Fiorella de Maria
He could still hear the sound of her screams. It had been the day the long nightmare had begun, but he had not known it as he strapped her into the pushchair and took her out for a walk. It was a warm spring day and he had not bothered to fight with her to get her mittens on–there was really no need for them now–and they had walked towards the seafront because little Liljana liked looking out to sea at the distant boats and the little white tips of the waves when the wind ruffled the surface of the water. It had been mercifully quiet, too early in the year for the tourists who would soon invade the beach like giant, beer-scented lobsters, and too early in the day for the children to start pouring out of their classrooms.
She had been so good that he remembered letting Liljana out of the pushchair so that she could toddle about along the craggy limestone, safely away from the water’s edge. She had laughed uproariously when he chased after her and repeatedly pretended to stumble and fall over, but she had laughed a lot in those days.
Then he had put her back in the pushchair and they had headed to a shop where he knew he could buy pasti to take to his wife when he visited her in hospital that afternoon. There was a bit of a scuffle getting through the door because of an awkwardly placed step and Joe had stepped out from behind the counter to give him a hand. “How’s life, Jonathan?” he asked, “how’s Marija?”
“Suffering with the treatment, but the doctors think she’s improving, thank God.”
“Thank God and Our Lady.”
The shop was an Eldorado of shelves, lined to the ceiling with everything a housewife could possibly desire; boxes of washing powder, bottles of pop, sacks bulging with macaroni, penne, fusilli. On the counter were stacked bars of cheap Chinese chocolate nobody ever bought. “Cadbury!” demanded indignant schoolchildren, but it was months since the government had allowed imports from capitalist, imperialist Britain. Joe passed Liljana a breadstick to occupy her whilst the purchase was made, but it was at that moment that Jonathan heard the sound of two men entering purposefully behind him and saw Joe immediately backing away behind the counter.
Jonathan turned to face the men. They were dressed in civilian clothes but clearly intended to look intimidating, their clothing was just a little frayed around the edges and their thickset faces showed signs of two or three days’ growth. He knew instinctively that they were policemen. “Jonathan Camilleri?” asked the younger of the two. It was incredible how much of a threat there could be in such an innocent question.
“Yes,” answered Jonathan, standing between the men and the pushchair. “What do you want?”
“You need to come with us, Mr Camilleri. There are more of us outside.”
Jonathan hesitated. Liljana had started to murmur restlessly and he was distracted. “I am not sure I understand you.”
“Look, do we have to spell it out to you, you idiot?” said the other man, raising a hand that glistened with signet rings. “You’re under arrest. You can come nice and quietly or we can drag you out. It’s up to you.”
Jonathan took a step back but the handlebar of the pushchair hit him in the small of the back.
Liljana had started to cry. “On what charge?” Never had a room felt so small. The many bottles and boxes around him had morphed into miniature soldiers, barring his escape. “Where is your warrant?”
“Don’t waste our time,” said the signet ring man, “you’ll have plenty of time to come up with crap like that at the station.”
Jonathan was sweating. “But I have a child!” He felt a hand gripping his forearm and winced. “You can’t just bundle me away like this. What about her?”
“Bring her with you,” said the young man who was holding him. “We’ll look after her.”
Jonathan threw the man off and turned to Joe, who was cowering behind the counter. “Take her to my brother,” he pleaded, but he could hear the blood singing in his ears and knew that panic was taking over. “Please!”
“Are you coming?” Hands were hurting his arm again. Liljana was howling inconsolably, the breadstick crushed in her tiny fists. He reached forward, trembling, and touched the soft, wet curve of her cheek, then a thought came to him and he bent down and picked up the teddy bear he had left in the basket underneath in case she needed distracting. It slipped easily into his pocket. “What are you playing at, man?”
He was marched out of the shop, still shaking in his confusion, with the sound of his daughter screaming: “Papa, nooooo! Noooooo!” It was the cry of a child who knew she had been abandoned and he could do nothing to silence it. A long time later, when he had been stripped of his personal belongings–including the teddy bear–dressed in a uniform that had not been cleaned since its last use and found himself sitting in a darkened cell with the mosquitoes settling on his flesh, he could still hear it. I shall never see her again, he thought, I shall never see my wife again.
