- Published: 28 August 2017
- ISBN: 9780670079377
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 240
- RRP: $24.00
Maybe it won’t happen.
Maybe everything will be fine.
Maybe I should just stop thinking about the bad things and concentrate on the good things.
Like this beautiful countryside we’re walking through. Birds chirping and butterflies fluttering and not a single one of them being blown up.
And this dust on the road. It’s very good dust. Soft under our boots. Cushioning our cartwheels. Which is the best thing you could wish for when you’ve got a pregnant person in your cart. And another person walking next to you who’s nearly forty years old with sore feet.
My favourite thing of all is this warm and fragrant spring breeze. In all the years I’ve been alive, 1946 is definitely the best year for fragrant breezes. I think it’s because there aren’t so many dead bodies around.
‘Felix,’ says Gabriek, ‘are your legs hurting?’
Even with my dusty glasses I can see Gabriek’s concerned look. He knows my legs give me trouble sometimes and we’ve been walking for days.
‘They’re fine, thanks,’ I say.
Actually, they are a bit sore. But I bet Gabriek’s are too, and Henk the donkey’s, so I’m not going to complain about mine.
‘Good,’ says Gabriek. ‘In that case, stop frowning and cheer up.’
I give him an indignant look.
Can’t he see how much effort I’m putting into not frowning?
‘Lighten up, Felix,’ says Anya from the cart. ‘You’ve got a face like a Nazi’s bum.’
I give her an indignant look too. I open my mouth to tell them both about the fragrant breezes and the soft dust. But for some reason the words get stuck and won’t come out.
‘You’re doing it again, aren’t you?’ says Gabriek. ‘Thinking about a certain person.’
I shake my head. I point to a butterfly.
‘Felix,’ says Gabriek quietly. ‘We agreed not to think about him.’
Gabriek’s right. We did.
‘I’m trying not to,’ I say. ‘It’s hard.’
‘I know,’ says Gabriek. ‘But he’ll never find us. Never. Not where we’re going.’
‘That’s right,’ says Anya. ‘Zliv doesn’t have a clue about Gabriek’s farm. Nobody in the city does.
Even I didn’t before you told me, and you know how nosy I am.’
‘So,’ Gabriek says to me, ‘no more frowning and worrying. Promise?’
I give Gabriek another look. He’s a dear and caring friend, but he’s treating me like a six-year-old. Which you shouldn’t do to someone who’s fourteen and who knows how many things in the world need worrying about.
‘Come on, Felix,’ says Anya. ‘We all have to make an effort.’
I give Anya another look. I love having her in our family. And I’m very grateful to her for a lot of things. But sometimes she forgets she’s only a couple of years older than me. Oh well, she’ll have to stop treating me like a kid if everything goes bad and I end up delivering her baby.
I feel my face getting hot and I look away.
I shouldn’t be thinking about things like that. Not yet. I haven’t even finished reading the baby book.
‘We made a deal,’ says Gabriek. ‘We’ve all spent too many years looking over our shoulders for murdering thugs. Specially you, Felix. So we’re coming here for a life without fear. Right?’
‘Good,’ says Gabriek.
But I’m still anxious.
I’ve been trying the whole journey not to be, but I can’t help it.
You know how when you live in a violent city after a war and a murdering thug called Gogol gets killed so you think life will be safer and happier but then you hear that Gogol’s brother Zliv has come back from Croatia where he was killing people for money and he blames you for his brother’s death and he’s telling everyone that he won’t rest till he’s cut your heart out and so you and Anya and Gabriek head off in secret to live on Gabriek’s farm but for most of the journey you worry that the farm isn’t far enough away plus you start wishing you hadn’t swapped your medical books for a donkey?
That’s happening to me.
‘Almost there,’ says Gabriek. ‘Less than an hour.’
He gives the reins a tug.
Behind us Henk the donkey plods faster. The cart rattles and squeaks even more than it has for the last nineteen days.
I make an even bigger effort to concentrate on the good things. To forget what everyone in the city says about Zliv. That he’s an even more ruthless killer than his brother. That when he decides you should die, he never gives up.
I take the reins from Gabriek.
‘My turn,’ I say.
I give the reins another tug. We need to get to the farm as soon as possible and start our peaceful new life.
Last year, before the war ended, the Nazis burned Gabriek’s farmhouse down, so we’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do.
