I reached the Simonic’s house, still a real house with a tiled roof. Brena opened the door. She wore an apron that looked new. I blinked.
“Well! Bread is it?”
“You’d better come in.”
As I waited for Brena to reappear from the kitchen I panicked, realising that my eyes had filled with tears. Too suddenly, here was what I’d forgotten I missed. The house was warm, had stairs and good old rugs. Plates matched, cutlery belonged together. It was safe and permanent. The smell of bread was almost too much – I turned and opened the door again, letting in the cold of a different night.
“Where are you going? Here.” Brena held a brown loaf out to me, dropping it in Granma’s bag when I failed to take it from her. “Are you alright?”
I nodded. She looked at me, seeing me properly for the first time ever in her life and mine. Then for a small fraction of part of a second she looked at the floor.
“Go on, it’s getting dark early now.”
I left, my head low, sight blurred, heart breaking. There was no magic, no paths leading me off into other places. Just a red and white nylon shopping bag, with only one loaf of bread pulling me where I didn’t want to go. I felt the water leak out of the corners of my eyes, my nose run, my throat freeze with the effort of not wailing out. I sat on a dark uprooted kerbstone. I could no more go home crying than I could bring back the dead.
The loaf was three-quarters eaten and I was rinsing off the tin plates we still used under the standpipe near Jan Creusel’s place. Mud sucked at feet and trouser bottoms here. A swamp of food scraps. I stood on a board laid over the top of the muck, leaning out to stop the freezing water splashing my legs. It was getting very cold. I jumped: Jilla was watching me from a few metres away. I looked back at the standpipe and realised I’d sprayed water onto my filthy shoes.
“Did you see the soldiers?”
I nodded. She’s seen me go and come back from the Simonic’s house. Had she seen me crying? I realised I didn’t care. I was tired and my faith was gone.
“Did they talk to you?”
“No.” I turned off the standpipe and jumped back to more solid ground.
Jilla didn’t move. She wanted to talk to me. But it was so cold, my feet were wet and my eyes felt swollen and slitty. I would spend the night lying facing the wall with the blanket completely covering my head and my knees bent up to my chest. She knew this. Jilla must have slept this way every night.
“I’ve got something for you.” I stared at her, the plates dripping from my left hand. I saw then that she had a flower, a startling scarlet bloom with a moss green, furry stem. Its petals were pristine and feathery, its centre saffron yellow. I’d never seen a flower like it before. She held it out to me and I took it, trance-like, shocked.
“Where did you get it?”
“The hermit in the cellar.” She didn’t smile.
“It’s the only one.” She took a deep breath. “Bye.”
Everything spun inside out again. In my raw hand I was holding the perfect flower. And it was the only one in the world.