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I hold my mother’s hands in mine, her skin coarse, fingers thicker than I remember them. She still manicures her nails, the bright colour clashing with the marks left by the physical work, the type of work she isn’t used to. I embrace her to cover up my tightening throat.
“I’ve missed you.” I try to sound cheerful, but my voice cracks.
“Córciu…” she says in Polish. Daughter. Her mouth twitches slightly in a struggle to stop the meaningful words from pressing onto her eyes.
“I’ve made tomato soup. Your favourite…” she says instead, a sorrowful pearl rolling off her cheek. I rush to wipe it away.
“It’s so cold over here,” I say, to distract us. “It’s summer, right?”
“It’s like that all year round.” She laughs, looking at the empty road, trying to spot the number fifty bus.
“This is the main street. It’s called the Hidrow.” She mispronounces. I look around again, underwhelmed by the emptiness on the pavements. It’s only eight o’clock.
In the nearby distance, just up from our bus stop, a group of people stumbles out of a pub, all wobbly-legged and loud. A young woman in big heels trips over and falls on the pavement, shouting something at the men in front of her. None of her companions help her up. I notice then, the pub is called Three Legs and I smirk, amused at the irony.
“That’s normal.” Mum smiles. “It’s not like that everywhere,” she adds, contradicting herself somehow.
“There’s so many of them here!” I hear a loud, croaky voice behind me.
There’s an old man perched on the bus-shelter bench. He’s leaning towards a woman in front of him, dressed in a nurse’s uniform, two Sainsbury’s bags at her feet. His finger still points at me and my mum. I watch the woman pause. She looks at the man’s dishevelled clothing, his tobacco stained teeth and a grimace of distaste, or maybe embarrassment, shadows her face. Then she glances at us, a fast, flickering look from under the eyelids.
“Yes…” is what she says to him quietly, nodding. A whispered type of consent.
I feel guilty. Guilty for me and my mum. We keep silent from then on, submissively waiting for the bus to come.
Storm in a Tea Cup
There’s a job in the local council. The wage is low, but the hours are short and the duties simplistic. It’s different to the life I lead, but it’s okay for now. It’s exactly what I need to recover from the darkness that has brought me here.
The offices are located at the other end of town and it takes me an hour on the bus and a walk up the hill to reach the site. On my first day I’m shown around a large maze-like pavilion and introduced to different teams of people. My desk is between older than me Susan, and a younger girl, Kelly. Everyone seems polite, reserved in their manner.
The work is administrative, and I find its simplicity strangely satisfying – it’s refreshing not to have to worry about deadlines or clients. My manager, a fifty-something Linda, is a pleasant woman, and I am mesmerised by how fair she is – her eyebrows and eyelashes are barely visible. I’ve never seen anyone so fair. Her cheeks are covered with millions of tiny hairs, making her face look like a peach in a sunlight. From the few conversations we have I realise how much she loves being a manager. It’s sweet in a way, and a little amusing when I realise that most days the colleague on my right spends playing Big Kahuna Reef, and the one on the left perpetually staring at her own Facebook photos.
A couple of weeks in, Linda and appoints me a “buddy”, who I’m told is someone who’s supposed to help me adapt. The “buddy’s” name is Yvonne and she’s a young black woman, who appears to be slightly autistic, conversation and eye-contact not among her strong skills. In a disengaged voice, Yvonne informs me that she takes lunch at twelve thirty every day, in case I want to join her, and tells me I can ask any questions I might have about the database we use. I can tell she doesn’t really mean the first or the latter, and that the whole social-interaction thing makes her rather anxious, so I never impose on her time. In fact, we don’t ever really speak after that and I soon note everyone else lets Yvonne stay silently content within the safety of her own desk space.
The tea everyone drinks, it’s very strong and diluted with milk – an idea that I find utterly offensive. I bring my own green tea, but on the rare occasions I use the communal tea, I put a slice of lemon into it, to make it resemble a liquid rather than a runny morning porridge. At times I hear Kelly giggling at me, elbowing her mates as they watch me prepare it in the kitchen. Tea with lemon seems to be the funniest thing in the world to them.
Sweets and snacks flow freely in the office and the constant guilt-free gorging clashes with perpetual complaints about weight or diets. It’s kind of amusing and I learn quickly that refusal to join in is not an option. Soon I comply and start bringing treats into the office myself, a small effort in trying to fit in. But I underestimate how important the food-bonding thing is until Kelly catches me throwing a slice of uneaten cake into the bin. She casually says something about me having no need to watch my waistline but her smile is faded, and I feel I have done something wrong.
“Veronica,” she says the following day when I walk into the office. “What was that hotel that you booked for the conference?” she asks without looking my way.
“Ramada Jarvis,” I respond, and see her and two other colleagues try to stifle their laughter as their shoulders shake uncontrollably.
I understand, I do. It is funny to hear people mispronounce things in my own language too. It doesn’t really bother me, these girls are only young. However, it motivates me to speak better English. From then on my long evenings are accompanied by an automated voice of an online dictionary. Strangely, I find it helps with the loneliness.
