By Nenad Kojic
Hyde Park Corner, London, 2051.
Mangled weather, bluff and blustery, yawned overhead like a sea without a shore. An urgent wind whistled its toothless tune to the swaying trees that surrounded the sleeping circus in its midst, driving sheets of rain against a ramshackle collection of rundown vehicles and death-trap rides. At its centre is a red caravan, a necklace of broken lightbulbs dancing wildly along the length of its tin roof.
A light-switch clicks on in the inky dark, as a solitary figure steps out of the red caravan into a corridor of light, pausing briefly to inspect the wood and candy-floss scented air before slowly descending the stairs.
Underneath the vehicle, a young woman with grass and confetti in her hair lies fast asleep, snoring loudly beneath a bed of tarpaulin sheets.
Hearing her, the caravan-owner, a life-extended geriatric, looks down, cocking her head. The young woman before her doesn’t look like a refugee from the city’s nightclub scene. Even by today’s standards of destitute-inspired fashion, this was not just an impoverished look; this one had a story to tell.
“Hmmm, looks like the sun has better places to be this morning.” Thick soupy Slavic vowels prod the young woman from her slumber.
The old woman slowly opens a tin box of home-made ginger biscuits. Originally meant for Freya the Fire-Eater, she offers its contents to the young woman instead. Shielding it from the rain, she smiles gently at the unwashed, slender young face looking up at her.
Tired, sleepy eyes, try to make sense of the situation, weighing up the fear of being found against exhaustion and the need for food. The young woman’s stomach decides the moment for her by roaring hungrily. Giving in, she reaches out slowly and takes a giant roughly hewn biscuit.
The old woman notices the dirt on those young hands and assesses that there must be about two, maybe three months of grime on them. The young woman takes a small tentative bite. “Don’t be afraid of my ginger biscuits, they’re home-made, and I am not an amateur biscuit maker.” Not getting a reaction, she continues, “Listen…I am making a special breakfast tomorrow, and you are invited. Are you Russian by any chance? Not that it matters, of course, you don’t have to be Russian to eat breakfast!” She exclaims with a broad smile. “You must come anyway. And you could do with a hot bath and some food before then, yes? I have some clothes you can have until the ones you’re wearing are washed and dried.”
Turning away from her, the old woman strode purposefully towards the rear of the caravan, the tails of her long military coat flapping wildly in the wind. From somewhere nearby, she shouts, “Come on, I am not having you sleeping underneath my home. I’ll get some wood for the shower stove. You’re welcome to stay for as long as you need to ‘inside’! At least until you sort yourself out, okay? Besides, they said the rain was going to get worse, so let’s get inside before the ground floods again!”
Pain can suffuse every pore, as it seeks discovery and attention. Eventually, it becomes ashamed of its notoriety as it bends and twists one’s insides, looking for somewhere to hide.
The young woman stood motionless in the doorway of the red wagon, wondering if danger was waiting inside. In front of her, a heavy green velvet curtain greeted her with the words, ‘Vasha, Agony Aunt to the Damned’ in fancy gold-stitched lettering. She hesitated again, assessing matters as a means of staving off doubt.
1. Her joints ached.
2. Her face throbbed.
3. Her rib cage was an open wound, for God’s sake!
4. She wanted food, fresh bandages and painkillers more than anything.
5. The old woman’s show of kindness and offer of help felt genuine and unconditional.
After seeing her father tortured and murdered in her family home, she’d been in hiding for months, avoiding people and open spaces. But she knew that hiding forever wasn’t an option. She suddenly felt exhausted and stepped inside.
The interior was more substantial than she had expected. The gentle ticking of an old clock politely greeted her from somewhere nearby. Moving through the interior, the air smelt of dusty old fabrics and leather, followed by cherry tobacco and the spiced aroma of ginger biscuits. The space was dimly lit, with soft yellow lighting pinpointing a slender leather armchair here, a narrow table with a pile of old paperbacks there. It felt inviting and homely.
Pinned to the caravan’s wood-panelled walls were numerous photographs and the occasional framed newspaper cutting. One photo, in particular, caught her eye. It was of the old woman in her early 20’s, looking glamorous in a fitted jacket and pencil skirt, her hair coiffured into big waves. She was posing in front of the Eiffel Tower next to a tall man; she looked very happy. In another, she was dressed as a circus acrobat, surrounded by other performers of varying shapes and sizes. A few pictures along from there, she was a soldier in uniform, rifle in the crook of her arm posing happily with other soldiers in a rubble-strewn city street. Next to it was a grainy newspaper cutting of her receiving a medal from a fat man in a long-coat and fur hat. She looked stern, yet proud, her chest heavy with medals.
