Authors: Noel Streatfeild
For Jeremy, Bridget and Andrew Brooke
Third Generation Rhodesians
I learnt what it was like to live through an earthquake sitting on your granny’s verandah in Rhodesia. So I thought this book belonged especially to you
NNA SAT ON
the caravan steps. She was dressed for her dancing lesson in a white tunic. She was tying on her pink dancing slippers. When the shoes were on she glanced up and saw what she thought was something extraordinary. It was birds, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, all collecting on the hill above the village. Living in a caravan, Anna was always travelling so she accepted that in Turkey, where she now was, birds perhaps behaved differently from birds in other countries. For in her experience when birds migrated it was never in the very middle of summer, yet migrate was what these birds were clearly going to do. There was the usual bustle and excitement migrating birds always seemed to create. Then suddenly, as if someone had fired a starting pistol for a race, the birds took to the air and, looking like a black cloud, flew away. Not a bird stayed behind – not a single one.
Never at her dancing lessons with her grandfather did Anna let her mind wander. The lessons were held in the main room of Jardek’s little white cottage. Against one wall he had put up a barre made and polished by himself. Always lessons started the same way. Jardek would say “Demi-plié, Anna. Twelve very beautiful.”
That day, though she tried not to think about it, at the back of Anna’s mind was a question: Why did the birds fly away?
After her lesson Anna went back to the caravan. She stood on the steps and gazed in all directions. Nowhere, on the ground, in the trees, on the roofs or in the air was one bird. Not a bird anywhere.
O THE CHILDREN
Grandfather and Grandmother’s little house in Turkey was home. This was because it was the only proper house they ever stayed in.
Francesco, the eldest of the three children, had said to his grandmother:
“It is so good that you never move anything. Always we know when we stay with you that all will be as we left it.”
Augustus, the second boy, who was known as Gussie, had agreed fervently – Gussie was often fervent.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be more beautiful than that.”
Anna was the youngest. She added softly:
“Nothing – nothing ever.”
The children did not call their grandparents Grandfather and Grandmother because they were the father and mother
of their mother Olga who was Polish. Instead they called them Jardek and Babka. This was not the proper spelling but it was how the words sounded to the children. They had never seen them written down.
The children were British because that was what their father was, but they had never been to England. Their father was an artist called Christopher Docksay. Even when he was quite small it was clear that Christopher was meant to be an artist; but his father refused to admit this, hoping that if he ignored the child’s talent it would die out of him. Mr Docksay worked in a bank and it was his ambition to become a bank manager. He thought being a bank manager was a splendid secure life so he wanted his sons, Cecil and Christopher, to grow up to be bank managers too.
Cecil was very like his father so he agreed with him that the best career in the world was to work in a bank. At school he studied hard – especially at mathematics – which he thought would help him to become a bank manager, and as soon as he was old enough he left school and joined a bank. Christopher, who was many years younger than Cecil, hardly worked at his lessons at all, spending much time filling his exercise books with drawings, and when he should have been doing his homework he was painting.
The teachers at the school where Christopher went of course knew all about his wanting to be an artist, and the headmaster did his best to get the boy’s father to allow him to try for a scholarship to an art school.
“Your son has real talent, Mr Docksay, he should be given
his chance. I’m sure he’d win a scholarship.”
But Mr Docksay would not listen. He made a noise like a horse makes when he gets chaff up his nose.
“Art! Nonsense! No future in it!”
Then one day when he was fifteen, Christopher decided he could bear life no longer. He must find someone to teach him to paint and he must live amongst painters. He searched the house for things that would sell, then he flew away to Paris. That, as far as his mother and father were concerned, was that, for he never heard from them again. But he did try. For the first two years after he had run away he drew what he thought were very funny pictures of himself on Christmas cards and sent them home, but he got no answer though he was careful to give his address.
“I suppose they’re still sulking about the few bits and pieces I took, to pay my fare to Paris,” Christopher grumbled to his friends, “but they shouldn’t, the old man can put it against anything he may be going to leave me in his will.”
Christopher had a very hard time in Paris and often he nearly starved, but he achieved his ambition. He became not only an artist but also a very good one. He had a rare gift for getting on to canvas light and heat such as you see and feel in hot countries. So by degrees his name became known and his pictures sold.
In order to paint the sort of pictures he liked painting Christopher was always moving about. He believed in being mobile so he bought an old gypsy caravan and a piebald horse called Togo and for many years drove wherever the mood
took him. In those days he thought himself the luckiest fellow in the world. But that was before he drove into the little village in Turkey where he learnt what real happiness could be.
It was a very tumbledown little village on the side of a hill – just a few whitewashed cottages with their roofs held down by strong branches cut from trees, for the wind could be so savage it could blow the roofs off. There was also a shop, a very small mosque and a tea house. But what made Christopher pull Togo up outside the smallest of the cottages was the light. For some reason it shimmered and danced on that village in a way he had not seen before, and the cottages threw back the heat so violently it was as if it had substance so could be touched. Then, while he was gazing at the effects of heat and light, the door of the cottage outside which the caravan was standing opened and out came what Christopher thought was the loveliest girl he had ever seen. She was Olga.