“Where are you from?” is the first question that a girl who opens the door asks me. It’s something I’m struggling to get used to and appears to be the most burning question for everyone I meet these days. I have become so defined by my nationality. I never used to think about it. Now, I’m daily verbally tagged by the place I was born.
“I’m here to see the room,” I respond instead, and she opens the door wider, leading me through a narrow, dark corridor into the belly of a terraced Harehills house.
“So, where are you from?” She doesn’t give up.
“From Warsaw,” I reply.
“Everyone says that!” she snorts. It takes me aback.
“I have no reason to lie. Why does it matter, anyway?”
“Oh, you know…” She shrugs her shoulders. “People from same regions tend to get on together better. Most people here are from the mountains. But you seem nice…” she states unconvincingly, throwing me a failed attempt at a smile. “I’m from Bukovina. In the Tatras,” she adds as if I wouldn’t know where it was.
The room I’m looking at is not much bigger than a broom cupboard, decorated with new, cheap and shiny golden curtains and a Primark bed-throw. I cannot hide my disappointment.
“Is this is?” I say before I can think, my mouth in a tight line.
“Yes. Why? What did you expect for the price?” She snorts again, amused. I feel foolish now, naïve to have expected a better standard. I know that’s all I can realistically afford on my wage and a strange reflection comes over me. So this is what it’s like. Poverty has a strange, hollow flavour.
“I’ll take it,” I say, resigned, staring at a beige and crimson patterned carpet, wondering how many bare human feet rubbed against it throughout in its life. I promise myself this is a temporary place, only until I find something better. As with all things temporary, they last longer than they should.
Once the novelty of a few first weeks wears out, there is this darkness that follows me around, punching the last reserves of hope out of me. I’m so confused about this new status of mine, new types of problems that I never had to deal with before – like feeling unsafe in the place I live or worrying about having enough money for basics. The most frustrating thing is that everyone seems to reduce my problems to one word. The whole complexity of my situation is contained within one single word: “immigrant”, a word that rises in people’s throats like a wave of sick. As it does in mine.
That day, I must look particularly out of sorts, as my colleague Sue keeps on looking at me before leaning over to whisper: “Report it!” She points hear head towards Kelly who’s sat with her friends in the distance. “You can, you know.” My shoulders shrug at her misinterpretation.
“It doesn’t matter.” I dismiss her kindness with a lukewarm smile.
“But it does!” She looks at me seriously. I know what she means, but I find it hard to explain that all these smirks and comments, they don’t bother me. I barely notice Kelly’s mocking, she leaves only scratches, not wounds.
“It’s because I’m different. Because it’s scary,” I reassure Susan. “Tea with lemon – scary idea. For me it’s the same – tea and milk. Yuk!” I explain, dismissing what she has brought to the light. She shakes her head.
“You know, Veronica, in the seventies,” she says, “me and Greg, my husband, went for a walk. In a park. We held hands, like young people do. Two police officers came over and they asked me if I was okay. When I told them Greg was my husband, they pushed him on the path, and kicked him. They verbally assaulted me too.”
“Why? I don’t understand?” I frown, shocked.
“My husband is Caribbean. White woman with a black man… It wasn’t accepted back then.” She sighs. “It’s like it never goes away… It changes on the surface, but it just never goes away…” She sighs. “And it’s always people who think they are good people … it’s always the righteous ones, you know? Back then, I had nowhere to go, nowhere to report it… But you can, Veronica. You can.”
“What did you do back then?”
“We moved to London. We only came back three years ago, when Greg retired. And I’ve missed Yorkshire. I was born here. Missed the Dales, the Yorkshire Moors… I’m a bloody romantic!” She sighs. “But things have not changed that much…”
“The moors… Like in Brontës’ novels?” I light up.
“Yes. Have you not been?”
“No. I haven’t seen much around here yet. Only the town. It’s so small compared to where I’m from. At least there’s a theatre here. It’s called The Grand, but it’s not very grand…” I say laughing. “I’d like to see the moors, though.”
“You should come to mine,” she says, and I’m surprised at her flippant offer of friendship. “I live in Ilkley, next to the moors. We’ll go for a walk.”
When the weather gets better I find small jobs that I can do outside of the pavilion, so that I can sit in the sun. My team mate Adrianne, who has a very melodic accent, which I later learn is Australian, and Joyce our receptionist, both join me in stuffing the envelopes, a mindless task that allows us to talk about everything and nothing. We get on, our laughter carried by the summer breeze.
A suited, serious looking man detours from his car park path and walks towards our table.
“Look! Three continents meet – right here!” He exclaims and points at us one by one, “Asia, Africa and Europe! How extraordinary!” he says and claps as if we performed some kind of a show. There’s a glimmer of such pure joy on his face so bright, it could be taken for insanity. We say nothing back to him, too stunned to make a sound, and awkwardly he leaves us, still clapping.
“Who was that?” I say the moment he disappears behind the pavilion wall.
“Our Director of Equality!” Adrienne explains, pulling a face.
“My grandma was Caribbean, not African but never mind, black is black…” Joyce says bitterly, her mouth shapes a crooked smile. “And this man knows me! He knows I speak with a broad Yorkshire accent!”
