SOUR GRAPES by Isabelle Klein 2005
All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Prague, November 1989
Never return to the past, it is bound to cause pain, recalled Helena Jakoby, stepping cautiously onto the snow-covered tarmac of Prague airport. But then the past, as represented by her native land, meant only pain in any case; nothing remained but to go on.
Anonymous-looking, tired, almost bereft of make-up, Helena Jakoby, one of the richest, most successful women in the world, mingled self-consciously with the other passengers from crowded flight BA 856 waiting on the empty runway: former dissidents, journalists arriving to report on the new world order, personae non gratae like herself.
It was the bleak afternoon of Sunday 26th November. After ten days of massive but peaceful demonstrations against it, the entire Communist Party leadership of Czechoslovakia except its president had resigned two days previously. And only a fortnight before, the Berlin Wall had begun to crumble like the pile of pathetic bricks it was. Europe had seen nothing of the kind in forty years.
Ahead stood the cold grey terminal block, depressingly silhouetted against a murky afternoon sky. The knot in her stomach tightened. Helena drew in the flaps of her overcoat, for the wind blew icily in Central Europe that week and the courtesy bus was late. Nothing had changed.
However, in the twenty-one years since she had last seen her homeland, her own life had changed immeasurably.
There were, at this time, five big players in the highly competitive world of alcoholic beverages. Four of these five were based in London. Quint Distillers was one of them. And Helena Jakoby was chairwoman of Quint Distillers: owner of many of the world's best-known brands.
At 6 a.m. that morning she had returned from a crucial meeting at the Manhattan headquarters of her US subsidiary, a meeting she had called to save the very firm she had spent years building up, from falling prey to the pernicious power of fistfuls of junk bonds wielded by her most desperate rival. It had been a hard fight. A dirty fight. A fight to the death, as it were.
Yet there are matters far more important even than business matters. As a woman of action and destiny Helena Jakoby had decided to return to Prague despite these problems of her position on the Czech secret police hit list.
A few more depressing minutes went by before the Karosa bus spluttered towards them across the snow-swept tarmac, trailing a cloud of thick black fumes in its wake.
A scattering of orange-and-white Ladas belonging to the hated state police stood about the single terminal building. At least there was no sign of those troops, rumoured to have surrounded the city, ready to move in at a moment's notice.
Inside, the scene was almost unreal. Where are the snarling officials? Helena wondered. And the glares of hate she had expected, the fingers beckoning to the back room? Instead, Customs officers stood idly behind the glass partition, oblivious to the human contents of Flight BA 856 entering their domain. They were more preoccupied with watching the 'illegal' speeches of Havel and Dubcek, being televised direct. Members of the StB, the secret police, were probably busy shredding incriminating evidence in their concrete warrens. Has it really changed? she asked herself, only half-believing it to be possible. Or is it a dream?
She had no visa. Only her British passport. Like many others off the plane, she intended to brazen it out. This had long been her way of coping with hostile forces, though it was not one that would have worked here as little as two days ago.
The passport official glanced casually at her as she passed. Despite her evident exhaustion she cut a fine figure of a woman, with her almost ageless beauty: the svelte body, that elegant way of holding herself, the long blond hair and those eager, piercing blue-green eyes that so entranced those men who had not first been utterly overawed by their magnetism. For the first time in years, she felt totally out of place; nervously she toyed with the ring attached firmly to her finger, the symbol of a relationship long perished. She put on again her tinted glasses, as though to hide behind them. She had much on her mind. Yet, somehow, New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, vital business meetings, eager executives, five-star hotels, even the king of junk bonds himself, all seemed a million miles away now. The smell of stale beer, cigarette smoke and tired bodies filled the hall.
* * *
"Painless?" asked Eva, chirpily, emerging from the waiting crowd beyond the Customs point. "You came through quickly."
Helena smiled, putting down her one, hastily filled suitcase and rushing forward to hug the woman facing her. Eva was her oldest friend. They had been born on the same day in them same hospital and had lived on the same street. As girls they used to attend the same school on Santoska Hill; in fact they had virtually grown up together. For a while the pair of them had worked in the same dreary offices of the State Computer Company down the hill. Above all, it had been due to Eva that Helena had ended up in London all those years ago.
"Yes, it was painless," Helena agreed, after reafirming their long-interrupted friendship with a series of mighty hugs. "It's so amazing. I just feel as if the whole thing might vanish at any moment."
"And you'll turn back into a pumpkin or something. Come, let's go straight to the gathering in Wenceslas Square." Eva seized her friend's arm, pulling her towards the exit. "And on the way you can tell me what you've been up to."
They piled into Eva's battered red Skoda and trundled into the afternoon traffic, heading for the centre of Prague. As she spoke about her life, Helena could only wonder at the different paths fate had given them tofollow. Her own turn of fortune in the West; Eva's returning here to take up a part-time career as a dental assistant, while fulfilling her main aim of marrying her childhood sweetheart, Marek.
"Perhaps I should have stayed in London, too," mused Eva, with Helena's incredible life resumé still hot in her ears. "But I was in love."
"There is nothing wrong with that," Helena reassured her.
Eva shrugged, though her gaze remained fixed on the road ahead. Marek was a history teacher now, who at this moment was organising an anti-government protest at his college. They had three fine sons, all of them teenagers going through the usual traumas of such a phase. Marriage, she said blithely, had been a fine thing. It had given her security.
"That's more than I can boast," said Helena without any bitterness.
Eva laughed. "Never satisfied still, I see. A restless person like you. You dream of stability, yet you'd only hate it."
Traffic was not heavy. Taxis and lorries, hailing the new freedom, flashed their headlamps as they passed.
"We'll park here," said Eva, turning right, up some bumpy cobbled bystreet with no road markings. "That way we'll not lose any time".
* * *
After several days of demonstrations a crowd of half-a-million people was predicted. Since even Wenceslas Square, with its mile-long open area, would be unable to accommodate such a multitude, it had been decided to hold today's crucial rally on the wide, empty Letná Plain. Joyful people were already on their way up the hill.
Only Husák, the State President, the traitor who had wheedled his way to power after the failure of 1968, remained of the old government. As the human chain swept past the grand Castle that overlooks Prague, the chants sounded so loudly for his removal, he must have trembled. The Great Slumber was ending.
Never, it seemed, had old Prague seen so joyous a moment. It was as if the entire population was out there. Helena could not help the tears that streaked down her cheeks as she was caught up in the expectaions of those around her. She recalled her late parents: her mother who had died full of disillusion six years previously, and her father, a convinced communist even at his death, murdered by the Party bosses during the Stalinist purges. How overjoyed they would have been had they lived to see the people of their country truly free.
The huge crowd surged towards the podium. Each person, armed with only a candle and a set of household keys, began to chant, louder and louder.
Alexander Dubcek, the great hope of a previous generation, now addressed the multitude. That he looked old and frail was unimportant. He had not been broken by his experiences. At the end of his speech he leant forward, symbolically embracing the entire gathering.
* * *
Helena looked across the living room of Eva's 10th-floor apartment in Southern City, as her neighbourhood was called, one of a series of monotonous high-rise estates that ring Prague like some ghastly concrete necklace. The usual bric-a-brac of married life: china, dolls, plastic trinkets, holiday kitsch, photographs. All arranged neatly behind glass in display cabinets. A hamster in a cage. A fishbowl. A TV . Almost inevitably she herself would have ended up in a room just like this.
Despite her tiredness and the excitement of the day, Helena was not yet ready for sleep. Eva's husband, Marek, bade her sit down at the low glass-top coffee table and took a seat opposite. Helena remembered him well. The last time she saw him he had ben a jovial lad, known for his wicked sense of humour as much as the mount of beer he could put away; now, with his greying hair and generous middle-aged spread, he seemed altogether far more restrained and serious. Eagerly, they began to discuss the general strike that had been called for the following day, and how everything depended on its success.
"When you rang this morning, I couldn't believe it was you," Eva interrupted, placing three cups of thick Turkish coffee on the table. "Not after so long. You know we should have made more effort to keep in touch. It's all gone so fast, I've hardly noticed."
Helena nodded, though in fact, with her own eventful life, in which two days were seldom the same, she found the opposite to be true.
"Some zákusky?" asked Eva, hurrying back to the kitchen, from where she returned immediately with two enormous plates laden with a variety of traditional sweetmeats. "Babicka made them. The boys' granny that is. Remember my mum?"
"But of course. It was her I rang to find your new whereabouts," said Helena, leaning forward to take a slice of bábovka. She realised how hungry she had become. "Your mother's cakes were always the best. By the way, how is she?"
"Fine. The boys are staying with her," said Eva. "There's no one else to look after them properly whilst all this is going on."
"Is that them?" Helena pointed to a framed photograph up on the mantelpiece. "Fine-looking lads. Shouldn't they have been out demonstrating with us?"
"Yes, but I have to say I'm afraid," interrupted Marek, after clearing his throat carefully. "The youngest one's only fourteen. Not the sort of age to be out on the streets with all those people."
Precisely the sort of age to be out on the streets with all those people, thought Helena, regarding him intently, before looking back towards her friend, eyes suddenly wide again and full of their old mischief. "This is delicious. You know what I miss most? It's the little things you don't get anywhere else. Cakes like this, beef in cream sauce, carp on Christmas Eve, Prague beer."
