Jan sat on a bench feeling deadly tired. He was once such a robust, big man, but these days even a short walk from the bus to the park made him breathless and faint. His heart was very weak and the lonely hours spent in his daughter’s house had deteriorated his mental and spiritual strength.
Jan sat on the first bench he found in the park while wheezing and puffing. Only then did he notice a woman watching him curiously. Finally she said,
‘Your old ticker is not in order.’
He nodded, unable to speak.
‘We had a few people like you in the camp, but they did not last long. A few months of hard labour and they were finished – Kaput!’
Jan looked at her with irritation.
‘Excuse me, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The woman laughed loudly, but her laugh was not a happy one...
Jan gazed at her again. She was a big, grey-haired woman. On her wrinkled face there was a strange scar which made her appearance rather unpleasant to look at. She must be an invalid, he thought as he noticed a metal cradle next to her. She was old – probably his age – eighty or more.
‘Have you heard of Magadan?’ she asked him suddenly.
Jan shook his head. ‘What is it?’
‘You have just failed your geography test, my friend,’ the woman said crossly. ‘Magadan is the name of a Russian port on the sea of Okhotsk. It is in the subarctic region of Russia and I spent twelve years there.’
Jan looked at her with suspicion; was she making fun of him?
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’
The woman was not offended. ‘Nobody does these days, but to hell with all of you. I was there and that’s all that matters to me.’
‘What were you doing there?’ Jan asked curiously, even though the woman irritated him.
‘I suppose you think that I lived in an igloo and had a romantic encounter with a Russian prince! I suppose you imagine that I wore a fur coat and I drove sledges harnessed by a pack of reindeers.’ She laughed with amusement as if she enjoyed her story.
‘It must have been very cold there,’ Jan said but instantly he regretted his remark because she looked at him with anger.
‘It was usually minus forty degrees Celsius in winter; we had no fur coats, only prisoners’ rags and boots full of holes.’
Jan felt uneasy, but he was also intrigued.
‘How did you get there?’
The woman looked at him triumphantly. ‘Finally, you ask me an intelligent question. Have you ever heard of a resistance movement in Wilno, now called Wilnius? I was there in 1944. Our leader had sent us an order and told us to get ready for an uprising against the Ruskis (Russians). We were all ready to start, when one of my lovers betrayed me. They caught me and later proceeded to torture me. I swear to the Almighty God, I betrayed no one.’
The woman stopped and then repeated again and again. ‘I betrayed no one. They wanted the names of the others, especially the name of our leader who was in a hiding place that I knew so well. They even hit my face with an iron rod to get my confession. Can you see this scar?’
She turned to him as if with accusation and said, ‘Do you think that I am very ugly? I lost my looks and no man ever wanted to look at me, but who cares? I was strong and I could do without a man.’
‘How did you get out of the prison?’ Jan asked curiously.
‘I finished my sentence and then they let me go. I finally got my ticket and deportation orders to quit their heavenly abode. Dana, that’s my name, could finally fly away like a bird, out of their golden gates. Only, they forgot to give me a certificate for my services as a shoemaker, and a jolly good one I was,’ she laughed. ‘I became a shoemaker in prison and this saved my life. I had a friend called Liza, God rest her soul in peace. While we were being transported to Magadan, Liza introduced herself to me. She said to me, ‘Just listen my friend, if you want to survive, you must show them that you can be useful to them. My father was a shoemaker and I know a little about the trade. We must tell them that we are qualified shoemakers. You’ll learn from me. I’ll show you all that is needed to make a shoe.’
So I did. In the end, I could even make leather shoes for Russian ladies and boots for the officers. We were privileged as we worked inside the barracks; we also had better food. Mind you, it was always fish, sometimes rotten fish too. I always chose fish soup because it kept me full throughout the day. Now, I hate fish and I warn you, don’t invite me to a fish restaurant because I will vomit in your face,’ she screamed with laughter.