The local midwife probably won’t come and deliver Anya’s baby without a proper farmhouse with a proper roof. And a kitchen with a stove so if the midwife hears the baby’s father is a dead Russian soldier and she gets disgusted and tries to leave, we can stop her with hot tea and cakes.
Henk isn’t going any faster. I whistle at him and give his reins a harder tug.
He still doesn’t speed up.
He goes slower. Much slower.
We all go tense. We know what this means.
Donkeys have very good hearing. Henk always hears trucks before we do.
‘Take cover,’ mutters Gabriek.
Now we can all hear the truck in the distance. We know the routine. When you’ve been on the road this long you learn lots of things, including that trucks are sometimes driven by vicious bandits and criminal deserters.
Gabriek grabs Henk’s reins and steers the cart off the road into the trees.
I jump onto the cart to help Anya.
‘Sorry about before,’ she says. ‘You’re right, there are some things we have to worry about.’
We look at each other, then I help her pull a blanket over herself.
Another thing we’ve learned on the road is how many people have the wrong idea about pregnant women. They think pregnant women are weak and easy to rob.
Those people don’t know Anya.
From under the blanket I hear a familiar sound. The safety catch being released on a gun.
Gabriek stops the cart behind some bushes. I jump down and crouch next to him. We peer through the bushes at the road.
The truck sounds close.
Please, I say silently. Let it just be vicious bandits or criminal deserters.
There’s a loud buzzing. A large horsefly is hovering near my face. I brush it away. It lands on Henk’s neck, on a patch where the fur is very short.
I realise what I’ve done.
Don’t, I beg silently. Don’t sting Henk.
Henk gives a scream and starts to bolt.
The reins are torn out of Gabriek’s hands. I grab them as they slither past, which jerks me forward and my glasses are torn off and I’m dragged through the undergrowth. Twigs stab me and creepers whip me. I should have just let the horsefly sting me.
‘Henk,’ I hear a voice yell. ‘Stop.’
It’s not Gabriek’s voice, it’s Anya’s.
We seem to be slowing down a bit. I can see a blurry tree stump looming towards me. I roll to one side and hook my legs round the stump and clamp them tight. My arm and leg sockets stretch painfully, but I don’t let go of the reins.
‘Good boy, Henk,’ says Anya.
I look up, squinting.
Anya is on Henk’s back, her big tummy against his neck. She must have jumped onto him.
‘Anya,’ I say. ‘You shouldn’t . . .’
Gabriek drags me to my feet and pushes my glasses into my hands.
‘Quick,’ he says. ‘All of us. Out of sight.’
Too late. I put my glasses on just in time to see the truck on the road. As it passes, it slows down. We’re out in the open. The faces peering from the cab can see us clearly.
‘Poop,’ mutters Anya. ‘My gun’s in the cart.’
We stand frozen.
I stare at the faces in the truck. A man and a woman, both younger than Gabriek.
Just like Zliv.
The man is wearing a military uniform. The woman isn’t. They both stare at us.
The truck slows down and stops.
‘It’s not him,’ mutters Gabriek, giving my shoulder a squeeze.
He’s telling me not to run. Running always makes you look guilty. Soldiers shoot when you run.
The man and the woman get out of the truck.
I peer around for a weapon to use.
We can’t be sure it’s not Zliv. We’ve never even seen him. Anyone can steal an army truck. And if a woman’s hungry enough she’ll probably travel with a ruthless killer for as long as he wants.
I remember another story I heard about Zliv. About a girlfriend he had in Croatia. One day she joked about how Zliv was much skinnier than his brother. Zliv got angry. And made her skinny too. With a knife.
‘I’m getting my gun,’ mutters Anya.
‘Don’t,’ hisses Gabriek.
The woman is coming towards us. The man is behind her, hurrying to keep up.
For a second I think the woman is trying to get away from him. Then I see what she’s doing.
Staring directly at me. With a strange expression. As if she recognises me. As if she knows me.
Which is weird because I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before. Was she a nun in the orphanage I hid in ages ago? Or one of the partisan freedom fighters I lived with in the forest?
I don’t think so.
The woman is close now.
She suddenly stops. Her face collapses with disappointment. She makes sorry movements with her hands and turns away, hurrying past the man back towards the truck.
The man hesitates, looking at us.
He’s not Zliv. A ruthless killer wouldn’t have such a concerned expression.
‘Mistake,’ says the man. ‘She thought . . . sorry, my Polish is bad.’
His uniform looks sort of English.
‘I speak English,’ I say.
