The mist was heavy with the scent of freedom. The freedom that was beginning to slowly emerge with each step we took forward. Our pulses were racing as the dawn light got brighter and our footsteps took on a more urgent pace.
Our absence would be soon noticed and we knew it. The fake bodies made of old sheets and blankets lying together in bed would not fool anyone in the light of day. Honestly, I do not think they would have fooled anyone in the night either but we had to get away, there was no time to make works of art,
At last we were on the bridge. As if our legs knew the end was near they broke into a run. And the air echoed with the sound of ricocheting bullets as our bodies were swallowed in the mist…
Floating on the Wind
We collapsed, breathless, as we passed through the gateway. As the barrier closed we finally knew we were safe. The echoes of shouts and bullets faded away. Either we had escaped or were just another two fleeing bodies now lying dead or wounded on the bridge.The commandant of the militia no doubt hoped we were wounded so we could be arrested, tortured and finally executed after a trial that made a mockery of justice. Death was always the penalty for those who dared to speak against the system.
The system that dictated how every aspect of life should be by keeping the people destitute of money, hope, faith and love. Everyone wore the same clothing, grey trousers and a white shirt. Too hot in summer and not warm enough in winter. I looked at you the dampness of the mist making your shirt cling to your body and felt anger seeing the fabric clinging to your half-starved frame.
I recalled the first time we had met battling for a crust of bread in the streets of the old town. You had stared into my black eyes sharp with desperation and stopped fighting telling me to eat it. It had been my first food in over a week. We had worked together after that. Begging for a day’s work each morning, and doing whatever task was asked of us so we had a few coins to buy food. Each night walking for as long as we could, until we reached the border town.
We had stayed there, just across the bridge for several weeks so as not to rouse the suspicions of the militia. We could never be seen together in daylight as any sign of collaboration would be seized upon. Each night we would talk in the woods close to the hostel where we shared a room.
We were just biding our time until to this moment. Now as I looked into your eyes, the eyes of the man who gave me courage and faith in a different future, I could let the memories dissipate like petals on a breeze.
Taste of Zen
When we arrived at the asylum centre we expected to be pushed into a refugee camp. The system had told us of the hell these camps would be as escapees were nothing and worthless. That had been another of the many lies the system hierarchy had used to keep the people soulless but loyal,
Instead we were taken to the home of an elderly couple on the outskirts of the town – several miles from the border crossing so we would no longer hear the dictations of the system’s Tannoy or the regular sound of gunfire.
The house was an old wooden building with a tatami floor. It was a single storey affair and divided into various rooms by paper thin partitioning that served as walls. A décor of delicate orchids adorned these walls and the scent of flowers in the late morning sun trailed in through the open door of the living room.
We were shown into our room and told to change into the casual clothing that had been given to us and then bring out the system uniform into the garden where we could have some tea.
As the door closed I looked at you and whispered ‘Gai?’
‘What?’ you answered, as you cast the grotesque white shirt to the floor.
‘What is tea?’
‘It’s a hot drink, Kip.’
We changed quickly and silently and then ventured into the garden with the remains of the system clothing. The man, Loban, took the rags and tossed them onto a smouldering pile where it sparked into bright orange flames before disintegrating into ash. The woman, Arina, smiled and guided us to a table and chairs handing us each a cup filled with a tangy amber liquid and a plate of food. They watched us eat and drink, refilling our cups and plates quietly.
I looked at Arina once, and she touched her lips, and whispered ‘Talk comes later – eat.’ So we ate in that little garden, that peaceful garden that to Gai and I was our first taste of Zen.
For the first few days after our escape Loban and Arina stood back allowing us to get used to our new found liberty. In the mornings Gai would sit patiently teaching me to read and write. I had never seen a book let alone read the jumble of letters inside one. The system didn’t believe in an academic education, knowledge would have shown the militia to be what it really was a power-crazed machine. Instead we had been taught how to do practical things that could be used to empower the force of the system and keep the individual weak. Gai being fifteen years older than me remembered the days before the system when reading was a right and not a privilege.