"All the beer we'd must have got through," Eva chuckled, as if discarding her worries as she took the seat next to Helena. "By the way, did I tell you how young you look? I can hardly believe it."
Helena smiled benevolently, not wanting to mention the help received from the glamour industry.
"And you," she lied. "You haven't changed."
Dressed in a shapeless brown skirt and the sort of floral blouse not seen in the West since the sixties, no wonder her friend looked jaded. She had indeed aged rather more than one would have expected. Her face looked warn. Even her perfume smelt of State control.
A ring on the door. Helena, who once might have flinched at such a sound coming unexpectedly so late in the evening, looked closely at her friend. Eva smiled, her face inexplicably lighting into a grin.
"I'll get it," she said, leaping to her feet.
Marek nodded, as if he too knew something Helena didn't.
Behind her, from the tiny lobby, Helena heard the door open, followed by the sound of a voice, a reassuring, man's voice, speaking out in greeting. Pleasantries were exchanged. Footsteps came into the room. Helena realised she really did recognise that voice.
"Helena!" it said directly to her. "I never thought I'd see you again!"
She turned quickly in her chair, breast pounding.
1968 - 1969
Helena was almost 19 and Jan just over 20. It was Tuesday 20th August. 9.00 a.m. The morning sun shone through Helena's bedroom window. It would be another heady day of a heady Prague summer, and in the fullness of her youth Helena was set on making the very most of the remainder of Jan's two-week leave from that bugbear of young manhood: military service.
In fact they would hardly pause all day. At 10 a.m. they met at the usual place, the Slavia Café, next to the Vltava River. Helena wore a mini-skirt, which was bright, red and tiny. Her long fair locks fell casually off her shoulders. Jan had on the best flared jeans now available from the West and a purple T-shirt. His hair was coiffed the only way the military knew how, though even that had not managed to spoil his good looks.
By 10.25 the intrepid couple had left for the Alfa Cinema, where they were showing Blow Up, a two-year-old film only recently allowed.
At 10.30 a.m. the programme started. Jan's hand found Helena's. Even though they cuddled throughout, Helena remained absorbed in the events unfolding on the screen. As a pair they had become almost inseparable, much to the annoyance of some of their friends. Someone had christened them the lovebirds, since they were always sneaking off, preferring to spend time alone than with the rest of the gang.
At 12.45 they emerged into the bright daylight.
"C'mon. After all that I need refreshment," Jan exclaimed, quickly leading his companion away on his arm, like some powerful pasha.
Open sandwiches and coffee at the Luxor followed, where they were joined, surprisingly, by one of their friends, Marek, at around 1.30. Marek was a well-built young man, who appeared to be suffering from lack of sleep.
"I thought you were in England," he said, eyeing Helena with curiosity, as he noisily pulled up a chair at the end of the table.
Helena could only shrug. True, she had intended to visit her friend Eva, who was also Marek's girlfriend, and who had been working as an au pair in London for the past six months, but pressure of work and now Jan's leave had forced her to postpone the trip, probably indefinitely.
"I did go as far as getting a visa," she sighed.
"You should try," said Marek emphatically, attracting the waiter's attention to order a Coke. "Everyone's going West this year. Who needs the Black sea any more? Or boiled cabbage and rotten Prussian potatoes by the Baltic? If I didn't have an exam next week I'd be seeing Eva in London too. As it is I've been studying all night." Marek's red eyes immediately became infused with something worse than annoyance. "What bastard would set exams during the summer break tell me...?" And, as he went on ranting and raving about the swine who ran the education system and how they had prevented him visiting his girlfriend or going out on the town every night, his voice became more and more high-pitched.
"You've got it easy, don't you know," interrupted Jan at length. "Only one subject to study and you're complaining. Wait till you join the army. No fancy trips abroad then..."
"Shush." Helena smiled, slipping her arm around him and squeezing his firm stomach muscles. Jan grimaced in mock pain.
"Heard the one about the policemen's new dog?" asked Marek with a smirk, during the ensuing lull in conversation.
"Not another police joke," begged Helena, tired of the recent spate of such epithets now doing the rounds.
"Well," Marek continued regardless. "Our two officers return from the beat. 'There's something wrong with this new dog you've given us' says one of them. 'What?' asks the Super, taken aback somewhat. 'It's brand-new, fresh from training. Can't you boys see that?' 'Yes, Super,' one of the policemen replies. 'It's just that each time we go out, people whisper to one another: here comes the dog with two pricks again.'"
"Very funny, I'm sure," said Helena, although she laughed into her coffee cup.
"Well." Calmly downing the last of the prized American drink, the interloper pulled a spectacle case from an inside pocket, and making a great show of putting on a pair of John Lennon sunglasses. "It's getting hot and I must be heading off," he said, evidently having decided that three was a definite crowd.
"Let's go to the Old Town," said Jan, turning to Helena. "Have a real drink. This coffee makes me thirsty."
They wandered slowly across Old Town Square, ate ice cream from a kiosk, stopped to kiss under the famous astronomical clock, the Orloj, as it struck three, while above them the figurines of the twelve apostles danced ahead of the skeleton of time passing.
U Zlatého Tygra, The Golden Tiger, was one of Prague's most celebrated taverns, with the remains of a gothic tower and portal on the outside. It was seldom possible to find an empty table inside, since the regulars tended to take up their places early. Some have wondered how these people: poets and playwrights, plumbers and plasterers, ever got anything else done. The mystery has yet to be solved.
It was just after 3.15 p.m. whey they arrived. Surprisingly they found a table free next to the door. Immediately a waiter, dressed in a stained black-and-white uniform, emerged from the cigarette haze, almost throwing two huge jugs of foaming Pilsner Urquell onto the table, before marking the appropriate two lines on the nearest beer mat.
Quickly gulping down their beers they were pleased to see another two appear before them almost immediately.
After what must have been several hours of happy drinking a trio of drunks arrived, squeezing onto the end of their table, guffawing and blowing cigarette smoke into their faces. Time to leave. There were twelve lines on the beer mat, six beers per person. A reasonable count in the circumstances.
It was already 8.55 p.m. Too late to stop, too early to sober up. It was, however, a good time to head home for a bite to eat, if they were not to be good-for-nothing the following day.
And the following day Helena had an appointment with her typesetters concerning the new edition of her broadsheet. Almost single-handedly she had set up and produced the broadsheet at home in her spare time while still employed at the State Computer Company. In its way it had been one of the wonders of the liberalisation of 1968. It preached the total abolition of the one-party state and an immediate end to censorship, as well as exposing the horrors experienced by former political prisoners. At the beginning it had incurred the wrath of her boss at the Computer Company; she had been threated with summary dismissal, or worse; officers of the secret police, the StB, had begun to visit both her and her mother. But now, with all the editorial demands close to becoming reality, her magazine was almost respectable and her boss had lost his voice. She meanwhile had received the permission for so long denied on account of her father's supposed crimes to leave her job and take up studies at the Faculty of Law. Soon, she hoped, there might be neither the time nor the need to continue publishing.
But, in the maentime, work remained to be done. There were articles to be edited, photographs to be trimmed. All these lovely boozy days had left a tremendous backlog of work. Luckily, the first semester at the Faculty of Law did not begin for another month.
* * *
The tram took them north to the Hanspaulka suburb where Jan's family house was situated. This was a large 1920s villa from the designs of one of Europe's top architects. It had come into their possession through his father's position as senior representative of Omnipol, the State monopoly for the import-export of arms. Dripping with Bohemia-crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets and other items not readily available to the masses, the living room exuded an aura of newly acquired wealth. Goods only purchaseable with foreign currency abounded, with pride of place going to a large German-made television set and a generous selection of foreign spirits. The staircase had been adorned with gilt trimmings, while the bathroom even boasted taps made of real gold. These were a gift, from a Syrian businessman whose interests probably extended far further than the buying and selling of weapons. But then Czechoslovakian armaments were highly regarded and readily available to all enemies of the West.
In Helena's estimation, Jan's father was a Party member of the worst kind, a great toad of a man, forever stinking of a disgusting cocktail of stale cigarettes and expensive eau-de-cologne. Meanwhile, his mother was a saturnine bitch whose mere presence made Helena's stomach churn. Even her own son spoke unkindly of her greed for material wealth.
Always professing contempt for his father's active involvement in the system that had brought so much pain to his country, Jan nevertheless continued to live at home. To him, it was simply a matter of convenience.
Normally Helena would have never come anywhere near the house. But, luckily, Jan's parents had suddenly gone away the day before, apparently on a business trip to Vienna. As Helena would soon suspect, business probably included many things, for instance liaising with the local 'resident', as foreign-based spymasters were euphemistically termed. Someone must have known what was about to happen...
While Helena prepared sandwiches from the cold meats she found in the well stocked larder, Jan went to the cellar in search of more liquid refreshment.
A few minuets later he returned, holding a bottle of red wine, which he held up to the light of the slim Italian table lamp.
"French. Volnay!" he called out exultantly, pointing to the label. "Unless you'd prefer Scotch?"
"No, no, let's be French tonight. 'Vol-nay' - that means 'free' in Czech. Sounds appropriate, don't you think?" Helena joked, winking with measured lasciviousness, as she examined the bottle.
