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The Road Home
By Rose Tremain
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Homesickness dogs Lev, not only for nostalgic reasons, but because he doesn’t belong, body or soul, to his new country — but can he really go home again? Rose Tremain’s prodigious talents as a prose writer are on full display in The Road Home, but her novel never loses sight of what is truly important in the lives we lead.
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ON THE COACH, Lev chose a seat near the back and he sat huddled against the window, staring out at the land he was leaving: at the fields of sunflowers scorched by the dry wind, at the pig farms, at the quarries and rivers and at the wild garlic growing green at the edge of the road.
Lev wore a leather jacket and jeans and a leather cap pulled low over his eyes, and his handsome face was gray-toned from his smoking, and in his hands he clutched an old red cotton handkerchief and a dented pack of Russian cigarettes. He would soon be forty-three.
After some miles, as the sun came up, Lev took out a cigarette and stuck it between his lips, and the woman sitting next to him, a plump, contained person with moles like splashes of mud on her face, said quickly, "I'm sorry, but there is no smoking allowed on this bus."
Lev knew this, had known it in advance, had tried to prepare himself mentally for the long agony of it. But even an unlit cigarette was a companion—something to hold on to, something that had promise in it—and all he could be bothered to do now was to nod, just to show the woman that he'd heard what she'd said, reassure her that he wasn't going to cause trouble; because there they would have to sit for fifty hours or more, side by side, with their separate aches and dreams, like a married couple. They would hear each other's snores and sighs, smell the food and drink each had brought with them, note the degree to which each was fearful or unafraid, make short forays into conversation. And then later, when they finally arrived in London, they would probably separate with barely a word or a look, walk out into a rainy morning, each alone and beginning a new life. And Lev thought how all of this was odd but necessary and already told him things about the world he was traveling to, a world in which he would break his back working—if only that work could be found. He would hold himself apart from other people, find corners and shadows in which to sit and smoke, demonstrate that he didn't need to belong, that his heart remained in his own country.
There were two coach drivers. These men would take turns to drive and to sleep. There was an on-board lavatory, so the only stops the bus would make would be for gas. At gas stations, the passengers would be able to clamber off, walk a few paces, see wild flowers on a verge, soiled paper among bushes, sun or rain on the road. They might stretch up their arms, put on dark glasses against the onrush of nature's light, look for a clover leaf, smoke and stare at the cars rushing by. Then they would be herded back onto the coach, resume their old attitudes, arm themselves for the next hundred miles, for the stink of another industrial zone or the sudden gleam of a lake, for rain and sunset and the approach of darkness on silent marshes. There would be times when the journey would seem to have no end.
Sleeping upright was not something Lev was practised in. The old seemed to be able to do it, but forty-two was not yet old. Lev's father, Stefan, sometimes used to sleep upright, in summer, on a hard wooden chair in his lunch break at the Baryn sawmill, with the hot sun falling onto the slices of sausage wrapped in paper on his knee and onto his flask of tea. Both Stefan and Lev could sleep lying down on a mound of hay or on the mossy carpet of a forest. Often, Lev had slept on a rag rug beside his daughter's bed, when she was ill or afraid. And when his wife, Marina, was dying, he'd lain for five nights on an area of linoleum flooring no wider than his outstretched arm, between Marina's hospital bed and a curtain patterned with pink and purple daisies, and sleep had come and gone in a mystifying kind of way, painting strange pictures in Lev's brain that had never completely vanished.
Toward evening, after two stops for gas, the mole-flecked woman unwrapped a hard-boiled egg. She peeled it silently. The smell of the egg reminded Lev of the sulfur springs at Jor, where he'd taken Marina, just in case nature could cure what man had given up for lost. Marina had immersed her body obediently in the scummy water, lain there looking at a female stork returning to its high nest, and said to Lev, "If only we were storks."
"Why d'you say that?" Lev had asked.
"Because you never see a stork dying. It's as though they didn't die."
If only we were storks.
On the woman's knee a clean cotton napkin was spread and her white hands smoothed it, and she unwrapped rye bread and a twist of salt.
"My name is Lev," said Lev.
"My name is Lydia," said the woman. And they shook hands, Lev's hand holding the scrunched-up kerchief and Lydia's hand rough with salt and smelling of egg, and then Lev asked, "What are you planning to do in England?" and Lydia said, "I have some interviews in London for jobs as a translator."
"That sounds promising."
"I hope so. I was a teacher of English at School 237 in Yarbl, so my language is very colloquial."