Which is a slight exaggeration. I’ve been learning it, but I haven’t used it much in dangerous military situations.
The man looks at me, surprised. He switches to English, but with an unusual accent.
‘My friend got confused,’ he says. ‘She thought you were someone she’d looked after in hospital. Sorry to give you a fright. Bye.’
By the time I’ve worked out what the words mean, the man has turned and is heading back to the truck. The woman is already inside. The man gets in and they drive away.
I realise I’m trembling. My muscles are aching. That happens when they’ve been getting ready to run. Or fight.
I look at Gabriek and Anya. I can see they’re feeling the same.
‘Lucky escape,’ says Gabriek.
‘For them,’ says Anya.
She’s holding her gun.
I agree with Gabriek. It was a lucky escape. It wasn’t Zliv this time, but it could have been. And even with Anya’s gun, if he’d driven at us fast in the truck, with a machine gun out the window . . .
Gabriek is looking at me.
He can probably see who I’m thinking about.
‘Gabriek,’ I say. ‘I think we need to make a new plan for our future life.’
I didn’t know I was going to say that. It just came out. But now I’ve said it, I mean it.
‘New plan?’ says Gabriek. ‘What sort of new plan?’
‘It’s me that Zliv’s after,’ I say. ‘So it’ll be safer if I live separately. I’ll find a place somewhere in the district. So at least if Zliv finds me, you and Anya won’t be there.’
I can see Gabriek doesn’t like the idea. And the way Anya’s glaring at me, she doesn’t either.
I don’t like it much myself.
It’s making me feel sick.
But it’s for the best.
‘We can still see each other,’ I say. ‘We can have secret meetings in the forest. Several times a week if we like.’
My voice is wobbling, which isn’t the best way to persuade people about an unpleasant but necessary new plan.
‘Felix,’ mutters Anya. ‘Stop it.’
Gabriek just looks at me.
I can see how moved he is. And how annoyed.
When he finally speaks, his voice doesn’t wobble at all.
‘You’re a remarkable person, Felix,’ he says. ‘Brave and generous. But you’re forgetting a couple of things. It was Anya who blew up Gogol’s truck and me who killed him.’
‘Exactly,’ says Anya. ‘So Zliv wants our guts just as much as he wants yours, Felix.’
‘No, he doesn’t,’ I say. ‘You heard what people were saying in the city. Zliv blames me for his brother’s death. Rants and yells about how if I hadn’t poked my nose in, Gogol would still be alive today.’
Gabriek closes his eyes.
When he does that, apart from at bedtime, it’s usually because he’s heard something he disagrees with so much that his cardiovascular system and digestive tract are hurting.
‘It’s for the best,’ I stammer.
Gabriek opens his eyes and looks at me.
‘We’re in this together,’ he says.
I want to argue.
I want to tell him that being in it together means trying to keep each other safe. Giving each other good protection.
Even if that means not actually being together.
But I don’t. The expression on Gabriek’s face tells me it would be a waste of time.
Gabriek gives my shoulder another squeeze.
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s get to the farm.’
Maybe Gabriek has forgotten.
Maybe he doesn’t remember how sometimes you have to leave someone to protect them.
Which is what Mum and Dad did for me.
I won’t ever forget them. I keep my memory strong by learning new words and new knowledge. I have to do it every day. Your memory isn’t always the best when you’ve had lots of explosions in your childhood and not enough vitamins.
My memory is working well today, judging by how much I’m recognising things around us.
I haven’t seen this countryside for over a year and last time it was covered in frost and Nazis so it looked a bit different.
But I still recognise it.
Gabriek does too. He’s so excited at the thought of seeing his farm again, he’s almost running. The cart is jolting and squeaking. Henk’s legs are moving faster than they have the whole journey.
So are mine.
‘Hey,’ yells Anya from the cart. ‘Go easy.’
‘Sorry,’ says Gabriek.
He slows Henk down.
I don’t blame Anya for being annoyed. If I’d been pregnant every day for the last seven and a half months, I’d probably be feeling grumpy too.
Anya is amazing. She doesn’t seem anxious at all about Zliv or about the baby arriving in only six weeks. And she knows it’s going to be a tough job, rebuilding Gabriek’s farmhouse in that amount of time. I told her how when I last saw the place, it was just a pile of smoking rubble.
But a tough job is good. It keeps you occupied. Stops you worrying about things you’re not meant to be worrying about.
To stop myself worrying now, I look at Anya.
