This is me waking up. This is me reaching for my phone, pushing the blanket away, walking to the bathroom. Reaching for my toothpaste, brushing my hair, and avoiding my eyes in the mirror. This happened a week ago. Opening the fridge and cooking something that you don’t need to know about, running for a bus and looking out a window at streaks of movement and blurry scenes. This is me knowing where I’m going and waiting to get there. I won’t give you names and details, I’ve decided not to. I’m looking out a window and seeing clouds form and surround people on the street – seeing mist dissipate as the sun rises, catching the glare of something reflected and blinking through spots of light in my eyes. I’m holding my phone and searching through names and details. I get off the bus, I walk through a crowd and catch the eyes of many – see them suddenly look away, see that they were never looking. It can be 10 am if you want. I’m walking faster. I think of what I want, what I could want, but you don’t need to know that. Changing the song, I calm myself down. I don’t remember when I became stressed. I didn’t tell you that I was listening to music. This is me following the signs, cursing people who walk slowly and reprimanding myself for cursing them. This is my destination, I walk through a door; my hands are sweating. There are too many mirrors and I see myself everywhere. I see hands move toward a phone, a whispered conversation and another door opening. I am lead through and down various corridors, there are stairs and an acidic stench. Can you see that smiling man at the end of that corridor, preparing to greet me? What about that lilting portrait or that vase of sunflowers? This is where I was supposed to go today, this is who I’m meant to see. There’s a window behind him, it takes up the entire wall. Through it I can see the apartment blocks behind this building. But I watch him only, I’m here for him to ask me questions, for him to offer me a job. I’m here, I promise. He talks to me and I respond as I should. There’s a fire outside. He’s talking slowly, and his eyes never leave mine. There is dark smoke rising from the building next door, I see it. He smiles and I nod, the window seems to stretch and expand. There are storm clouds building and rising, there is incense in this room that smells of burnt cedar, and the distant echo of approaching sirens. But if you’re still watching, this is me answering his questions, with names and details that you don’t need to know. There might be more to it than that, in fact there definitely is. But this is all you get.
It was so cold out that Eli’s bones ached. A fierce wind rushed through the laneway and flattened his parka against his back. Lowering his head to buffer the gust, he dug his small hands deeper into his jacket pockets and trudged onwards through the cobbled laneway, steadily drawing away from his cosy row home and closer to the marketplace where he was to meet his Deda. Clumps of snow clung to the edges of the stone path; the middle was a shallow mess of sludge and dirt, making his journey treacherous. He slipped on a patch of black ice and threw his hands out to his sides to stay on his feet. ‘Woah!’ He kept on, lowering his face even further from the wind that gusted off the Vltava River as he got further from his small, but cosy home and closer to the city centre where he was meeting Deda at the marketplace. Miss Zvonicek had told his class that in the United States they call Chicago the ‘Windy City’. He thought maybe they hadn’t been to Prague in the winter; some days the wind was so strong he felt like it was going to blow the city right off the map.
Eli had his entire life savings—225 koruna—in the zipped inside pocket of his red parka. He stopped every few minutes to check that it was all still there. It had taken him a whole year to save up this much money; he hadn’t spent any of his birthday money and he was always trying to figure out how he could earn more. He often helped his neighbours by chopping and carrying in their firewood and Mrs Herink paid him five koruna each week. It wasn’t much, but it was all they could give. Sometimes money was too tight and they would offer a weak smile and a few logs to take to his mother, or a quarter of a bag of potatoes. He always said ‘thank you’, but he hated it when they paid him with potatoes. They were often soft with green parts and had weird bits growing out of them. Mostly he threw them away; Mum said not to bother bringing rotten vegetables home—they would only make everyone sick.
Deda always said that winter was for working and summer was for playing. He spent most of the days huddled in his small workshop at the back of his pre-war cottage sawing and chiselling blocks of oak into furniture to sell at the marketplace. That’s why Eli was headed there now, to help Deda sell his furniture. It was his first real job. Deda said he would give him another 225 koruna if he helped him sell his woodwork at the markets on Sundays. It wasn’t a job to be taken lightly. Eli was warned that it would be a very long day with a lot of standing up and little time for breaks. Some days, the worst days, snow fell quickly and the wind whipped up fierce and it was just horrible to be outside. On those days the marketplace was mostly deserted; there were never any customers to buy the furniture, which lead to a boring, freezing day with no sales and no money. Deda and Eli both knew that the following week would be tough with hardly anything to eat and a low supply of firewood.
