By: Nick Sweeney
‘I treasure your letters,’ he read. ‘I hear your pen scratch the page, see you walking to the post. This chain of events cuts through logic to crystal clear beauty in my mind, your letters the result, something to touch, and to allow me to believe that at least some of this is real, that some of it happened and is happening. The weather is changing. There are fewer tourists now, and the singing from the port cafés gets softer each night. Soon they will be silent, and we will be glad, then, as autumn goes into winter, we will miss the singing, and the tourists in their bright clothes. I dare to imagine you among them next season, but you’ll be a visitor, and that is a world of difference. I await your next letter, my heart going out to you across the distance that, for the time being, keeps us apart. Yours, Marya.’
“For the time being.” He held for seconds the equation that solved the riddle made by distance, time and space, by confluences of waters, which would lead to that moment when one could say, eureka… or, at least, hallo.
Lorries roared by, and his sliver of mirror shook. He caught it before it fell. As he dressed, he remembered, as he did every day, her words, ‘One day you will put on a white shirt and a dark suit and a cheerful tie, while, nearby, I will get into my mother’s white dress, ready to meet you at Saint Theodosia. We will make those vows, ridiculous, hysterical, even but make them live and breathe in our actions.’ He sat on the bed and examined his shoes critically before putting them on. ‘I hear steps,’ a voice recited, ‘and I sense you, making your way through our avenue of rose bushes. I told you that the rose was Theodosia’s flower? I run to my window and look out, but it’s a tradesman, or a priest. One day it will be you, and I will lean out and wave, and run down to greet you at the door.’
In the streets hung the nervous, disbelieving peace of the city. Under October sunshine, the housing blocks’ brickwork looked delicate and artistic, but the courtyards were like dark wells. School-bound children, their steps leaden, came out of them, and old people led dogs and carried scraps of shopping, catching nobody’s eye. He paused at the pawnbroker’s, its air of lost property office lending it possibilities, for if a thing could be lost, a thing of imagination and longing, it could also be found, and made real again. He looked for his pen in its vitrine. “Nobody uses ink pens these days.” The pawnbroker had indicated his own grubby ballpoint. “Or I’d offer you more.” All the same, it was gone from the display.
‘Pens, no more swords,’ he had read in her first letter, after that blue marbled pen had fallen out of the envelope. ‘War is over, and we are alive, but our world will be a different place, or what was it all for, our passing through it, dispensing our services? It is fitting that you and I should have met on the crest of this change in its fortunes, and in the very centre of Europe. Fitting too that I, the happiest nurse in the world, and you, the saddest soldier, we opposites of strength and solace, should have met by chance among those hundreds of thousands of displaced, miserable people. How did we do it? It was one of those miracles that came out of the war, for you must know that there were many. As I sit here, knowing that, I am convinced that God is standing over us, watching.’
He disappeared into the warren of streets that formed the commercial quarter. A woman welcomed him into a factory raucous with the roar of machines, but ushered him into a side room, away from them. She couldn’t help him with any work, but gave him a tiny coffee, and a cigarette. “Perhaps next week.” She offered the three words firmly, in farewell, smiled a helpless smile, as if mystified by her own kindness. He appreciated it, but couldn’t like it, for she rarely smiled when he was working for her. He passed on, through narrow doors hiding other humming factories. Men spread hands in sympathy, but also in dismissal, so he walked to the city centre for the opening of the kitchens of swish hotels whose back doors revealed glimpses into infernos, far from the plush of their receptions. No kindness there, no sympathy; snooty head porters and waiters, smelling gamely of their trades, surveyed the crowds at their portals, remembered slights and misdemeanours, singled men out and spurned the rest, who hurried towards the next kitchen doorway. ‘You will be part of the economic miracle, of course,’ one letter had said. The words sometimes made him angry, sometimes reconciled him to the hope in a smile. ‘We have made a world of opportunity, which is right, for those who survive must be rewarded for our work. We served the cause of freedom, stood up to tyranny and said, “Enough.” It took our youth, took my father, my brother, your parents. So we have loss, but now is our time, and we will live it to the full when you have your position, when we marry, and buy a house on the heights above your city, with a garden in which will play the children with which God will bless us.’ He watched the throng of men shambling through the grim arches behind the Grand Hotel, hesitated for a second then walked down to the water.
He thought about following the river to the docks, but there had been no non-union work there for the best part of a year. To his right lay the sweep of grandiose edifices that culminated in the parliament building, that of a power once great at sea, watching the waterways, and to his left soared the brutal buildings of the financial city, raised on the fundamentals of capital. He leaned against the river wall, watched the boats stir the water, watched armies of clerks shuffle to and fro on the other side, dwarfed by the monoliths that would claim them for the day.
