3rd Prize (2017/18) - The Invitation by Sarah Evans
The Invitation by Sarah Evans
Some weeks ago, my mother asked me, ‘What’s your earliest memory?’ She’d asked the question before, but not for some time and never with such urgency. Dutifully, I reeled out my expected lines. I remembered getting a kitten. Kiki. I would have been three and a half according to Mum. I remember being scratched and saying, ‘No! I don’t like it.’ This is the accepted family story. I was terrified of this alien ball of fluff and claws, though very soon I grew to love her intensely. The earliest photos show me with one cheek pressed into black and white fur. Like my memories, there is no prior record.
‘Nothing before that?’ Mum asked.
‘No,’ I said, the way I always did, sounding more certain than I felt. Ghost impressions lingered with no accompanying narrative, nothing definite enough to describe as recall, images with no context.
I arrive at the studios anxiously early. I take out my brown envelope and show the letter to someone on reception who smiles, a wide lipsticked smile, and issues complex directions. I wonder whether she understands my role in things, the part which I have only learned so recently.
I make my way along corridors, getting lost and having to ask my way again. Inside the studio, a scattering of seats are occupied, people huddling in twos or threes. I intend to sit somewhere at the back, but the person on the door looks at my letter and insists I must take a seat in one of the front five – currently empty – rows.
Dutifully I take a seat part way along row four. I inhale floor cleaner, the background musk of bodies and the metallic tang of heavy-duty lighting. I hear voices and footsteps and the squeak of fold-down chairs. Those behind me are here for a different purpose, just the studio audience intent on enjoying the show.
A man starts to walk along the row in front of me. I glimpse him edge of vision: middle-aged, a little older than me. Do you remember? I want to ask. Did you grow up knowing who you are?
I remain me. Hannah Wilson. I remind myself of this. The past does not define me. Nothing has changed.
I don’t want it to.
The man nods at me in greeting. Both of us know this one thing about the other. Nothing and everything. He takes a seat. There will be a private reception later, so my piece of paper says. I do not intend to go. I do not wish to speak to the others. Why come at all? Curiosity got the better of me, but now, pinned here, I long to flee. It would have been better not to come. Better not to know. I was happier not knowing.
Mum had turned up unannounced and clearly agitated. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing has happened.’ Her words were contradicted by the deep lined worry on her face. ‘I need to talk to you about something.’
She settled herself on a breakfast-bar stool while I faffed around making tea. She removed a brown envelope and placed it in front of her, her fingers worrying at the edges. It was rare to see her so ill at ease.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Just give me a moment.’
‘Are you and Dad OK?’ My mind raced on ahead, picturing medical results, a clinical letter which spelled out illness and death.
‘We’re fine. Your dad didn’t want me to come. To show you. I just don’t know what’s for the best.’ This from my mother who always knows what the best thing is for everyone.
‘What’s the earliest thing you can remember?’ she asked, postponing the moment of disclosure.
The rows begin to fill. I stand to let people past. I watch other people introduce themselves to their neighbours and listen to the muted murmur of just-met chat. Behind us, the babbling of the crowd is more boisterous. This is a feel-good show, one I don’t watch. Our story feels too dark for primetime Saturday TV.
I glance around: five rows of sixteen; people aged between fifty and sixty, or thereabouts. Looking at us no one would know. What we have been through. What we have in common.
We have nothing in common, I remind myself. Not really.
I turn my head to one side, undoing a crick in my neck. The woman next to me takes this as an opening. ‘Isn’t it exciting?’ she says, ‘being here.’
I smile vaguely, neither wanting to disagree, nor acquiesce. I feel sick, though not with excitement. What does it mean to be here, to know what happened?
The strangeness of existence washes over me. The utter oddness of being me, sitting here with my thoughts, observing things through my eyes. One day, I will die, the world ceasing to be. My world could so very easily never have existed. Would that have mattered? After all, I wouldn’t have known.
My daughter wouldn’t have existed either, nor the children she might have.
‘Come on,’ I insisted, getting impatient with Mum’s attempts to prevaricate. ‘If you’ve something to tell me, tell me. What’s in the letter?’
She pulled the envelope onto her lap. ‘I’ll show you in a minute. I need to explain something first.’ She sipped her tea as if tea drinking was the most important activity in the world. She looked older, frailer than usual, the accumulation of time, which passes unnoticed week by week, catching up all of a sudden. ‘You know how much your dad and I love you,’ she said. ‘You always felt like ours.’