Of the house's five bedrooms, the one used by Jan was by far the largest. Either this was due to the fact that he was so dear to his parents, who by now had separatae rooms in any case, or that it happened to overlook the corner of the main street. In here was none of the opulence elsewhere evident, Jan's idea of home decoration tending more towards film posters than Afghan wall hangings.
With the Rolling Stones blaring from the record-player, Jan struggled with the cork, while Helena tucked into the roast-pork-and-sauerkraut sandwiches she had neatly laid out on two Meissen plates on the bed-side table.
"Aren't they going to mind - your parents - raiding the family treasures like this?" she asked, pointing to the bottle.
"No, why the hell, there's plenty more. Someone close to the minister brought a few cases back from Paris as a present. You know how it is. Besides, there's so much... "Voilà!" Jan called out suddenly, having succeeded in removing the recalcitrant cork from the bottle. Next thing he had knocked over one of the Bohemia Crystal wine glasses from the dressing table. It seemed to break into a hundred pieces but, in a typically cavalier manner, Jan merely swept the shards against the wall with his right hand. "The cleaner comes in tomorrow," he muttered, shaking his head.
"What's the time?" Helena asked, almost absent-mindedly, staring into her full wine glass.
"Midnight already. You'll see the dawn coming up over those trees before we're finished," he mused, as if he hadn't a care in all the world. Just then the music stopped.
"Darling," Helena called across the room, noticing the blank expression on his face at this unexpected silence. She was perched at the head of the bed with one knee propped firmly under her chin, smiling flirtatiously. "Put some more music on and come over here."
It took a few seconds to register, but, finally, taking one gigantic gulp of wine and nearly banging into the onyx lamp stand, Jan staggered to his feet, then made his way uncertainly to the record cabinet, where he sank to the floor, apparently without trace. Eventually, the strains of Sergeant Pepper emerged from the speakers.
* * *
With Jan's tongue continuing its intimate exploration of her body, Helena let out a long, low moan. Just as well he's so accomplished, she thought, I sometimes feel he might just bite off something he shouldn't in his eagerness.
Prompted by his ever-more-luscious probings, she let out a longer, louder moan, and then her mind went blank with an uncontrollable sense of utter joy - an ecstasy at once purely physical and hopelessly romantic. While colourful, liquid and softly erotic images flooded wildly through her brain, Jan's fingers continued to pull at her stiff nipples, tweaking them just the way she loved... And she knew too she would always love him to distraction...
* * *
Helena had first met Jan at the Lucerna ballroom almost eight months earlier. It was a huge subterranean hall of reinforcded concrete, the first of its kind, built in art-nouveau style in the city centre. Its parquet floor was designed for dancing and was both surrounded and overlooked by a two-tiered gallery, at whose tables one could enjoy wine and snacks. It was the creation of architect Vácslav Havel, grandfather of the often-banned playwright, early in the century. He had been happy to rent it out to the Communists before the war, who used it for their then illegal meetings. Once they had attained absolute power, the same Communists confiscated the building, by way of a thank you. This was the same fate that befell others, including Helena's family, for the Party had by then become an entity totally without scruples.
During the week rock bands and the like now played there. In fact, earlier that year Louis Armstrong had given a concert in the hall, a unique event in the musical calendar of Prague. On Sunday afternoons concerts gave way to the celebrated tea dances, so popular at the time.
It was one such Sunday afternoon in the depths of the previous winter, along with her best friend Eva and some other girls, that Helena had gone to the Lucerna quite by chance. Of all the youths, pimply or otherwise, who looked her over with eyes full of eagerness and longing, only one truly caught her fancy. Despite being dressed in a tightly fitting formal suit and having a most ridiculous 'mod-boy' hairdcut, something about Jan held her imagination in check.
On her way back from the women's room after a lengthy session of jiving with a succession of nondescript youths, Helena stared at herself in the row of decorative mirrors lining the passageway. There was no doubt as to her own beauty that night. Not a hair out of place, no smudge of lipstick on her cheek. Seeing him approach the top of the ornate staircase from the corner of her eye, she raised her head coquettishly, affecting not to have noticed. Casually lifting the hemline of her ball gown, whose hue mirrored almost precisely the dark velvet of the wall drapes, she allowed her gaze to drift upwards to be caught by his. Just then he was at her shoulder, pressing into her, holding her back, admiring her dark, stockinged legs. That he was outrageously forward neither occurred to nor worried her, even as he held her against the ornately gilt railings that led to the first-floor gallery. There was no evil intent in what he had just done; she knew that. Only a highly developed sense of the malicous perhaps, or a love of the deliciously improper. The intoxication of too much sweet wine filled her head. Nothing she could not cope with. Fully aware that what had occurred was nothing less than love at first sight, Helena grinned impudently at the rather dashing figure in the mirror as he stepped away, then briefly passed her tongue over her upper lip. With calculated insouciance she jerked her hip forward, brushing past him back into the happy throng. Immediately he followed.
Something about his innocent smile, about the complete lack of shyness in the way he made his initial approach, must have made her think that here was boy who knows what he wants. A boy well worth getting to know. Perhaps it was all to do with that twinkle in those wine-dark eyes.
He spoke little about his life, though he did admit he was due to start military service in a few weeks. The spite with which he mentioned this fact left her in no two minds as to his feelings on the matter. Once that was done with he was set for a career in computer electronics.
Neither had wanted to push the other too fast, as if their relationship were too delicate a thing, a blossom so fine the slightest puff might spoil it.
After a week, the inevitable had taken place in a solitary spot one freezing evening in the Prague woods. She had stumbled over an old tree stump, accidentally falling against him. This time he did not let go.
* * *
... as she pushed her head back into the pillows, emerging from her reverie, Helena discovered his semi-sleeping body beneath her, sighing langorously and wet with new perspiration, as if begging her to breathe life back into it. She responded. Beginning from his toes, she pushed her hand and then her face slowly, deliberately along the length of his calf, up his right leg, deep through the fur of his groin and across his taut middle, slowly causing the breaths to come faster and his hand to move of its own accord into her long hair lying scattered over his chest. Throwing his arms suddenly about her, he sprung into motion and pulled her to his body.
It was 3.10 a.m. 21st August.
From the airport a few kilometres away came the drone of a plane going in to land.
Soon her newly aroused lover had wrested the initiative from her, reversing their positions on the bed with physical strength that was both unstoppable and never less than gentle.
Succumbing happily, Helena enlaced her hands behind his neck and held tight. As he adeptly ran her nipples between his fingers, he began to push into her once more - faster - how she liked it like that - ramming - faster and faster - deeper and deeper - back and forth, back and forth, as they slid to and fro on the soft sheets until, such was their velocity, she knew he was reaching the climax.
Immediately she realised she should pull away from his thrusting groin to secure his safe withdrawal.
As they lay side by side on their backs, neither of them could fail to notice the persistent rumbling coming almost from overhead.
"Thunder," muttered Jan with a loud yawn. "I didn't think we were in for a storm, but it can't possibly be another plane. Close the window if you like."
"No. It's too hot as it is."
Just gone 3.35 a.m.
A car was hurtling past down the main street towards the city centre, its klaxon blaring wildly. Another whizzed past in its wake, hooting intermittently as though imitating a siren. Helena raised herself onto one elbow.
"Damn party goers!" she heard Jan mumble, furious at being kept awake. "We'll never get to sleep with all this." Warily he raised his body off the bed, staggered across to the bathroom to fetch some water. "Funny, isn't it, how the more you drink the more thristy you seem to get," he observed wryly, as he rubbed his throbbing forehead.
"That's no storm. What's going on out there?" Helena asked angrily, rushing to the window and pulling away the curtains. A sound that seemed more like that of a gigantic rattling chain could be plainly heard from the end of the street.
"Jan! Come here. Something's - look! Something's coming down the road."
Morning light was just beginning to show through the flimsy summer mist. Two planes were circling above the airport. A third went in to land. Lights were going on in some of the houses of the main street, bleary-eyed people hung out of windows.
"Tanks! Millions of them! Quick, put the radio on!" Helena shouted at Jan, who was hopping from the bed and trying to slip into his underwear.
"It's probably some military exercise. Routine crap like that."
"Unless..." He looked at her, ashen-faced. This must be it, he realised as he finally leaned out of the window. "This must be it!" he shouted.
"The Russians?" Fear flickered in Helena's eyes.
There was no need for an answer. In the far distance another plane could be heard circling over the airport.
A voice shouted an obscenity from the obscurity of the window opposite. Instinctively Helena placed an arm over her breasts which were hanging over the sill. But the words were not directed at her.
By now it was 3.50 a.m.
"Russian invaders go home! Bastards!" the voice from across the street shouted again, above the ever louder rattle of metal terads on tarmac.
Transfixed, the two lovers watched as a dozen clanking monsters approached. From their toop-floor vantage point they could see clearly as a second column formed a line beyond the first.
"Put some clothes, on please," Jan begged.
"The whole city's about to be violated," she snorted. "Big Brother is paying us a visit and you worry about decency!"
Young soldiers rode on the tanks, nervously looking about as they fingered their weapons.
Helena felt like crying, like throwing up her arms and wailing to the skies. There were thousands of hardline Party members who lived in this district, who'd be rejoicing just as soon as they knew the Russians were coming. People like Jan's parents, who were so conveniently away, or her old boss at the Computer Centre, the aptly named Mr Vlk - which translates as Wolf. He was going to have the last laugh after all. So much for her law career! Now she did not even have a job any more.