God has been good to me, he thought, eighteen months later, as he sat on the bed in the hostel and watched Liljana sleeping. A human rights organisation had heard about his case, there had been a fuss made, letters written. A famous lawyer had come out of retirement to be his champion during those interminable court appearances when he had almost despaired of ever seeing the light of day again. And when they had grudgingly let him go, he had taken the first flight available out of his island home and headed for London. His brother had been able to smuggle a letter to him via the prison chaplain, informing him that Marija and Liljana were in England. Marija was continuing her treatment in a London hospital and Liljana was being cared for.
Little Liljana had changed in the time he had been away, from a toddler to a little girl. In the three days that had passed since they had been reunited, he had been constantly reminded that he had missed a chapter of her life and been left struggling to understand who she was. Watching her sleeping gave him a certain comfort, as he could be close to her without eliciting any protest. She was supposed to look like him, but he saw more of a resemblance to his mother in the soft, tawny features, the delicate bone structure. Her cheeks were a little flushed with warmth, giving her a reassuringly healthy look, though her short, spiky black hair reminded him unhelpfully of a stray dog. Her hair had been long when he left her, enticing passers-by to ruffle it, but whoever had cared for her in his absence had obviously hacked it short because they could not be bothered with combing a little girl’s long hair every day.
Care. What sort of care had she received during the long, formative months when he and his wife had been unwillingly absent from her life? He knew nothing about it, only the Christian names of the couple who had fostered her and that they had a son in his forties who lived with them. He did not even know where they lived. The most precious years of her life when she had emerged into consciousness and become truly aware of the world around her had been guided by strangers. She had discovered her identity in some one else’s world. All he knew was that on the day he was taken away, she had been a cheery two-and-a-half-year-old, laughing as she ran around on the rocky beach and when he had met her again, he had hardly known her at all. The two of them had faced one another in a small room at Heathrow airport and she had stood in silence and glared at him, confused, frightened and quite definitely angry. He had reached out to give her the teddy bear he had taken with him and she had snatched it from his hand and continued to stare at him, ignoring his entreaties to come a little closer.
The horrible realisation slowly hit him that she did not know who he was. She could not remember any detail about him, even his unceremonious exit and her heartrending screams had been lost in her early infant memory. And the only thing worse than her glaring at her own father in accusation was the knowledge that she was not accusing him of anything. She was not angry with him personally at all because he meant nothing to her; she was simply angry and frightened of him because she had learnt to be hostile to everyone who came near her. “Don’t be frightened,” he said, in what was almost a cliché, but she did not shrink away from him when he stepped towards her that time. She stood her ground, fists clenched in readiness, scowling with such thunder she was almost unbearable to look in the eye. And he had lost his nerve, turned his back and walked away, conceding their first contest to her.
Liljana was beginning to stir, causing him to back away. Marija had woken early and slipped out to give him a little time alone with the child and he rather wished she had stayed with him now. He wished many things, now that he thought about it. Marija had been reunited with Liljana some months before and he would have liked to ask how it had been for her, whether she had had the pleasure of her child running up to her and throwing her arms around her, but Marija would not speak of it. “You must make friends with her,” Marija had instructed him at five-thirty that morning, when anxiety chased her out of bed. “I will make myself scarce and you will pull yourself together about it. It’s important.”
He was sure this was not what she had had in mind, he thought, as Liljana sat bolt upright and he beat a swift retreat into a corner.Grow up! snarled an impatient inner voice. What’s so terrifying about a four-year-old? He forced himself to walk towards her, smiling as naturally as possible. “Good morning, qalbi, did you have a good sleep?”
She looked blankly at him, then jumped out of bed and hurried in the direction of the bathroom. Blast! he thought, wrong language, but it was too late. He waited until she reappeared, hands wet and soapy because she had been unable to reach the towel, and he tried again. “Would you like some breakfast?” Marija had thoughtfully bought a couple of buns for them before disappearing and he dangled the paper bag in front of her coaxingly. He was able to nudge her into sitting down to eat and wiped her hands, but as soon as he had placed the food in front of her, she stared fixedly at the wall as she ate.
