“Pervert! I knew you’d be hiding with the retard,” Pepa screams at Velimir. “Stop touching her, you immoral beast, and get out.” She stands, hands on hips to make her look fiercer – as if she needs any help. She scares me. Most people do. That’s why I usually stay in the corners of rooms or hide away alone. I’m behind the coal hopper and deep in night shadow. No one knows.
Velimir relaxes on a bench, barely lit by the fierce bulbs round the corner which glare the lawn. Kačena sits side-on to him, arms around his front and back, head resting on a shoulder. Her legs over his lap and trousers pushed up, she’s silent as he strokes with his fingertips from the top of her feet to the knees, tracing tracks through dark hair and flattening them with the downward stroke.
Kačena is all dreamy, eyes half closed, as always when she’s with him. She’s muddy too; goes out into the crags nearly every day. I don’t know where she gets the courage. She’s a woman but child-like, doesn’t talk and explodes with violence for no reason: except when Velimir is about.
He’s always nice to everyone and makes me feel brave at times, brave enough to go to the market with him when it’s quiet. I like Velimir.
Pepa hates him, and it’s getting worse every day. Poor Kačena curls tight, knees up to her chin at Pepa’s screeching. Velimir’s so calm; he continues stroking, kisses Kačena’s tangled hair, all twigs and leaves, and looks at Pepa.
His voice is always quiet but you can usually hear it clearly even when other people talk. He says, “Dear Pepa, morality can be the cruellest: it is a terrible thing. I do not use morality but kindness. Kindness is simple, morality a mass of barbed wire wound around hearts and…”
Pepa shrieks incoherently, interrupting, spit flying from her. She’s only stopped by her smokers’ coughing. I jerk back further into darkness as Kačena’s fingers turn rigid, curved and claw-like; she flies from the bench, hissing at Pepa.
Velimir leaps up and embraces Kačena hard from behind. “No, my sweet lady, no. It’s only words and shouting. Come to me and soften; soften yourself, loosen your arms. I’ll stroke your back and all will be lovely.” His voice goes from commanding to a happy whisper.
Kačena half turns and presses against him, arms tight round his neck. Pepa stamps away, stopping every few steps as if about to swing round and yell again. Now she stands black and white in the lights’ glare, turns and shouts, “I’ll get people to help me throw you out! We’ll lock the gates against you. Starve among the rocks or try to live in the town and starve there instead.”
Long shadows creep in stripes across the lawn, people are approaching, drawn by noise.
Harris will be one of the first. He’s the leader here, holds prayers every morning and night, tells people what work to do, organises everyone, checks the high wall and gates all round the enclosure – the sanctuary as he calls it. He locks the farm gate and the other which leads to the village every night unless Kačena is still away: she doesn’t understand rules. Anyone else would be locked out. Those working on the farm know to get back in time.
I know what’s going to happen; people always shout. Harris will call a court and there’ll be so much noise and too many people. I creep round the back of our coal store, between it and the great wall. I’m the only one who does and know all the hazards and squeezy bits even when it’s dark.
If I turn left for the house’s main entrance I’ll be seen and I don’t like that. That means climbing a drainpipe – one of the good ones – and then some steep iron roofs. They’re all sharp and rusty and, if you go too far across, make booming noises. After all that is a balcony, bits of it are still safe and I can get to my dorm.
I hear snatches of people talking, one at a time; Harris must be organising them. Someone shouts, “Democratic, my arse: only when the decision agrees with yours, Harris.”
Someone’s criticising our leader! Fury blazes in me. I scratch metal; rust cuts under my nails. How can…? No one should… It’s never been done. He’s .. he’s… It’s a voice I don’t recognise, must be one of the new refugees. What way is that to thank someone who gives you a job and a place to live? It’s shocking: unthinkable.
There’s a moment’s silence and now a lot more shouting. Harris’ voice rises above the others and quiet falls except for Pepa’s yelling, “I saw you wa … masturbating in the men’s toilet…” She’s probably talking to Velimir; what was she doing in the men’s toilet? More shouting that I don’t want. I move fast, half-diving, half-rolling through a window and into the dorm I share.
My bed is the middle of three. They’re all pushed together and there are two on either side of the room – people have to climb over others to get to their beds from the narrow central gap.
It’s nearly clean sheets week but for now my bed smells the way I like it. I curl up and form the bedclothes into an exact chrysalis of my body – tucked underneath me everywhere against any frost.