I remember how he had told me stories and recited poems as we worked and travelled to the border town. Now he was teaching me to read those same poems by some guy called William Shakespeare. Gai didn’t laugh at me or call me stupid as I stumbled on the words but still I would get frustrated at myself. I knew the words I just couldn’t recognise them on paper. Each morning he’d patiently guide my hand to write while shaping the letters that made my name until at last on the third day in big capitals I wrote KIP.
In the afternoons I would help Loban in the garden, I knew how to do plants. I would listen to Loban and Gai talking about things and wished I could remember the days the two countries had been one, I wished I could have known the wonder of poetry and reading. I wished I could remember anything other than the system.
Loban and Arina’s sons had been killed in the fighting that had split the country in two. The sad look in the woman’s eyes as she looked at Gai suggested they were of similar age. Then she would look at me and smile knowing the day I had been born I was taken from my mother and bred to be a cog in the machine that was the system. I had failed of course. My rebellious nature made it impossible for me to conform in their ideal way so I was thrown to the gutter at ten years old as just another worthless scrap and for the next ten years battled against regular beatings from the militia for begging and scrapping for food until Gai had found me.
In the next six months I would be twenty-one and a man but inside I felt like a boy, naïve and innocent, lost and afraid. I would look at Gai and want to be a man like him, brave, strong, educated and unafraid. I also felt something else that I didn’t understand.
After a week of living with Loban and Arina, or it may have been a little more than that as the days of living in their idyllic home seemed to blend in and out of each other, officials from the asylum centre visited us. A mass of papers had to be filled in to apply for refugee status and for an education programme for me. Gai would be placed in a work programme of some sort. I looked at Arina fearing I would be sent away and she put an arm over my shoulder and reassured me both Gai and I would remain with them as long as we needed to. A bus would come each morning to take me to school. I watched as Gai filled in the papers carefully, explaining everything to me as best he could before encouraging me to sign my name on several pages.
The officials then went into the kitchen and spoke to Loban and Arina. Their voices were low but not secretive. I sat on the porch with Gai staring at Loban’s rotator he used in his field. Everyone seemed to have a field here. The growing of fruit and vegetables was considered valuable. Not just single crops year in year out depleting the soil of its nutrients until the land was barren but several and always the soil kept fertile. I admired Loban’s skill with the earth and plants. He took great pride in his vegetables, even winning prizes at country fayres for the best examples of a cabbage or onion.
The garden of the little house was dedicated to flowers and beauty. It was peaceful and offered a sweet tranquillity to anyone sitting or strolling within it. But this was Arina’s domain; she had even designed and built the little fountain in the centre of the lawn. For the last few evenings I had sat beside the fountain just letting the sound of the water drift over me. Arina had sat and watched me from the decking. I looked at her as I often did, and wondered was my mother like her. The fact I would never know now did not make me sad anymore, Arina treated me like I imagined a mother would treat a son and I was happy, yes I had found out what happy meant.
Since our arrival Gai’s half-starved body had gained weight. He was now tall and muscular in physique, standing just short of six foot. The asylum officials had assigned him to work as a labourer at a recycling centre. The manual nature of his work had toned his body to a defined tightness that rippled every time he moved. It suited him.
They had taught Gai to drive the collection wagons, and most days he’d be waiting for me to return from a day at school so I could join him on the last run. How quickly times had changed. Yes the wagon was rough and ready but it was a vehicle with an engine. To me it was the epitome of luxury.
After his first week of work Gai received his first pay-check and handed me a crisp note. I had sat on the veranda just staring it for hours having only seen loose change before. Gai would see me and chuckle.
‘What you going to spend it on, Kip?’
The next day Gai took me into the town and helped me buy some clothes for school. Despite my being almost 21 the smart dress code still stood at school. Nonetheless I had bought my own clothing for the first time in my life. Gai also bought me a pair of blue denim jeans. Jeans, the subversive clothing that had always been illegal and I now had a pair. I remember seeing a young girl take a severe beating by the militia for just having pictures advertising Levi.