I sense heads turning to the side and I turn my head too. The person at the door is accompanying a white-haired man in large glasses down the stairs, directing him onto the front row. He is a generation older than the rest of us, so very average looking. Is that him? Inside, I feel blank. After the show, my part played, I will disappear, putting this behind me. I will reoccupy the person I thought I was with her unremarkable childhood in a small Cumbrian town, her CofE schooling, her comfortable enough life with its mix of happiness and regret. A secure job. Small but pleasantly furnished house. No relationship, not since a painful divorce five years ago, love running out on us. A handful of long term friends. A precious daughter studying at Uni. An ancient cat. A background sense of unbelonging.
‘Felt like yours?’ I asked. ‘But I am yours? Aren’t I?’ Understanding scratched at my brain. ‘You mean... I’m adopted?’ I drew the unfamiliar word out and it sat between us, unspeakably strange. ‘How?’ Why didn’t you tell me? ‘When?’
Why tell me now?
‘We always wanted children,’ she said and she sounded so infinitely sad. ‘We’d been married several years and it just didn’t happen.’ She lifted her mug, which was surely long emptied. ‘It was different in those days. None of these test-tube babies and what have you.’ My own tea remained untouched, the surface turning scummy.
‘Is the letter from my real mother?’ I blurted, watching as she flinched. ‘My birth mother,’ I corrected myself. My mind was all of a swirl, unable to make sense of things, surging with a resentment which felt unfair, yet justified.
‘No. Nothing like that.’
‘Just let me explain.’
I keep my eyes on the man as best as I am able, though he is obscured by other turning heads. Tonight is intended as a surprise, his wife colluding in events, and I wonder what story he has been told. I myself have never liked surprises.
How could a wife not let her husband know the plans that were brewing?
How could a husband not have confided his story to his wife?
How could parents not tell their child her history?
‘Kindertransport?’ The word I echoed back to Mum came wrapped in a multitude of questions.
‘We wanted to help,’ Mum said. ‘We wanted a child and we wanted to help and here was our chance to do both. We saw an advert in the paper. We needed to put up fifty pounds. It was a lot of money in those days, but we scraped it together and we put ourselves forward.
‘It wasn’t supposed to be for long. Your parents would follow on, that was the idea. We didn’t expect to keep you.’
‘But who were my parents, what happened?’ My questions petered out in the face of her deep-lined look of desperation. I knew the history. We studied it at school. I watched the TV dramas and documentaries and read the books. We all know the horror which happened to other people.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I changed tack. ‘Why keep it secret for so long? And why choose now to tell me?’
She put up a hand to quell the flow. ‘I can’t answer everything at once. We didn’t intend to keep secrets. It just happened.’
‘Just happened?’ I stared back at her, this soft faced woman whom I had always taken to be my mother. The silence pooled. ‘Mum?’ I said and for the first time ever the word sounded forced. What would I call her if not that?
‘You have to understand,’ she said. ‘How difficult everything was.’
Not that difficult to speak the truth. Surely. I bit back from saying it.
The lights dim. The live broadcast is due to begin. I picture my parents – my adoptive parents – tuning in, though it is not the kind of programme they usually watch. I did not tell them I would be here, everything between us turned fragile and raw.
The signature tune plays. Bright lights illuminate the stage. The cameras at the sides swivel. Teeth appear and with them the TV presenter whom I have never much liked. She has a wide, wide smile, hair glued in place and is wearing a bright blue dress. She starts to talk about the evening’s proceedings. Her close up is displayed on TV monitors just above the stage.
She sits and pulls a scrapbook onto her lap. She explains how a wife discovered the book in the attic, how she realised its significance, though her husband of many years had never said a word. The camera captures the open page, displaying it on the monitors above and on TVs across the country, broadcasting a spread of names and black and white photos. Children between about three and twelve. I glance down, not wanting to spot my own name, my photo, alongside the names and addresses of two sets of parents.
The onstage lighting dims. The monitor switches to a pre-recording of a smartly dressed woman. She tells her story. How aged eleven her parents put her on a train in Prague along with so many other children. ‘I had no idea that I would never see my mother or father again,’ she says, her accent Home Counties, sounding so matter-of-fact. ‘I think that they knew though. All those parents crowding the platform knew that they were unlikely to ever see their children again.’
She talks about how she came to England and settled here. ‘I had wonderful foster parents.’ Then she continues, ‘I always wondered who it was who rescued us.’