She’s curled up on her blanket in the back of the cart, reading the baby book. She’s nearly finished it, which is also good.
Because I can remember exactly how she carried on the first time she saw it.
‘That’s crazy,’ said Anya when I gave her the baby book a few months ago. ‘It’s in English. You’ve got a whole ex-Nazi medical library piled up in your room, there must be a baby book in Polish.’
I shook my head.
‘The Nazis didn’t like Polish books,’ I said. ‘And I don’t like Nazi ones. Specially Nazi baby books. They’re full of unkind instructions about which babies should live and which ones shouldn’t.’
Anya didn’t argue with that.
‘Here’s a suggestion,’ said Gabriek. ‘Why don’t you both learn English? Then you’ll understand every word.’
We stared at him.
‘Learn English?’ said Anya.
‘You know a bit already,’ said Gabriek to Anya. ‘From all those British and American soldiers you used to sell things to. You know some as well, Felix.From when we had our mending business and we branched out into soldiers’ boots.’
‘I speak about ten words,’ she said.
‘After a war,’ said Gabriek, ‘smart people learn the language of the side that won.’
Me and Anya thought about this.
It made sense.
And now here’s Anya, reading happily in the back of the cart, not even fussed by difficult English words like cervix and placenta.
Anya looks up from the baby book and sees me watching her.
She gives me a smile.
I wish she wouldn’t do that. I might have to be her doctor in a few weeks and the feeling I get when she smiles at me like that isn’t the sort of feeling a doctor should have with a patient.
I give her a quick smile back and turn away. My face is hot again. And not just because I’m walking fast to keep up with Gabriek. To calm myself down I wipe my glasses and peer into the distance.
Up ahead is a hill covered in trees.
A very familiar hill.
We must be almost there. I feel myself relaxing. I start feeling happy and hopeful about all the good things waiting for us in the future.
That happens when Anya smiles at me.
We reach the top of the hill.
Gabriek steers Henk and the cart off the road and into the trees. After he tethers Henk, he peers down the other side of the hill.
I do too. I recognise the hillside. And the small road winding down it. Leading to something else I recognise.
The gate to Gabriek’s farm.
This isn’t what I expected.
I look at Gabriek. I can see it isn’t what he expected either.
I thought there’d be abandoned fields and in the middle of them a pile of rubble that used to be the farmhouse.
But the fields aren’t abandoned. They’ve got cabbages and turnips growing in them.
And the rubble is gone. The farmyard is a patch of clean raw dirt.
There are men in the farmyard, quite a few of them. I see what the men are doing.
Rebuilding the farmhouse.
My insides tingle with excitement.
I peer down through the trees at the big pieces of timber the men are lifting and the careful way they’re hammering them to make a roof frame.
Friendly neighbours helping to rebuild things after the war. Me and Gabriek did that in the city. Helped our neighbours mend their places. Lots of people did. Nobody asked for money. Just a bit of pork fat or a few English lessons.
‘Gabriek,’ says Anya, climbing out of the cart. ‘What are those people doing on your farm?’
Anya hasn’t had much experience with friendly neighbours. Before she lived with Gabriek and me, most of the people she met weren’t friendly at all. Including the man who made her pregnant.
‘If we’re lucky,’ says Gabriek, squinting down the hill, ‘that lot are building me a new house.’
‘Let’s find out,’ says Anya.
She grabs her pistol and clicks the safety catch off.
Gabriek puts his hand on the gun.
‘I need you to stay here, Anya,’ he says. ‘Out of sight. To protect our belongings.’
Anya opens her mouth to protest.
Gabriek gives her a look.
She scowls but doesn’t say anything. Gabriek is the kindest friend in the world, but he’s stubborn. Specially about good protection. So you don’t argue.
Anya offers her gun to me.
It’s a kind thought, but I won’t need it. And I’m hoping that after Anya watches me and Gabriek go down the hill to greet the men, she’ll start to feel she can meet neighbours without a gun too.
‘No thanks,’ I say to her. ‘It’s better if we look friendly.’
I turn to Gabriek, who must be as excited about all this as I am.
But he isn’t looking excited at all.
He’s staring at the distant men, frowning.
When Gabriek frowns, there’s usually a good reason.
I realise with a sick feeling what it probably is. Something we’ve both experienced quite a lot. Something I shouldn’t ever forget.
After a war has happened, things can sometimes look good when they’re actually very bad.