That evening we had sat by the river and with denim clinging to my legs I told Gai about that girl. As I spoke I felt the emotion of memory surge through me and I could not stop the tears flowing. I felt Gai’s arm tight on my shoulder and his soft voice comforting me.
‘Let it all out, Kip, let it go.’
The weeks passed and my twenty-first birthday was getting closer. It was now the first days of autumn and the trees and countryside were taking on the vibrant shades of fall. I had never got excited about my birthday before. I only knew it was October 3rd because they had told me. I did not really know if that was the day I was born or the day they took me from my mother. It was the day I had so it was close enough it would do.
I had walked home from school that day just so I could enjoy the autumnal colours. I wanted to make the most of the last days before the winter came. I wished Gai could have some time off work so we could sit under the changing trees and read poetry. I could read it for myself now. I could even read one of Loban’s newspapers and understand how tense the border situation was.
I walked past the old church. I didn’t believe in a god or salvation but I do remember how angry the folk of the township I had lived in had been angry when a similar building had been flattened by the system officials. I had been just eight years old when the matrons had marched us to the building and forced us to watch as first the priest and then his helpers had been executed with a gunshot to the back of the head.
I remember I felt sad but I did not cry. None of us had cried we were already conditioned not to show emotion. From my earliest memories I could associate crying with a beating for daring to show tears. Then later how the first time I cried with Gai and cowered as he raised his hand to reach out and comfort me. I remember how he had sworn loudly at the sky because he saw me cower.
I was still thinking about the past when I got home. Loban and Arina were out, I knew they would be as it was Friday and they always went out on Friday afternoons. I could hear the shower and knew it meant Gai was home. So I went into the bathroom and sat on the side of the bath watching him shower. Back in the old country showers were rare so we had shared when we could as water was expensive. It seemed normal to just sit and watch but my body was reacting in ways I did not understand. My senses told me it should not do that.
I left the bathroom silently and went into our room. Gai entered a few minutes later to find me curled on my sleep mat shaking with tears and fear. He must have noticed my presence in the bathroom as he sat beside me stroking my head. ‘You’re a man now, Kip;’ he said, ‘you got to work this one out yourself!’
All I could do was scream into my pillow.
Hopes and Dreams
In the days before we escaped there was no such thing as hope. Each day was the same, yesterday blended in today and no one dared think of tomorrow. Here in a quiet suburb life was gentler and not a desperate scrap for survival. There was time to think, time to learn and time to observe. Most evenings I would sit out on the garden veranda with Arina doing homework or reading. She was sat in her rocking chair her knitting needles clicking as wool seemed to weave itself together.
Tonight we were sat out and Gai and Loban were chatting over beer in the garden. I was reading yet another book – Arina had noted that now I could read I was keeping the library in business with my constant demand for books. I sipped my soft drink and looked over at the two men. Maybe there was a sense of curiousness to my demeanour or maybe I sighed I don’t know.
I went back to my book and was soon engrossed. I did not notice Arina stop knitting and go into the house. I simply felt her touch my arm and hand me a bottle of beer. ‘You are coming of age, Kip’ she said ‘you need to start joining in their conversations.’ I wanted to do that. I wanted to show them I was old enough to be part of their world even if I was not educated enough
I took the beer and muttered some sort of thank you. I did not move, however, and just sipped the sharp, bitter liquid. Gai caught my expression as I tasted the beer and burst into a deep belly laugh which earned him a scolding from Arina. I just ran inside to our room feeling ashamed.
I could hear them talking but refused to listen. Instead I started throwing my few possessions into a bag. I scribbled a note to Arina and left it on the table. I felt alone and dejected as I slipped silently out the door. I had no idea where I was going, but I was going anyway.
I had walked about 300 yards when I heard Arina scream. ‘You go find him right now.’ I assumed she was yelling at Gai and quickened my pace before cutting into a footpath through the fields. I heard Gai’s feet crunch past on the street and I continued into the woods. They would be a good cover for the night,
The Morning After
The next morning I woke up leant against an old oak tree. It was late September and I should have felt cold but instead I felt embraced and warm. Embraced I was, in Gai’s arms as he slept beside me. I moved slowly and silently as not to wake the sleeping man. As quietly as I could I started to walk deeper into the woods.