It may have been getting lighter by the moment, but the darkness eating into her heart meant Helena was barely aware of the fact that there was now a sizeable crowd in the street who were chasing the tanks, hurling bricks and screaming, "Death to Russian fascists, Russians go home!" and other less well-chosen insults. People in nightgowns, pyjamas, or hastily put on day clothes.
In truth no one believed this could happen. Dubcek had just done a deal with the Russians. He had returned bearing dfraternal greetings, had he not?
Where was Dubcek now? Nobody could have known the answer to that question.
4 o'clock struck on the grandfather clock down the corridor, just as a volley of shots ricocheted off the wall outside. Instinctively they both ducked. In the main street glass shattered.
* * *
"Ivan go home! Natasha is waiting!"
A dozen miniskirted girls ran before the first tank, taunting the soldiers. But the sallow-faced youths were not amused. Nor did they appear to have ever seen so much female thigh exposed publicly before. The bewildered faces and Asian features meant the Soviets had cast their net wide in preparing this invasion force. Just what these boys had expected to find on their arrival in the capital, Helena could not imagine, but the hatred of the crowd had obviously caught them by surprise.
All around people were yelling abuses. Many, like Helena, could do so in fluent Russian. One of the tanks had been surrounded and was unable to move. The officer perched beside the cannon fired his pistol in the air. When this failed to pacify the natives, those soldiers riding shotgun fired off their machine guns just above head height.
This only caused the people to jeer and hoot all the more. Whistling sounded everywhere. Someone had rushed in to daub a swastika on the side of the tank. At this, as though folllowing an order, another soldier appeared from the turret and pointed a bazooka directly into the crowd. Slowly the tight but disorganised formation began to melt. The frightened boy in uniform stood there motionless, his gun quivering, as the tank revved and rattled into motion once again.
* * *
By 9 a.m. Wenceslas Square had been occupied, as were all the city's bridges. Ostentatiously the Soviet Armed Forces stationed themselves at all key locations. They had begun shooting at the National Museum, in the belief that it was the radio building they were attacking. However, it would not be long before they wrestled control of both the real radio station as well as the television studios. Nearby, a tram used to barricade a street had been rammed by a Soviet tank: the fire raged out of control.
The KGB had probably been active since daybreak, Helena imagined, busy in its eternal task of tracking down 'dangerous' individuals and placing them under arrest.
"This is hopeless. There is nothing more we can do here," Jan sighed as they sat disconsolately on the kerb by one of the roadblocks. "Throwing stones at the enemy like this won't do much good. I must get back to barracks, see what we're supposed to be doing. I don't know what our army can expect to do against all this power, but we'll try."
"I know." Helena was near to tears. She got to her feet. "I must go too. I'm once again an undesireable person and, besides, I've a room full of incriminating material for the broadsheet. If they find it I'll be putting my mother at risk."
Jan held her tightly. Not a hundred metres from them a small group were carrying what must have been a dead body, which had been wrapped in the nation's bullet-ridden flag.
Jan was looking deep into her sharp, almost turquoise eyes. One was ever so slightly lighter than the other, he noticed for the first time. Perhaps it was due to all the tears welling up inside.
Just what was to be or when they would kiss again she did not know. As she clung, almost in desperation, to the thin Carnaby Street T-shirt he was wearing, she was terribly aware of how much she really loved him.
* * *
Helena ran almost as she had never run before. And when she ran out of steam she walked briskly without ever turning to look back. A tank could be heard firing its big gun somewhere behind her. It was all so terrible. Hurrying along the railway footbridge, she realised she left home without her identity papers the day before, something one must never do.
Safely across the rails she legged it up the tiny path on the steep side of the Peacock Hill, heading towards the top of Santoska Park, her muscles almost giving out. Below she could see smoke rising and hear the explosions from the centre of town. She hastened past Sanops, the Communist Party's private nursing home, down the residential street on the other side of the hill, where she found the flat unoccupied.
2 p.m. 21st August. Gunfire continued to sound from the city centre.
Helena had a suitcase and overnight bag packed. Her friends had told her it was all they had room for. Already they were an hour late. She sat on the sofa, waiting. Sunlight shone through the lace curtains directly onto her face. A ring at the doobell brought her swiftly to her feet. Opening the door cautiously she saw at once it was her old professor and later samizdat associate Lenka. A mousey-haired woman of around forty, her expresion was naturally anxious. In the small entrance hall to the flat they whispered to one another - for as everyone knew walls have ears - before scurrying the three flights of concrete stairs. Outside, Lenka's husband Peter waited impatiently beside the rusty Octavia. With difficulty he forced Helena's case in with the other luggage. Helena got into the back, next to their son, small Peter, whose mop of yellow hair bobbed up and down as he greeted her excitedly.
Easing off the brake, Peter allowed the car to freewheel down the first part of the steep slope of Santoska Hill, before engaging the engine in second gear.
Peter was one of a number of investigative writers who had been busy uncovering the horrors of the Stalinist purges that filled the nation's prisons in the early nineteen fifties. Like Helena and all the others who had spent the past year denouncing the Communist evil. Theirs had been the first number Helena had phoned when she arrived home that morning. Lenka told her they were about to make a quick run to Munich, where Peter had contacts among the journalists working with Radio Free Europe.
"Can I come with you?" Helena had asked, shocking even herself, for up till that point she had no idea what she would do. After all, she was actually in possession of an exit visa - valid to visit Eva in England - for all that might be worth.
Shortly afterwards Klára, Helena's mother, had rung, her voice trembling. She said that as soon as she'd heard the dreadful news she had fled to the suburbs to stay with her long-standing manfriend.
"Don't worry about me." Helena had tried to calm her motgher's fears, for she knew how easily she panicked. "I'm fine... no... yes, I did see,the Russians... yes... Jan's fine too. No, I'm going into hiding," she lied, though she doubted her mother was taking in much of what she said, so numerous were her interruptions. "I'll be alright... Yes. I know they'll be looking out for me in the end... Take some Diazepam and relax... No, I don't think anybody's going to work tomorrow. There probably won't be any buses... Yes, I'll make sure the cooker's off this time. 'Bye."
* * *
As they drove through the deserted streets, the heavily laden car seemed to be dragging along the tarmac.
"We should have left an hour ago," Peter was worrying. "But you know how women like packing - "
"That's right, put the blame on me," hissed Lenka, the strain evident on her face.
The empty road meant they could make as good speed as their vehicle would permit. A cloudless, late-summer sky illuminated the passing landscape. Fields of wheat-stubble. Villages filled with frightened people. Plantations of prime hops. Pine forests. Then came the rear of one of the invader's tanks heading west.
As he pulled out to overtake the metal monster, Peter let out a gasp, for there, stretching into the distance, he saw a column of glinting Soviet hardware; a deadly smoke-belching convoy.
Keeping his nerve, at least for the moment, he continued to accelerate, before easing carefully into the gap between the last two tanks.
"What now?" Lenka asked, almost rhetorically, in a voice somewhere between total calm and absolute terror. "I mean, do we stay behind this lot like obedient boys and girls, or what?"
No one spoke.
As they rounded the next corner the tank in front blew a great cloud of dust off the road.
"We're doing all of 20 kilometres an hour at the moment," Peter snarled agitatedly. "“At his rate, who know, we could be at the border by, shall we say, lunchtime tomorrow.!"
Helena said, calmly, "There's no rule saying you can't overtake a convoy."
"I don't know about that," said Lenka, almost biting her lip with worry.
"I say we go."” Helena tried to sound authoriative.
"Right." Stepping hard on the accelarator pedal, Peter thrust the car out onto the other side of the road. "At least nothing's likely to come the other way."
"I bet they're on their way to seal the border," mumbled Lernka nervously. "If only we could go faster..."
"Mummy please. I want to go to the toilet," called small Peter from beside Helena.
"Quiet," snapped his father.
"But I can't wait."
"Shut up will you," his mother shouted, turning to look angrily behind her. "You think we can stop here?"
"“No, but... " The little boy subsided into tortured silence. Helena patted his mop of hair.
Passing the leading tank in the column they could plainly see the thickset faces of the soldiers riding in the lead truck.
"Mummy, please," came again the plaintive cry from the back seat.
"I won't stop now,"” snapped his father, almost running off the road in what turned out to be a savagely crooked bend.
Soon the road stretched emptily ahead. With the Red Army outdistanced they pulled up with a screech a few minutes later. Small Peter was allowed to relieve himself, though they dared not wait long in case the enemy sneaked past them again.
* * *
Everything is uncertain: the future void and past violently terminated. Jan hoping to fight. Klára abandoned in occupied Prague...
Helena had not spoken for some time. Her mind was on the note she had left in the kitchen explaining her departure. 'I'll be back as soon as this is over,' she had written at the end of the page, though more in hope than in faith.
Klára had seen all this sort of thing before. Everyone of her generation had. First the war. Then the Communist putsch. Helena's thoughts turned to her father and the terrible fate that had befallen him.
For Gustav Jakoby had died a committed a committed Communist. Though he had not been born one. Not by any means. His family were prosperous Jewish landowners, whose interests ranged from a hotel in the spa town of Marienbad to blocks of luxury flats in the better quarters of Prague.