Maybe worrying is a habit you can catch. Maybe Gabriek’s caught it from me.
But maybe he’s wrong and those men down there are just friendly neighbours.
We’ll soon find out.
‘Can we slow down a bit?’ I say to Gabriek.
He’s so caught up in his thoughts as we hurry down the hillside, he hasn’t noticed I’m in pain and starting to limp. Which can happen when you use bad legs to stop a bolting donkey.
‘Sorry,’ says Gabriek.
We slow down a bit.
The closer we get to the farm, the better I feel. Partly because of the memories I’m having.
I spent two of the happiest years of my life on this farm.
OK, it was mostly in a hole under the barn, but you can be very happy in a hole if you’ve got someone like Gabriek looking after you.
There were sad things too, very sad things, but when you spend a lot of time alone you learn to concentrate on the good things. Like the food Gabriek brought me. The stories we told each other. The very useful things he taught me for my education. The good protection he gave me.
I was very lucky.
Gabriek glances back up the hill towards where Anya is hiding among the trees.
‘Let’s keep it relaxed and friendly,’ he says.
I know what he’s thinking. If things do get difficult, Anya won’t be able to stop herself. She’ll come rushing to help. And I’m almost certain the baby book would advise against a person in her condition running down a hill waving a gun.
‘She’s pretty incredible, isn’t she?’ says Gabriek. ‘Everything she’s been through.’
I think she’s very incredible.
Gabriek looks at me. For a bit too long. I feel myself starting to blush.
I change the subject.
‘Very well-cut timber,’ I say.
I point to the men in the farmyard and the good job they’re doing. Well-cut timber, carefully positioned and thoughtfully joined. They’re obviously people who take pride in their work. Who want to contribute to their community.
Gabriek always says that to build something well you need a good heart.
We speed up again, which is OK. I’m looking forward to meeting our good neighbours.
We’ll compliment them on their work and thank them for their generosity. Tell them that when Gabriek’s farmhouse is finished, we’ll help them build anything else that’s needed. Schools, hospitals, chicken sheds, we’re very experienced builders.
And of course I’ll tell them I’m happy to share my medical experience with the whole community.
‘Here we go,’ says Gabriek.
The men have seen us.
I wave to them as we go in through the farm gate. They don’t wave back. They’ve all stopped working and they’re standing with their hands on their hips, staring at us.
Which is normal after a war.
‘So,’ says Gabriek loudly to the men. ‘Bit of a surprise, this.’
That didn’t really sound as friendly as I think he meant it to.
‘A good surprise,’ I say to the men.
The men’s expressions don’t change. They keep staring in a not very friendly way.
‘I wonder,’ says Gabriek to the men, still loudly, ‘how should I feel about this?’
The men don’t seem to know.
‘Delighted?’ says Gabriek. ‘Or not so delighted?’
One of the men, glaring down from a roof beam, spits onto the ground at Gabriek’s feet.
‘You should feel scared,’ says the man. ‘Terrified. Wetting your pants.’
Gabriek looks at the man for several moments. I can hear somebody’s heart beating loudly and I think it’s mine.
‘And why should I be scared on my own farm?’ says Gabriek.
Several of the other men take steps towards us.
Gabriek doesn’t move, so I don’t.
‘Because it’s not your farm any more,’ says the man on the beam.
But Gabriek stays calm. He doesn’t say anything.
‘We didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to come back here, Borowski,’ says another man. ‘Not after what you did.’
Gabriek looks at the man.
‘And what was that, Mr Placek?’ he says, starting to sound annoyed.
‘Hiding vermin,’ says the man. ‘Putting the whole district at risk. All our families.’
The men are looking at me now.
I feel sick.
I want to yell at them, ‘The war’s over. The Nazis are defeated. Why are you doing this?’
But Gabriek said we should be relaxed and friendly. I think I know why.
These men might be finding it hard after six years of war to get used to it being over. Specially if some of their loved ones were killed.
I know how that feels.
So it’s best for us all to be extra friendly.
I open my mouth to tell the men what good builders they are and to ask them if they’ve got any hospitals me and Gabriek can help with.
Before I can say it, Gabriek speaks again.
‘Hiding vermin?’ he says. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The man up on the roof beam snaps his fingers.
Another man goes over to a rubbish heap and rummages among old bits of wood and charred bricks and empty food tins and what looks like a couple of dead rats.
He comes over to me and Gabriek, smoothing out several screwed-up pieces of paper that are burnt at the edges.