‘Where do you think you are going, Kip?’ I felt Gai’s hand grip tight into my shoulder, I hadn’t been quiet enough.
‘I’m leaving’ I said as matter-of-factly as possible.
‘Oh are you indeed’ Gai said gruffly. ‘And just how far do you think you’ll get with no money and no identity? Where are you going to live, Kip, and how?’
I stood rigidly still, looking at the fallen leaves on the ground, fighting the urge to cry. Gai was right; I had no way of proving who I was or earning a living. I felt Gai’s grip on my shoulder loosen and then his arm round my shoulder. ‘I was going to go to the coast and …’ I stammered.
‘Find a boat or something.’
‘And sail away to the mysterious lands in the stories you read?’
‘Something like that’
‘Let’s go home and get some tea, Kip. It’s easier to talk with a warm drink inside you and we need to let Arina know you are safe’
When we walked back into the house Arina grabbed a chair and stood on it. She then clipped my ear with her hand ‘Don’t you ever scare me like that again, you hear me?’ Gai went into the kitchen to make tea and hide the fact he was laughing at Arina as she climbed off the chair.
She proceeded to fuss me out onto the veranda and made sit at the table with Loban, whom she dismissed with a wave of her hand. Loban got up and went to his shed giving me that look men share when a woman is making too much of a fuss leaving me to deal with Arina’s cooing over me like a baby.
Gai came out with the tea tray and whispered to Arina and she left us saying ‘Yes you need to have a good talk boys’.
I looked at Gai as he poured the tea and feared the worst. ‘Am I in trouble, Gai?’
‘Not really, Kip. They were worried about you. They are worried about you.’
‘They understand you better than you do, Kip!’
We talked for a long time about the future, but at least I knew I had family.
It was the last day of September, and it was a day time kept suspending itself around me. I was sat with Arina in the living room, listening to the heavy rain falling outside. She was sewing and I was watching the silver needle dart in and out of the fabric. It was hypnotic and enchanting. I do not know how long I was sat there just watching without speaking. I did not hear Gai and Loban enter the room. I did not hear them chattering over the television set. I did not hear the television. But I did leap out of my skin when Gai’s hand touched my shoulder.
‘Hey Kip, why aren’t you talking?’
Before I could answer his eyes followed my gaze to Arina’s needlework. ‘Ahh, you are caught in a spell!’ I looked at Gai, my dark eyes filled with curiosity.
‘C’mon let’s go talk’ he said, and I followed him into our room.
‘Why is she fixing it, Gai? It’s a brand new shirt I saw her take it out of its plastic wrap.’ I blurted out before the door had stilled in its jam.
‘She’s embroidering the pocket, making it special.’
‘Because she can. Kip, Loban and Arina didn’t see their sons come-of-age, they want to celebrate you and make it special for you. You are their son now, and you need parents too.’
‘I got you for that’
‘If that is the case why do you shy from me sometimes?’
‘What do you mean, Gai?’
‘Oh running away, running out the bathroom, pretending to read when I come near you – that sort of thing.’
So this was it. He had noticed. Now he would leave or I would be sent away. I did not answer instead I just looked at the flowers on the wall.
‘What’s bothering you, Kip?’
‘Nothing! Leave me alone!’ I moved to leave the room and Gai looked up from where he was sat on his bed.
‘Running away again?’
That hit home and I just froze on the spot staring at Gai, wondering just how much he could see into me and hoping he could not. The next thing I know Gai was stood in front of me pulling me towards him then he kissed me. ‘Is that what it is, Kip?’
I pulled away and ran out the room and ran into the garden and the pouring rain. Gai could see far too much of me. The rain hid my tears. These feelings were illegal, which had been drummed into me since I was a baby. Time stopped again. I felt like I was hanging from a high wire as I collapsed to sit on the edge of the veranda.
I sat there for what seemed like eternity but no time at all. I felt the large frame of Loban sit beside me. We didn’t speak often as Arina liked keeping me for herself. ‘You grew up without a mother, son, how are you meant to understand love? Don’t panic Arina and I know you are in love with Gai and he knows it too.’
