SPRING 1946. TO ENGLAND.
The boy was everything to her. Small and unruly, he had a nervy way about him like a wild creature caught in the open. All the dark hearts of the lost, the found, and the never forgotten lived in his child's body, in his quick eyes. She loved him with the same unforgiving force that pushes forests from the deep ground, but still she feared it was not enough to keep him. So she was taking him to England, determined that Janusz would love him and keep him safe.
On the ship's sailing list she was named as Silvana Nowak. Twenty-seven years old. Married. Mother of a son, Aurek Josef, aged seven years.
"What is your profession?" the British soldier asked her, checking the identity papers she put before him.
She looked at the documents on his desk and saw pages of women's names. All were listed as housewives or housekeepers.
Behind her, hundreds more women, dressed as she was in donated clothes, stood silently with their children. Above the soldier's head, a sign in several languages including Polish, detailed the ship's rules. All blankets and sheets remain the property of the ship. All stolen items will be confiscated.
Silvana tightened her grasp on her son. The soldier glanced at her quickly and then looked back to his papers. She knew why. It embarrassed him to see a woman so unkempt and a child with such restless ways. She touched her headscarf, checking it was in place, and pressed her other hand into Aurek's back, trying to make him stand up straight.
"Survivor," she whispered, the first word that came to her.
The soldier didn't look up. He lifted his pen. "Housekeeper or housewife?"
"I don't know," she said, and then, aware of the queue shifting impatiently behind her, "Housewife."
So that was it. She was recorded, written neatly into a book in indelible black ink. She was given a transport number, a label pinned on her lapel that corresponded with the details on the ship's passenger list. Proof that she and the boy were mother and son. That was a good start. Nobody, after all, could disagree with or dispute an official document. Only the title housewife looked questionable. Together or separate, Silvana was sure nobody would believe the words house or wife had anything to do with her.
All night, while the sea carried the ship and its passengers toward another land, Silvana worked at remembering. She found herself a space in one of the crowded corridors below decks and sat, arms crossed, legs tucked under her. Curled into herself in this way, with Aurek hidden under her coat, she breathed through the odor of sweat and diesel, the throb of the engines marking time, while she tried to recall her life with Janusz. Always, though, the same memories came to her. The ones she didn't want to own. A road she didn't want to travel. A filthy sky full of rain and planes coming out of the clouds. She shook her head, tried to think of other things, to cut off the image that would surely come. And then there it was. The wet mud shining underfoot. Trees twisting in the wind and the child swaddled in a jumble of blankets, lying in a wooden handcart.
Silvana pulled Aurek tighter to her, rocking him back and forth, the memories departing. He snaked a bony hand out from under her coat and she felt his small fingers searching her face. And how was it that love and loss were so close together? Because no matter how she loved the boy - and she did, furiously, as if her own life depended on him - loss was always there, following at her heels.
By the time the dawn sky leaked light into the darkness, Silvana was too tired to think anymore and finally closed her eyes, letting the heartbeat drone of the engines settle her to a thankfully dreamless slumber.
Morning brought with it a pale sun and salt-laden winds. Silvana pushed her way through the crowds to the upper decks, Aurek hanging on her coattail. Gripping the handrail, she let him settle in a crouch between her feet, the weight of him against her legs. Green waves lay far below and she stared down at them, trying to imagine what England would be like, a place she knew nothing of except that this was where her husband, Janusz, now lived.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson. Copyright © 2011 by Amanda Hodgkinson.
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