Although the images on her wall were a catalogue of moments in her life, they seemed at odds with her present circumstances. Clearly not impoverished, Vasha had seemingly become, through the natural erosion of time, selfless and possibly quite alone.
As one of life’s great survivors, it was difficult to comprehend why she was spending the remainder of her life in a circus caravan.
Amy suddenly felt like an intruder inside the memories of another’s life, moralising and analysing someone’s past and present.
Rising slowly from a creaky patchwork armchair at the other end of the caravan, the old woman switched on the boiler, which rumbled into life. Without turning, she said, “See, all of life’s essentials, in full working order. Mind you, this boiler has a nasty habit of breaking down just when the weather turns cold or when the insurance runs out. So, what’s your name? My name is Vasha, and this is my home. I own Les Masque Belles. We make room for artistic daydreams in bored people’s lives. Yes, I know how that sounds but, Art is 100% essential to understanding life. It makes sense of the everyday. It twists and shakes reality itself.” As she spoke excitedly, she poured out two large coffees into oversized bone China cups. “That was my, how do you say, elevator pitch? So…how about you?”
The young woman blinked at the old woman as she put the drinks down in front of her. It was as much a simple gesture of hospitality as a sign that she didn’t mean her any harm. “My name’s…Amy.” She blinked hard, surprised at how sluggish her voice sounded. “Hmmm, are you sure about that?” Asked the old woman as she blew into her hot coffee. “Yes, it’s been Amy since I was born.” “Smart too.” She winked at her. “So, would you like something more substantial than my biscuits?” At the mention of food, Amy’s stomach replied for her with a loud growl. She nodded in the affirmative. “Egg, bacon, sausages, beans, etcetera?” Amy nodded yes to it all. “Good, I will rustle something up. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, Боже мој! Tomorrow is a special day in my hometown. Traditionally, a big feast is prepared to celebrate life, family, friends, roots and, past struggles. What does this have to do with you? I hear you cry?! Well, let’s just say, everyone, can benefit from a little good food and some time to reflect on life.” She paused and pointed to a small bag. “Over there next to you are some clothes and bath things. My personal shower cubicle is next door, please use it. Here is the key, scrub-up well and be back here in 30 minutes.”
Inside the shower cubicle, Amy slowly undressed, she smelt bad. Everything ached and creaked. She removed the bandage from the left side of her rib cage and stood on her tiptoes in front of a nearby mirrored medicine cabinet. Her knees began to shake at the sight of her wound and the realisation that despite everything, she was somehow still alive. She stepped forward to take a closer look. The harsh light from the single lightbulb revealed blackened skin, hard and shiny, around a gaping hole full of shredded wires and tubes. Strange white organ-like shapes, some of which had partially melted in the blast, hung on a white metallic skeletal structure. Not the regular organs, bones and blood she was expecting to see. Disgusted, confused and angry, she screwed her eyes shut and pulled the dirty bandage back hard, sending a searing pain shooting up her spine and into her brain. She screamed through gritted teeth, stumbling back hard into the wall.
Scrubbed clean and wearing one of Vasha’s jumpers and jeans, Amy was looking forward to some food. Standing at the entrance of the caravan, she suddenly froze as the muffled tones of a male voice could be heard coming from inside. Terrified her father’s killers had found her, she started to panic and was about to turn and run when she suddenly realised it was a tv news report about the bomb blast near 10 Downing Street, the same explosion she was caught in – she breathed a sigh of relief.
And then another voice came on, masculine and monotone. She stopped and listened. “We all seek peace and happiness, striving to avoid and prevent suffering. We all want freedom and the right to determine our destiny as conscious beings without the fear of prejudice or reprisals. This is human and machine nature. These things can be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, love, compassion and the elimination of ignorance, selfishness and greed. The problems we face today can only be resolved through human-machine cooperation and a mutual understanding of and the development of kinship. We need to jointly adopt a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. I speak on behalf of 15.3 million machines when I say that I am convinced that we can all reach an agreement and work towards a brighter…” at that precise moment, a massive explosion ripped through the crowd, sending machine and human body parts flying in all directions. Shockwaves careered down narrow streets, shattering glass, shaking cars into an alarmed frenzy.
She remembered a fine red mist of human blood settling on everything. And how a chorus of alarms and screams, terrible, agonising screams, filled the air.
Police and medical personnel were on the scene within moments sifting through the smoke and devastation. Machines caught up in the explosion were picking up humans and carrying them to the emergency services.
