Follow the Fox (Part 3)
At home, Albert is picking at his dinner, his father is watching him.
‘What’s the matter, Albert?’
He chews a piece of chicken but is finding it hard to swallow, he’s not hungry, all he can think about is whether the girl, Anna, made it home safely. He asks if he can leave the table, his father nods his head and he retreats to his room. He picks up a small ball, bouncing it against the wall, trying to take his mind elsewhere. It’s not working, he can only think of the girl and what lies on the other side of the fence. His father knocks on the door and comes into his room.
‘You want to go outside and play football? I don’t have work tomorrow so we can spend some time together.’
They stand in the park kicking the ball back forwards to each other. Albert doesn’t have his usual enthusiasm, but his father will wait, he always lets him know what’s on his mind in the end.
‘Why are the people over there poor?’ He points in the direction of the border.
‘It’s complicated, Albert. They’re no different to us, they just ended up on the wrong side of the fence. It could have been us who were poor.’
‘Why can’t we go over there?’
‘It’s dangerous. The people there don’t know as much as we do, they think we’re bad people and want to hurt them. When you go to school they teach you about all the countries in the world, they teach you history and you can write stories when you learn English. They only learn about their leader and how good he is and how bad the rest of the world is.’
‘What would happen if I went over the fence?’
‘They’d probably kill you.’ His father can think of any other way to answer, it can’t be sugar-coated.
‘Oh! I won’t go over then.’
‘There are some things we can’t do anything about, Albert. Maybe one day the fence won’t be there and you can go and have a look. Come on, we’ll go and get some ice cream.’
Albert thinks he understands but he’s not quite sure. It seems as though the people there might be a little bit stupid. If they’re so poor why don’t they change something? Anna didn’t seem stupid though, maybe she’s special. He licks the ice cream as they walk slowly home. He’ll go back to the fence tomorrow and ask her if she’s special.
Anna’s grandfather had risen early that morning and disappeared with a man she hadn’t seen before. She was frightened, when someone goes away with men who arrive at the house unexpectedly they usually don’t come back, even she knew that. Her grandmother reassured her Cyril would be back in a couple of days. Something had come up and he had to go to the city to tend to it. Strangely, there were two potatoes and a dried fish on the table. She was told she didn’t need to collect any weeds today and she could do as she pleased if she didn’t wander too far.
She is going to meet Albert on the other side of the fence later but until then she decides to walk among the small wooded area not far from her house. She skips among the trees, forgetting where she is for a blissful couple of hours. Tired she lies down against a tree, closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep.
Suddenly she is awoken by some movement close to her, she pushes herself up against the tree and stays silent, scared to breathe. A large figure comes into view and squats down between two trees only metres in front of her. It’s a soldier, she watches as he lights a cigarette and then blows out the smoke. He hasn’t seen her yet, she could just sneak away or she could just wait, she’s not doing anything wrong being in the woods. He turns his head slightly, their eyes meet, Anna’s body is frozen.
He raises his hand slightly and gives a wave, then a smile. Anna is not sure if it’s a trap. He stands up and walks over to her, he becomes bigger the closer he gets.
‘Hello, little girl. What are you doing here?’
‘It’s okay, I shouldn’t be here. I won’t hurt you.’
‘What’s your name?’ Anna hesitates, she doesn’t want to give him her name but he could easily find it out. If anyone asks she’ll say she was playing and she got lost. Then her mood changes to one of defiance, she’s not doing anything wrong!
‘My name is Anna, and I’m only playing, I haven’t done anything wrong!’
‘I know you haven’t done anything wrong, Anna. I have though, so don’t tell anyone you saw me.’
‘What did you do wrong?’
‘I should be watching some grain which was delivered today but I was bored so I came for a walk.’
‘What if they see you’re not there?’
‘They won’t be back for a few hours.’
‘Your voice is funny.’
‘Ha! I’m not from here, I came from near the sea.’
‘Really? What is the sea like?’
‘I wish I was by the sea now, I could go for a swim! I have a sister just like you, in the summer we would go to the water and swim for hours.’
‘Where is your sister?’
‘She is at home.’
‘I’m eight years old, is your sister eight too?’
‘Oh! Can she read? My grandfather is teaching me to read.’
‘Yes, she can read, better than me.’
