Maybe it won’t happen.
Maybe everything will be fine.
Maybe I should just stop thinking about the bad things and concentrate on the good things.
Like this beautiful countryside we’re walking through. Birds chirping and butterflies fluttering and not a single one of them being blown up.
And this dust on the road. It’s very good dust. Soft under our boots. Cushioning our cartwheels. Which is the best thing you could wish for when you’ve got a pregnant person in your cart. And another person walking next to you who’s nearly forty years old with sore feet.
My favourite thing of all is this warm and fragrant spring breeze. In all the years I’ve been alive, 1946 is definitely the best year for fragrant breezes. I think it’s because there aren’t so many dead bodies around.
‘Felix,’ says Gabriek, ‘are your legs hurting?’
Even with my dusty glasses I can see Gabriek’s concerned look. He knows my legs give me trouble sometimes and we’ve been walking for days.
‘They’re fine, thanks,’ I say.
Actually, they are a bit sore. But I bet Gabriek’s are too, and Henk the donkey’s, so I’m not going to complain about mine.
‘Good,’ says Gabriek. ‘In that case, stop frowning and cheer up.’
I give him an indignant look.
Can’t he see how much effort I’m putting into not frowning?
‘Lighten up, Felix,’ says Anya from the cart. ‘You’ve got a face like a Nazi’s bum.’
I give her an indignant look too. I open my mouth to tell them both about the fragrant breezes and the soft dust. But for some reason the words get stuck and won’t come out.
‘You’re doing it again, aren’t you?’ says Gabriek. ‘Thinking about a certain person.’
I shake my head. I point to a butterfly.
‘Felix,’ says Gabriek quietly. ‘We agreed not to think about him.’
Gabriek’s right. We did.
‘I’m trying not to,’ I say. ‘It’s hard.’
‘I know,’ says Gabriek. ‘But he’ll never find us. Never. Not where we’re going.’
‘That’s right,’ says Anya. ‘Zliv doesn’t have a clue about Gabriek’s farm. Nobody in the city does. Even I didn’t before you told me, and you know how nosy I am.’
‘So,’ Gabriek says to me, ‘no more frowning and worrying. Promise?’
I give Gabriek another look. He’s a dear and caring friend, but he’s treating me like a six-year- old. Which you shouldn’t do to someone who’s fourteen and who knows how many things in the world need worrying about.
‘Come on, Felix,’ says Anya. ‘We all have to make an effort. The butterflies are, you can too.’
I give Anya another look. I love having her in our family. And I’m very grateful to her for a lot of things. But sometimes she forgets she’s only a couple of years older than me. Oh well, she’ll have to stop treating me like a kid if everything goes bad and I end up delivering her baby.
I feel my face getting hot and I look away.
I shouldn’t be thinking about things like that. Not yet. I haven’t even finished reading the baby book.
‘We made a deal,’ says Gabriek. ‘We’ve all spent too many years looking over our shoulders for murdering thugs. Specially you, Felix. So we’re coming here for a life without fear. Right?’
‘Good,’ says Gabriek.
But I’m still anxious.
I’ve been trying the whole journey not to be, but I can’t help it.
You know how when you live in a violent city after a war and a murdering thug called Gogol gets killed so you think life will be safer and happier but then you hear that Gogol’s brother Zliv has come back from Croatia where he was killing people for money and he blames you for his brother’s death and he’s telling everyone that he won’t rest till he’s cut your heart out and so you and Anya and Gabriek head off in secret to live on Gabriek’s farm but for most of the journey you worry that the farm isn’t far enough away plus you start wishing you hadn’t swapped your medical books for a donkey?
That’s happening to me.
‘Almost there,’ says Gabriek. ‘Less than an hour.’ He gives the reins a tug.
Behind us Henk the donkey plods faster. The cart rattles and squeaks even more than it has for the last nineteen days.
I make an even bigger effort to concentrate on the good things. To forget what everyone in the city says about Zliv. That he’s an even more ruthless killer than his brother. That when he decides you should die, he never gives up.