‘But love is wrong, emotions are wrong.’
‘Is that what they taught you?’
‘I was taught to serve the system, and only the system.’
‘I know, son. We’ve heard terrible stories from those who have escaped.’
‘Why do you call me son?’
Before Loban could answer Arina’s voice spoke from the doorway. ‘Kip, we never saw our boys grow up, now we have a chance to bring a young man back from the horror that stole our sons. You need a mother, and a father too…’ her voice trailed off into emotion.
‘What Arina is trying to say, son, and I call you that as I see you as a son, what she is trying to say is we want to help you, be your parents as it were. You are coming-of-age but you have not had the emotional support or understanding of parents to prepare you for adulthood. We can’t change that, but we can be there for you now and in the future.’
I could not believe what I heard, and could only muster a nod and time once again was suspended, just hanging in the air.
I woke up on the morning of 3rd October and I did not feel any different to how I was on the 2nd. I did not miraculously feel all mature and worldly wise and I do not think I had expected to. I had expected something – some sign or transition from boy to man. I got up.
In the bathroom after a shower I looked in the mirror. My body was the same and I did not like it. I was still a scrawny bag of bones. After getting dressed I went and sat on the veranda. I felt dejected. I t was my coming of age and nothing had changed.
Arina came out with two mugs of tea. ‘Happy birthday, Kip’ she said, almost singing. I flashed her a smile and mumbled a thank you. ‘What’s wrong with you, young man? You should be smiling instead you have a face like a wet weekend.’
‘Nothing’s changed,’ I said. ‘I still feel the same, I still look the same – how can I be a man if I am the same as I was yesterday.’
‘Oh, Kip!’ Arina was struggling not to laugh. ‘So what do you want to change?’
I began telling her how I wanted muscles and how I wanted to know all there was to know. Arina, as always, sat patiently listening, letting me get stuff out as best I could. Neither of us heard Gai come out, and I have no idea how long he stood there but long enough to hear most of it.
‘He can train you and help you build your body’ Arina said when I had finished. She was pointing at Gai. ‘You can help Kip build his muscles up can’t you dear?’
‘Yeah,’ said Gai. ‘Could do with the exercise myself!’
Loban arrived in a big jalopy of a vehicle. ‘Well, are you lot ready?’ Two hours later I was stood on a beach looking out to sea. For the first time in my life I could see the sea.
Loban and Arina were sat in a little café while Gai and I wandered the beach. We walked back along the promenade, stopping at a little hut to buy a gift for Arina and her water garden. My pockets were laden with pebbles and seaweed. As we approached the café Arina looked at me. ‘What have you got all that slimy seaweed for?’
‘So I remember.’
‘We got a truck now, Kip’ Loban said. ‘We can come here any time we want to.’
I turned to Gai, ‘wishes do come true, sometimes.’
At school to improve my writing the tutor suggested I write a letter. I had carefully composed a letter of introduction to no one in particular. The tutor had seemed pleased with the result and took my photograph and I had forgotten all about it.
A few months later Gai and I were working out – he had kept his promise to help me build some muscle but it was a slow process. Having said that it had only been a few weeks and I could feel a difference even if I could not see it. Arina called out ‘Kip! Kip! You have got a letter!’
I looked at Gai, ‘Who’d write to me?’
‘Only one way to find out!’
I pulled a sweatshirt on, mid-October and the cold winds of winter were on their way. I went into the kitchen and Arina looked at me, holding the letter out. ‘It’s from England!’ she said. I think she was as excited by that as I was if not more so.
‘I don’t know anyone in England.’
I looked at the envelope. It was pale airmail paper, neatly written in black ink. On the back was a lady’s name and address of somewhere called Hampshire. I opened it carefully. My tutor had sent my introduction letter to a pen pal organisation and this lady, Lynne, had chosen me to write to. She had included pictures of herself, her husband and their baby son.
Linda worked for a charity which was supporting refugees who had escaped from the System. They knew about that in England, did the whole world know?