Lev looked at Lydia. It wasn't difficult to imagine her standing in front of a class and writing words on a blackboard. He said, "I wonder why you're leaving our country when you had a good job at School 237 in Yarbl?"
"Well," said Lydia, "I became very tired of the view from my window. Every day, summer and winter, I looked out at the schoolyard and the high fence and the apartment block beyond, and I began to imagine I would die seeing these things, and I didn't want this. I expect you understand what I mean?"
Lev took off his leather cap and ran his fingers through his thick gray hair. He saw Lydia turn to him for a moment and look very seriously into his eyes. He said, "Yes, I understand."
Then there was a silence, while Lydia ate her hard-boiled egg. She chewed very quietly. When she'd finished the egg, Lev said, "My English isn't too bad. I took some classes in Baryn, but my teacher told me my pronunciation wasn't very good. May I say some words and you can tell me if I'm pronouncing them correctly?"
"Yes, of course," said Lydia.
Lev said, "Lovely. Sorry. I am legal. How much, please? Thank you. May you help me?"
"May I help you," corrected Lydia.
"May I help you," repeated Lev.
"Go on," said Lydia.
"Stork," said Lev. "Stork's nest. Rain. I am lost. I wish for an interpreter. Bee-and-bee."
"Be-and-be?" said Lydia. "No, no. You mean 'to be, or not to be.' "
"No," said Lev. "Bee-and-bee. Family hotel, quite cheap."
"Oh yes, I know. B&B."
Lev could now see that darkness was falling outside the window and he thought how, in his village, darkness had always arrived in precisely the same way, from the same direction, above the same trees, whether early or late, whether in summer, winter, or spring, for the whole of his life. This darkness—particular to that place, Auror—was how, in Lev's heart, darkness would always fall.
And so he told Lydia that he came from Auror, had worked in the Baryn sawmill until it closed two years ago, and since then he'd found no work at all, and his family—his mother, his five-year-old daughter, and he—had lived off the money his mother made selling jewelry manufactured from tin.
"Oh," said Lydia. "I think that's very resourceful, to make jewelry from tin."
"Sure," said Lev. "But it isn't enough."
Tucked into his boot was a small flask of vodka. He extracted the flask and took a long swig. Lydia kept eating her rye bread. Lev wiped his mouth with the red handkerchief and saw his face reflected in the coach window. He looked away. Since the death of Marina, he didn't like to catch sight of his own reflection, because what he always saw in it was his own guilt at still being alive.
"Why did the sawmill at Baryn close?" asked Lydia.
"They ran out of trees," said Lev.
"Very bad," said Lydia. "What other work can you do?"
Lev drank again. Someone had told him that in England vodka was too expensive to drink. Immigrants made their own alcohol from potatoes and tap water, and when Lev thought about these industrious immigrants, he imagined them sitting by a coal fire in a tall house, talking and laughing, with rain falling outside the window and red buses going past and a television flickering in a corner of the room. He sighed and said, "I will do any work at all. My daughter, Maya, needs clothes, shoes, books, toys, everything. England is my hope."
Toward ten o'clock, red blankets were given out to the coach passengers, some of whom were already sleeping. Lydia put away the remnants of her meal, covered her body with the blanket, and switched on a fierce little light above her under the baggage rack and began reading a faded old paperback, printed in English. Lev saw that the title of her book was The Power and the Glory. His longing for a cigarette had grown steadily since he'd drunk the vodka and now it was acute. He could feel the yearning in his lungs and in his blood, and his hands grew fidgety and he felt a tremor in his legs. How long before the next gas stop? It could be four or five hours. Everyone on the bus would be asleep by then, except him and one of the two drivers. Only they would keep a lonely, exhausting vigil, the driver's body tensed to the moods and alarms of the dark, unraveling road; his own aching for the comfort of nicotine or oblivion—and getting neither.
He envied Lydia, immersed in her English book. Lev knew he had to distract himself with something. He'd brought with him a book of fables: improbable stories about women who turned into birds during the hours of darkness, and a troop of wild boar that killed and roasted their hunters. But Lev was feeling too agitated to read such fantastical things. In desperation, he took from his wallet a brand-new British twenty-pound note and reached up and switched on his own little reading light and began to examine the note. On one side, the frumpy Queen, E II R, with her diadem, her face gray on a purple ground, and on the other, a man, some personage from the past, with a dark drooping mustache and an angel blowing a trumpet above him and all the angel's radiance falling on him in vertical lines. "The British venerate their history," Lev had been told in his English class, "chiefly because they have never been subjected to Occupation. Only intermittently do they see that some of their past deeds were not good."
