The strong can take care of themselves. But what about the weak? What happens to a child, a young animal, a sick bird, when there is no one to take care of them?
Jan has found a sick bird, a pigeon. It cannot fly and is very weak. It will probably die, but Jan has a deep and terrible need to take care of it...
Ella was dressing in the bathroom. She couldn't get dressed in the sitting room while there were people around. And she couldn't use their bedroom because her son Robert and his family were sleeping in there. She called out to Jan.
'Can you find my best pink blouse, Jan?'
Jan went to the door of the bedroom. The door was open a little, and he looked through at all the clothes on the floor, on the chairs, bed, everywhere. Robert and Moira and their children were not tidy people. Jan wondered if he and Ella would ever get the house tidy again. He didn't want to go in and ask for Ella's blouse, but Ella called again.
'Jan! Are you bringing me the blouse?'
So he said quietly through the door, 'Please, Robert. Please pass me your mother's pink blouse.'
Robert said OK, opened the wardrobe door (which woke the baby), found the blouse and brought it across to Jan.
Jan took the blouse to Ella, who said, 'Oh, thanks dear!' in her warm, friendly voice, and he felt good.
Ella went on singing in the bathroom. She was very happy, with Robert and Moira and the two little ones in the house. Jan was happy for her. It was good that she had children of her own. He need not feel that he had disappointed her.
She came out of the bathroom in her bright party clothes. A big, good-looking, motherly woman. He looked at her with love, and she smiled back at him.
Then she cried, 'Hurry up, Jan! Get dressed. It's time. It's New Year's Eve. We're going out first-footing.'
He shook his head.
She cried, 'Why not? You came with me last year. And you enjoyed it. Don't you remember? You danced with me, and Moira taught you to rock-and-roll.'
'This year I will stay in,' said Jan.
He went into the kitchen, and from there into the scullery. The pigeon lay in a basket on a soft blanket. He thought at first that it looked better. Its eyes were open at least, round eyes like the centre of flowers. He looked at the little bowl of milk, and imagined that the pigeon had taken some.
But really, in his heart, he knew that the pigeon was now very sick. Worse than when he had found it seven days ago, on a ledge outside their bedroom window. Then it had moved its wings a little, trying to fly; now it lay still.
When he had first picked it up, the pigeon had not tried to escape. He felt sure it knew that it belonged to him.
'Take it to Jimmie Telfer,' Ella had said. 'He keeps pigeons. He'll know how to take care of it.'
'No,' Jan had said. 'No, it belongs to me. I am not taking it to any other person.'
'But you can't keep it in the house!' Ella said. Then she laughed a little. 'Och, have it your own way. But please, keep it in the scullery.'
She was a kind, generous woman. When he had first gone to work and brought home his pay packet, he had put all the money into her hands, as he had done at home. But her brothers had laughed at him, so he had stopped. But he still wanted to give her all of it. She was like a mother to him.
Now, like a little child, he decided to disobey her. He would not go. He did not want to go out among her large family, did not want all the laughing and shouting that they did at this time of New Year.
'Happy New Year, Mother!'
'A good New Year, Tom!'
'Archie — Andrew — Joanne!' Robert would love it, home on holiday. He and his mother could go out together and enjoy themselves without him.
They were waiting for him at the front door.
'Jan, what have you been doing? You're not dressed yet! Worrying over that old bird again?' Ella said, teasing.
'It's a young bird,' Jan said.
Ella laughed. 'Well, young or old, if you ask me, it's not long for this world. Come on now, Jan. You'll have to help Robert carry the bottles. I've the cake for mother to carry.'
'No,' he said, shaking his head gently. 'No, I will not go.'
Ella did not get annoyed even then. 'Are you going to the pub then? Well, be sure to be at mother's by half past eleven. To take in the New Year.'
'OK,' he said quietly. 'OK.'
He waited until they had left the house. All was quiet. Moira and the little ones must be asleep. He found his overcoat, put it on, and went into the scullery again. He lifted the pigeon carefully out of its basket and placed it inside his cardigan, under his coat.
It wasn't strange to take the bird out, he said to himself. He had taken it out before. To the library, to ask for a book on the care of a sick bird. The lady in the library was very kind, very helpful. She had found a number of books about birds for him. But the pigeon was still sick. Then he had taken it to the pit, to the First Aid Centre, where Alec MacColl worked. Alec had felt the bird all over very carefully while Jan watched worriedly. But Alec said, 'It's nearly dead already, boy. We can't do anything for it.'
Then Jan went to the doctor's, but they seemed more interested in him than the pigeon, and gave him some medicine to make him calm.
It wasn't strange to take the bird out. He couldn't leave it in the house. He was afraid the children would wake up and go into the scullery and worry it. He had to keep the bird safe with himself. And he had to go out, he had to be alone.
Along Main Street there were crowds of people. And what a noise! He stood watching for a while. People enjoying themselves, having fun, shouting to their friends, 'Here's to ye! And what will the New Year bring ye, man?'
'Hello there, Sugar! Come on and join us!' Someone took him by the arm, and he jumped. He still hated it when people touched him suddenly.
'No. No. Thank you but no.'
Jan moved away, but others came round him. 'Is it Jackie Sugar? Come along in, Jackie man. It's New Year, it's Hogmanay. Come and have a wee drink for New Year.'
'Thank you. No. No.'