I take the reins from Gabriek.
‘My turn,’ I say.
I give the reins another tug. We need to get to the farm as soon as possible and start our peaceful new life.
Last year, before the war ended, the Nazis burned Gabriek’s farmhouse down, so we’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do.
The local midwife probably won’t come and deliver Anya’s baby without a proper farmhouse with a proper roof. And a kitchen with a stove so if the midwife hears the baby’s father is a dead Russian soldier and she gets disgusted and tries to leave, we can stop her with hot tea and cakes.
Henk isn’t going any faster. I whistle at him and give his reins a harder tug.
He still doesn’t speed up.
He goes slower. Much slower.
We all go tense. We know what this means. Donkeys have very good hearing. Henk always hears trucks before we do.
‘Take cover,’ mutters Gabriek.
Now we can all hear the truck in the distance.
We know the routine. When you’ve been on the road this long you learn lots of things, including that trucks are sometimes driven by vicious bandits and criminal deserters.
Gabriek grabs Henk’s reins and steers the cart off the road into the trees.
I jump onto the cart to help Anya.
‘Sorry about before,’ she says. ‘You’re right, there are some things we have to worry about.’
We look at each other, then I help her pull a blanket over herself.
Another thing we’ve learned on the road is how lots of people have the wrong idea about pregnant women. They think pregnant women are weak and easy to rob.
Those people don’t know Anya.
From under the blanket I hear a familiar sound. The safety catch being released on a gun.
Gabriek stops the cart behind some bushes. I jump down and crouch next to him. We peer through the bushes at the road.
The truck sounds close.
Please, I say silently. Let it just be vicious bandits or criminal deserters.
There’s a loud buzzing. A large horsefly is hovering near my face. I brush it away. It lands on Henk’s neck, on a patch where the fur is very short.
I realise what I’ve done.
Don’t, I beg silently. Don’t sting Henk.
Henk gives a scream and starts to bolt.
The reins are torn out of Gabriek’s hands.
I grab them as they slither past, which jerks me forward and my glasses are torn off and I’m dragged through the undergrowth. Twigs stab me and creepers whip me. I should have just let the horsefly sting me.
‘Henk,’ I hear a voice yell. ‘Stop.’
It’s not Gabriek’s voice, it’s Anya’s.
We seem to be slowing down a bit. I can see a blurry tree stump looming towards me. I roll to one side and hook my legs round the stump and clamp them tight. My arm and leg sockets stretch painfully, but I don’t let go of the reins.
‘Good boy, Henk,’ says Anya.
I look up, squinting.
Anya is on Henk’s back, her big tummy against
his neck. She must have jumped onto him.
‘Anya,’ I say. ‘You shouldn’t . . .’
Gabriek drags me to my feet and pushes my glasses into my hands.
‘Quick,’ he says. ‘All of us. Out of sight.’
Too late. I put my glasses on just in time to see the truck on the road. As it passes, it slows down. We’re out in the open. The faces peering from the cab can see us clearly.
‘Poop,’ mutters Anya. ‘My gun’s in the cart.’
We stand frozen.
I stare at the faces in the truck. A man and a woman, both younger than Gabriek. Just like Zliv.
The man is wearing a military uniform. The woman isn’t. They both stare at us.
The truck slows down and stops.
‘It’s not him,’ mutters Gabriek, giving my shoulder a squeeze.
He’s telling me not to run. Running always makes you look guilty. Soldiers shoot when you run.
The man and the woman get out of the truck. I peer around for a weapon to use.
We can’t be sure it’s not Zliv. We’ve never even seen him. Anyone can steal an army truck. And if a woman’s hungry enough she’ll probably travel with a ruthless killer for as long as he wants.
I remember another story I heard about Zliv. About a girlfriend he had in Croatia. One day she joked about how Zliv was much skinnier than his brother. Zliv got angry. And made her skinny too. With a knife.