‘You were only three when you came to us,’ my mother said. ‘There was no way of explaining anything to you. We did try to talk about your mother and father, we even learned a handful of words in Czech. But you were so young. We didn’t even have a photo of them we could show you. All we had was your name tag – Hana Ginz – and entry papers. Those first weeks you didn’t say a word, not in your own language, not in ours. You didn’t cry. You curled in on yourself, clutching a filthy rag doll which I didn’t dare take from you. You never smiled. You seemed so small and so unhappy, turning your head away every time I approached you. I didn’t know what to do. And then one day, the neighbour’s cat, heavily pregnant, jumped into our yard and you unfurled a tiny hand towards it, your smile so tentative. Kiki, you said, something like that. I thought my heart would break.’
The screen goes blank. The lights undim. We are back to the presenter with the too big teeth. ‘Well the answer to that question is with us here tonight. We have a very special guest.’ White enamel flashes in a stagey smile. The lights and cameras swoop down onto the front row. The woman in the pre-recording has been placed next to that white-haired man. She offers him a hug and teary smile. She takes his hand, kisses it, and doesn’t let go. The audience explode into applause. I sink down into my seat, sweat crawling down my arms, feeling an imposter, not wanting to be spotted by colleagues at the library, or by friends. I haven’t even told my daughter, not yet. How can I explain the thing I cannot properly grasp myself?
The man’s fingers reach behind his glasses to wipe away the moisture. I wonder what he is thinking, this man who has lived so quietly, not seeking recognition. If he chose to keep his past secret, why presume to override his wishes?
The presenter carries on, filling in the details, but my mind fails to tune in, other thoughts tugging hard. I am picturing a woman, hair dark like my own, carrying her three-year-old daughter on her hip. Of her pushing her way through the crowds of families where all the other children seem older, less vulnerable. Of there being no words to explain, no way to express her depth of love and grief. Of her walking up to the edge, closing her eyes and clutching her child tight, burying her face in baby-soft curls and the sweet-sour scent of childhood, and knowing she can never let go.
But then she does. She gathers all her strength and stretches out her arms; she forces herself to release her hold. She lets go, relying on stranger hands to reach out and catch her daughter as she falls. Placing trust in a gentle landing. Knowing she will never see her baby again. Putting her faith in the future. Knowing she has no future herself.
I think of my own daughter, whether I would have been so brave.
‘The war was on,’ my mother continued. ‘There was no correspondence from your parents, no information. Slowly you came back to life, becoming so bright and lively. You picked up English words quickly. You started to call me Mama. We took in a kitten because we thought a pet would be good for you. Perhaps you’d had one... Well you know that part.’
A kitten to compensate for losing a family.
‘You settled so well. As you grew older, more able to understand, it seemed wrong to attempt to explain all the unhappiness and it wasn’t as if we had any answers. What would we have told you?’
Her eyes were supplicating, her justification not quite sufficient.
‘What about later?’ I asked. ‘After the war. Did you try and find out what happened to my family?’ I stopped myself from saying the word real. Raising a child is more important than biology. Surely. Yet these people I loved and thought I knew had lied to me my entire life.
‘Of course we did,’ she said, her tone abrupt, her eyes casting down. The noises of the house – the fridge, the boiler, next door’s radio – felt unnaturally loud against our own silence. And though later I would demand the details, the full sweep of names and ages and occupations, the dates and places and manner of death, I knew that I didn’t need to ask more, not really.
Mum handed me the envelope. ‘This came,’ she said.
The show is not yet done.
‘And finally, I’d like to ask,’ the presenter says. ‘Whether anybody else in the audience owes their life to this man. If so, please stand up.’
Around me, people clatter to their feet. Five rows of children grown to adults. The applause swells; my heart swells too.
I feel myself lifted up by ghost arms. Carried forward into the molten core of human feeling. All around me, faces are alive with the dual ache of joy and sorrow. My history is before me like an open cloak, inviting me to gather it up and wrap it round, to claim and inhabit it.
The man turns to look at us, his eyes glistening as they brush back and forth, taking us in. Just an ordinary man, seeing a job needing to be done. Overcoming bureaucratic obstacles with quiet persistence, forming a logistical chain between those in need and those willing to help, ensuring that children placed on a train in a foreign, occupied country would be safely transported over land and sea and met with kindness at the other end.
‘What’s your earliest memory?’ my mother asked.
I seek back, conjuring impressions. Strong arms holding me, there then gone. A smell I cannot place. The packed tight heat of other bodies. My fingers slotting into the slats of a wooden bench. Children crying. An unfamiliar rattle and roll. A throbbing sense of loss. Images with no words, no context.
These things do not feel real. Perhaps they aren’t, not exactly, but they are all that remains of where I came from, who I am.