Her heart started pounding; her whole body began to shake as her mind played out those terrifying moments all over again. The smell of her own burning skin, the world spinning about her as she was thrown into the air like a rag doll. Her eyes twitched as she recalled a Machine appearing over her and how it paused silently, looking into her gaping wound before picking her up.
Wiping tears away, she felt like she was losing her mind. Forcing herself to go inside the wagon, she called out, “Vasha?” her voice breaking. “Aaah you’re back! Good, good. Yes, what is it, my dear?” “If you don’t mind me asking…do you live here, alone?” “Yes, yes, I do. Why do you ask?” “I was just wondering.” “Sometimes I have guests, not often mind. The past keeps me company when it’s in the mood. But usually, I sit here on my own. As you can see, I have plenty of memories to keep me occupied.” With her back still turned, she said, “Feel free to look at the photos on the walls while I finish making us something to eat. Unfortunately, no one keeps printed photographs anymore, shame really, you remember more when they are on display. After all, it is my past, and I am not ashamed of my life.” Amy smiled at that.
On the wall next to her was a newspaper cutting. The article was about a woman called Lyudmila Pavel, aka “Red Death” and her meeting with the First American Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. “Who is, L-yud-mila?” “Ha! That’s me, that’s my real name. Westerners struggle with some Russian names.” “So, you were a sniper in world war two? Wow.” “Wow, you say?” “Sorry that came out wrong. It’s just that I’ve never met anyone who was in the war. I thought everyone had passed away. Clearly not.” Amy’s father, an ex-officer in the French army, had instilled in her the value and sacrifice of serving one’s country. Remembering her father triggered a deluge of painful memories…of being at home, hiding, holding her breath for fear of being heard. Watching her father from a crack in the dining-room door, as he sat tied to a chair. Masked men surrounded him, shouting, “Where is she? Where have you hidden it?!” He pleaded ignorance, tears streaming down his face. The man who was shouting the most, the one with the white skull on the front of his balaclava, produced a black hunting knife. In one swift movement, he planted a boot on the seat between her father’s legs, leaned forward and pushed the blade straight into her father’s chest. As the tip pierced his heart, the killer pushed the knife to the hilt and paused, staring into her father’s bulging eyes before pulling the blade out. Blood poured out of the wound in great fountains, pooling underneath him. His body went into shock as he began to convulse, coughing and choking on his own blood. Fear gripped her like never before, her throat seized-up as she staggered backwards, shaking violently, almost falling out of an open window.
That was two months ago, the last time she saw him.
She fell into a nearby chair, crying and shaking uncontrollably. “Oh, my goodness, what is the matter?! Why are you crying?!” The old woman rushed over; arms outstretched. Amy recoiled from Vasha, disgusted with herself, her inhumanity and for being responsible for her father’s death. She didn’t deserve anyone’s pity!
Vasha had seen pain like this before. Some pain is so great, words cannot give it shape or form. It’s said that accepting one’s pain without the guilt that often accompanies it is the only way to begin the healing process. That first step takes immense courage.
Wiping tears and snot away, Amy forced herself to talk, “My father was in the army too Vasha. Should I still call you Vasha?” “Yes, please do, I am used to it now. Lyudmila feels like a different person now.” Vasha looked at Amy and blinked several times before saying, “It took some time but, I realised a long time ago that we are all lost one way or another. That you have to swallow pain in order to move on. You have to put yourself first because, in the cold light of day, most people are not to blame for their problems.” The old woman turned her gaze to the floor, lost in thought. “Life is funny. I have led a, how do you say, a…turbulent life? And in all that time, I have always been on the move. I can’t stay anywhere for too long. That nomadic urge has saved my life countless times, of that I am sure. Even so, everyone needs an anchor, an escape from memories that creep up on you when your guard is down. I don’t suppose that makes very much sense.” Amy smiled, appreciating her honesty and concern.
“What do you do for the circus?” “Me? Hmmm, well, you might say I am a conduit.” “A conduit? What do you mean?” “Well, I speak to spirits, my dear. Deceased family and or acquaintances to be precise. I have done so for the past 60 years at least. It can be hard work.” “How come?” “Well, sometimes, the information does not want to come easily. Luckily, with or without spirits, you can tell a lot about someone by simply looking at them.” “You really talk to the dead?” Amy couldn’t help but smile. “Of course! Spirits are the very essence of the void between life and death. They know so much more than we do, the ones left behind, ever will. They are at the very doorway to truth. If you manage to grasp this fact and believe it with all your heart, you can quench any pain, satisfy any question.” It seemed as if life and death shared the same space for this old woman. And, judging by the pictures on her wall and the tone of her voice, she was at peace with her life.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that happiness, as a concept, was a far more critical part of life than Amy had considered. Finding and holding on to joy is as essential as breathing itself because to do so, is to see beyond yourself and to become aware of yourself.