‘I’m getting my gun,’ mutters Anya.
‘Don’t,’ hisses Gabriek.
The woman is coming towards us. The man is behind her, hurrying to keep up.
For a second I think the woman is trying to get away from him. Then I see what she’s doing. Staring directly at me. With a strange expression.
As if she recognises me. As if she knows me. Which is weird because I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before. Was she a nun in the orphanage I hid in ages ago? Or one of the partisan freedom fighters I lived with in the forest?
I don’t think so.
The woman is close now.
She suddenly stops. Her face collapses with disappointment. She makes sorry movements with her hands and turns away, hurrying past the man back towards the truck.
The man hesitates, looking at us.
He’s not Zliv. A ruthless killer wouldn’t have such a concerned expression.
‘Mistake,’ says the man. ‘She thought . . . sorry, my Polish is bad.’
His uniform looks sort of English.
‘I speak English,’ I say.
Which is a slight exaggeration. I’ve been learning it, but I haven’t used it much in dangerous military situations.
The man looks at me, surprised. He switches to English, but with an unusual accent.
‘My friend got confused,’ he says. ‘She thought you were someone she’d looked after in hospital. Sorry to give you a fright. Bye.’
By the time I’ve worked out what the words mean, the man has turned and is heading back to the truck. The woman is already inside. The man gets in and they drive away.
I realise I’m trembling. My muscles are aching. That happens when they’ve been getting ready to run. Or fight.
I look at Gabriek and Anya. I can see they’re feeling the same.
‘Lucky escape,’ says Gabriek.
‘For them,’ says Anya.
She’s holding her gun.
I agree with Gabriek. It was a lucky escape. It wasn’t Zliv this time, but it could have been. And even with Anya’s gun, if he’d driven at us fast in the truck, with a machine gun out the window . . .
Gabriek is looking at me.
He can probably see who I’m thinking about.
‘Gabriek,’ I say. ‘I think we need to make a new plan for our future life.’
I didn’t know I was going to say that. It just came out. But now I’ve said it, I mean it.
‘New plan?’ says Gabriek. ‘What sort of new plan?’
‘It’s me that Zliv’s after,’ I say. ‘So it’ll be safer if I live separately. I’ll find a place somewhere in the district. So at least if Zliv finds me, you and Anya won’t be there.’
I can see Gabriek doesn’t like the idea. And the way Anya’s glaring at me, she doesn’t either.
I don’t like it much myself.
It’s making me feel sick.
But it’s for the best.
‘We can still see each other,’ I say. ‘We can have secret meetings in the forest. Several times a week if we like.’
My voice is wobbling, which isn’t the best way to persuade people about an unpleasant but necessary new plan.
‘Felix,’ mutters Anya. ‘Stop it.’
Gabriek just looks at me.
I can see how moved he is. And how annoyed. When he finally speaks, his voice doesn’t wobble at all.
‘You’re a remarkable person, Felix,’ he says. ‘Brave and generous. But you’re forgetting a couple of things. It was Anya who blew up Gogol’s truck and me who killed him.’
‘Exactly,’ says Anya. ‘So Zliv wants our guts just as much as he wants yours, Felix.’
‘No, he doesn’t,’ I say. ‘You heard what people were saying in the city. Zliv blames me for his brother’s death. Rants and yells about how if I hadn’t poked my nose in, Gogol would still be alive today.’
Gabriek closes his eyes.
When he does that, apart from at bedtime, it’s usually because he’s heard something he disagrees with so much that his cardiovascular system and digestive tract are hurting.
‘It’s for the best,’ I stammer.
Gabriek opens his eyes and looks at me.
‘We’re in this together,’ he says.
I want to argue.
I want to tell him that being in it together means trying to keep each other safe. Giving each other good protection.
Even if that means not actually being together.
But I don’t. The expression on Gabriek’s face tells me it would be a waste of time.
Gabriek gives my shoulder another squeeze. ‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s get to the farm.’
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