The indicated life span of the man on the note was 1857–1934. He looked like a banker, but what had he done to be on a twenty-pound note in the twenty-first century? Lev stared at his determined jaw, squinted at his name written out in a scrawl beneath the wing collar, but couldn't read it. He thought that this was a person who would never have known any other system of being alive but Capitalism. He would have heard the names Hitler and Stalin, but not been afraid—would have had no need to be afraid of anything except a little loss of capital in what Americans called the Crash, when men in New York had jumped out of windows and off roofs. He would have died safely in his bed before London was bombed to ruins, before Europe was torn apart. Right to the end of his days, the angel's radiance had probably shone on this man's brow and on his fusty clothes, because it was known across the world: the English were lucky. Well, thought Lev, I'm going to their country now, and I'm going to make them share it with me: their infernal luck. I've left Auror, and that leaving of my home was hard and bitter, but my time is coming.
Lev was roused from his thoughts by the noise of Lydia's book falling to the floor of the bus, and he looked at her and saw that she'd gone to sleep, and he studied her face with its martyrdom of moles. He put her age at about thirty-nine. She appeared to sleep without travail. He imagined her sitting in some booth with earphones clamped to her mousy hair, buoyant and alert on a relentless tide of simultaneous translation. May you help me, please? No. May I help you.
Lev decided, as the night progressed, to try to remember certain significant cigarettes of the past. He possessed a vibrant imagination. At the Baryn sawmill he'd been known, derogatorily, as a "dreamer." "Life is not for dreaming, Lev," his boss had warned. "Dreaming leads to subversion." But Lev knew that his nature was fragile, easily distracted, easily made joyful or melancholy by the strangest of small things, and that this condition had afflicted his boyhood and his adolescence and had, perhaps, prevented him from getting on as a man. Especially after Marina had gone. Because now her death was with him always, like a shadow on the X-ray of his spirit. Other men might have been able to chase this shadow away—with drink, or with young women, or with the novelty of making money—but Lev hadn't even tried. He knew that forgetting Marina was something he was not yet capable of doing.
All around him on the coach, passengers were dozing. Some lay slumped toward the aisle, their arms hanging loosely down in an attitude of surrender. The air was filled with repetitive sighing. Lev pulled the peak of his cap farther over his face and decided to remember what was always known by him and his mother, Ina, as "the poinsettia miracle," because this was a story that led toward a good ending, toward a smoke as immaculate as love.
Ina was a woman who never allowed herself to care about anything, because, she often said, "What's the point of it, when life takes everything away?" But there were a few things that gave her joy and one of these was the poinsettia. Scarlet-leafed and shaped like a fir, resembling a brilliant man-made artifact more than a living plant, poinsettias excited in Ina a sober admiration, for their unique strangeness, for their seeming permanence in a world of perpetually fading and dying things.
One Sunday morning some years ago, near to Ina's sixty-fifth birthday, Lev had got up very early and cycled twenty-four miles to Yarbl, where flowers and plants were sold in an openair market behind the railway station. It was an almost autumnal day, and on the silent figures setting out their stalls a tender light was falling. Lev smoked and watched from the railway buffet, where he drank coffee and vodka. Then he went out and began to look for poinsettias.
Most of the stuff sold in the Yarbl market was fledgling food: cabbage plants, sunflower seeds, sprouting potatoes, currant bushes, bilberry canes. But more and more people were indulging their half-forgotten taste for decorative, useless things and the sale of flowers was increasing as each year passed.
Poinsettias were always visible from a long way off. Lev walked slowly along, alert for red. The sun shone on his scuffed black shoes. His heart felt strangely light. His mother was going to be sixty-five years old and he would surprise and astonish her by planting a trough of poinsettias on her porch, and in the evenings she would sit and do her knitting and admire them, and neighbors would arrive and congratulate her—on the flowers and on the care her son had taken.
But there were no poinsettias in the market. Up and down Lev trudged, staring bleakly at carrot fern, at onion sets, at plastic bags filled with pig manure and ash.
The great catastrophe of this now announced itself to Lev. So he began again, retracing his steps along the lines of stalls, stopping now and then to badger the stall holders, recognizing that this badgering was accusatory, suggestive of the notion that these people were grays, keeping the red plants out of sight under the trestles, waiting for buyers who offered American dollars or motor parts or drugs.