Fancy a woman shoemaker, Jan mused. He was getting used to her idiotic laugh and rough speech. Jan looked at her feet. She noticed his look and said,
‘Now I wear “froggies” because my feet are a mess. Once I even had a shoe business. My shoes were always highly praised for their comfort and elegance. Then the bloody factories moved in and people went for cheap plastic footwear. I had to close my business and I was left with nothing, just a war pension and bad health.’
Jan was silent. He did not try and comfort her, nor did he ask any more questions. Somehow he understood it all. Then he looked at his watch and got up slowly from the bench.
‘My daughter must be back from work, I had better go.’
‘You’re lucky to have somebody.’ Dana remarked and nodded goodbye to him. When he was near the gate she shouted at him.
‘If you want to hear more about Magadan, I’ll be here every day at ten.’
Jan did not answer, but the next day he was there, although he was not sure if he wanted to hear more about her stories of torture, freezing nights and rotten fish.
This time she was not in the mood to talk about the tortures of prison life. Dana loved birds and told him how much she loved watching them during the short summer months. It was the freedom that they had which had inspired her to dream of the future, especially during her time in the prison. They talked about trees and plants and the beauty of nature, which in spite of their old and infirm bodies they could still appreciate. One day Jan brought a pair of binoculars which he had found in his army trunk. They watched the birds closely, sharing some of the bird observations, while passing the glasses from one to another.
Jan was getting used to her manners and colourful speech. It was fun to be with her. He also felt that there was something vulnerable and good inside her, although deeply covered by her hard turtle shield. He took it upon himself to knock at this shield so that he could give her some warmth and empathy.
Then, all of a sudden, Jan began to feel unwell. He was often late for their ten o’clock meetings and he lost interest in birds. Jan often spoke to her about forgiveness and how to find humanity in people - by searching for their occasional deeds of kindness.
One day he did not arrive for their meeting. Dana waited a long time for him. She begged her helpers from the old age home to leave her in the park for as long as they could.
The next day she waited again. She was getting angry with him and she prepared a speech of reproach in her mind. As the days went by, she felt more and more abandoned. One day, she even shuffled in her metal cradle to the park gate while looking for him. She asked people in the park if they had seen a tall, distinguished looking man with a walking stick. Nobody had… Her helpers finally found her and threatened to stop bringing her to the park.
One day a young girl sat next to her on the bench. She was busy reading a newspaper. Dana waited for her to finish reading because she felt like talking to someone. She wanted to tell her about her worries and of the disappearance of her recent companion. Dana needed to talk about it to someone. However, the girl was not even looking in her direction. Dana decided to start a conversation and she moved a little closer to the girl’s side. Dana glanced at the newspaper she held. There, on that very page was a large photograph of her friend, Jan. Without thinking she grabbed the paper from the girl’s hands. Shivering from shock she tried to read what was written underneath. The letters were jumping and her eyesight was blurred.
‘Read it to me!’ she ordered the girl. ‘I know this man.’
The girl looked fearful of the old woman and started reading.
‘Kozak, the legendary hero of the resistance movement and known for his daring deeds, has passed away after a long illness.’
Dana opened her mouth and screamed. ‘He was my leader; he was the one I did not betray. Oh God, why did I not recognise him sooner? What a fool I was. Why did he die before I could find out who he was?’
‘He was an old man,’ the girl consoled her. ‘He died of natural causes, just as old people do. There is nothing remarkable about it.’
Dana got angry. ‘You said that there was nothing remarkable – maybe for you and your kind. The man was a hero to thousands of people who were once as young as you are now. For me he was also a friend who rekindled in me all that Magadan froze solid. How can you understand any of this, you are just a young girl. For you, old people are hopeless creatures who should be put in coffins as soon as possible.’
She began to sob, rocking herself from side to side.
The girl got up in haste. Suddenly, she was scared of what she had just witnessed. She did not know what to say or how to react, so she left the grieving woman and rushed to the park gate, to the world she knew outside…