident. Unfortunately, he will not be coming home. The state, with their ever-caring hand, have paid for all costs relating to his burial. If you wish to see his grave I give you permission to go but only for two days.’
‘When did he die?’
‘Four months ago.’
‘Why am I only finding out now?’ The cadre looks up at Cyril, such insolence in asking a question. He will forgive him this once, his son has died, he wont forget though, he never forgets.
‘You may go. Tomorrow a man will arrive at eight in the morning and accompany you to the city. The man will not leave your side so please don’t try to do anything stupid. The consequences will be grave.’
‘Please pass on my thanks to the state.’ The cadre twists his lip, he knows Cyril is mocking him.
‘Before you go, Cyril, I must bring up an issue with you. Your granddaughter, she is too curious. You should take better care of her.’
Outside the grandiose concrete building which is surrounded by ramshackle houses, Cyril sits down next to a woman who is handing out newspapers. He allows a tear to escape, wipes it away, takes a newspaper and starts the walk home. Anna mustn’t know, he knows it’s wrong but the news would destroy all innocence in her. He can’t take away the hope she has.
Anna feels a hand on her head, she resigns herself to her fate. The hand taps her face, she looks up, remembering her head is on the other side. It’s the boy, he grabs her hands and pulls her, her body escapes the clutches of the fence, her dress ripped and torn. He takes her hand and pulls her towards a group of bushes, pushing her down to the ground. They wait in silence, five minutes pass before the soldier comes along. She holds her breathe as he passes the hole, in Anna’s mind it doesn’t look like a small hole anymore, it seems to be huge, a great big gaping hole shouting out for the soldier to investigate. He walks past it.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I just wanted to see what it’s like here.’
‘You shouldn’t come here, they’ll kill you. You must go back.’
‘Can I be your friend?’
The boy looks at her quizzically, the girl is skinny, skinnier than anyone he has ever seen before.
‘Yes, you can be my friend but you must go home, he will be back soon.’
‘What is your name?’
The boys eyes keep darting to the fence.
‘My name is Albert.’
‘I am Anna. Tomorrow I will come again, will you come to meet me?’
‘You mustn’t come again, it’s dangerous.’
‘I will come, at the same time.’ Before Albert can reply, Anna hugs him and runs back to the fence, this time she slips under it with ease. She doesn’t turn back, running into the cover on the other side. Albert stands there blushing, heart pounding.
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The first part of this story can be read here
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