The Two Tones of the Plait

A piece of fiction published in the excellent Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 8

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Ana was the last name on the list. I had not met her at the court hearings or at the committee gatherings. Her name was not on any petitions. As far as I knew, the other women from the association did not speak to her. I never asked why.

Before the explosions, I used to see her at the end of the school day. She always stood several feet behind the gates, away from the other parents. A tall and svelte figure, she had a taciturn demeanour that some took for arrogance.

Her daughter must have been about eight. She was a well-behaved, studious but happy child, who took Ana’s hand whenever it was offered. She would pirouette, skip and run along the street, but was never more than a few steps from her mother.

The block where Ana lived was a rugged structure of naked concrete. The entrance was unlocked and there was no interphone to call her. In the corridor  facing her apartment were pruned ferns, their pots moist, lying in a tray of shallow water. Her front door was varnished and well-maintained with a shiny spy-hole at the centre. I knocked, before seeing a bell stationed on the wall.

She opened the door in a pink flowery skirt, yellow blouse and heels. Around her neck were imitation pearls and she wore a subtle, flesh-coloured lipstick and a faint layer of rouge on her cheeks. Her hair was a strong and natural black.

“How can I help?” she asked.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I said. “My name is Ivan Ivanovich. I am the father of Maria, from the school.”

“Would you like to come inside?”

“That would be kind.”

She led me through to the living room. The net curtains were drawn. In the corner by the window was a school desk, placed on top was an exercise book with a print of a tiger on its cover. A sharpened pencil lay alongside.

“Would you like to sit down?” she asked.

“Aren’t you going somewhere?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You seem dressed up.”

She covered her mouth as she laughed.

“In this town?”

*

To the left of the cemetery was a playground. On the side of a slide was a cartoon figure of a green dinosaur with white spots. Screwed to the frame of a pair of swings was the picture of a princess in a diamond-studded tiara. The ground was carpeted with broken pieces of wood-chip.

Next to the playground, the grass was clipped and lush. Each stone was bright, bold and wide, its marble glowing in the sunlight. Oval portraits of children and families were laid into the stone. In front were flowers, some fresh, others dry and black, set inside brass holders.

I had my own plot – four metres by two. A gift from the state. A rectangle of new-mown lawn.

A young woman was standing next to me in a black shirt and long pleated skirt, a grey band holding back her curly brown hair.

In her hand was a bunch of violets. 

She separated them and held out a few to me.

“Would you…?” she asked.

“I have nowhere to put them,” I said.

She leaned down over her daughter’s grave, pulled some wilting stems out of the holder, laid them on the grass and replaced them with the violets.

In front of the stone, she bowed her head, stood for a few seconds, brushed her hands together and turned back to me.

“I’m Ludmilla’s mother,” she said.

“Maria’s father,” I said.

“Of course, Ivan, I’m…”

“…Natasha.”

“You’ll want to talk to me, won’t you?”

*

Ana perched on an armchair, her back straight, her hands on her thighs, as though she were unsure whether to stand up or relax. To her side, I sat on the sofa. It was deep and soft. When I leaned back, I felt I was reclining too far, so I pushed myself forward. My black bag was resting next to my hips. In front was a polished wooden coffee table, empty except for an ashtray.

“You live alone?” I asked.

“My husband works in Moscow.”

“That must be hard.”

“It’s been seven years now.”

“Does he come back often?”

“It depends what you mean by often.”

I tried to ease back, but sank too far into the sofa, so I straightened up again.

“You have a job?” I asked.

“For the council.”

“You’re not on leave?”

“I prefer to work.”

“I want to go back, but…”

“I like to be useful. I want to earn for myself, you understand? I don’t like receiving something for no reason. It seems unfair. Like with these cars, you know? You see how many cars there are now?”

“In town?”

“Everyone has one of those jeeps. These wagons for transporting people over hills and fields. You know – the ones that are like tanks. From Japan or Germany.”

“They’re called SUVs.”

“Everyone has an SUV,” she said. “No one is working. Everyone is on leave. Yet they all have SUVs. What about you?”

“I was offered something like that from an official, I think, someone from the committee. It was at a meeting. He said there was so much money coming in, that we could all get a deal on a fleet.”

“They jam up the roads. They fill up the car parks at the market. You can’t move through the town. You can’t move out of the town. Because every mother has an SUV.”