Eli stopped when a scrawny ginger cat holding a small silvery fish in its mouth sprang out of a doorway and slunk past him soundlessly. He glanced down at the red scratch marks on his right hand from his last encounter with a stray before he ran on past a large stack of wooden crates balanced at the end of the laneway. He jumped over the low stone fence and out into a bustling street at the edge of the Old Town. Deda had said that the best way to get to the market was to stay away from the riverbanks and to cross over Charles Bridge, past the Astronomical clock, and into Old Town Square.
Eli had taken only a few steps onto the old bridge when he saw puffs of smoke coming from the direction of the marketplace. The hairs on his arms sprang up and he broke into a run, dodging a dawdling group of older ladies coming from the opposite direction. His pulse quickened and he rubbed his hands together. He turned his head over his right shoulder and called out to the ladies: ‘Did you see the fire?’
A round-faced lady wearing a red patterned headscarf turned to look at him. ‘Fire? What fire? There is no fire, boy.’
Eli pointed across Charles Bridge to where the smoke was thickening. ‘THAT FIRE!’
The five ladies turned and their eyebrows shot up. The shortest woman clasped both hands to her face and gasped, ‘Oh! It looks to be the marketplace.’
What? The marketplace? Eli sprinted the rest of the distance across the bridge. The Astronomical clock was nothing but a blur as he streaked along the cobbled streets. He passed an electronics store that had a wall of plasma screens showing the semi-final of the Czech Cup. He slowed just enough to get a glimpse of the score. Sparta Prague was up 2-1. Yes! He pumped his arms and picked up speed again. All he could think about was Deda and if he was okay; he wasn’t thinking about the cold or his life savings as he ran faster towards the Square. Suddenly, his left foot slipped on the ice and he skidded forward, losing traction. He waved his arms wildly to keep his balance, but it didn’t work. He fell heavily onto his knee, tearing a hole in his only pair of jeans and scraping a layer of skin off. He cried out, but there was no one around to hear. The pain shot through his leg and it swelled up immediately; a trail of blood ran down towards his shin. Eli kneeled there on all fours, stunned for a moment before he caught his breath and heaved himself into an upright position to inspect the wound. He brushed the snow off his knees and tried to run on towards the Square, but pain rushed into his knee and the best he could manage was an awkward limp. He had to get to Deda. He had to help him move the furniture.
The money in his pocket meant nothing anymore.
His knee ached and he stopped for a moment, hoping the pain would pass. It didn’t. Eli took a deep breath and hobbled on towards the marketplace. He covered the distance as quickly as he could, but soon the smoke spread further and stung his eyes; breathing became harder and he choked back air that burned his throat. He limped on and his shoulders tensed when he saw several hefty men scurry across the Square with hoses and large white buckets of water. He wiped an arm across his brow, quickened his pace, and covered the fifty long meters to the marketplace, hobbling on his sore leg. When he reached the tents of the marketplace he stood on tippy toes to try and see where the flames were coming from, stretching his neck to see further. ‘DEDA! DEDA!’
No one answered.
At the back of the marketplace he saw that the flames had already devoured the end rows of trestle tables, scorching everything in their path. The blaze moved on and was licking the narrow legs of the next row of stalls. Deda’s furniture was directly in the path of the blaze and all he could do was watch. He turned and weaved through a line of ornate black lampposts that framed the outer stalls in the search for his grandfather. The knots in his stomach tightened when he couldn’t see any sign of Deda, or any hint of the other stall holders. Where are the people? The tables towards the front had been abandoned even though they had been prepped for sales, only today there were no sellers and buyers. Eli pushed past a pile of purple velvet and ran deeper into the marketplace calling out to his grandfather. ‘Deda! Deda! Where are you?’
Still no one answered.
He stood and looked all around at the chaos not knowing what to do. Determined flames licked hungrily at the tables and took hold, devouring every last morsel it touched. From behind him, he heard the sound of heavy boots stomping on the cobblestones. Two of the hefty men ran past struggling with a hose, the one wearing a reflective jacket yelled out to him. ‘Kush, Kush, little man. Get out of here before your tail catches fire!’
Eli’s heart raced in his small chest and the heat prevented him from staying within the markets. He limped backwards, not able to take his eyes from the flickering flames.
Eli watched a balding man run to the back stalls and signal to someone to turn the hose on. Water spewed out and onto the tables drenching everything that had been burnt and ruining anything else that hadn’t. Eli turned and hobbled out of the marketplace. Outside, the smoke enveloped him and his breath became raspy as stinging tears streamed down his cheeks. Eli wiped his eyes with his sleeve and was amazed to see Deda’s little fluffy cat, Churchill, slink out from behind a garbage bin and sit on the kerb twitching his singed tail. He ran over to Churchill and hugged him close. The small cat miaowed and rubbed his head on his shoulder. He then frantically looked around him and felt the knot in his stomach tighten again. Where is my Deda? He couldn’t see him anywhere. He was alone and he didn’t know what to do.