The first winter with Loban and Arina was a severe one. The ground was covered with a thick layer of snow by early December. Trudging through the snow and back or school was hard work and always my clothes would be wet through. Arina kept the cycle of clean laundry going somehow and I was determined to get some good qualifications so I could work and earn enough to pay Loban and Arina back for some of their kindness.
The school term ended and I spent the vacation helping Arina make the fireball decorations for New Year. Gai had told me about the old days when the New Year would be marked with fireworks and glowing orbs hanging outside the house. Now as we made one for outside our house he told me of his parents doing the exact same thing.
My only real memories were seeing them being torn down and the occupants of the home that had dared to display them being marched away never to return. No one ever said where they went to or what happened to them. Rumours of slave camps in the mountains ran rife but we never knew.
New Year had no meaning back in the old days, each day just blurred into the next. People blurred together losing individuality. Only the seasons changed, the system could not control them but I am pretty sure it would have done if it could.
The Tolling of a Bell
In that first January Arina’s sister died. Loban and Gai had been at work when the phone rang. School was still on vacation and Arina and I had been sat in the kitchen drinking tea.
I had her speaking then her voice changed. I watched as her face changed and instinct told me to move beside her. I let her fall against me as she hung up the phone. I felt her body sobbing and wrapped my arms around her. I did not know what else to do.
We stood there for what seemed like hours with Arina just crying. Eventually I convinced her to sit on the sofa in the living room while I tried to get hold of Loban. I was not confident on the phone but luckily Loban was in the office and came straight home.
I left husband and wife to each other and went into the kitchen to make tea. From the day we arrived Arina had taught me to make tea, whatever the occasion. It was like second nature now.
Arina wanted Gai and I to attend the funeral even though we had never met her sister. “You boys are my family, and I need you there,” she said “and Kip needs to learn about life, the good and the bad.”
So on a sunny winter’s day Gai and I stood either side of Loban and Arina. All of us were dressed in white, the colour of mourning. I held Arina’s hand while Gai and Loban lowered the coffin into the ground. I felt her squeeze as the cemetery bell tolled out a slow monotone. Without thinking I heard myself whisper “It will be ok, mum!”
Over a few days I had learned about the loss felt by a family at the time of a death but I also learned what being a part of a family really meant.
Winter turned to spring and the snows thawed. The news was about floods back in the old country. I remembered those well. It all seemed so far away but as more estimates of people losing their lives to floods were reported my memories were all too clear.
Here the land was sodden but not flooded and one Sunday afternoon Arina asked me to join her on a walk into the woods. She started showing me the new buds on the trees. “Give it a few weeks, Kip, these trees will be a mass of blossom, so beautiful!” She also pointed out the signs of wildlife – rabbits, squirrels and birds.
I wondered why but chose to remain silent.
We walked deeper into the wood. The musty smell of damp leaves from the autumn was intense. Suddenly Arina stopped. “Kip?” I looked at Arina curiously. “I need to ask you something?”
Now curiosity was matched with intrigue. “What is it, Arina?”
“At my sister’s funeral you called me mum. Why? Is it because you miss your mother?”
“I never knew her, how can I miss her?” I answered.
“Then why did you call me mum?”
“I think if I was to have a mother I would want her to be you. Is that bad?”
“No, Kip, it’s not bad. I think you will be a good son and I’m proud you would choose me”
I could sense the intense emotion in her voice and reached out to hug her. In that moment I vowed silently to do all I could to make Arina pride in me justified.
Since our walk in the forest, Arina made sure we spent time each evening just talking. Sometimes Gai and Loban would join us.
One evening Arina, Gai and I were in the garden planting out seedlings around Arina’s fountain. The conversation was light and easy. Suddenly Arina was silent, too silent.
I rushed to her side and followed her gaze into the shrubs. There hidden in the years of twig growth was a shell of a ball. I knelt beside her and held her close. The grief in her eyes said it all.
Gai went to fetch Loban and as he saw the patches of red and black I saw a tear fall down his cheek. “Gai get that out of there” he said sharply. As Gai retrieved the remains of the ball Loban and I guided Arina back into the house.