Set yourself small goals, the chaplain had advised him shortly before they parted for the last time. You have been through an ordeal, don’t expect everything to go back to normal all at once. Set out to achieve one or two small things every day. ”How much smaller can you get?” he asked the orange and brown wallpaper, when he left Liljana munching and slipped down to the kitchen to make himself a coffee. “Precisely how difficult is it to make a cup of coffee? I have a degree in divinity! I excelled in dogmatic theology!”
The long months of poor light and close confinement had left him short-sighted and with poor coordination. He managed to fill the kettle with water but getting a teaspoonful of coffee granules from the jar to the cup was proving a little more taxing. He could not keep his hand still enough for the length of the whole procedure and started to shake as soon as the spoon emerged from the safety of the jar. He gave up and threw a teabag into the cup, but the milk was sour and he managed to scald his hand pouring the water in. “All right,” he told the wallpaper, “forget the coffee. Today, I will make her laugh. I will at least make her smile.”
Back in the room, Jonathan found that Liljana had made the most of his absence and got herself dressed. Her chunky pink sweater was on the wrong way round, the picture of a grinning snowman adorning her back, and she was wearing odd socks, but all in all he was impressed at how independent she was. “Oh dear,” he said in a singsong voice, “let’s sort you out, shall we?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, as a clear as a bell, in English devoid of any noticeable accent.
“Your sweater is on wrong,” he began to explain, aware of the need to justify himself against this foreigner who spoke better English than he did with the tone of an assertive adult. “Let’s turn it the right way, shall we?”
She took several backward steps and quite deliberately positioned herself behind an armchair. “No thank you,” she said. He noticed the paper bag the buns had been in was now scrunched into a ball in her hands. “I don’t like you.”
He felt a painful tightening in his chest and battled with the sense of injustice. His Salesian education came back to comfort him for a moment. Stop thinking of her as just a child, he could almost hear Fr Grech whispering in his ear, you have a personality to win over here. She does not understand what you have suffered, but you know nothing about her either–yet. He took a deep breath and stepped towards her, but the touch of a ball of paper glancing harmlessly off his forehead distracted him, shortly before she threw herself on the floor and burst into noisy tears.
There was no time to consider his next move. He hurried forward and sat down beside her, scooping her up into his lap and bracing whilst she wriggled and fought to free herself from him. He refused to let go, swallowing a cry when she bit his arm though his every instinct told him to throw her off. He held onto her with all the more determination as she struggled and cried, knowing that sooner or later she would have to stop through sheer exhaustion.
Dear God, what is the matter with you? he thought to himself, feeling the damp, hot head shaking against his arm. She was working herself up into an appalling tantrum, but he had to admire her stamina. He would have been an emotional wreck already if he had made a scene like this. He shifted position slightly, which allowed her just enough room to slip away from him, red-faced and breathless. “It’s all right,” he said, calmly, careful to make eye contact with her. “I’m not cross.” But you are, he thought, watching the little body gasping and trembling with rage and fear. You are frightened too, but I have no idea why. I know nothing about you.
Exhaustion had quietened her down but she was still shaking and breathing in little gasps. “Calm down,” he said, holding out a hand to her which she declined to take. “That’s it. Calm down and we can go out to the park.” Her features softened a little, which gave him hope. “Would you like to go to the park?”
Come on, just a little smile, he pleaded, but she nodded very slowly. Marija had told him she liked the park where she could run around without being hassled by anyone and he brought her shoes and coat to her so that she could have a go at putting them on before he intervened. Just like your mother, he thought, as she tried and tried and failed to get her shoes on before grudgingly looking in his direction. You would never have accepted my help if you had not been sure you could not work it out for yourself.
The sun was out by the time they stepped into the street, sending pools of cold, harsh light in patterns across the pavement. It had rained during the night and there were leaf-clogged puddles everywhere, but he let her get her feet wet, unwilling to risk another confrontation if he tried to pull her away. Even holding her hand as she trotted obligingly beside him, he felt a knot of anxiety in his chest, knowing that the slightest false move might send her into a state of panicked obstinacy and he could not afford to have a battle with her on a London street. There were hazards everywhere that a four-year-old might not be aware of: the vast red buses screeching around corners, the endless stream of cars driven by men exuding the aggression of chariot drivers at the Circus Maximus.