“I could have added two more continents to his list. I should have told him I’m actually mixed race, or that I’ve never even been to Asia…” Adrienne giggles.
“Don’t, his head might explode out of excitement!” Joyce rolls her eyes.
“He was just trying to be funny, I suppose,” I try to explain, but Joyce just shakes her head.
“And funny he was!”
The colours of the Yorkshire Moors flourish in purples and violets, the air that sweeps them fills in my lungs with freedom and hope. I breathe deeply, perhaps for the first time since I came here, I feel a part of this beautiful world that belongs to no man.
“This is what I’m proud of!” Susan opens her arms towards the mountainous folds of the terrain.
“It’s breath-taking!” I gasp in awe, breathlessly drinking in this new experience.
“Do you feel like you’re in Wuthering Heights?” She laughs, watching my hair perform a wild dance in the wind.
“Yes,” I reply a little too seriously. “All the time. I am Heathcliff…”
“Heathcliff?” Her forehead creases. “You sure you’re not Cathy?”
“Yes. I’ve been a Heathcliff since I came here.”
“You’ve lost me, Veronica.” She laughs.
“In the book, he is someone who no one cares to learn. No one wants to see through him. Everyone decided who he is and it defines him completely. Forever unredeemed…” I pause with sadness. “Don’t you think?”
“Well, no… I’m still lost…” Susan’s visibly confused.
“Everything that comes from the dark is Heathcliff. The dark is the unfamiliar – words you don’t recognise, actions you can’t relate to, places you’ve never been… There’s a great threat in the dark and it stirs a fear even greater. It’s irrational. When you’re made to face the darkness it defines you too, it makes a judgement on you. It questions you. It can make you feel complacent. It’s better to dismiss it. It’s safer. It’s an atavistic fear that we just can’t unlearn. All of us. If we could only fight it, if we could only define the dark, give it some shape…”
“Right. You are officially losing the plot. Let’s feed you!” Susan says, and I wonder if she’s only pretending not to understand. “Come on. Let’s leave this philosophy in the moors and have some nice roast dinner at mine. The rest of team are waiting.”
Susan’s house is located in an elegant Victorian terrace row, chocolate box pretty with poetically overgrown garden in front. When we walk in, her husband Greg is pouring sparkling wine into the empty glasses of Adrienne and Joyce, who were also invited for dinner. Joyce’s glass fizzes and overflows, golden liquid drips from the tips of her fingers. Susan and Greg’s seventeen-years-old daughter Holly, the most beautiful human being I have ever seen, is carving a chicken, shredding its flesh rather than cutting off slices. I withhold a smirk, as her mother takes a knife out of her hands.
“God, Holly, you’re killing that chicken!” she says angrily and we all burst with a laugh that reflects light like crystals. It resounds throughout my core, to a place where my old self sleeps. I gently touch Susan’s hand and whisper:
“This…” I circle the table with my eyes. “This is what you should be proud of…”
Defining the Dark
On a rainy November day I’m helping to run an event that’s taking place in a beautiful stately home. Faded glory shines through the musty scent of the wooden wall panels. The old-fashioned charm of yellowed wallpapers and hand-carved furniture makes me feel like I’m stealing a day out of my mundane calendar.
I find a treasure in the main hall – a piano that appears to be well maintained. I don’t dare to hit the keys, I simply run my fingers alongside the sleek white and black, feeling a powerful urge, a forgotten longing. When I sold my own piano, the pain as I watched it being carried out of my home was almost physical. I ached like I knew I would in this act of self-sacrifice. I did not allow myself to regret it, the money from the sale kept my parents afloat during my dad’s illness. It was only an inanimate object, I said to myself, trivialising its loss.
The instrument stays on my mind all day long and my body tingles when the last of the visitors leave. I encourage Kelly and her friends to leave me to tidy up the venue, but it’s like they sense something’s up and deliberately work in slow motion.
Finally, when I see them packing their belongings, I sneak downstairs, finding comfort in the almost complete obscurity of the hall. I know I should wait, but the temptation is too much, my voice, my simply joy is ready to burst and the music pours out through my burning fingers, impatient to hit the keys, ready to define my light in the darkness.
To my surprise, what I subconsciously choose is Chopin’s Opus Fifty-Three, the melody that takes me to the summer concerts in the Royal Park, back home. The notes stream urgently, resounding within the panelled walls too loudly, vibrating the air too forcefully. The joints of my fingers ache from hitting the hardened wood, but it’s a pleasing sort of pain and I can’t stop it. It defines me, the music defines me, lifts me up, electrifying every inch of my being…
Then, through the music, I hear it… I can hear the mocking laughter coming from the staircase, the laughter that the hollowness of this grand home carries in the background. It carries from their darkness into mine, letting false notes creep into my music. It makes me stop…
It makes me stop.
Olga Munroe is a Polish born author, living in the north of England. She graduated from the University of Warsaw with bachelor’s and master’s in Literature, and currently leads an academic research centre. She writes short stories and novels and her interests lie in unpicking complexities of human nature. Olga lives with her husband, with whom she shares a passion for traveling.