Why does Harris let Pepa rave like that? Is it only because she gave money for mending bits of the main building? Does that give her a right to shout louder than anyone else? That goes against all he says about this place. But he does let her – she bullies him. He’s afraid of Pepa? It must be that, he’s weak and… Now I’m criticising him myself! Yes, I am. Oh.
I wake, shocked by a horrible thought. What if they make Velimir leave? No … no they couldn’t. Harris would make people wait a few days to settle and discuss everything again. He’s clever like that.
It’s totally dark. There’s not much smell of burning candle-fat, or so much as usual. There’s no noise of people sleeping or breathing; no one disturbed me treading on my bed. I poke a foot out and feel the mattress to my right, roll over and test the left. No one. Are they all still out there talking?
Pulling bedclothes tight around me, I grip the peeling window frame with one hand, still raw from metal and rust grazes, to peer through the only glass bit of window. There are no lights on, not even lanterns. Where is…?
There’s something strange; starlight makes a new stripe on frost where there shouldn’t … the gate’s open.
Maybe Kačena has gone out, but then the doors would be wide open and secured. I shiver and pull back. Everything’s unusual and wrong. Standing, I drop everything but one blanket for wrapping round me. It’s a sort of cloak now. I must look like some ancient royalty.
Striking a spluttering match, it hisses, and everything goes black again. Another shows me my candle, though it’s tiny and I should have got another. I see some beds are messed up, a few blankets missing.
Where is everybody? It’s too quiet. Creeping through corridors and listening at doorless dorms, I can’t hear anything until I reach the first floor and main staircase. Angry voices: two people arguing outside the front entrance? My candle dies just before I try to blow it out. Sliding down the banisters is usually fun but now I do it for speed and to avoid groaning steps.
Harris says, “…twice. There’s not a bit long enough to lock it. I don’t know who it was but I’ll find out. Help me get a big bar. That’ll keep it closed and fast and everyone safe from whatever madness and depravity goes on in the dark outside.”
Pepa makes a growling murmur. She and Harris crunch away over gravel. The solitary lamp’s light fades.
Someone has done something so the gate stays open. Why would they do that? Icy grass hisses under my cloth foot-wraps. I’m worried about leaving tracks on the lawn. People will know me or someone was… Oh, other tracks? more people came this way.
Starlight on frost is enough to make running easy. The chopped gate-chain clinks under my tread. Peering through the gap I see nothing until a greyness moves slightly against black woods. It’s a person, their warm breath a curling cloud. I must find out what’s going on but don’t want to speak to Harris when Pepa’s around. That means going out of the sanctuary and talking to this someone – and I don’t know who they are. I hate that idea.
Pepa’s voice comes from behind me, “I can’t hold this end and the lantern as well: you take it.”
Harris grunts a reply, “Give me it. Look, more tracks: some other misfits must have left. They’ll soon be back begging for safety and spiritual guidance.” His heavy steps crackle on gravel. I don’t like being found but I’m not doing anything wrong am I?
The figure ahead turns and clears his throat. It’s Velimir! I dart out, racing towards him, my tread a soft padding on the frozen earth road. Trying to whisper I ask, “What’s happening? I’m so scared.”
He catches me in a big hug. “There you are. I was waiting for you. They made me leave, and others came too in small groups. We’re down by the river and making warm fires.” He pulls something from under his jacket. “It’s a fresh loaf. Don’t eat it all; you’ll need a bit for breakfast. There are some apples we’ve saved for you too – ah, and a bit of sausage.” He turns me and, with his arm around my shoulders, we head away: away from my home. I’m dizzy with shock … and relief: I feel free and safe … and … free!
Everyone’s down by the river? “Who gave you bread … and things?”
“There are always plenty of good people to be found. The villagers are kind.”
“And people left the sanctuary to follow you?”
He laughs, “No one follows me. I am no leader.”
“I’ll follow you.”
“No, you are your own leader – everyone is but some don’t know it.”
Behind us I hear the gates crash fast and a bar dropped into brackets. What is Harris trying to protect? The dorms were all quiet and empty. There’s only him and Pepa left: don’t they know yet? The two of them are still arguing, shouting at each other. What are the gates and wall actually for? I’ve never really asked.
Velimir’s face is all scraggy and roughly trimmed beard. I’m still a bit scared: it’s all new. “Can I stay with you?”
He gives me a squeeze. “Stay where you choose but it’s lovely to have your company.”
“I’ll be good.”
He snorts in humour. “I don’t understand what good means; it can cause some terrible cruelty. Don’t be good: be kind.”
©Gary Bonn, 2020