*

It was three weeks after the incident. I was spending every day rushing between the hospital, the police HQ and a liaison office for parents in the mayor’s office. There were many people who were supposed to be doing something for us – regional and national Governments and charities, as well as men in smart shiny shoes, polo-neck jumpers and leather jackets who appeared suddenly in our village. I solicited secretaries to make me appointments with any manager or deputy I could find. If my request was rejected, I stopped these officials in the street or outside the places where they worked.

One evening at the police station, close to midnight, one of the men in smart shoes and a leather jacket took me to a small room.

“Ivan Ivanovich,” he said, in the gentle tone of a liar. “We are aware of your situation.”

“Thank you. I would like to say that…”

“You don’t need to say anything.”

“But I want to make clear that…”

“What have I just stated?”

“That I don’t need to say anything.”

“And what are you doing now?”

I almost shouted.

“I am not getting any answers!”

“We know.”

“So what else can I do?”

“Help.”

“How?”

“By leaving the questions and answers to us.”

I sat up for the rest of the night in my living room. A box of plastic toys in the corner. A row of picture albums on the lowest shelf of the book-case. On the mantelpiece was a line of ceramic reindeer. The table was piled with paper from the last few days.

I could not eat. There was an impulse in me to head straight for the bottle, but I knew drink would not help. When does it ever? Instead I spent the day lying on my back on the sofa, watching the sunlight ease shadows across the ceiling.

“They are not in the right order,” a voice, distinct.

“What… what are not in the right order?” I was thinking aloud.

“The reindeer, Daddy, look.”

“What order should they be in?”

“Petre should be first, then Victor.”

“Which one’s Petre?”

“You remember Daddy, you must remember.”

“The pink one?”

“That’s a girl reindeer!”

“But it has antlers.”

“Oh Daddy, do you know nothing?”

A call. I stirred awake. It was six o’clock. I picked up the phone. A woman’s voice told me I was requested in the mortuary.

 

*

I was seated with Natasha in a narrow kitchen. A plastic cloth patterned with orange and yellow flowers was spread across the table. On top of this lay a small loaf of bread on a wooden board. A pot of fish eggs to its side.

“I haven’t prepared dinner,” Natasha said.

“I’m not hungry.”

“I usually make something.”

“It’s fine.”

“Even if I don’t have guests.”

“It was spontaneous – my coming here. I wouldn’t expect…”

“Honestly, with all this, I try to keep to a routine.”

“I understand.”

“That’s what they tell us, isn’t it? Keep to a routine, it will help. Do the same things every day. At the same time. Makes everything easier.”

She poured the tea into two cups.

“My routine,” I said, “is not to have a routine.”

“I must remember that,” she replied, picking up a small bowl from the kitchen side. “Sugar?”

“No thanks,” I said, patting my belly. “Too much today already.”

She placed the bowl back.

“What happened to your wife?” she asked.

“She died in childbirth.”

“And her grandparents?”

“All gone – I’ve been mother, father and grandmother in one.”

“Must have been tough.”

“It wasn’t,” I said. “I was three people in love.”

I sipped at the tea. It was warm, but lacked flavour.

Natasha gestured towards the bread and fish eggs.

“Please, help yourself, if you want some…”

“No,” I said. “I will eat when I get home.”

“But that means you’re hungry.”

“Much later,” I said. “I will eat much later.”

“If you change your mind.”

“Thank you.”

I looked down at my bag, leaning against the table leg closest to me, then raised up my head.

“I know what you’re going to ask me,” she said.

“It isn’t good.”

“Nothing is though, is it, anymore?”

“No.”

“If it was, I would run from it.”

*

The mortuary was only a few streets away from my apartment. My fingers were trembling. My heart beating faster. As I left my block, my feet were numb and my head dizzy. I walked quickly, hoping the fast pace would calm me.

At the front door, a secretary buzzed me inside, led me downstairs and showed me into a freezing basement. At its centre was a giant metal slab, empty and clean. A white-haired doctor, stooping in a lab coat and smelling of tobacco, entered and greeted me.

“I’m sorry about the mess,” he said.

I did not know what he meant. I looked down. Along three sides of the room were wide plastic boxes piled on top of one another. Inside lay frosted bags containing objects of different sizes – long, round, bulky and thin.