When Gai came back inside I stood to leave the couple to their memories, it seemed the right thing to do. Arina on the other hand was having none of it. “I want you both to sit down with us”. So we sat. “Malo and Dal would have been your brothers she said firmly, it is only right you know about them”
We spent the evening listening to Loban and Arina’s memories and looking at the pictures of Malo and Dal as they grew up. I wish I had known them.
Tatters and Ruins
Arina had a fondness for visiting historic buildings. Once or twice I had been with her and wandered round unused rooms arranged in a set period from the past. It intrigued me listening to Arina explain the details of the people who had lived there in the distant past. This time was different.
When I got in that Friday afternoon she had tea waiting for me, and cake. I knew she wanted to talk so just sat down with her and asked. ‘What’s wrong, mum?’
‘Oh, nothing Kip! I need a favour that’s all.’
She didn’t need to give me cake, although I have to say it was a delicious sweet chocolate concoction, to get a favour. She knew that! I looked at her quizzically, as she shuffled round the kitchen as if avoiding the moment. What on earth was this favour she that made her so edgy.
‘Sit down,’ I said, surprising myself at the depth of authority in my voice, and judging by Arina’s face it surprised her too but she sat down and looked at me. ‘So what’s the favour, mum?’
‘Are you busy tomorrow?’
‘I got nothing planned.’
‘Would you mind coming with me to Adasi?’
‘It was on the border and where we said good-bye to Dal before he…’
Her voice tailed off but she didn’t need to say more. Dal had gone from Adasi to fight the war against the System that had taken over half the country. ‘Of course, I will mum, you know I will.’
Whenever I thought of Malo and Dal I hated the System more than I did when I lived with it dictating my life, no existence, it hadn’t been a life. I wanted to go with her, pay my respects to my brother as it were. If the young men of this part of the country hadn’t been prepared to fight – it didn’t bare thinking about.
The next day we arrived at what had been Adasi. Once a small town bustling with life it was now barren and nothing but ruins of what used to be. Tattered fragments of fabric fluttered against the shells and ruins of buildings as a testament to the lives lost. The System had been merciless death machine and wiped out every last soul – man, woman and child.
We walked round in silence, I didn’t need explanations, and I knew the barbarism of the System only too well. I could hear the screams and pleading voices as they were put to death, I had seen it happen so many times.
Arina and I laid flowers in what was the town barrack house where she has said good-bye to Dal. He had been my age when he had gone to war and to his death. I felt the anger and rage of the injustice that had been inflicted here, and was still being inflicted in across the border. I looked at Arina and felt relief she had been spared some of that and was here to be my mother. I still felt a niggle of maybe I should go back, fight for freedom.
‘Oh no, no you don’t’ said Arina sharply, I had been thing aloud. ‘They have taken two of my boys and they have hurt you enough.’
‘What they are doing is wrong, mum.’
‘Yes it is wrong, Kip. Get yourself an education and you will fight them with far more power, you see if you don’t.’
Maybe she was right, combat was futile against the system, maybe there was another way.
Even months after escaping the grip of the System and finding freedom I cannot quite get used to being able speak freely and without fear. Even the simple act of writing my journals would have found me put before a firing squad. Expressing the truth or an opinion carried an automatic death sentence. They could not stop the mind from thinking though.
Only a year ago I had to watch every word I said as even the walls seemed to have ears. You never knew who was a friend or a System spy. I was not able to read or write so that was not a problem. Despite all that I knew it was wrong, that was not how life was meant to be.
In the short period of schooling I had received from the System I had been labelled a rebel and troublemaker. A teacher had told me more than once if I wasn’t careful I would end up dead. I realise now he was another free-thinker and was protecting me. Even the barbaric act of forcing me to witness execution after execution; he was protecting me.
I would watch as bullets fired into the back of a victim’s head as they knelt on the ground and I would watch as their bodies crumpled into the heap of a corpse. Adults and children alike – no one was safe. I felt their fear mingle with my own as I silently promised to remember them. In my dreams I see it played over and over again.
