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A LUC VANIER NOVEL
To my brother Jim and my almost-brother Frank.
And to my sisters Esme, Carol, and Lisa.
I love you all.
Katya Babyak was lying on a steel bed in a dilapidated three-storey public housing unit in Rotterdam. The room was small and unheated, furnished with only the bed and a small dresser. Her battered suitcase lay open on the linoleum floor. She spent all her time on the bed, shivering under a threadbare blanket that made no difference in the damp cold. Three days so far, three days inside a locked room, waiting.
She had waited in Kiev too, waited until they told her it was time to go, and put her and four others in the back of a truck, hidden behind cardboard boxes piled to the roof. The drive from Kiev to Rotterdam had taken two days, with stops every now and then to allow her and the others to go to the toilet in desolate service centres just off the highway. At each stop they gave her water. Once, they gave her a sandwich and a coffee.
Now, in the room in Rotterdam, a daily routine had already been established. Just after sunrise the same small man unlocked the door and let her out to use the bathroom. He never said anything, just leered and gestured to where she had to go, as if he hadn’t given the same instructions the previous day, and the one before. If she took too long, the small man pounded on the door to hurry her along. Afterwards, he watched her walk back to her room. He locked the door, and then she could hear the same routine repeated in three other rooms. When everyone had finished with the bathroom, the man would start a second round, opening Katya’s door to hand her a plastic-wrapped sandwich, the kind you get from vending machines in bus terminals, and a bottle of water. Sometimes there was a bag of potato chips. That would be the end of any contact until the man came back, about two hours after it got dark.
Nobody told her what was happening. She knew she just had to wait. They had promised to take her to Canada and they had taken her this far. However long it took, she would wait. She had tried to shout to the people in the other rooms. The small man came running. He opened the door and slapped her across the face. “Quiet. No noise. You understand?”
She nodded at him, her cheek burning from the slap. She spent the time lying under the thin blanket, flipping through an English phrasebook. When the intricacies of I would like to have breakfast, please, and How much does this cost? became too difficult, she did what everyone with nothing but time and no distractions would do. She retreated into her thoughts, reliving memories, the only things of value she had.
Katya began to catalogue her life, putting everything she could remember into chronological order. The early memories were nothing but fragments, like broken pieces of coloured glass that hint at what they once were, or snapshots that force you to imagine what was happening before and after the moment they were taken.
Her earliest memory was the colour and taste of a glass of lemonade that someone, probably her mother, had poured from a large bottle. She knew this had happened at the seaside. The lemonade was a shade of yellow she had never seen since, a yellow that even now made her mouth water, a yellow as clear as sunlight. The lemonade tasted of summer fruit, tart and sweet at the same time.
She tried to build on the fragment of memory, inventing more than remembering the before and after that might have surrounded the taste. She reconstructed a family outing to the coast when she and Stephan were still very young, when their parents were still alive. She knew her father would have been there. Her mother had kept a photograph of a visit to the coast. Katya was a baby, sitting on his knees as he beamed into the camera. That wasn’t the lemonade day. She was too young in the photo to drink lemonade, and Stephan was not yet born, and on the lemonade day, the whole family had been there, her mother and father and Stephan, she was sure of it.
She remembered sitting with Stephan on the brown couch in the living room of their first apartment, her mother crying in the armchair while two large police men yelled. They wore dark uniforms that made creaking noises when they moved. Katya couldn’t remember the words, just shouting and rumbling growls from the men, and the sobbing from her mother. After that, her father’s absence had become just another fact, like a crack in a window that had always been cracked, that had always let in the cold.
She probed the memory the way you probe a cracked tooth with your tongue. The policemen’s voices had been accusatory, delivering bad news, as though whatever had happened was Katya’s mother’s fault. Her mother accepted everything, not arguing with the policemen, nodding her head as she cried.
After that, they had lived with her grandmother, an angry, dried-out husk of a woman who spread misery thick enough to eat, and in all those years, there wasn’t a single good memory.
Her mother’s death was another blur. From one day to the next her mother had simply disappeared. Now, Katya realized there must have been an illness, and it must have lasted weeks or even months. But she remembered no hospital visits, nothing, just a void where their mother had been. One morning, sometime after their mother disappeared, their grandmother dressed Katya and Stephan in formal clothes and led them across Poltava to the crematorium.
They were sitting in a huge room, just the three of them. At the front of the room a cheap wooden casket was mounted on what looked like a ladder lying flat. Her grandmother pointed at the casket. “That’s your mother. She had bad blood.”
Then, the sound of machinery, and the casket was drawn along the steel rails towards the curtains. The curtains opened to receive the casket, and then closed.
That was the last Katya had seen of her mother.