I stare at them.
I thought I’d never see them again.
Zelda’s drawings. And a story I wrote about the good protection I got on this farm. I left them all in my hole for people to find after the war was over. So they’d know. But when the Nazis burned the barn down, I thought my evidence got destroyed too.
The men are still glaring at me.
As if they hate me.
Maybe hating is another habit people catch.
A difficult one to give up, by the looks of it. If my best friend’s funny drawings and my own grateful story haven’t cheered these men up, I don’t think anything will.
I stare unhappily at the pieces of paper again. My evidence has turned into evidence against me.
I don’t know whether to feel grateful the pages have survived, or not so grateful.
Yes I do.
I snatch the pages so fast the man who was holding them looks dazed. But only for a moment. Then he moves towards me.
Gabriek moves towards him.
‘Get off my farm,’ says Gabriek.
‘You didn’t hear us,’ says the man on the beam. ‘It’s not your farm any more. You forfeited it when you let that Jew vermin pollute the place.’
The veins in Gabriek’s throat go tight.
Medically, that can be a dangerous thing.
For the men as well.
‘So,’ says the man on the beam to Gabriek. ‘You get off my farm.’
Gabriek doesn’t say anything for quite a while.
Just stands very still, thinking.
I wonder if he’s thinking what I’m thinking. How with a bit of luck, none of these men were partisan fighters. So none of them have had any weapons training. So if they attack us, me and Gabriek are probably the only ones here who know how to kill quickly with blunt pieces of wood.
Probably best if Gabriek isn’t thinking that. The moment one of us grabs an offcut, Anya will be hurling herself down the hillside, risking her life and the baby’s.
Gabriek gives the men a big smile.
‘I’m thinking this is a matter for the town hall,’ he says. ‘What do you say? Shall we all go into town?’
The men look confused.
They glance at each other, frowning.
I’m a bit confused too.
Then the man on the beam laughs. It’s not a friendly laugh.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Let’s.’
He gives a look to one of the other men, who gets on a rusty old motorbike and starts the engine.
For a second I think he’s going to give me and Gabriek a lift, but he roars off on his own.
‘Good,’ says Gabriek, still smiling at the men.
Suddenly, to their amazement and mine too, Gabriek starts shaking all the men by the hand.
The men are so stunned, they let him.
Incredible. Is Gabriek taking a gamble that deep down, everyone wants to live in peace?
No, I think he’s just being very smart.
Up the hill, Anya will be watching this. When she sees everyone being so friendly, she’ll probably decide not to come down here with her gun.
Not yet, anyway.
I don’t know why the men made us wait for this horse and cart.
The town’s not that far away. We could have walked faster than this poor half-dead horse and this rickety old cart that smells of pigs.
And we wouldn’t be sharing the journey with three of the nastiest people I’ve ever met.
I try to ignore them and the looks of hatred they keep giving me. Which isn’t easy when we’re all sitting knee to knee.
‘Jew vermin,’ mutters one of the men under his breath.
I feel Gabriek go tense next to me. I try to show him he doesn’t have to get stressed or violent.
‘If you think you’re hurting my feelings,’ I say to the man, ‘you’re not. I know you’re just trying to make trouble because you want Gabriek’s farm.’
Gabriek smiles grimly.
‘Very perceptive, Felix,’ he says, not taking his eyes off the three men. ‘Isn’t that right, Placek? You always were a greedy little sulk, even at school. And you, Milowski, you were stealing things even then, weren’t you? And Szynsky, wasn’t it you who used to torture cats?’
The men don’t say anything, just scowl.
This time I don’t try to make things friendly. I scowl back at the men. Anya can’t see us now and these men deserve it.
Mr Szynsky smirks, possibly at the memory of the cats.
‘You don’t get it, do you?’ he says to Gabriek.
‘Oh, I get it,’ says Gabriek. ‘I get that things have changed. The bad days are over. So you’d better get ready for some decency and justice.’
The men don’t look convinced.
I’m tempted to tell them they won’t be ready till they get the hatred out of their hearts. But I don’t bother. They wouldn’t hear me now because we’ve reached the town and the cartwheels are very noisy on the cobblestones.
Years ago the Nazis got rid of the town council. There must be a new one that Gabriek’s heard about, one that’s already busy with decency and justice.
‘By the way,’ says Gabriek to the men. ‘Who’s the mayor these days?’
Mr Szynsky smirks even more than when he was thinking about the cats.
