“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe living in it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” - Joan Of Arc.
It was after the War had ended that I learned of my papa’s death.
I remember the way the sun had recoiled itself behind the dark, ominous clouds that swallowed the sky. I remember the sharp whistles of the autumn wind that hissed and nipped against my face as I scaled the narrow stairs leading to the front door.
There was an old quote from a book once. Ironically, it is one of the few memories that I can recall from the time before. It was once stated - quite bluntly, might I add - that no change is ever instantaneous; that in a gradually heating bathtub, one would be boiled to death without even knowing it.
Perhaps, if I hadn’t been so blind back then, those words would never haunt me.
There was a smell in the air that day - nothing unordinary or striking; yet it was a smell that was distinctly Londonesque. The smell of pain, of sorrow, of ash.
Much of the city’s buildings and streets had crumbled due to the bombings, and there was a grey, dreary tint to the atmosphere - it came to me, at that moment: the city had lungs.
London was alive , and it wept bitterly.
Hesitantly, I lifted my gloved right hand to grab the gilded door-knocker and swing it lightly against the wood. I had waited - breath baited - as the tell-tale footsteps, slow and heavy, cobbled towards the door.
The door opened, and Mr. Williams greeted me. “Hello, Kira.” He smiled. It wasn’t friendly, it was tight. I had shivered, and wrapped my peacoat tightly around me. I remember the colour, a prim and plain black, faded from the years of use.
“‘Morning, Mr. Williams,” I’d replied.
He’d stretched open the door wide and stepped to the side. From behind him, I could make out the oaken, spiralled staircase that sprung up at the end of the hallway. Home.
I had grown up here - in this tiny, two-storied flat with adjoined walls to the neighbours on either side. Wiping the mud from my loafers, I had stepped inside. Despite the hallway being narrow, the ceilings were high. As a child, I had always wondered what it would be like to be as tall as the ceiling. Hoped to death that one day, just maybe, I could see the world from a much higher perspective.
The lights were dim, and I shrugged off my peacoat and draped it on the hanging rail beside the door.
Next, I tugged off my gloves and deposited them inside the right pocket of the pea coat. I distinctly remember my actions that day. They were rehearsed; practised. I suppose the human mind will always cling to the ordinary when faced with the unknown.
The War had lasted for 6 years. I had not seen my papa since then.
I had heard once, that war changes you. At that time, I didn't think it changed me. I didn't want to believe that I'd be different - some shadow of the past; a hollowed out life form. I didn’t want to believe that the memories of blood and tears and gore affected your future.
After the War had ended, us survivors were expected to go home and carry on like normal. But that was a big fat lie. War changes everyone. Nobody - not even the bloody Queen of England herself - can live on unscathed.
“How is he?” I had asked. My voice - I can remember my voice - some friends said it was strong and playful. At that moment, my voice had been small . Trembling. So unlike me .
Mr. Williams had only smiled that hopeless smile, and shook his head. I felt my chest drop into my stomach.
After a heavy pause, he spoke. “He’s upstairs.”
I thanked him before quickly ascending the spiral staircase to the upper floor. My papa’s room was down the hallway to the end; I remember it had a large, bay window with a wooden ledge that overlooked the bustling street below.
I would sit there as a child. I would study and ponder the stars with my father’s old telescope. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I could make out the yellowish orbs of Venus, or Mars.
The stars, back then, were familiar to me.
I had crossed the hallway and with a raw urgency I pushed the door to my father’s room open. It was dark, a heavy stale smell lingering in the air. The curtains to the bay window were drawn shut and in the centre of my father’s room lay the bed. Ominous and ghastly, it was. The sheets were a dull white, encasing the man who raised me.
I gently closed the door, yet stayed where I was. Swing Is In The Air by Jake Hylton was playing softly on the record player beside the bay window. My knees felt weak, I couldn’t breathe. I stood and examined my papa’s face from afar- the slope of his nose, the thin lips, the strong jaw. His unique, prominent features. It’s horrible to say this, but I feel it must be bared before the altar before I continue.
I’d forgotten my papa, during the War. He’d been lost in the back of my mind since my second disbatchment to France. He’d faded from my memory. The grey roots in his hair, the way his eyes crinkled at the edges when he’d smiled, the last song we’d both danced to.
Guilt sucked me dry.
Papa’s eyes were closed. I tried to think rationally, I really did.