A moment later, he heard heavy footsteps and, like a mirage through the smoke, Deda appeared and put a protective arm around his shoulders. ‘Eli! There you are! Come now, come.’
Churchill jumped out of Eli’s arms and ran straight to Deda, weaving in and out of his legs. Eli threw his arms around Deda’s waist and held on to him as tight as he could and he felt the knot in his stomach disappear. They walked away from the marketplace and headed in the direction of home, but before they reached Charles Bridge Deda steered him off into a nearby pub. Eli looked over his shoulder to make sure that Churchill followed closely behind.
A beer and a glass of lemonade were placed on the bar and the two sat and drank in silence. After a time Eli spoke. ‘Deda, where were you?’
‘Eh? I was looking for you!’
Eli smiled weakly. ‘So what will we do now? How will we buy food this week?’
The older man looked earnestly into his grandson’s wide eyes and sighed deeply. ‘We will manage with what we have. Times have been tougher than this.’ Deda patted Eli’s knee and continued, ‘Not everything goes to plan, but we go on. We have to look past what has happened and live for what comes next.’
Eli sipped his lemonade and nodded. He felt hope that everything would be okay. The furniture was gone and Deda seemed to be alright about it. His shoulders slumped forward and he sighed deeply.
He glanced up when he noticed that Deda had swivelled in his seat and placed a rough hand on his knee, pointing to the flat screen television showing the Sparta game where the score was 2-2. Eli nodded and gave a weak smile. He loved the football and he dreamed of going to watch a live game someday. That would be the best thing ever. But he knew that there was no way he would have enough money to go.
A huge cheer erupted from a group of merry men huddled around a small table. They were staring at a flat screen TV where the semi-final had just finished. Sparta Prague had won the game 3-2 by a last minute goal. One of the men jumped out of his seat and fist-pumped the air, beer flew from his upraised glass and landed in a splat onto the gaudy carpet while the others all laughed and clapped. Deda laughed along with them and winked at Eli.
‘See? All is good.’
Then he dug his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket, brought out a narrow white envelope and handed it to Eli, motioning for him to open it. Eli’s eyebrows lifted and he flicked a glance at Deda before he turned the envelope over and tore it open. He found a folded piece of paper inside, but he could feel that there was something else folded up with the letter. Eli looked up into Deda’s twinkling eyes and took a breath in. He looked back down at the letter and unfolded it quickly and gasped. In his hand he held two tickets to Letna Stadium. Oh wow! Eli’s eyes widened and he looked slowly up at Deda and then back to the tickets. His arms were covered in goose bumps and his mouth dropped open. How did he get these? Eli tried to speak, but no sound came out. Deda clapped a light hand on his back, lent in and kissed him on his forehead.
‘We are going to the final next Sunday. Stop worrying. Everything is good.’
I watched them quickly approach us as I held her back, her piercing shrieks and cries ringing in my ears.
‘My son! Michael, my son! Please!’ she yelled through tears, her hands balling into fists as she pushed her weight against mine. I underestimated how much upper body strength she actually possessed. The smoke made it harder to breathe. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for that little shit. Through the greyish haze they reached out to us, helping me hold Emily back.
‘Ma’am, I need you to stay calm for me. There is no way I am letting you back into the house. Now, if you give us two minutes, I’m about to send in my best men to go and find your son. We’ll get him out,’ he shouted affirmatively, adjusting his helmet. ‘For now, I just need you guys to stand back and try not to inhale the smoke, okay?’
‘Two minutes?! This is my son! We don’t have two minutes!’ Emily cried, while going red in the face and forcing her body forward as hard as she could. She turned to me. ‘Anthony, do something!’
‘Em, they’ll get him. It’s gonna be okay,’ I lied, attempting to pin her arms down. There is no way I’m letting her in, that kid will have to figure it out himself.
Mum always told me that the fire alarm was important. And that the batteries needed to be changed often. Maybe I should’ve listened. I mean, when she would come home from work, she’d normally go right into the kitchen and start cooking dinner. Maybe she told me because it was my job to change them. But what about Anthony? He’s taller; he could’ve done it. Mum even said that when he moved in he would help out more.
I smelt the smoke while I was doing my homework. I thought mum had just burned something like she always does, even though I didn’t hear her come home. At one point I thought I heard a door slam, but I figured I was just hearing things. Kinda funny that she’s a chef and she still manages to burn dinner sometimes. She calls it stress. Then the smell started getting worse and I figured something wasn’t right. I went out of my room and ran downstairs. The lounge room was empty except for bright orange fire that was sitting on the couch and climbing across it. I screamed loudly and turned around to run back upstairs.