A studious, quietly handsome young man, Gustav took little notice as the tide of fascism swept through Europe in the nineteen thirties; instead he remained cocooned in a priveged world of books and music at Charles University. His interest was philosophy not practical politics. In 1937, at the age of 26, he graduated with the highest honours, soon taking up a professorship at his old college.
After the 1938 Munich peace accord and Neville Chamberlain's wretched piece of paper, however, Hitler was left free to 'liberate' the sizeable German majority that lived in ther Sudeten region of the Czech lands, and, whilst he was at it, to swallow up the entire Czechoslovak republic.
With the country well under the German heel, Gustav found himself forced to make a stand. For he was both a Jew and an intellectual, a double enemy of the Nazi regime.
He joined the underground. despite the infamous yellow star he was obliged to wear, he took part in the student manifestation against the German occupation on 17th November 1939, which was put down with full brutality. The Gestapo closed ther university indefiitely and he was deported, along with some two thousand students and lecturers.
Perhaps he should have gone abroad, like so many of his Jewish friends had already done. But, in his journals, edited privately after the war, he did not once mention thinking of escape.
* * *
With all this in her mind, Helena knew she was right not to make the same mistake. As the aged Octavia jolted through the resort village of Babylon, a few kilometres from the border, escape was the only action she dared contemplate.
No one said anything. Her knuckles were clutched so tightly, they were almost drained of blood. Whatever might be the outcome of the next few minutes, it would be as nothing compared to the five and a half years Gustav spent after his deportation.
* * *
The concentration camp at Terezín, known in German as Theresienstadt, was named by the Nazis a model gfhetto. Model it may have been as far as the Red Cross inspectors were concerned. And newsreel films had ben made showing the ideal conditions in which the mainly Jewish population lived. The reality of the palce was somewhat less cheeerful. Over 3000 died, almost one quarter of the entire intake, perishing either from starvation or one of the several epidemics that found fertile breeding conditions therein.
Whilst Gustav suffered forced labour and his health deteriorated, things for the Czech population at large had gone from bad to worse. In September 1941, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heidrich, one of Hitler's favourite sons, took command in Prague Castle, with a brief that called for the eventual annihilation of the entire Czech population, other than those deemed fit to serve the Master Race as labourers. Martial Law and a Reign of Terror were declared.
On 29th May 1942 Heidrich was assassinated while being driven to work in his Mercedes staff car by two Czechoslovak airmen parachuted into the country by the RAF. Vengeance had been swift and terrible. Through the most tenuous evidence, blame was focused on two families in the small mining town of Lidice, west of Prague. The whole adult male population was shot, women and children were deported to concentration camps. On 10th June the entire village was burnt and subsequently every trace of its previous existence was razed from the earth. Prisoners from Terezín were brought in to bury the 184 executed men in a huge mass grave. Gustav was among these.
Late in 1942 he was one of the 80 000 transferred to Auschwitz. In his journals, over which Helena spent long hours in appalled attention, he barely mentioned the horrors of the camp existence, other than to say that those persons selected for the gas chambers could be seen trooping slowly at the same time each day into the jaws of the final solution. 'It is hard to know how any of us survived'” he wrote. 'Despite the lack of food, the epidemics, the haphazard cruelty of ther guards and the stench of death, life had to continue. In fact, it is true to say that these were conditions under which the living might well have envied the dead. I can only put down my own survival to the talent I had for making music, which the Germans loved to hear performed.'
At the war's end, nearly the whole of the nation's Jewish population was dead. As far as it was possible to tell in the chaos of the times, both his parents, along with most of his close relatives, had been taken by train to Poland early in the war, where they simply vanished without trace. His sister, too, he had never managed to locate, though she had left Prague several years before the outbreak of war. Gustav knew that something radically new was needed if this was never to happen again. Over the past years he had become convinced that Communism - a philosophy calling for the equality of all people - was the only answer to the catastrophe of the past six years. Even Klára, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer - or kulak as they were soon to be called - who had met and then helped care for him during his long rehabilitation in the countryside, needed little convincing he was ight. When he returned to Prague, aged far beyond his 34 years, he joined the Communist Party, throwing himself tirelessly into promoting the cause... Meanwhile, he began to compile his journals, but his troubles were only just beginning.
* * *
Her mouth parched, Helena rummaged in the bag of food until she found the bottle of Kofola soft drink.
Apprehensively they drove into the eerily deserted border town of Folmava, through the first barrier, which opened up for them before they even had time to stop, and on towards the desolate and heavily wired no-man's-land beyond: the iron curtain.
* * *
Despite the fact that the Communist Party took half the seats at the post-war election, being an overwhelming majority was not enough. In 1948 a putsch was staged with Soviet backing, all non-communist elements disappeared from the government and Klement Gottwald was installed as president of the new 'socialist' republic.
What Gustav, with his unworldly, forgiving outlook, had failed to see was that the Party was no longer a place for idealists like himself, even one with a senior position at the Interior Ministry. The Party was now firmly in the hands of the little people: the ruthless careerists and manipulators, not to mention the ex-Nazi collaborators and informers...
And, despite all the fine speeches, the almost unthinkable happened: economic mismanagement led to shortages of basic foodstuffs. In the cold-war hysteria prevalent in the early fifties, scapegoats were required - plenty of them - if the system itself were not to be blamed. Pretty soon the proscriptions began. 40 000 condemned as enemies of socialism or American agents, almost 200 of them executed. Sometimes a mere whisper was enough to put a person in jail.
Somehow, in his heart, Gustav convinced himself that the end would justify the means. And the end he saw was nothing less than the coming of a People's Paradise. To Klára, whom he had married in 1947, that term was one she now used only to show her absolute contempt for the vile regime that had evolved.
One day Klára opened the front door to two mn in trilbys and trenchcoats. They wanted Gustav. He tried to reason with them, saying it was some ghastly mistake, that they should at least check with Comrade Gottwald. But, as with Slánský, the most notable victim, arrested the same day, it was no use, for these were people who were happy to crush a man's testicles, to break his glasses in his face or put him into a bath of human excrement, in order to secure a confession.
The defendants were divided into three categories: Czechs, Slovaks and Jews. And this was in 1952, only seven years after the defeat of Hitler!
"I am a disgusting traitor, a bourgeois reactionary and fifth columnist," Gustav Jakoby said at his trial, repeating the lies that had been forced from him by constant beatings. According to Klára, he was a broken man by then. "I am the phlegm of the working class and above all a Zionist spy, being manipulated by foreign powers, including the succesor of the Nazi state in Western Germany."
The irony of this last statement was no doubt lost on those wicked men ho had ordered these confessions.
He was condemned in Decemeber 1952, for high treason, and numerous other misdemeanours. Death, the judge declared benevolently, was too good for swine like him. The could be no clemency.
* * *
Helena had never really known her father; his end came when she was only three years old. She only knew what her mother, Klára, had told her and what she had read in the writings. He seemed a proud man and a bold man in some ways, but he had also been most foolish whan it came to practical matters. Above all he had been far too trusting in his fellow human beings...
Helena heard the sound of the hand-brake. Right ahead of them the final barrier stood resolutely closed.
"We are going to Munich." Peter was speaking nervously to the uniformed official who took their passports.
"You have no other papers?" came the reply, as the man bent down to inspect the four occupants of the car. "Except for Jakoby, no one has a valid exit visa. Why so?"
Peter shrugged helplessly.
With a twisted grin the Customs man turned on his heel.
They glanced at one another. Small Peter began to cry.
"Shut up." His mother turned round sharply.
"Well, we either go to Germany or we go to jail," said Peter, almost spitting the words out.
Outside the concrete box that passed as a Customs point, a few disconsolate lorry drivers sat on wooden benches. One or two other cars had formed a queue behind them. The late afternoon heat was turning the stationary vehicle into a minor furnace.
After an interminable ten-minute wait, their man returned.
"Right." He addressed the Peter. "I know exactly who you all are, but that is no longer important. Dubcek's been taken to Moscow by the Russians. Besides, we need someone to keep up the protests. I wish you well." At this, he winked conspiratorially at the car's occupants, before waving them on.
As they motored slowly towards the German side, the dreams of freedom were coming true, though not as any of them would have wished.
"There she is! Come on girls, let's give her a hand."
As Helena struggled into sight of her destination, she heard the comforting sound of Eva's voice calling from along the street. Just then, three young women came hurtling from behind a great stone gatepost , some fifty yards ahead, and surrounded her on the pavement of the Bishop's Avenue.
Gratefully, Helena dropped her heavy suitcase against the plane tree next to her and flung both arms around her best friend.
"Welcome to Winterson House," said Eva, releasing her from an extended hug.
Then she made a great show of introducing her two excited colleagues. First there was Dagmar from Stockholm, a tall, willowy girl with a piercing smile and hair almost as fair as snow itself, that fell in looping curls down the entire length of her back. Then there was Branka from Sarajevo, whose dark complexion contrasted strangely with her pale-blue eyes, even in the half-light of early evening.
How at ease Eva seemed. She was exactly Helena's age. At school she had been a happy, rather shy girl, only too willing to be led. How smart and different she now looked in that suede outfit and those prettily patterned Mary Quant tights.