“Thank you for coming,” said the doctor. “As you know there was only one left unidentified. We have now ascertained the correct height and the dimensions of this person.”

I could not see to what he was referring. I kept my head up, my gaze fixed on the doctor. Giddy, I rested my hand on the metal slab. It was cold. I pulled it away.

“It isn’t Maria,” he said.

“Then who is it?”

The trembling in my hands and arms accelerated. The face of the doctor began to blur. The room to shift its balance. There may have been anger – either concealed or obvious – in my voice.

The doctor took one step back.

“After the event,” he said, “there was a lot of confusion.”

*

Ana put her hands to her side, resting on the armchair and looked towards the window, down to the floor and back to me.

“Would you like a drink?” she asked.

“Do you know why I’m here?”

“I’m sure I have a beer somewhere.”

“It’s about your daughter.”

“Oh,” she said. “Her.”

“I wanted to ask you…”

“I hope you didn’t want to.”

For some reason, I felt myself smiling.

“No, I didn’t,” I said.

“I’ll get you that beer.”

“Honestly, I’m fine.”

“Please, no one else will drink it.”

She left to the kitchen. I heard the opening and shutting of cupboard doors. I looked at the bookshelves. Translations of romance novels. Adventure stories. Their spines cracked.

“No, I was imagining things,” she called to me. “I have no beer. I have vodka. Is it too early for you?”

“Really, I don’t.”

“Tea, I can do. But it will take a few minutes.”

“Vodka is fine.”

“Then I will join you.”

A minute later she carried in a silver plate and a patterned cloth, bearing a half-full bottle and two upturned shot glasses.

“It’s a nice home.”

“It suffices.”

I pointed to the window, where the exercise book with the tiger on the cover lay on a desk.

“I see you’ve left the…”

“Yes,” she smiled. “I have a fondness for cats.”

“But there are none here.”

“This flat is not a place for such a creature.”

She poured out small measures of the vodka and handed a glass to me. I was about to reach out my drinking arm towards her, but held back. The glass hung in my fingers.

“I’ve met with all the families,” I said.

She looked at me with a sly, almost jealous glance.

“Why was I the last?”

“There is no reason.”

“I wasn’t important enough?”

Ana released a laugh, it was quick and loud and followed by a rasp. She put down the vodka and picked up a cigarette and lighter. Her nails were varnished in light pink.

*

Natasha had left the kitchen without telling me why. She came back holding a thick plastic album with a black and gold cover, and a cardboard box for a pair of children’s shoes.

She moved my tea to one side and put the album on the table. I was used to mothers showing me these. They were bulging, torn at the side, held together with tape and string. Inside were scraps of paper and cloth, small objects or icons, or a story revealing the girl’s history, the funny things she did or those profound comments that children say by accident.

But not here. As I turned the pages, there were photographs, only photographs, stuck behind plastic sheeting.

A baby wrapped in a knitted blanket, its head and ears covered in a white cloth, lying on a double duvet.

A man in a cream turtle-neck sweater, a cigarette in his mouth, holding the plump newborn in his hands.

Natasha laughing, the girl on her lap, her eyes snapped shut in the flashlight.

The inside of a church. A bearded priest in a black cassock and a yellow mantle. A series of pictures of the baby as the priest submerges her in the gold-coloured bowl. Her limbs shivering. Tightening in the cool air. The toes curling. Resisting the plunge. Kicking up the water. Her face shrieking. All out of focus. The girl’s body shaking so fiercely, the background invades her space.

I had learnt to use a certain speed when flicking through such pictures. To linger on each pose for about five to ten seconds. To turn the pages slowly. To listen and nod as the women explained who was in the photos and what they were doing. But I never had any questions. Because if I started asking what was going on, I would hear too many stories.

But Natasha did not talk. Nor did she look down at the photographs. Instead she remained opposite, watching me – the corners of my mouth, and the lines around my eyes and cheeks.

Ludmilla standing at the top of a slide. A pink anorak with a hood pulled around her face, covering her ears. Her hands on either side of the slide. Two knitted gloves tied to her wrists hanging free.

In a white cotton dress, she was seated on the knee of a middle-aged woman in a garden. A broken wheelbarrow lay half-submerged in the dirt behind. Above were plum trees, heavy with fruit.