I remember my mind scrambling for every logical thought; that he was only sleeping; he was placed on heavy medication. I couldn’t bare thinking of any other possibility.
I had already seen too much death. Surely god wasn’t so cruel.
“Papa,” I choked. My eyes watered. I limply crossed the room.
Kneeling beside the bed, I reached out to grab his wrist that lay neatly on either side of him. The world seemed to spin into a blur as I tried to feel for a pulse. He was so pale and so cold. His cheeks were sunken yet his features were molded into a sweet, happy smile. “ No . No, no, no.”
There was no pulse.
“Papa, wake up,” I began to sob. Hot, salty tears stung my cheeks. How dare he leave me. I had no one else, and he knew this. How could he? I remember thinking.
“Please,” I wept. I had gripped his wrist tightly and held it to my forehead. A bitter, powerful force latched onto me and would not let go. Grief rolled in waves. The numbing of the War had broken free and I wept before my dead father. “ Please. ”
Death had taken millions of lives. Death had taken Papa from me.
It was 1945 when my father passed. A couple of months before I found myself here, in this small, rotting cell with a tiny window to mock me of the freedom I could never have.
There are heavy, iron shackles latched to both my wrists. Perhaps for the sake of mockery rather than restrainment. Even if I could escape these chains I wouldn't get far.
In my cell I have a bucket for my business. It gets emptied every month - a fortnight if I’m lucky.
There's no bed, no bench. I sit on a dampened, dirty and blood stained cobblestone floor with my back pressed against the bitterly cold wall.
To clarify, its not logical for me to be in here - trapped inside a medieval torture castle of some sort. Fate decided to deal me a hand which did not exist in the deck.
I am no longer in post-War London. There is no electricity here, no running water. Strange, devilish creatures carry flaming torches, the only source of light, as they traipse around the dungeons. They walk with a deranged limp, most of them. Perhaps it’s due to the severe hunch of their backs. Perhaps it’s a genetic trait.
Time here is never ending. Circular, ancient, expansive. Days seem to meld together to form one blurry haze. I could make a notch for every time I see the sun’s distant rays pass by the window, but it would be fruitless. I am a doomed prisoner with no end to her sentence.
The late afternoon sun gives a reddish hue to my dark cell. Despite the window’s smallness, it allows me a glimpse of the outside world; a place I haven't been in so, so long.
It feels like I’ve been here for years.
Oh god, what I'd give to feel the warmth of the sun once more. Just the thought of it makes me want to curl up and weep - but I know that if I start, I won't stop.
I cried when my papa died - just after the War; I had no other relatives from my mama's side - apart from my Aunt June, and she despised me. Perhaps it was because I looked too much like my mama - her sister. I have little memory of mama. She passed when I was barely a child. Papa kept a photograph of her in his pocket watch - it was fraying and crinkled around the edges - but I liked it very much.
Sometimes, if I stared hard enough, I could see my own eyes staring back at me from the portrait. Broken fragments of the past are all I have of my parents. Right now, I have no momento; no keepsake.
My thoughts are halted. There is a piercing scream from down the hall, then the unmistakable sound of a whip cracking.
I quickly drag myself from the floor to the iron barred entrance and peer out. A few other inmates do the same thing. I gasp. There were two creatures beating up one of us - a prisoner, like me.
“Ashdautas vrasubatlat, zanbaur!”
Wrapping my fingers around the cool iron bars, I watch the creature scream at the inmate in their guttural, thunderous language. The inmate, after many hits, collapses on the ground.
At night, I can hardly sleep, worried that I’ll simply freeze to death like the previous inmate across from mine did. My thin white nightgown doesn’t provide enough warmth. Whether I die or survive this hellish place lies on the toss of a coin.
This prisoner - one of us - won’t even have a chance of survival if this continues.
“Stop!” I yell, a rare burst of courage propels me forward. The creatures don’t stop. A few more hits and the prisoner will die. “Stop it!” I scream and scream until my voice is raw and hoarse.
I finally attract their attention. They drop the bloodied and bruised inmate onto the floor and set their greedy, rat-like eyes on me.
The two creatures stagger towards my cell like drunken sailors, mumbling and groaning and hissing. The blood of the inmate decorates their armour. There’s blood on the floor, dripping from them, making them look like grotesque vampires. I duck my head and close my eyes, and press my hand to my mouth to hold back the watery bile that comes up.
They jumble with the keys, fumbling to unlock my cell door.