‘Maybe you can bring her here one day and we can play together.’
The soldier smiles a sad smile.
‘Maybe one day.’ He reaches into his pocket and takes two small round objects from his pocket, both of them are a deep red colour, he puts them in Anna’s hand. ‘Eat them before you get home, and don’t tell anyone you met me.’ He throws his cigarette to the ground and disappears into the woods.
Anna puts one of the boiled sweets into her mouth, it is unlike anything she has ever tasted, she savours it for a few seconds before taking it back out of her mouth and holding it in her hand. She wants to make them last as long as possible.
Albert waits patiently in the bushes near the fence. He watches the soldiers as they pass every ten minutes or so. He wonders why they don’t cross the fence, nobody would stop them. He has brought a pencil with him, he wants to give it to Anna, he has had an idea. If he can’t see for himself what it is like, he can ask her to draw it for him. He doesn’t think she has any pencils because she’s poor so he’ll give her one.
He looks at his watch, his mother will be expecting him home for tea soon. Maybe she isn’t going to come, he’s disappointed. He stands up and brushes dust from his shorts, he hears the shaking of the fence and then sees Anna running towards the bush. She stops and lies down, exhausted. He doesn’t know what to do so he sits down again and waits until she lifts herself from the floor.
‘I’m sorry I am late.’
‘It’s okay, but I have to go soon, I have to eat my lunch.’
‘Oh! What will you have for lunch?’
‘Usually some sandwiches with chicken and if I’ve been good mum will give me an ice lolly too.’
‘What’s an ice lolly?’
‘You don’t know what an ice lolly is?’
She looks embarrassed.
‘It’s like a sweet but it’s cold.’
‘Oh, I’ve never had one of them.’
‘You don’t have ice lollies?’
‘No, but tonight we’ll eat potatoes.’
‘We always have potatoes, I wish sometimes we could have something different.’
‘I wish we could have potatoes every night.’
Albert looks at her in surprise, wondering how anyone could possibly want to eat potatoes every day. Sometimes he puts them on the floor for the dog when his parents aren’t looking.
‘I brought you something.’ He takes out the pencil and hands it to her, she holds it tightly in her hand not sure what to say. ‘I thought maybe you could draw me a picture of where you live.’ Anna nods her head, she doesn’t want to tell him she has nothing to draw on.
‘You should go, I have to go home.’
‘One day you can come back with me, just for an hour then you can go home again.’
‘No, I can’t, my dad said they will kill me.’
‘They won’t see you, I promise.’
‘Will you come tomorrow?’
‘Yes. Anna, are you special?
Anna looks down at herself, her tattered dress and bare feet and then back at Albert, her stomach rumbles.
‘I don’t think so.’
Cyril is walking the streets of the city, accompanied by his minder to make sure he doesn’t go missing. Why they think he would go missing he doesn’t know. He’d have nowhere to go. The minder has barely said a word to him, he did buy them both some food though. They approach a building, the man ushers him inside and up some stairs into a small office where a stern faced woman is sitting surrounded by paperwork, each piece of paper has a small photograph attached to the top.
The man hands her his own piece of paperwork and she begins to search, she stops, checking the name at the top and then slams it down in front of Cyril. He looks at the man and nods his head. The woman takes the paper and writes something at the top of it and stamps it before putting it into a filing cabinet behind her. She looks up at them again, her eyes asking why they were still there, they leave.
‘There is no grave. You would have made it difficult if you knew it was just paperwork.’
‘Why bring me to see the paperwork?’
‘Questions are not yours to ask, nor are they mine. I’m told to do things and I do them.’
Cyril is confused, they’ve brought him all this way to confirm the death of his son. He knows of families in the village who have had relatives die far away and all they have received is a letter. The potatoes and fish too. They get onto a bus back to the train station, Cyril suspicious. Passing a small toy shop he thinks of Anna, she’d love to see a toy shop. Poor Anna, her father is dead and her grandfather hasn’t the courage to tell her.
As she slips under the fence she looks both ways, there’s nobody there. She runs as fast as she can towards the trees and bushes and throws herself to the ground. She lies there resting for a few seconds and then takes the sweet she was sucking on earlier and puts it back in her mouth. She feels her a hand on her shoulder, it grasps her tightly as she tries to get up and run. They’ve caught her.