'Sole Survivor' by Fiona J. Mackintosh

The baby died after we’d walked about fifty miles out of the valleys. It was my turn to carry her, and I watched as her skin turned waxy. Dad sat on the verge, head in his hands, till Mum told him to dig. Igor twisted a berried branch from the hedge and stabbed it in the raw earth mound.

There was less to carry after that, though Andrey often rode on top of the cart, making it heavy for Dad and Igor to pull. The ground was claggy after the long, wet winter. Galina started dragging her feet, holding her stomach with her monthly pains. Outside Gloucester, she lay down and wouldn’t get up. Sometimes I imagine she married a farmer in the Forest of Dean where the soil’s rich in blood and marrow.  

As we slept by a haystack on the road to Cirencester, soldiers smelling of liquor dragged Mum away. I clutched her leg, digging in my nails, but she slipped from my hands. In the dark, I heard Igor shout, a scuffle, then a single shot. In the watery dawn, the hole between his eyes was surprisingly small. The three of us wrapped what we could in bundles and left the cart behind.

South of Swindon we fell in with a convoy. Soldiers poked stragglers with rifles, rain streaming off their caps. I helped Andrey along, rubbing his back as he retched up sticky green phlegm. A medic in a sagging field tent tried to help, but with no supplies, he could do nothing for Andrey’s lungs. He got Dad and me a lift on an Army jeep to Southampton. It was long ride, cold and bumpy, but it saved our blistered feet and we were waved through every checkpoint.

At the DP camp, Dad smoked roll-ups behind the huts with other men, drinking moonshine from one tin cup. I latched onto another family. The mother was kind, but they left for America after a while. I’d wake in my bunk under the thin blanket, listening to the wind whistle through the gaps in the boards.

Every day I’d go to the far end of the camp to watch the big ships through the coils of barbed wire. That’s where I met Peter, kicking an old boot sole around. Families got precedence for emigrating so we decided to marry and, by the time our papers came, I was expecting your mother. On the day we shipped, I didn’t try very hard to find my Dad to say goodbye.

So that’s my answer, child. I don’t think back very often. It’s you who matter – you, your brother and sister. But I do dream about them sometimes in the farmhouse, the baby banging on the kitchen table, Andrey mending his catapult, Galina helping Mum wash the pots, Dad and Igor cleaning the guns. And me up the valley in the dusk setting traps for rabbits as the rattle of gunfire echoes from the captured hills.

Comments

  1. 'Families got precedence for emigrating so we decided to marry...' so much in this one line, part of a stunningly sad story. Gorgeous, Fiona.

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  2. Love the ending of this story: the flashback element and the way in which the family story is shared. Great details throughout. Spare and riveting. Beth

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