There was no one home, how could this have happened? My house is on fire, my house!
With each step I took, my stomach climbed higher and higher, tempting itself to fall out of my mouth. When I finally reached my bedroom I knew that I would need my big, grey jacket. I wasn’t leaving without my dad’s stuff. He died, well, passed away (that’s what mum tells me to call it), three years ago in a car accident. I was seven. Mum let me keep some of his stuff and the rest we gave away; by force, you might say. I only kept the things that were important; like his fishing rod and his favourite tie.
The things that made him special. I didn’t know how I was going to carry everything out on my own, but my jacket pockets were deep and I had to try.
They taught us about fire safety in school so I knew what to do. They told us to crawl out of the burning house so that you don’t inhale too much smoke. I made a list in my head of the things I had to get that belonged to my dad. First thing I needed was all of our pictures together; they were in my desk drawer. Those would definitely fit in my pockets. I ripped my jacket off its hanger and rolled the big sleeves up. Mum said I would grow into it eventually. While fumbling with the knob of my drawer, I knew I had to act quickly or I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I scooped my hands underneath my school clothes and threw them onto the floor. The photographs lay at the bottom of my drawer, concealed from the world. I was tempted to quickly flip through some of them but the sudden burning in my throat changed my mind. It started to become harder for me to breathe and an uncontrollable cough took over. Before I took another step, I couldn’t help but notice the photograph that was stacked at the top. It was the first time my dad had taken me fishing on the water. I had my short blue rod dangled over the boat with my dad standing behind me, helping me.
‘Dad, I can’t breathe in this life jacket, can’t I take it off now?’ I had asked, struggling to lift my arms up. I could feel the sun burning down the length of my back and neck and the choppy waves made standing still look like a job. But I was happy regardless because my dad was about to teach me how to cast a line. He had told me to keep an eye on the string as it flew out and to be aware that if it got tangled, you were screwed.
‘Your mother will kill me, so no,’ he had answered with a smile, looking over to my mum who was preparing lunch. He moved behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders, preparing to help me cast for the first time.
‘That’s right, leave it on, sweetheart,’ my mum interrupted, reaching for the camera that sat at the top of her bag. My mum had always been one to savour every moment; ‘for the future!’ she would say.
‘Oh please, Mum, no,’ I complained, rolling my eyes as she prepared to take the photo. She shifted her body towards us and gestured that my dad and I move closer together. ‘One day you’ll thank me for all these photos, Michael.’
Carefully, I placed the photos within my pocket with one hand while the other covered my mouth. I could feel my eyes stinging as the smoke had started to seep from under my door. Tears started to run down my face when I realised that I had been storing away fear. My mind went to my mother still stuck at work having no idea what was going on. That the house we’ve lived in together for as long as I can remember was currently falling apart. Or Anthony, who should have been home by now. He married my mum last year in Fiji a week before my ninth birthday. I wasn’t allowed to go because I was ‘too young’; well, that’s what he told me. When we first met he would just stare at me, like I was an insect that needed to be terminated. I don’t think he wanted to be a father.
‘This is Anthony,’ my mother said with a glowing smile. ‘He’s going to be living with us from now on. I know you two will get along.’
One of the things I had managed to smuggle into my bedroom was my dad’s favourite tie. He’d wear it when he knew he would have a good day at work. My dad enjoyed his job a lot and it made me realise that I wanted to be as happy as he was when I grow up. Mum said he was a businessman, which is why he was always in a suit. My dad’s tie was hung at the back of my cupboard, so no one would think to steal it. He had promised that one day I would have it, so I was just keeping up his end of the deal.
‘Michael, one day you’re gonna have to know how to tie one of these,’ he told me one morning while standing in front of a mirror. ‘All men have to learn how to do it. My dad taught me and now it’s your turn.’
‘But I’m not a man yet, dad,’ I answered while watching his hands wove around the tie. The way his hands moved looked like magic.
‘Who says you’re not?’
I shrugged my shoulders in response.
‘You do your homework every day, don’t you?’
‘You help your mum with the dishes when I’m not there, don’t you?’
I nodded again.
‘Well, it sounds like to me that you already are a man. They get things done even when they don’t want to. Now come closer and watch how I do it.’