'Oh come on! Just a few friends. People you know.'
'Thank you! Thank you!'
In the end they let him go. He walked away down the street, but some more people recognized him, and a girl ran up to him. She put her arms around him, holding him tightly. She said something very kind, but he broke away from her angrily. She laughed, and ran away to the others.
His pigeon! What had she done to it? He cried out in Polish. Under the next streetlight he opened his coat. The pigeon was still, its eyes closed. But as he whispered to it, its eyes opened slowly. Then they closed again.
He began to walk up the road to the hill above the village. It was peaceful and quiet. Then a car came down the hill, catching him in its lights. My God, a police car! And they had seen him. The car slowed, then stopped. His heart began to beat violently.
A voice shouted, 'Hello, Sugar! Is this where your New Year's party is?' And then a laugh.
His heart became calm again. Of course, it was Britain.
He was safe. The police were only Angus Bell, and young Graham, who was a cousin of Ella's.
Angus and Graham drove on, and Jan put his hand under his coat, and stroked the smooth neck with one finger. 'They've gone away,' he said gently. 'It's all right.'
He was at the top of the hill now, looking down on the lights of the village below, and hearing distant laughter and music. Around him were trees and dark places between them. Trees were good for hiding in… if you needed to hide. He sat down under a tree; then came the sound of the church clock striking twelve. One, two, three… he counted in Polish. At the end he heard happy voices calling and shouting in the village, and then the song which Ella had taught him, where all must take hands.
But he was not thinking of Ella now. His eyes no longer saw the village, nor the shining sea, nor the bright lights of the town beyond. The lights danced before his eyes… the lights of another town, his own, the town where he and Hannah lived, where he went to work every day, the town where their baby Anyusha was born, and where she waited for him every evening ready to climb up into his arms. His own town, his own sad and broken town, where they had come for him because his great-grandfather had been Jewish, where they had come for Hannah and the child dancing in her arms.
He had to think. He had to remember.
The day when he came out of the camp, the loud soldiers who came to open the gates and set them free. He had found his way to Hannah's camp. The officer there had a list of names on the table in front of him. And he, Jan Szager, had stared at him as he tried to understand the words.
'I'm very sorry. She is listed among those who died. On the 20th September last. I'm afraid it's clear… The child? Was there a child? There's nothing here about any child of your name.'
So had begun his long and terrible search for Anyusha. 'Let me see the women who are still alive.'
They were thin sticks of women, with an emptiness in their eyes. It seemed cruel to question them. 'Don't you remember a child? A small girl? Fair hair, soft smooth hair, blue eyes always laughing. You could not forget this child.'
'I saw no child with her.'
'I never knew she had a child. She used to weep. But then who did not?'
He had searched for Anyusha for years. Until at last he had found a crazy girl. 'I arrived at the same time as her. She had a little girl in her arms.'
'What happened to her?'
Wild, terrible laughter. 'What do you think? They had no place for children.'
'You mean they killed her?'
'It was good to die quickly in that camp.'
After that he had come to Britain, found work here, made a new life for himself and married Ella. Sometimes in dreams he saw Anyusha, as a young woman, married maybe. With children. Sometimes he saw her in Main Street, looking for him. 'Is there a Mr Jan Szager living here?'
The dreams disappeared in the cold light of day, but then the old questions came back. How was she killed? Did she know what was happening? How long did it take her to die?
He was dreaming now, sitting here under the tree. He had felt his child warm in his hands, warm and soft and round. Now he woke to find he was holding the pigeon tightly. Had he hurt it? He opened his coat and looked down at the bird. The eyes were closed, this time they did not open.
Then, suddenly, he felt a strong need for the village, for people, for Ella. He had been a bad husband to her tonight, to leave her to go first-footing without him. She had her son; but her son was her son, and only he was her husband. He had broken his promise to her.
His street was quiet and dark when he got to it. But his house was not dark. As he opened the door, light came from the sitting room, where Ella sat by the dying fire. She jumped up to meet him.
'You're the latest of us all,' she said. 'Did you walk a long way, Jan? Where have you been?'
'Up on the hill.' It was all he could tell her.
'Well, are you wanting anything before bed?'
He put his hand into his coat and took out the pigeon and held it out to her. 'It goes not well with it. It was too sick.'
He was ashamed to lift his head, because the hot tears burnt his eyes. 'I think it is dead.
If she felt surprise to see the pigeon, she did not show it. She took it from him gently. 'Yes, it is dead. Poor thing. I think it had a hard time before it came here. Don't weep for it, Jan. It's only a bird.'
He said, 'I will not weep, if I know it is safely dead.' Another woman would ask, 'What do you mean?' But not Ella. She said, 'It's dead, truly dead. Its troubles are all over.' Then she said, 'I think we should bury it, right now, in the garden.' She was wearing her nightdress, ready for bed, but she hurried into the scullery. 'I've got just the thing.' She pulled down a shoe-box (she had given him new shoes for Christmas). It still had the soft tissue paper in it, and she carefully put this around the bird, hiding from him the soft grey feathers, the rounded head, the round closed eyes. 'Now you come out and dig the hole,' she said.
When he had dug the hole and laid the box in it and filled the hole up again, he stood unable to move. Ella put her arm through his and gently took him indoors, to their bed in the sitting room, and lay beside him with her arms around him until sleep took away the dark emptiness in his heart.
— THE END -