But everyone ws speaking at once, eager to know what had happened to her, both in Prague and on her way from the airport:
"Where on earth did you get to?" Eva demanded.
"I waited and waited in the air terminal as you said, then I took the metro." It was such a relief to be able to communicate with someone in her own language again, Helena realised, as she began gabbling to her friend in Czech...
Two days previously, Helena had phoned Eva from Munich to tell her she had escaped and was on her way to London. Although Helena had friends in Austria, Germany, Sweden and Canada, no other place seemed as attractive as London in the swinging sixties. It was, after all, home to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Carnaby Street, King's Road, Twiggy and all the latest fashion a teenage girl could dream of; a place so full of exotic wonders, she need look no further.
And, besides, her best friend was there.
As agreed Helena rang again the moment her plane touched down at Heathrow. Eva said she would meet her at the Central London terminal in one hour.
It the sheer size of London's main airport that intimidated Helena, making it almost impossible to get her bearings. Eventually she came upon a double-decker bus taking passengers to central London. It was not one of the famous red variety, but Helena paid the 7 shillings 6 pence fare and went upstairs. It seemed an outlandish amount to pay for a bus ride, she thought, taking a seat at the very front. In Prague such a trip would cost a couple of pennies.
At the terminal her friend was nowhere to be seen. For over two hours Helena wandered through ther building, getting more and more worried. When she rang Winterson House again she found herself speaking with someone who understood little of what she said, so she hung up.
Finally she began to ask passers-by the way to the address she had scrawled on a piece of paper. Although she had diligently studied the English language for over six years at school, even matriculating with distinction, she found she could barely understood anything people said.
Only the smart young woman at the information desk seemed to speak the language Helena imagined she had learned. She put out repeated calls over the public-address system. Still there was no sign of Eva.
When she suggested taking a taxi, Helena visibly shook. She had absolutely no idea where this Hampstead place was, only that it was an exclusive area, rather like Hanspaulka in Prague, where Jan lived. In her purse when she had arrived was 3 pounds10 shillings. The two telephone calls to Winterson House had cost a shilling, the bus had taken 7s 6d. Helena dared not imagine the cost of a taxi.
Finding the way at last to the vast subterranean con course that is Earl's Court Underground station, she handed over a further 2s 9d. Many more such journeys and she was surely done for. Money might as well be disappearing down the drain.
"You should have come to Victoria, not Cromwell Road," said Eva incredulously, the moment Helena paused in her narrative. "I did say I would be waiting at the BEA terminal, didn't I?" she added, though her face betrayed a new uncertainty.
"I - I only recall you saying central London," stuttered the newcomer, wiping her brow with her aching hand. "That was where the bus took me."
"And you went to the BOAC terminal!" exclaimed the blonde girl called Dagmar, raising her eyes as if to point up Eva's oversight.
"Oh what a silly mix-up." somebody else giggled.
All three girls muttered in agreement.
"First nobody tells you there are two terminals, one for Europe and the other for the rest of the world, and now you've had to walk all the way up from the station dragging that heavy case," mutterd Branka, casting an acute glance towards Eva.
Eva felt terrible. "I should have taken the time to go out to the airport..."
But this was no time for recriminations. All the girls were eager to make friends and to hear her first-hand news of the invasion. Besides, it was becoming both chilly and dark, and the street lights were going on one by one. Soon Helena's colleagues were taking her suitcase through the wrought-iron gates into the spacious grounds of Winterson House.
Sitting downstairs in the large kitchen, Helena was soon feeling overwhelmed by the warmth of her welcome. Never before had she been so fussed over, it seemed, as Eva's colleagues brought, chocolate cakes and tea for her.
* * *
"You do look exhausted," Eva said, looking with concern at her friend's haggard face after supper. Her colleagues had gone out to the nearst pub, to met up with some boys, but she had plenty to discuss with Eva. "Hardly surprising, with what you've been through, poor thing. You'll need a job, too."
"Yes," Helena replied ruefully. "I don't think I'll last another day here with just two pounds, eighteen shillings and nine pennies. Everything's so very expensive."
"You'll get accustomed," Eva said. "First, though, you must get a good sleep tonight."
They sat facing one another over the long table that took up the centre of the small upstairs living room which was the au pairs' communal gathering place. A small television screen flickered silently at the far end.
What irony, Helena said to herself. Only three days ago I was lamenting the lack of time to come to London and now, here I damn well am!
She took another sip of the thick black coffee Eva had made especially for her. Since she first saw her running up the street, something about her best friend's appearance had puzzled Helena. Now she realised what it was. It was not that her friend had changed much: she hadn't. She had the same wide-open brown eyes and broad rosy cheeks. It was the fancy bobbed haircut and colourful Biba of Kensington outfit that somehow gave her a completely different aspect. Gone were the schoolgirl fringe and those boring tortoiseshell spectacles she sometimes wore.
Helena put down her cup, wiped a strand of hair from her forehead. She was not unaware of her own appearance, but was by now too tired to care.
"You must not worry." Eva smiled comfortingly. "You'll be very welcome here. I've already asked Mrs Winetrson and she was very sympathetic. Mrs W - that's what we call her - is the owner. We all think of her as a bit of an old stick. Perhaps she needs to be, running a place like this. Anyway, she said you can stay here as long as you need."
Helena looked up, a ray of hope lighting up her eyes.
"I only had to ask," Eva said, in anticipation of a word of protest. "I've put a spare bed in my room already. Luckily my room is big enough for two."
"Oh, Eva, you're so good," Helena exclaimed. "I don't know what I'd have done otherwise." She stood up and rushed around the table to give her friend a great big hug. "You don't know how much it means."
"Well, welcome to your new home." Eva rested an arm on her friend's shoulder. "In case you hadn't noticed, you now reside in the wealthiest street in the wealthiest part of London. Not a bad start to life in the West."
The late news bulletin was beginning on television. Eva picked up the coffee cups and sugar bowl from the table, fastidiously placing them on the mantelshelf, before turning up the sound. With their arms around one another, in sisterly solidarity, they watched the latest pictures from Prague: Soviet tanks riding roughshod over angry swarms of protestors. Gunshots. Dead bodies lying in the city centre. The Czech Army remained confined to barracks. Jan, too, Helena could only assume. Defiance, it seemed, would be in vain.
"I wonder how long such pictures will be allowed out?" Eva sobbed, dabbing her eyes with a pink handkerchief. "By the way, if you want to ring home, I'm sure Mrs W will allow it. She told me to ring Marek whenever I want. I'll ask her now. She's kind when she needs to be, you'll see."
Helena was still thinking of Jan.
* * *
"I expect you'd like to have a bath and turn in," Eva said, noticing that the wall clock said 11.30 p.m. "I'll show you the room."
Before either could move, Branka came in, pulling a chair to the table with a sigh.
"Pub was empty and Dagmar's gone to bed," she said, addressing Helena. "You didn't miss much."
Helena smiled back, raising her hands in a gesture of linguistic impotence. "Better luck next time," she said, parrot-fashion, remembering a phrase from her English text-book.
At one end of the table was a pile of magazines, most of which were dedidcated to fashion or young women's fantasies. Taking a copy of Woman's Realm from the pile Branka began uninterestedly to leaf through its pages, undoing, as she did so, the two top buttons of her thin blouse, through which her lack of a bra clearly showed.
"I'm from Yugoslavia, " she said, peering over the top of her magazine. "So I know a thing about those Russians. That pig Stalin stitched us all up in 1945."
Helena could not but agree.
Like Eva's, Branka's English seemed more or less perfect. Helena found it hard to get over the contrast her wavy black hair made with her deep-set blue eyes, with their piercing, almost liquid intensity.
Branka put down her magazine. "Here... "Leaning across the narrow width of the table, she offered Helena a mint from a packet she pulled from her top pocket. "We'll look after you. Don't you worry, there might even be a job here. People always come and go."
"But how could I work here?" Helena asked. "I have no nursing skills."
The other two laughed.
Branka said, "No, no, it's not like that. The only medical knowledge you'll neeed here is that of the local talent."
"Perhaps I didn't explain," said Eva switching to Czech, stifling her mirth. "This is not an old-people's home. It's a residence for people with pots of money but no one who cares to look after them. They're all quite capable of getting about on their own, I can assure you. We just help the cook, serve meals, clean up and act as general dogsbodies. In return we receive lodging, food and five pounds a week in pocket money, plus time off to study. That's what being an au pair means."
* * *
"This is where the residents live," said Eva, as she ushered Helena onto the first-floor landing, and pointing to the many corridors that emanated from where they stood.
As if the confirm Eva's earlier ststement on the health of the residents, several sprightly-looking people were moving about, mostly going up and down the wide, heavy-banistered staircase that wound its way up from the main entrance hall. Those who passed by uttered a polite 'good evening' before hurrying on their way.
"Our rooms are up there." Eva pointed upwards to the third landing. A alrge rococo chandelier of ancient crystal glass hung suspended in the centre of the ceiling far above them. The central spiral staircase was carpeted in thick, though fading pile, as if to sum up a once genteel Georgian elegance. The whole house almost smelt of grandeur and age.
From the top of the stairs Eva led the way along a long, brightly lit corridor. "These rooms are our bedsits. Mine's the last one on the right."
"Yes." Unlocking the door, Eva gestured her friend inside.