With a deep breath, I started to walk towards my bedroom door. I didn’t know what to expect on the other side but I knew it couldn’t be good. For a moment I thought it was stupid to have gone back for the photos and tie, but I couldn’t help myself. It was Anthony who forced us to give the stuff away, probably from fear that my mum would miss my dad too much. My heart wanted to grab the fishing rod too before I left, but there was no time. I started to cry knowing that I probably would never see it again. I hoped my dad wouldn’t be mad at me for losing it.
I finally built up the courage and forced my hand around my doorknob. I almost wanted to close my eyes as I turned it but I knew I would have to face the outside of my bedroom eventually. I felt it was best to ‘take the plunge’ as they say and fling the door open. I gasped as I saw that the fire had almost reached the staircase. Carelessly, I threw the tie around my neck and hesitantly walked to the top of the stairs, my hands glued to the railings. As I walked I could reassuringly feel the photos, which moved as I did in the depths of my pocket. I was determined to keep them safe. When I looked over my heart began to race; the living room was gone. The coffee table and the couches had been reduced to nothing. My head had started to spin and my coughing intensified but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I couldn’t bring myself to be scared. I was just sad. Every memory that had been created and lived through within this house had vanished. Crumbled. The stitching of my house had come undone.
The wooden tables that circled around the dining table had been forcibly chiselled down to sharp points. The smell of burning wood was normally a favourite of mine, but right now, all it did was fill me with hate. With a heavy heart I watched as the fire seeped into the heart of the dining table and begin to swallow it whole. Every night at dinner my dad would tell a terrible joke to make my mum and I smile. Sometimes we’d laugh, but we’d mostly just smile at how terrible they were. It was our version of saying grace. Now that memory had been replaced with ash. I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the front door.
It felt like it had been hours since I moved and my head felt as if it was about to fall off. They told us at school what would happen to you if you inhaled too much smoke. My stomach had started to feel queasy and churn violently. My lungs felt as heavy as cement and each breath I took became increasingly difficult. One of the neighbours must have seen the smoke by now. Did they call for help? Do they know I’m inside? Does mum know? I couldn’t wait any longer; I needed to get out of here. As I walked down the stares, my vision began to blur and my body started to droop uncontrollably; I was tired and weak. It was bad enough that the fire and smoke had torn my house apart; now it was trying to take me down.
I wasn’t gonna make it to the bottom of the stairs.
When they had told me I had gone into labour I panicked; I wasn’t ready. James had thrown in me into the wheelchair, screaming for the nurses to help. My contractions had started to appear every couple of minutes and I knew it was time to be taken to the hospital. James and I had been married for only less than a year but we were itching for a family. I could only see white fly past me as James raced me down the hallway with two nurses following speedily behind. He was running so quickly, I thought I was going to fall out of the wheelchair.
‘James, slow down, it’s okay,’ I cried out, my hands cupping the gigantic bump that was searing with pain. I didn’t really know if I was coaxing James or myself. It was then I realised that you could read as many books as your mind could handle, take as many breathing and nursing classes as you could afford, but you’d always end up unprepared. The nurses helped me onto the bed as I held my breath. They propped me up and leaned me against a stack of soft pillows that catered to my aching back.
‘You alright, Em?’ James asked while squatting beside me and reaching for my hand. He had looked more nervous than me.
‘Shhh,’ I replied immediately while squeezing his hand cruelly, feeling my nails dig into his skin. ‘Just please…don’t talk.’
‘Here if you need me,’ he smiled, knowing I didn’t mean to be so rude.
Minutes had turned into hours and I still had not seen or held my baby. I had reached my limit. Somehow through my constant screaming and crying I had managed to tell James to get the nurse nearby.
‘Everything all right?’ she asked cheerfully coming around the corner. I almost hated how happy and carefree she was.
‘How…much…longer,’ I groaned, squinting my eyes shut. She pouted her lips pitifully and walk to crouch near my legs, assessing my dilation.
‘You’re at 8 centimetres, you shouldn’t have long to go, dear,’ she told me softly. ‘Just hang in there for a little more.’
James tended to the building sweat that was now dribbling down my forehead and onto my lips. I could feel my heart race; it felt like it was bouncing off the inside of my chest. My body was in agony and I was ready to give up.
‘I can’t do it anymore, James,’ I whimpered, shaking my head as I spoke. ‘It hurts so much, I can’t.’
‘You can, Emily,’ he replied, stroking my hair softly. ‘I know you can.’
‘Sweetheart, look!’ I said to Emily, pointing to the dark shadows that were slowly emerging from the house. I squinted my eyes and tried to find Michael; either being carried in their arms or slowly walking behind them. As they got closer I could see the boy draped over one of their shoulders. He wasn’t moving.
Everyone says that labour is the worst pain imaginable.
Losing a child hurts more.