The library was closed, he knew. He would go home, then, lie on his bed, watch the bugs dance on his ceiling. He would eat at the Mission of the White Sisters, he supposed. He jingled coins in his pocket, thought he might buy a beer after eating. He realised that he was talking to himself, knew he shouldn’t do that; people would write him off as a no-good. ‘You are good,’ she had written in the letter that he had kept in his pocket for two days, words close to his heart. ‘You are kind, you are everything in the world to me, and I await your next letter with impatience and joy.’ Home, then, where he would think of those words and let them prompt him into his own; they would appear on his bare wall, and he would give them life on the pad he kept in his case. He would count the days by his letters, count them by hers, see them turn to years, would be assured, as he always was, of his ability to defy them with the trace of a smile on his face as he walked up the road to the post.
‘Distracted from my studies, I think of you as the rain comes down into my long nights,’ she read on the sky above her head. ‘My fellow-students are by turn frivolous and over-serious. They have nothing in their lives like you, of course, just their books, and their beer. They don’t know life the way we have known it in all its agony and joy. This is a pleasant city, but winter doesn’t do it any favours. The people are unburdened by the finer things, though not unkind, and we students are quite the breed apart. I, however, look at them all and am puzzled, and think, did we all come through our times in the same way? At such times, I mistrust my memory, and mistrust my past, and can’t work out the connections between those times and my life as it runs now. A mystery. I think of you on these rainy nights, think of you on the grey days that follow, when the smog hides us from the world. Still, you know where I am, and that is the important thing. With my love, Peter.’
She filled her basket with roses, then took the broken path down to the gate and walked into the road. She made the music of greeting to a neighbour, and passed on quickly.
She blessed herself past Saint Theodosia’s, gave it the briefest of glances. ‘Built in the time of Justinian, you tell me,’ he’d written in an early letter. ‘I can hardly believe in something so old remaining through the destruction of our war, and of course of so many others. It will be a double privilege, then, to be there on that day not so far into the future, I dare hope, to take my vows with you. You describe it so well that I can see it now, its frescoed entrance hall through which we will pass to walk down its aisle of marble columns, the bare brick of its walls, and its dome with sixteen windows, under which we will stand. I will say those vows in your language, and you must know that I am already learning them. Below you will see my practice, a poem. Please laugh only gently at my mistakes. Here, I am far from poetry and exotic tongues. I fade each day into the Babel of this city, then come home and find a silence in which I study your language, and sometimes find only your name.’
She kept her head down, but somehow never missed a face. She knew where her neighbours were, at this time, in this place or that. She made the detached greetings of small town people.
It was late morning by then. She trudged down the hill to the port, and in the waterfront taverns walked among the drinkers and idlers, showing her roses and praising their virtues. “With the blessings of Saint Theodosia,” she cooed as she took the coins proffered. “May she watch over you.” Lunchtime wasn’t the best time for selling roses, but it couldn’t be ignored. She was tired once she’d finished, but cheerfully hailed the men who sat by their boats at their rough business.
‘I took the ferry to the Continent last week,’ he had written, ‘and felt excited to be on the sea that, no matter its many changes of name, links us. A business trip, not so successful, I’m afraid, but I must take some risks if I am to make our fortune. It is dispiriting sometimes, starting so small, but then I think of you, and know it’s all worth it. Already I am seeking out houses. I agree that a garden is essential, then we can grow roses, Saint Theodosia’s flowers, and recreate a little corner of your home so that you won’t feel homesick. It will also serve to remind our children of the place that sent you into the world across those changing seas, just so that we could meet.’
She ate her lunch in the shadow of the harbourmaster’s office, and watched the boats bobbing uneasily, as if they sensed a storm, looked at the green hills across the bay, and at the villages dotted around them. She thought not of the happy pictures the tourists took back with them, but of darker matters, of vendettas, stilettos, pistols, of fathers’ rights, of dominant men and cowed women whose only initiative lay in the word of rumour. ‘I think of you there,’ she recalled his writing, ‘often think what a sin it will be to take you away from the sea and the trees, to bring you here. I am trapped in this concrete by day, at work, and at the moment can’t afford to move out to the suburbs to live. I can wait for that until you come back with me, and, truth be told, that’s the only thing that keeps me going through this ugliness that surrounds me.’
“The only thing,” she noted to herself as she got with some difficulty to her feet. Her food gone, nothing remained in her basket save one white rose. She went up the hill and through the fragment of Byzantine wall to the cemetery. She caught her breath and surveyed the stones, blanched by the sun. A scarred woman looked up from a monument, saw her and waved briefly, and for seconds there was a sharing of burdens. She passed among the monuments, didn’t need to read the names of those passed on, family, schoolfriends, rough boatmen, lunchtime idlers, dreaded fathers, children murdered for the sake of honour. Why had she been left behind, she wondered, and for so long?
‘It’s a miracle,’ he’d written onto the paper that lay in the bag she wore around her waist, ‘this thing we have. One day, despite this world that keeps us apart, we will be together. I know that in my soul.’ She took another long look around that place of bones and crosses, then stopped before a modest stone with the single word on it, Marya, who lay there courtesy of those overbearing men and rumour-haunted women, unable to bear the thought of the local beauty back from the war with a foreign soldier’s child inside her. She placed the rose before it as she had every day for the ten years since her daughter’s passing, then fished in her bag and walked back down the hill to the post, an envelope in her hand.
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