‘I am,’ he says.
For the first time in ages I see a flicker of fear on Gabriek’s face.
Straight away he hides it.
I wish I was good at doing that. But I’m not. Specially not now. Because the cart is rumbling into the town square and I can see who’s waiting for us.
Glaring at us.
Muttering and clenching their fists.
A large mob.
Maybe this isn’t a mob.
Maybe all these people are just citizens having a meeting. Maybe they’re angry because the town council hasn’t been doing enough repairs.
Those big posts over there, for example. They look like they need attention. They’re leaning badly and they’re extremely weatherbeaten.
I stare at the posts, feeling sick.
I think I recognise them.
They’re bringing back memories I don’t want to have. Please let these be different posts. Ones I’ve never seen before. Posts for holding up Christmas decorations or showing the prices of pigs in the market.
But they’re not.
They’re the ones.
I glance at Gabriek. I can tell from his face that he knows it too.
They’re the posts the Nazis hanged people from.
Innocent, loving people who never did anything bad in their lives.
My best friend, Zelda.
Gabriek’s wife, Genia.
I stare at the posts. Memories burn inside me. Genia saving me from the Nazis. Zelda saving me from becoming a killer.
Me not able to save either of them.
Suddenly angry hands grab me and pull me out of the cart and drag me across the cobblestones and I know for certain that this is a mob.
‘Stop,’ I yell at them. ‘You can’t. The war is over. You can’t do this any more.’
They yank me to my feet. I’m surrounded. Not just by men, by women and kids too. All shouting things and looking like they want to kill me.
I try to see Gabriek. But I can’t. Just a seething mass of twisted faces.
‘Gabriek,’ I yell.
We have to stay close, watching each other’s back like we always do.
And we must try to calm this mob. Offer them repairs to their town and medical attention and hot tea and cakes.
Except suddenly I don’t want to do that. I want to get out of here. Go back to the city with Gabriek and Anya and take our chances with Zliv.
‘So,’ hisses a voice in my ear. ‘The vermin returns.’
A familiar voice.
I haven’t heard it for years.
But I know exactly who it is.
I turn. A boy is smirking at me, a boy of about my age with very fair hair and wet pink lips.
He sticks his face close to mine.
‘I’ve missed you, Wilhelm,’ says Cyryl. ‘Where’s your little friend?’
He sniggers and glances at the posts. He knows exactly what happened to Zelda.
I want to hurt him. But two men are holding my arms tightly and I can’t.
‘My name’s not Wilhelm,’ I say to him. ‘It’s Felix.’
No point using pretend names now. Four years ago, when I first met Cyryl, I needed to hide. Now I want them all to know the truth.
‘Her name wasn’t Violetta,’ I say to Cyryl. ‘It was Zelda. She was six, but she had the loving heart of a ten-year-old.’
Just saying her name makes me feel weak with sadness. I can see that Cyryl doesn’t have a clue what a loving heart is.
‘Big tough Cyryl,’ I say to him. ‘Betraying a little girl to the Nazis. Did it make you feel proud? Watching them kill her.’
Cyryl glances at the crowd around us who have gone quiet and are listening to this. He looks worried he might be in trouble. But nobody in the crowd tells him off because mobs don’t care.
Most of this lot probably did similar things.
With a smirk, Cyryl puts his face close to mine again.
‘What’s the big deal about a dead Jew?’ he says. ‘Who cares if she was six or sixty? There’s thousands of them in the forests around here. Good manure, that’s what I say. And if you can be bothered digging them up, rich pickings.’
He holds his pudgy pink hand in front of my face. On his finger is a big gold ring with an eagle stamped on it.
‘You have to pull the gold out of their vermin teeth,’ says Cyryl. ‘But it’s worth it.’
All I can move is my neck.
I lunge forward, clamp my teeth round Cyryl’s finger and bite with all my strength.
For Zelda. For Mum and Dad. For Genia and Barney and all the others.
The ring is inside my mouth. So is warm liquid, sticky and salty. My teeth grate against bone.
Cyryl is screaming.
The men holding me are shouting.
I keep biting. Until something hard smashes against my head. And again. Cyril drags his finger out of my mouth and I drop to the ground.
Gabriek. Where’s Gabriek?
Somebody starts kicking me.
My eyes are shut but I know it’s Cyryl because his screaming gets shriller each time his foot thuds into my ribs and tummy.
I hear my glasses being crushed against the cobblestones.