Naturally, after seeing Olga together with the glorious light on the village, Christopher decided to stay. He made an arrangement for Togo to share a field with some cows, parked his caravan on the side of the road and settled down for a visit which should last until Olga agreed to marry him, which he knew might take time. Why should Olga wish to marry a man so much older than herself?
The marriage happened six months later. That was when, if the children were about when the story was being told, they would join in.
“One year after that when we are in Iran I was born,” Francesco would say.
Then Gussie would burst out:
“I was born farthest away. I was born in India.”
“Only just,” his mother would say, smiling at Christopher. “One more day and you would have been born in Pakistan, but you were in such a hurry to arrive.”
Anna knew she was the lucky one.
“Me, I was born in Turkey staying with Jardek and Babka, so I was the only one not born in our caravan.”
Jardek and Babka had not been born in Turkey, they had come there as refugees from Poland during the last world war. In those days Jardek had worked in the underground helping people to escape from Poland. In the end someone had betrayed him and he and Babka had to escape themselves. They had very little money, for by profession Jardek was a teacher of dancing and during the war there had not been many who wanted to learn to dance. So when they found the little tumbledown whitewashed cottage in the Turkish village, which cost almost nothing, they were grateful and settled down. At once Jardek, who was clever with his hands, set about repairing the cottage outside, while Babka put the inside in order. This took some time. Then, just as everything was tidy, Olga was born.
“Praise be to God,” Jardek had said. “Now we have everything – a home and a child.” He said this in Polish because at that time it was the only language that he spoke and in fact he never managed more than a few words of any other.
The year this story begins was the year that Francesco was ten, Gussie was nine and Anna was eight. The summer was a very special summer for they were staying two whole months with Jardek and Babka. This was because in the autumn Christopher was having an exhibition of his pictures at the other end of Turkey. Two months would give him time to get his pictures frames and a few more painted. More important, it would give Togo a real rest, which he would need if he was to pull the caravan to the other end of Turkey, for it was a journey of many, many miles and he was not young any more.
The two months in the village would also give time to discuss an important plan. Jardek, when the children stayed in his cottage had, as a matter of course, given them all dancing lessons. What was the use of having a highly skilled ballet teacher for a grandfather if you did not learn to dance? Jardek had no success with the boys; they danced better than most boys because they had been properly taught, but that special little spark for which Jardek searched was not there.
It was different, though, with Anna. From the time she could walk she had only to hear music and she had to dance. When she was little Jardek had just played tunes on his violin and let Anna dance to amuse herself. When she was six he had begun to give her lessons. Nothing strenuous – just the five positions and exercises and simple steps. But he had always known that here, in his own grandchild, was that rare special spark for which he had always searched.
Family discussions were noisy and there was much laughter because only Olga spoke everyone’s language. Christopher refused to speak any language but English except when he was in France, when he would, if pushed, speak French, but with a strong English accent. This English accent was quite unnecessary for he could, as his children knew, speak perfect French. Olga had fairly correct English but spoke with a strong Polish accent. Christopher insisted that his children should speak English so, as Olga taught them their lessons, she spoke English most of the time. But Jardek and Babka spoke a mixture, mostly it was Polish but with English or Turkish words thrown in.
The discussion that summer was of course about Anna. It was no longer right, Jardek had decided, that Anna should only have dancing lessons when they stayed at the cottage. It was now time she began serious work. This year, when Christopher took his family to his exhibition, Anna must be left behind.
Anna could not think of her family going away without tears coming into her eyes. However, she knew of course that as she was to be a dancer – anything else was unthinkable – sacrifices must be made. Besides, though she loved her mother and father most, she also loved Jardek and Babka.
That Anna must have more dancing lessons was accepted by Christopher and Olga. Christopher, remembering his own stormy childhood when no one would allow him to learn to be an artist, would as soon as shot Togo as think of depriving Anna of her dancing lessons.
Because everything was more or less settled about Anna, that did not stop the endless discussions for as a family they all loved discussions and the more excited they got the better. But that summer morning when this story starts, although all the family were at breakfast, almost nothing was said. This was because it was so dreadfully hot. Never before had any of them known such stifling heat or such odd-looking weather. The sun was hidden behind a sulphur-coloured sky. Nobody felt like food but Olga insisted each child finished their yoghurt and ate one slice of bread with olives.
The children were to take one of Christopher’s pictures to be framed. The frame maker lived in a village over the next hill about three miles away. There was no suggestion that they need not all go for they had always done everything together. Christopher looked up at the molten sky.
“I would take the caravan but I don’t like spoiling poor old Togo’s holiday by harnessing him up in this heat, and though the light is vile I must work today.”
The children did not answer, they had all they could do forcing down their bread and olives.
“Perhaps,” Olga suggested, “the children could the picture take tomorrow. Then today we will have school.”
That settled it, nobody wanted the long walk in the sun, but they wanted lessons less. Anna felt this particularly for she knew Jardek was feeling too hot to give her a dancing lesson that day, but she hoped it might be cooler tomorrow. Christopher felt in his pocket and gave Francesco some money.
“Get some fruit and cold drinks and don’t attempt to come back until the late afternoon.”
The children got up and put on their hats. Then something – they did not know what – made them all turn just to look at Christopher, Olga, Jardek and Babka where they sat drinking their tea.