As Helena could immediately see from looking hastily round the snug yet not cramped room, everything was in immaculate order. The two narrow beds, a chair to sit on, a desk to work at and a washbasin, surrounded by all manner of exciting looking toiletries, next to the little sash window. Never mind that most of the space appeared to be taken up by the two beds, nor that the room was painted in some garish shade of violet, Eva had gone to great pains to stamp her own warm personality on the place. Pictures by Alphons Mucha adorned the walls. A vase containing red carnations adorned the small white table beside the washbasin, the beautiful scent pervading the air. On the shelf above the head of Eva's bed stood an electric kettle and some colourfully striped drinking mugs. A radio was perched on the floor below.
Helena noticed the labels on the garments hanging in the small closet: Mary Quant, Biba, Chelsea Girl, John Stephen...
"Like it?" asked her friend.
"More than that, it's lovely." Helana glanced around once again. "A room of your own."
"I promise I won't impose on you for long," smiled Helena, thrilled at having somewhere friendly to rest her head.
"It's no bother to me. In any case we're going to make the best of it, you and I. There's so much to do round here, so much I want to show you."
"What of the patients?"
"You mean the residents. Never refer to them as patients, incidentally, and certainly not as inmates, like some do. There are sixty-six of them. Most of them are reasonable enough. One or two can be ridiculously demanding and, whatever you do, try not to brush against a certain Mr Rakosi on your travels. He's not one to let a pretty miss pass."
"Sorry? I don't - "
"Oh nothing. Just keep the little blighter at more than arm's length. He has wandering fingers."
Helena gave Eva a curious look. It came as some surprise to hear her old friend speak with such cynicism. A cynicism born from six months working in this institution, no doubt. Eva had always been so even-tempered.
For a while they sat on the edge of what was to be Helena's bed, with its soft middle and fresh-linen cover, discussing the good old days.
"Mind you don't hit your head on the sloping ceiling under the eaves there. A tall girl like you."
* * *
Next morning Helena was woken at 7 am by Eva, with a cup of freshly made coffee. Her body felt heavy and almost reluctant to wake up. She thanked her friend, who told her to go downstairs in one hour, before hurrying out, saying she had to prepare the residents' breakfast.
Despite her exhaustion, Helena's mind had been buzzing so fast, she had found sleep elusive during the night. Now she tried hard to stay awake...
"Come on. Wakey-wakey!" Helena heard a strange voice calling in her ear. It was suddenly 8 o'clock, a a pretty girl, with straight, jet-black hair, someone who had not been around the previous evening, was gazing down at her with strong, dark eyes. "My name is Roxana," said the striking stranger. Her voice had a twang to it that Helena rightly took to be American. She wore a pretty blue-and-white uniform, something between that of a nurse and a waitress. "We haven't met. That's because yesterday was my day off. I've been sent to fetch you, but here you are, still in bed, coffee only half-drunk and cold. It just won't do."
Helena seemed to sink further into the bed. She stared fixedly at the leafy sycamore trees waving in the breeze beyond the window.
"C'mon now. You get your ass of that bed and put these on." Roxana lobbed a pile of clothes from the chair over her face. "Hurry. Breakfast is almost finished and we girls have work to do," she said in a tone that masked it jokiness.
* * *
"Go to the Home Office, then have a look around Hampstead, explore the area," Eva said as Helena prepared for her first trip out. "Here's my A-Z of London. I'm working today, but don't be afraid to ring here if you have a problem."
Crazy-paving led to the wrought-iron gates. The garden was filled with the most exquisite scents and flowers. Weather-worn statues stood around in their fig leaves as they must have done for more than a century; rose bushes were everywhere; an arbour draped in second-blooming wisteria led to the rear of the building. Near it, a stone eagle stood guard beside a lily-filed fishpond. Birds called out and an ancient gardener looked up from the pots he was tending, to bellow a gruff 'good morning'.
Briefly nodding back, Helena pulled hard at the great gates, then stepped gingerly out onto the wide tree-lined avenue.
With a spring in her step now that she again had a definite purpose in her life, Helena retraced the route she had so laboriously taken the previous evening. One day, and I should have a place like one of these, she told herself idly, surveying the many mansions of her new neighbourhood.
As she passed the crenellated folly know as Jack Straw's Castle at the top of Hampstead Heath, she took in the magnificent view of what she did not et know to be the City of London, with St. Paul's nestling among the more strident architecture of the temples of modern business.
Out of sheer stubborness, Helena refused to spend what money she had on transport. By the time she arrived at the Home Office it was lunch time and her feet ached.
At the end of the afternoon of waiting, she was finally summoned to a small office. Bureaucracy must be the same the world over. Conducting the interview in a form of pidgin English, she was eventually given a set of personal documents. All that remained for her to do was to register with the local police station.
"It means I can work in England," Helena said proudly, as she trudged back into Winterson House, waving her papers in front of Eva.
"Splendind, you now have official refugee status," she said. "Something I shall probably need too."
Not caring about the future, Helena went to run a bath and soaked in it for more than an hour.
* * *
That evening Roxana Boone invited the au pairs into her room to share some marijuana. Eva had warned Helena not to be put off by the American's brusque manner; it was only that she did not like to waste time on conversational niceties, she said.
Unlike the others who sat around the long bed, Roxana was lounging in an old armchair positioned back to the window. With her eyes staring vaguely celingwards she blew smoke in tiny rings, then passed the illegal cigarette to Dagmar. Described by Eva as a wild Swede, who liked nothing more than spending an entire night dancing in a night club, Dagmar inhaled furiously, almost as though there would be no second chance.
When the joint came to her, Helena, who had never caught the passion for any kind of smoking, took a cautious puff. Since it had been packed without tobacco, it did not rasp the back of the throat as she had been expecting. Soon she was inhaling without difficulty.
"What if someone comes in?" she whispered to Eva in the chair beside hers, next to the door.
Eva looked unconcerned. She raised her hands, palms upwards. "Our rooms are our sanctuary. Nobody bothers us."
Helena was beginning to get the gist of the conversation, though it ws far too early to be able to make a serious contribution.
The invasion of her country ws being animatedly discussed, as were other matters of great importance.
"I guess the whole world is doomed," Roxana said lethargically, speaking through a cloud of smoke. "Trouble everywhere. Look at where I came from, the States. University riots. The Vietnam war. Crass materialism. Is that so great? We could all be nuked any day."
"Perphaps I shall go to Kathmandu after all and paint beautiful things then," said Dagmar, squiffing her nose up. "Before it's all too late."
The remains of the joint finally arrived with Roxana. She inhaled deeply, though the burning cardboard of the roach-end caused her to fling it away, joking, "Well, that was hot stuff." It hit a framed print of the Scottish Highlands before landing on the carpet. Eva picked it up without a word and stubbed it out.
Helena now realised that the effects of dope smoking could be anything but calming. She began to experience flashes of dizziness, not to mention the early stages of the paranoia into whichit is all to easy to subside. With her thoughts never far from home, it was hard not to sink into total depression.
* * *
Next morning Eva rang Problem, an agency that provided temporary home-help or babysitting work, mainly for cash, to out-of-work actors and the like. No, there was nothing today, but there might be tomorrow. All day Helena tramped the streets of north London, from Camden Town to Kilburn, going into employment agencies and scanning the small advertisements pinned up in newsagents. She would have taken anything. That evening Eva rang those advertisers leaving telephone numbers. Always the job had already gone.
The news from home seemed to get worse each day: the Russians had consolidated their grip on the country, the Czechoslovak Army had, after some dithering, decided finally against taking on the invader. There was sporadic resistance and no one really seemed to know what had become of Dubcek and his government. All, it seemed, was lost.
Seeing Helena crying in a corner of the common room before supper the following evening, Roxana closed the door then turned off the TV.
"You mustn't stay in here like this," she said, in an attempt to comfort the newcomer.
"And what should I do instead?" enquired Helena. "I can't go anywhere, can I?"
Roxana was nothing if not forthright. "Hey. No need to be so defensive. Let's you and I go for a drink," she said, almost squinting through those two radiant eyes that were deeply mysterious. "It's my treat."
"That's better. We all look so much better when we're not glowering. Let's get out of here. Who knows, you might even find a job serving at the bar. Better still, you might meet some tasty guy."
Encouraged by Roxana's enthusiasm, Helena put on what she hoped was her smartest outfit, a green not-so-mini skirt and a beige blouse with wide, balloon sleeves. For her part Roxana wore faded jeans with enormous bell-bottoms, which did not really go with a collarless shirt of a brighter blue, that looked as though it had come from some man friend. Her sleek black hair fell uncombed from her shoulders.
As Helena stepped out into the balmy evening air, a pulse of energy surged through her, the first feeling of genuine optimism she had experienced since the tanks rolled across Prague.
The ensuing pub crawl was one to remember, or, in Helena's case, to forget. Beginning at the King of Bohemia and ending when they were asked to leave the Old Bull And Bush, it must have taken in nearly every one of Hampstead's numerous and celebrated watering holes. In fact it was almost like the good old days again.