Last week I asked Arianna if I could have a small piece of garden to make a place of remembrance. In that week she and Gai have helped me create something magical. Today Gai took me shopping and we found some painted stones and bought a few and we will buy more. Each one is a witness to the fight for freedom and the memory of so many who will never know it.
Tomorrow I go back to school and I am determined to learn as much as possible so I can find a way to stop the suffering under the System
One morning in late spring Loban was sat in the kitchen finishing his breakfast. I sat sipping tea and he looked at me. ‘Kip, it has been quiet too long!’
‘What do you mean, Dad?’
‘The System, Kip, it has not attacked in over a year.’
I looked at him quizzically. His stern expression softened. ‘I guess they never told you how they would send fighters over here causing harm and chaos.’
‘All we ever got told of was people being kidnapped and executed by enemies of the System. Not that any of us believed that. When you see how a state treats its own people the way the System did why would anyone have to kidnap people away from it.’
‘Kidnap!’ I thought Loban would explode with rage instead he broke into laughter. ‘I have heard the horror stories from you, Gai and other refugees Kip, to even suggest you are so blind as to believe that is beyond belief.’
Loban left for work and I finished my own breakfast before leaving for school. I had not walked halfway when the cool spring air was invaded by the screams of sirens from the city. I carried on walking.
A van screeched to a halt in front of me. It was Gai. ‘Get in’ he shouted.
We drove home at high speed. Loban and Arina were waiting and got in the van. Again at high speed Gai drove deep into the country. As we left the main highway the first explosions echoed through the air.
Loban looked at me. ‘I spoke to soon, son. They are bombing the city.’
From the edge of the forest we watched the formation flight of aircraft dropping their lethal weapons and then the smoke trails of anti-aircraft missiles seeking their target. No aircraft returned across the border.
Searching for Answers
I got home to a letter from my pen pal, Lynne, in England. Inside were photographs and postcards from her holiday, each numbered on the back so I could follow the descriptive within her letter.
There were the usual holiday snaps of children building sandcastles on the beach and tourist attractions. More interestingly there were pictures of things such as candy floss, plastic beach shoes and a seashell.
The one that intrigued me was the telescope situated on the promenade. In her descriptive she told me about her father. He had been in the navy and had spent long periods of time at sea away from his family. Lynne told me how as a child she would race to a telescope like the one in the picture; demand a coin from her mother so she could look out to sea to find her father.
I could relate to that searching and the need to find what we believe to be missing in our lives. Even as a child scraping on the streets for survival I had known pieces were missing from my life. I did not know what back then but I needed them anyway.
In Arina and Loban I had found parents, in Lynne I had found compassion and empathy, friendship and in Gai I had found… I don’t know; what is it I have found in Gai?
During the second winter Arina’s health began to fail. It was shortly after my graduation from school when she collapsed that first time. Even the doctors put it down to the excitement of the day.
A few weeks earlier I had run to Loban and Arina with the news I had won a scholarship place at the state university at Coastwynne. Like any mother the pride shone from her eyes. Now as she lay in bed barely able to speak I am glad she knew,
As one year moved to the next I sat by her side only leaving so Loban could be with his wife. I would sit with Gai then always his arm draped across my shoulder and from that I would draw strength and comfort. Even so I would weep as my heart disintegrated inside me.
In the middle of January the doctor called once more. He came out of the bedroom and called us to the living room. His words struck us all dumb. “I am sorry here is nothing more I can do. She will not see tonight – you must say your goodbyes now!” A few short hours later she was gone.
In my goodbye I promised her I would get the education she so badly wanted me to have. Coastwynne was only a few miles away I could stay at home and be here for Loban and Gai. I do not know what they said as that is not for me to know.
After the funeral we placed her ashes in her garden, the garden she loved so much. In the fountain I placed a rose angel engraved with the word ‘Mum’.
Years later I sit here in her garden and feel her with me. It is just Gai and I now. My fingers touch the rose angels in the fountain as I look at my husband and smile – you knew about that too didn’t you Mum?
© JG Farmer 2014