* * * * * * * *
“Out by the river, where it runs across the moorland, there’s a woman who walks in bare feet at midnight. She’s looking for the husband she should have had, but who was shot before she ever met him.” Jilla and I had deserted the orange plastic crate at last: the evenings were acid cold now and even though we were under a roof we both shivered.
“Every midnight when the sky is clear and the wind blows, she walks to the river and drops in a silver coin, and when the ripples clear she sees his face.” Jan Creusel’s woodshed was well made. The rain drummed on its tiny tin roof, but we remained dry and ignored it.
“He’s beautiful – he has green eyes, dark hair, long to his shoulders, and he laughs at her. He’s waiting for her to die.” I was too thin: I was growing quickly and the cold felt like metal to me. We had a candle and our hands were held palms-down above it, for heat.
“She knows that she loves this man she has never met. One night she lies on her back in the water, with her silver coins one over each eye, waiting to pay the ferryman to take her across to her husband. And the water turns warm as her beautiful man puts his arms around her and pulls her down to his river bed.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“Jan Creusel tells me you and that girl have been in his woodshed.” Granma stirred the pot of boiling potatoes, one hand on the small of her back. Steam and warmth, earth-smells and the scrape of metal on metal.
“Just be careful that’s all.” She didn’t turn round, but her thoughts weren’t on cooking.
“Careful of what?”
There was no reply.
Jan Creusel was one of the few men left. His place, built by him, stood by the standpipe and was next to the Zabowski’s and their gang of seven kids. It was always busy around that way, and Jan’s place was the backdrop to our streetlife, but none of us had even been inside.
Only Jilla ever went in. Jan Creusel was strange – his hair was long and tangled and his eyes were different colours. Granma said he’s had an unlucky life and really, that was something to think about after the past few years. She said as bad as things got, at least she wasn’t a Creusel. Unluck rubs off, so I avoided him when I could.
Outside his place, his dog always kept guard. Mani told me it was a wolf. It may have been; its eyes were yellow. It was beautiful and loyal, sitting up in a silent stare if any of us dared approach the front door. It never barked and the name we gave it was Buruk.
Jilla and Buruk had an understanding. We would all have loved to gloat as we ran our muddy hands through his fur on our way into Jan Creusel’s, but it was only Jilla who could do this. Buruk tolerated no-one else, and timid advances were repelled with a sub-sonic growl.
It occurred to me one moment at the standpipe that Jilla spent her time at Jan Creusel’s, and that I had no idea what she did there. I was surprised. It was the first time I’d been seriously interested in something that had nothing to do with me.
Ice cracked underfoot as I made my way back to our place, eyes on the ground. Granma was mending some trousers by the stove, comfortably. I sat down at the table.
“Granma, tell me about Jan Creusel.”
She stopped what she was doing for two seconds: I counted them like a heartbeat. Then her needle moved again as she thought for a moment.
“Jan Creusel was born under a bad star,” her voice was pleasant to listen to – she was feeling expansive and warm. “When he was born, his eyes were two different colours – that’s an unlucky sign. He’s clever, no doubt about that, but no girl would go near him with eyes like that. Jan Creusel fell in love with someone that didn’t love him back.”
I didn’t want to interrupt her chain of thought.
“The girl he loved, and loves still, married another man when they were all young. A long time ago now. Jan’s never got over it. We all thought he’d die away, but he’s still here, when almost everyone else is gone. The woman’s husband turned out to be a poor fraction of a man. He got another girl pregnant. Then he died. The girl had the baby.”
Granma stopped and shook her head, looking so sad I almost got up to go to her. “Soon after, she killed herself. They say she was mad. Mad to sleep with that man and mad to leave a new-born baby girl alone in the world.” Again she shook her head, but this time as if to clear it.
I could hear some of the Zabowski kids playing outside. “What happened to the baby?”
Granma looked at me. “When Jan Creusel isn’t looking after her, she tells you stories in his woodshed and then goes home to her uncle.”