They walked into the ticket hall of the tube station, pushing past the gangs of shoppers and late commuters. There were too many people for him, he had forgotten what it felt like to weave through a crowd after months of virtual solitary confinement and could hardly bear the noise and smell of men and women brushing past him. “Returns to St James’ Park station,” Jonathan blustered to the man behind the ticket counter.
“How old’s the little one?”
“Four,” declared Liljana, tonelessly. Jonathan blushed and pulled a handful of coins out of his pocket, shaking again as he tried to remember what value each of the coins had. Liljana observed his efforts for thirty seconds or so whilst the man behind the counter fidgeted, then grabbed his wrist, pulled his hand down to her eye level and picked out the correct fare.
“I say, Liljana, that’s very clever,” enthused Jonathan as they stood together on the escalator. “Who taught you about money?”
But Liljana’s mouth had turned down and she stared fixedly ahead of her in the blank way children do when they are trying not to cry and blinking might start it all in motion. Whoever it was, it was the same person–people perhaps–who had taught her every other hard lesson in her little life; how to be angry, how to be afraid, how to cry. This was the work of the invisible couple with their adult son who were beginning to take on positively Dickensian personalities in his imagination.
He was distracted when they entered the train by what must have been an off-duty security guard of some kind, a man with a cannonball of a head, dressed in a smart, dark uniform Jonathan did not recognise. He looked down at the man’s steel-capped boots and was overcome by a wave of nausea. The tube train was as narrow as a memorable windowless corridor where Jonathan had stood not so long ago, his hands heavily shackled, watching a prisoner of around his own age being kicked the length of it. The two guards were working at it quite systematically, aiming at his back to force him over onto his side, then his ribs to make him curl up into the foetal position, then at the side of his head . . . Jonathan closed his eyes involuntarily, but he could still hear the dull thud of boots hitting the man’s body and the gasping cries as the breath was knocked out of his lungs. And above it all, one of the guards shouting: “Come on Pawl, you filthy coward, haven’t you got any fight in you?”
Jonathan pinched himself and looked at the reflection of Liljana in the window. It was a face that might have stared out of a poster produced by a campaigning organisation. “Were they kind to you?” he asked, but she was not listening or didn’t understand what he was talking about. He was relieved when they finally reached their station and the chilly silence between them could be disguised in the act of scrambling off the train. Then there were the many steep steps to climb before they emerged into the outside world again.
He felt a little better. There were fewer people around as they walked the short distance from the station to the entrance of St James’ Park and he realised he was almost relieved she had not answered his question. “Look,” he said, pointing through the forbidding black gates at the park stretching out invitingly ahead of them. Gates. Black metal gates. The clang of many doors slamming shut . . . “Let’s find the pelicans.”
He let go of her hand so that she could run on ahead, but she walked with careful deliberation away from him towards the grass. He stopped and watched her stomping through a pile of fallen leaves, obviously enjoying the feeling of dragging her feet through them and seeing them rippling away from her as though she were splashing around in a rock pool. A grey squirrel darted across her path, startling her at first, but she quickly recovered and ran after it, squealing in what was so very nearly laughter. A moment later, the squirrel had disappeared up a tree and she was left staring up at the empty branches, puzzling it all out.
Jonathan had almost caught her up when he remembered himself and kept a little distance between them so that she would not feel threatened. “He has gone to have his lunch,” he said, gently, waiting for her to turn towards him. Predictably, she did not move. “Shall we have ours?”
He sat down and took out a chocolate bar he had been concealing in his pocket. She heard the crackle of the wrapper being opened and turned slowly, just in time to see him holding out a cube of chocolate to her. It was what soldiers did to win the friendship of war-battered children, he thought, but the cloud of gloom had been mysteriously displaced by hope. “Are you hungry?”
She hesitated, looking at him intensely, then took a single, cautious step in his direction.