Men are still yelling and big fingers are trying to push their way into my mouth.
I realise the ring is still in there.
They’re not having it. I keep my mouth closed. Hands go round my throat.
‘Get away from him,’ yells a voice.
Even with all the pain in my head I know it’s Gabriek.
I open my eyes. Gabriek is close enough for me to see him clearly. He pulls himself away from the hands holding him and grabs the man choking me and flings him aside.
But another man raises a stick or a crowbar or something.
‘Gabriek,’ I croak.
Too late. There’s a loud thud and Gabriek falls across me, heavy and limp.
He doesn’t move.
Then the choking man is back. It’s Mr Szynsky. He’s in a frenzy to get his son’s ring. I can tell he’ll remove part of my face if he has to.
He can have the revolting ring. I just want him to leave me alone so I can look after Gabriek.
Before I can get the ring out of my mouth, somebody else starts shouting.
Which the mob ignores. Until they hear a gunshot. Then everyone freezes.
No, the voice is a man’s.
I peer over Gabriek’s slumped shoulder. I can just make out a military officer at the edge of the crowd. He’s holding a pistol in the air. I can’t tell what his uniform is. I hope it’s not Russian or Polish Secret Police or one of the other bad ones.
‘Back off,’ the officer yells again at the crowd.
They do, slowly.
The officer comes over, grabs Gabriek and pulls him to his feet. I’m relieved to see that after a bit of wobbling, Gabriek stays upright.
I get up too, wobbly as well.
‘Let’s get you out of here,’ mutters the officer.
He speaks very bad Polish, but I understand him. As my dizziness goes, I also recognise him. He’s the man from the truck that stopped earlier out on the road.
Mr Szynsky steps in front of the officer.
‘I’m the mayor,’ says Mr Szynsky in the voice people use when they want to sound important. He points at me. ‘This vermin assaulted my son and robbed him.’
I can hear Cyryl whimpering nearby.
‘You’re the mayor?’ says the officer.
Mr Szynsky nods, giving the officer a haughty look and me a look of hatred. Which changes to a look of surprise when the officer puts the barrel of his pistol against Mr Szynsky’s forehead.
‘Pleased to meet you, your worship,’ says the officer in English. ‘I was hoping I’d find the joker in authority who allowed this mob to get out of control. You’re under arrest.’
He says the last bit in Polish.
Mr Szynsky stares at the officer, stunned and furious. He starts to say something about his brother-in-law being a government minister. But his voice is drowned out by the roar of an engine.
A horn starts blaring.
The officer’s truck is coming slowly towards us through the crowd.
People scramble out of the way.
When the truck gets close, I see that driving it is the woman who was travelling with the officer.
‘Get on board,’ says the officer to me and Gabriek, his gun still pointing at Mr Szynsky’s head.
Gabriek opens the back flap of the truck.
All around us people are glaring and muttering. But they keep their distance.
Except for one man, small and plump and red-faced, who steps out of the crowd. Even without my glasses I can see he’s got a rifle.
I spit the ring into my hand.
‘Gabriek,’ I yell. ‘Look out.’
The man fires, turns, and disappears into the crowd.
The officer is on the ground.
‘Help me, Felix,’ yells Gabriek.
He grabs the officer’s gun and points it at the mob, and tries to pick the officer up one-handed.
I grab the officer’s other arm and we half lift and half drag him into the back of the truck.
My head is spinning.
For a crazy second I thought it was Zliv with the gun. Except the gunman didn’t look anything like a skinny version of Gogol. A small fat ex-Nazi more like.
Plus Zliv never misses his target. If that was Zliv, I’d be the one lying here in the back of the truck with a bullet in me.
‘Drive,’ yells Gabriek to the woman.
She doesn’t move. She’s sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the half-unconscious officer, at the blood all over his legs.
The crowd are shouting at us again and moving closer.
‘Drive,’ I yell at the woman in English, in case that’s all she understands.
‘Go,’ yells Gabriek, also in English, and his voice suddenly sounds strange and weak.
I see why.
The back of his shirt is sodden with blood.
Which isn’t the officer’s blood. It’s coming from Gabriek’s head.
The woman revs the engine.
The truck lurches forward.
There’s too much blood in here. I have to stop the bleeding.
If only my head wasn’t throbbing so much.
I try not to think about it. I wasn’t hit as hard as Gabriek. I’ll be fine. I have to be. We need to get away from here.
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