A colour photograph of Ludmilla in the living room of what I guessed was this flat. It seemed to be the first day of school. She had a tiny-toothed grin and two black pigtails, a blue and white uniform and bright red heels. A skipping rope was in one of her hands and a small bunch of flowers in the other.

I knew the route to the school from here. I had passed by many times. The bushes, lawns and small fences at the side of the blocks. It seemed that every ten paces or so, Natasha had taken another shot of her daughter. Next to the bus stop, her face bright, alert, her stance in a rigid pose. Another from behind, her fuzzy body running down the main street, her heels in the air. The corner market. Blackcurrants. Blackberries. Pomegranates. Watermelons. Grapes. Piled up in wooden boxes.

The girl standing in front. Another picture of her body running, from the side, beside a kiosk selling cigarettes and fake designer perfumes. In front of the school gates. A mass of other children, dressed in clean clothes, perfectly ironed, milling around with bouquets in their hands.

Ludmilla stands still among them, looking up at the camera. Another, where she retains the same pose, while a hand, flat, moves in front of the lens, reaching out, large and blurred.

“A few weeks afterwards, I wanted to clean,” said Natasha. “I wanted to clean properly. I put all the books and all the crockery in boxes. I took out the furniture. Placed it in the yard. Hosed it down and dried it with towels. I turned up the carpets, hung them outside and beat them until I freed every speck of dirt. The rooms were bare, but needed sweeping. I brushed up and emptied the dust, nail clippings, seeds and hair into a bowl. We both had similar kind of hair. Hers was a little curlier and she wore it longer, but only by a few inches.”

She closed the photo album and pushed it to one side, before placing the cardboard box in front of me. 

“I sat on the living room floor. I laid out a piece of newspaper. I separated every strand from the dust. But when I collected them together, I wasn’t sure which was my hair and which was hers. I washed and combed them and there was enough to twist into this.”

She opened the top of the box. Inside on white paper wrapping was a thin braid of hair, about twenty centimetres long, with bands tied at either end.

“You know there is another child,” I said. “A girl in the place where…”

“Please, don’t talk about this.”

“It is possible that…”

I always waited for a moment deep into the conversation before I unzipped my bag. Inside was a board with a metal fastener holding sheets of crumpled paper. Attached to this clip was a piece of string knotted around a pen. The thread was frayed and greyish brown from damp and sweat.

On the pages lay the smudged names and signatures of women.

“I don’t believe what you’re asking me to do,” she said.

“I understand.”

“You’ve been there. You’ve been there with me.”

“Yes.”

“I offered you violets.”

*

Ana leaned back, inhaled a long drag on her cigarette and moved her arm to one side.

“You want me to dig her up?” she said.

“There were clerical errors.”

“What if it isn’t yours?”

“We need to know.”

“What if we have to do this to every child?”

“I want to be sure.”

“Does it help us?”

“Isn’t it important to be right?”

She crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray and looked over to the desk.

“Maybe I should open the curtains,” she said.

I unzipped my bag and pulled out the clipboard. The pen still attached by string. I left it on the table.

Ana turned to me.

“No.”

She spoke casually, as though pushing away someone in the street who had asked her for money.

“But,” I said, “everyone has signed.”

“Let me give you a suggestion instead.”

“It’s necessary, for you and for me.”

“Ivan Ivanovich,” she said. “Does she still talk to you?’

“Yes.”

“Is that scary?”

“No.”

“It should be.”

“I know she’s safe.”

“When you had guests around the house, before all this. They would crowd into your flat wouldn’t they? Probably most of them in the kitchen.”

“I guess so.”

“And you wanted to talk to them. About what they were doing. Whose parents were in hospital. The funny things that had happened. The stupid things that people said. Who was working where and so on, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And Maria would be there, wouldn’t she? Playing around. With her dolls or her plastic animals, and she would notice you had guests?”

I nodded.

“And she wouldn’t like it, would she? She’d come up to you all the time, pulling on your hand. Saying, Daddy, Daddy, come. Daddy, I want to show you something. Daddy, please.”

“She did, yes.”

“And what would you say to her?”

“I’d say, not now. I’m busy.”

“And if she kept on insisting, and if she raised her voice?”

“I would tell her to shut up.”

“So now, give her the respect she deserves.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do the same.”

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