Panicking, I turn away from the iron bars and crawl back to my spot by the right wall - away from the putrid stench of my own feces. I watch them as they attempt to enter my cell.
“No, no ,” I shake my head, scrambling as they reach for me, but it’s too late, and I curse myself for allowing it to go this far.
They latch onto me, then take me to a place I’ve been before.
During the tortures, he comes to me so clearly.
I see him, sitting beside me in a photobooth. Or at a train station, his army cap gripped tightly in the palm of his hands as he waves goodbye.
The wall opposite me is made of brick - a dark, mud-like brick. There is a faint pattern if you look hard enough. Like the veins of a leaf. Or a group of blood cells viewed beneath a microscope.
There is a movement heard from behind me. My heart jumps into my throat.
The train. The train.
I let out a cry. The pain, oh god the pain - it sears into my spine. I convulse on the wooden table. The world blurs for a second and the whip is brought up once more. I force myself to think - to escape mentally. The train. The train had seventeen carriages. He was on the fifth one, the 18th regiment of the British Army Force -
I bite down on my tongue, hard enough to taste blood. The whip rips into the bare flesh of my back. The creatures like this - they recieve sick pleasure in causing pain. I will never allow them the satisfaction of tears. It would only fuel them on - like petrol to a wildfire.
The train. The train billowed with a thick smoke that filled the station. I had pressed my handkerchief to my chest as I waved goodbye. There were no tears. I thought that I would see him again. That the war would only last for a few months and it would all be over.
But that never happened. The train station was the last place I saw him.
The thought was enough to send a wave of bitter agony crashing through me. My eyes feel hot. So does my back. It burns . The whip strikes for the eighteenth time. By now, I am numb. I feel something warm and sticky dripping around my sides, pooling onto the table below.
Clenching my teeth, I wait for the next blow. Yet, it doesn’t come.
Instead, the creature - tall and pale and ghastly, comes into my view. I turn my head away, refusing to look at him.
“Amal shufar, at rrug, Kurv,” he snarls, yanking my hair back and forcing my chin up. Hot, unabashed anger burns within me.
Without thinking, I spit at him. Defiance, no matter how small, can upheave everything.
“Agh!” He yells out, wipes his chin, then proceeds to pull out a knife. I suck in a breath. This is it. The final straw. Not from a gunshot wound from the battlegrounds, or from typhus, but by a resentful creature with a knife. How will he do it? A quick slit? Or will he let me bleed out - slow and painful?
A strange calmness washes over me. The train, I think to myself, think of the train. He lifts the knife - glinting and sharp, and then proceeds to cut my hair.
Bit by bit, he slices off my shoulder length hair. He cuts so close to my skull I’m afraid he’ll slice straight through my scalp. I keep my eyes burned onto the creature’s, watching his twisted features morph into a grotesque smile as he completes his quest. After he finishes, he pockets his knife then grabs me by the arm, wanting me to stand up. Pain shoots up my spine, and I hang my head with a groan. I cannot move.
The creature is not happy with my inability to stand, he snaps my right arm back. I hear a loud crack and then the room spins. I feel like I’m on a teacup ride, spinning around and around with a thousand bullets ripping into me. There’s the giggle of children in the air, the smell of candy floss. Dazed .
The creature then yanks me from the table. He grips tightly onto my broken arm, and the other creature - who was watching the whole ordeal - reaches for my other one. They drag me out of the room.
By now, my mind has shut out the world; my eyes glaze over and I can’t think, can’t breathe as I’m thrown back into the cool, damp cobblestone floor of my prison cell. The horrid stench of urine and feces and sweat assault my senses. I land on my broken arm. With a grunt, the creatures slam the iron door shut.
If I don’t die from hyperthermia, it will be from pain.
My heart painfully thumps rapidly against my chest. I’m shivering. I can’t move. I feel exhausted. Always exhausted. When night reached me, I force myself to stay awake. If I close my eyes, there's a chance of me not ever waking up.
I’ve seen it before, during the War. Whilst I was in France, soldiers with no arms or a dangerous bullet wound would enter the infirmary tent at night, only for them to be dead by morning. By that afternoon, the corpse was removed, the sheets cleaned, and the next soldier would take their place. Death was, unfortunately, a common occurrence.
If I die, it would only partially quench the thirst of death that these creatures have. They hunger for death like we hunger for companionship. These devils that torment us, they want to believe that they have absolute control over our lives, but that’s not true.
I still have my sanity, and I cling to it as a dragon might do to gold.