When she first met Roxana, Helena had found little to like in her brash ways and crazy demeanour. Perphaps the dope had not helped either. But during their evening together, she found there was a lot more to Roxana Boone than she had imagined. And, despite their very obvious differences, they soon struck up an intuitive rapport. From what Helena gathered, Roxana Boone was an heiress. Her daddy, as she always referred to him, was the owner of a world-famous Kentucky Bourbon. She had some sort of chip on her shoulder regarding this daddy of hers. Perhaps she felt bad for being so goddamn rich. Whatever the reason, she seemed to be desperate to assert her own individual self, never missing an opportunity to flirt madly with a good-looking male, as if eliciting a positive response to her physical presence would somehow fend off the uncertainties of the outside world.
The following day they suffered for their pleasure. It was a pity for Roxana that her off day was not also her day off.
"Come up, quick, Mrs Winterson wants to see you."
Eva caught hold of Helena's arm the moment she entered Winterson House after yet
another fruitless day trudging the rainy streets of north London.
Pointing at the streak of mascara on her left cheek, Helena protested she was in no fit state to see anyone. Compared with trim and tidy Eva, each fold of her neat blue-and-white uniform perfectly creased, she looked like a tramp and she knew it.
"Look, stop worrying, will you. You look alright."
Eva was almost having to drag her friend up the great staircase, while Helena did her best to hold firmly onto the sturdy oak banister and remove her muddy walking shoes at the same time.
On the first floor, where most of the sixty residents had their rooms, Helena dropped her shoes by the wall of the main corridor.
"Good afternoon, girls," said a dapper little man in his late seventies with a grey moustache and wearing a silk dressing gown. "Oh I say, do we have a new recruit here?
"Good evening, Mr Rakosi. Sorry, must rush," Eva called out breathlessly, hurrying by with her charge.
Helena felt the glow of the little man's hot gaze on her as she brushed by him, unavoidably touching his hip. So, that's the notorious Mr Rakosi, she thought. How unprepossessing.
The corridor turned to the left and then to the right, following the rear wall of ther house. At the far end they came to an imposing dark door, bearing the legend: DIRECTOR and, underneath, A.J. Winterson.
Eva knocked three tiimes in rapid succession.
"Come in." came the voice from beyond the oak panelling.
As if to be sure Helena would not escape Eva jerked at her sleeve, pushing her to the fore.
"Helena Jakoby," she announced primly.
"Ah!" The woman behind the enormous and awe-inspiring Victorian desk sprang up. Helena hoped she would not notice her wet stockinged feet. "How good to see you. I am only surprised we have not bumped into one another before. I am Mrs Winterson." And, all the while eyeing her hair-streaked face, she offered a lean hand, which Helena took carefully. It was the firmness of the grip that caught her unawares, even though Mrs Winterson looked like a very decisive woman.
Contrary to what she had expected from the other girls, Helena now found herself face to face with a thin, well-groomed woman with pale, meagre lips and brown hair piled into an old-fashioned bun. She wore a dark suit, tightly buttoned down in the front: the very epitome of good taste.
"Do please sit down," she daid. "You may go now, Eva."
"Yes, Mrs Winterson. Thank you," Eva replied, pressing down the starched white lapel of her uniform. Her tone was one of such deference, Helena almost felt embarrassed.
"Eva has been telling me so much about you, I hope it is true, Miss Jakoby," Mrs Winterson announced, settling into her seat. Her voice somehow cut the air with the clarity of crystal.
Helena felt herself overcome by the sensation of unfathomable eeriness.
"It seems you have known each other for many years," Mrs Winterson continued, enunciating her words with the care of one used to dealing with foreigners.
"Yes." replied Helena. "That is true."
Mrs Winterson looked at her, further evaluating her personality. Helena smiled, again awkwardly. She was having difficulty not so much understanding, but formulating correctly phrased responses.
"Now then, Helena," the home's director said at length. Coolly, she took a pad from one corner of he desk and opened it. Helena did her best to hold her gaze with her own. "I hate to mention the terrible events occurring in your country. A throwback to times we had all hoped were long gone. There seems to be no end to it.! Then she allowed her otherwise impassive face to lapse into a look of gentle concern. "You are Jewish, are you not?"
Helena opened her mouth, dropped her gaze. Again she was caught by those precise livid-complexioned eyes. She began to feel as if she were under investigation. Though for what reason she had no idea. She quickly cleared her throat to hide her unease.
"I'm half-Jewish," she said. "After my father."
Mrs Winterson was writing something on the pad.
"But I was not brought up in the Jewish way," Helena went on hesitantly, feeling she should justify her initial reply. "To my father religion was a tool of authority. He could not imagine tha any god would allow the horrors of the world to happen. He was a committed communist by the end of the war."
"I see," Mrs Winterson's smile slowly fell away. "And religion became the opium of the people?"
"Er, yes. A lot of people were fooled by communism too."
"Indeed thery were." At this Mrs Winterson knitted her eyebrows together. "It is a pity for people to lose their roots though. One's heritage is so very important."
"I am sure you are correct, Mrs Winterson," Helena said. "I have known only materialist teaching."
Mrs Winterson nodded in sympathy.
"I only bring up the subject because, before the last war I was a young girl myself, much the same age as you are now. Jewish, of course. I grew up in Holland. Another small country with an acquisitive bully for a neighbour. Luckily, my parents saw what was coming and packed. They were solid Amsterdammers, patriotic folk tro the core, and very religious too. Even though the Dutch proved better than most in the sesnse that they did not much take to turning their Jewish neighbours over to the Gestapo, it was a wise move to come to London. Many of our friends were transported and perished in the camps." Mrs Winterson pulled herself right up against the desktop, having become totally involved in her speech.
"My father was a tailor," she went on. "We settled in the East End, but for aa good many years it was a struggle in this strange new land... Well, enough of this," she said, releasing her grip on the desk, as though it were a sign of weakness to appear sentimental. "However, I would like to say that many of the residents here are fellow escapees of my parents' generation. I should add that some are orthodox and very observant. We all have to observe strict kosher practices."
"I understand," Helena murmurred, not too sure if she really did.
"Would you like to join the staff here?" Mrs Winterson asked, quite unexpectedly with an air of absolute calm. Helena looked up. The strange expression, halfway between a smile and a scowl, totally confused her. She thought she understood the words but didn't believe them. Seeing that Mrs Winterson really meant what she said, her face lit up and she nodded.
"Yes," she said.
"Good. You will be employed on the same terms as the other girls." Helena could not fail to notice how the older woman's tone changed: she was the cool businesswoman, setting out her conditions to a prospective employee; no trace of tenderness now. "I did not plan to take on an extra girl, but once again these are exceptional times," Mrs Winterswon added, taking up the fountain pen once again. Never did she allow her speech to run away with itself and become anything less that crystal-clear.
"Right," she continued, when she finished writing. "I have prepared a roster sheet for you, which means I shall have to re-do everybody else's. On this you willfind the hours to be worked the rest of this month. The remaining time is your own. Since there are now five of you the resulting workload is lightened all round. I am sure that will prove pleasing to all of you."
With a perfunctory smile, Mrs Winterson handed Helena her roster sheet. Helena didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She glanced at the large sheet of paper without taking anything more in.
"You will liaise with Eva, who will expalin to you the routine and rules of the house. You will understand that there are certain standards of behaviour you will be expected to adhere to at all times and without fail. I do not expect that you will personally breach any of these rules, you look eminently sensible to me. However, and it would be wise to remember this, there will be little tolerance shown in the event of any serious infraction or, shall we say, unpleasant."
Helena nodded meekly.
Mrs Winterson looked at her watch. It was almost supper time.
"So, you may go now, Helena," she said, looking up briskly. "You can start tomorrow morning. Let me wish you a happy stay at Winterson House. Do not forget, should you ever have a problem, do not hesitate to come to me."
Again Helena nodded. A nervous grin seemed to have settled on her face, as she watched her new employer staring at her feet.
As she left, Helena held onto the brass knob on the outside of the door for an instant, wondering whether she should return to shake her hand. Perhaps a curtsey would be in order, for Mrs Winterson had an aristocratic, almost haughty manner, with all the severity of a Dickensian schoolmaster.
* * *
"That's wonderful!" Eva hugged Helena tight. "I suspected the old boot was going to make a gesture. She could be so nice, if only she wanted."
"You better make this place your own," said Roxana, who habitually occupied the chair at the top of the dinner table, pointing to the empty space next to hers, where Eva sat.
Dagmar entered, pushing the food trolley. "Sorry, girls, but it's cold turkey once again," she joked, referring to the girls' least favourite supper. Serving at their own table once the residents had been fed was a task they took in turn.
Branka muttered darkly about the horrors of the chef's cooking. However, it did not prevent her attacking a turkey leg with some gusto.
The discusion that evening centred on Branka's wayward boyfriend, George. Apparently he had let her down yet again.
"Don't get the wrong idea," Dagmar said to Helena. "Most of us have a damn good time here. Boys, booze and discos. You'll see."
"Just so long as you never let yourself get involved with any of them," added Roxana. "Take that as the soundest advice you'll ever get."
"I think she's got someone steady back home," said Eva, turning her head in Helena's direction. "Just like me."
"We'll have to see about that," grinned Roxana. "I'd say that's all the more reason to do as I advise."
"Just don't get pregnant. Number One Rule of the House, in fact," Branka cut in, waving warning finger in Helena's direction. "You'll be out of here quicker than an inmate with an unpaid bill if you do."
Helena smiled again. That was not something she was likely to do.