“Vasha, please tell me about the ghosts, the ones who are your friends.” “Боже! Where do I begin?” she smiled. “Well, spirits vary in more ways than I have shoes, well, the shoes I once had when I was young.” Pouring two more cups of coffee, she urged Amy to take hers. “Their origins, character and purpose have been carefully catalogued since well before my time, and I have been on God’s Earth for a fair while myself.” A tiny twitch at the corner of Amy’s lips gave way to a smile. “Some spirits have been about for centuries, stalking their patch of land while we were still apes. Those ones aren’t human, but they are made of the same essence. They vary in temperament, just like us. Some can be really nasty and others simply mischievous. Some make a lot of noise, rattling their chains and wailing as they drag themselves up and down corridors. Some are attention seekers, stacking household objects and furniture or breaking things when your back is turned. Others are the collective misery of centuries of pain and grief. They’ll burn holes in your heart when they are near. And then there are those that don’t get noticed very much at all. I think their stories are the saddest of all.” “And you talk to them?” “Yes. Some of them are my dearest and oldest friends. I knew some of them while they were still alive.” She sat back in the armchair, lit a blue menthol cigarette and continued, “Yes, I talk to spirits, but I am not entirely crazy, not for the moment at least. I play cards with some of them. You might think ‘that’s’ crazy! I know I would if I were you!” she laughed. “Others prefer chess, some just watch television with me. It’s sweet really, especially as there’s nothing much to watch these days, I suppose it’s easier being bored when you have company.” “How do you play cards with the dead?” “Ah, now that would be telling!” Vasha laughed out loud, knowing full-well how preposterous her story must sound. “Of course, there’s an understanding and mutual trust. You could say we help each other.” “How?” “Well, I appreciate the company of course and, I suppose every soul, good or bad, needs a home.”
Vasha was clearly young at heart and although the conversation seemed quite strange at times, Amy found it all quite fascinating. The walls of her home were not only memories, but they also represented fears, dreams and aspirations. They allowed life to be lived comfortably, without the spectre of ‘lost opportunities’ knocking at one’s door.
Amy had found temporary sanctuary. Though she wasn’t about to tell Vasha what had happened to her, she felt at ease here, on the periphery of society, where every kind of life is worth living.
She suddenly felt a desperate need to sleep. Vasha pointed to her worn velvet sofa where she had prepared a pillow and a red silk duvet for her. “It’s a very comfortable sofa. Sleep well, Amy, sweet dreams.”
Every day, a special, almost imperceptible moment occurs when daylight whispers its desire to be evening light. When gold, copper and red sparks ignite dreary skies and the skin of every living and non-living thing, our world glows with an animated radiance.
Following the same path as the morning light, the syrupy aroma of breakfast permeated every nook and cranny of the caravan. As Amy slowly opened her eyes, the scene before her made her cry.
True to her word, Vasha had served-up an amazing breakfast. Beneath her picture gallery, was a truly magnificent spread. Warm wreathed challah bread, small fruit-filled puff-pastries, oatmeal biscuits studded with raisins, savoury meat-filled buns, boiled eggs and carefully arranged paper-thin slices of black forest ham lay next to smoked salmon sprinkled with dill and salt. Thick slices of beef nestled next to smoked frankfurters and fat pickled gherkins. Rolled crêpes with chocolate-filled bellies jostled for attention next to a selection of home-made jams and miniature bread rolls. At the centre of the table sat a large white chilled jug of thick peach juice.
With her hands on her hips, Vasha smiled at the spread and then at Amy and announced, “Every year, I make this feast to remember friends and family who are no longer here. To never forget what has made me and what has brought me here.
Time will become drunk on this fine breakfast, allowing us a few precious moments of freedom. Only then will it loosen its grip, allowing our souls a few moments reprieve, enough time to understand the journey and to know who we must become.
Breakfast, is served.”
Nenad Kojic is 49 years of age. He lives in London with his wife and two children. By day, he is a Web Designer and by night a writer of short stories that merge many genres, fantasy, sci-fi, drama and literary.
He is influenced by the realism of French and Russian cinema and literature. He likes to expose life in all its unexpected, gritty, beautiful and ugly moments.