"I need poinsettias," he heard himself say, like a man parched with thirst or a petulant only child.
"Sorry, comrade," said the market traders. "Only at Christmas."
All he could do was pedal home to Auror. Behind his bicycle he dragged a homemade wooden trailer (built with offcuts poached from the Baryn lumber yard) and the wheels of this trailer squeaked mockingly as the miles passed. The emptiness of Ina's sixty-fifth birthday yawned before Lev like an abandoned mine.
Lev shifted quietly in his seat, trying not to disturb Lydia's sleep. He laid his head on the cool window glass. Then he remembered the sight that had greeted him, like a vision, in some lost village along the road: an old woman dressed in black, sitting silently on a chair in front of her house, with a baby sleeping in a plastic pram by her side. And at her feet a motley of possessions for sale: a gramophone, some scales and weights, an embroidered shawl, a pair of leather bellows. And a barrow of poinsettia plants, their leaves newly tinctured with red.
Lev had wobbled on the bike, wondering if he was dreaming. He put a foot down on the dusty road. "Poinsettias, Grandma, are they?"
"Is that their name? I call them red flags."
He bought them all. The trailer was crammed and heavy. His money was gone.
He hid them under sacks until it was dark, planted them out in Ina's trough under the stars, and stood by them, watching the dawn come up, and when the sun reached them, the red of their leaves intensified in a startling way, as when desert crocuses bloom after rain. And that was when Lev lit a cigarette. He sat down on the steps of Ina's porch and smoked and stared at the poinsettias, and the cigarette was like radiant amber in him, and he smoked it right down to its last centimeter and then put it out, but still kept it pressed into his muddy hand.
Lev slept, after all.
He woke when the coach stopped for gas, somewhere in Austria, he assumed, for the petrol station was large and bright, and in an open bay to one side of it was parked a silent congregation of trucks, with German names written on them, lit by orange sodium light. Freuhof. Bosch. Grunewald. Königstransporte . . .
Lydia was awake, and together she and Lev got off the bus and breathed the cool night air. Lydia pulled a cardigan round her shoulders. Lev looked for dawn in the sky, but could see no sign of it. He lit a cigarette. His hands trembled as he took it in and out of his mouth.
"It's going to be cold in England," said Lydia. "Are you prepared for that?"
Lev thought about his imaginary tall house, with the rain coming down and the television flickering and the red buses going past.
"I don't know," he said.
"When the winter comes," said Lydia, "we're going to be shocked."
"Our own winters are cold," said Lev.
"Yes, but not for so long. In England, I've been told, some winters never quite depart."
"You mean there's no summer?"
"There is summer. But you don't feel it in your blood."
Other passengers from the coach were now wandering around the gas station. Some were making visits to the washrooms. Others just stood about, as Lev and Lydia were doing, shivering a little, onlookers unsure what they were looking at, arrivals who had not yet arrived, everybody in transit and uncertain what time their watches should be telling. Behind the area where the trucks were parked lay a deep, impenetrable darkness of trees.
Lev had a sudden desire to send a postcard from this place to his daughter, Maya, to describe this night limbo to her: the sodium sky, the trees unmoving, the glare of the pay station, the people like people in an art gallery, helpless before the unexplained exhibits. But Maya was too young to understand any of this. She was only five. When morning came, she would take Ina's hand and walk to school. For her lunch, she would eat cold sausage and poppy-seed bread. When she came home, Ina would give her goat's milk with cinnamon in a yellow glass and raisin cakes and rose-petal jam. She would do her homework at the kitchen table, then go out into the main street of Auror and look for her friends, and they would play with the goats and chickens in the dust.
"I miss my daughter already," Lev said to Lydia.
By the time the coach crossed the border between Germany and Holland, Lev had surrendered himself to it: to his own small space by the window; to the eternal hum of the air conditioning; to the quiet presence of Lydia, who offered him eggs and dried fruit and pieces of chocolate; to the smell and voices of the other passengers; to the chemical odor of the on-board lavatory; to the feeling of moving slowly across wide distances, but moving always forward and on.
Watching the flat fields and the shimmering poplars, the canals and windmills and villages and grazing animals of the Netherlands going past, Lev felt so peaceful and quiet that it was as if the bus had become his life and he would never be asked to stir from the inertia of this bus life ever again. He began to wish Europe were larger, so that he could linger over its scenery for days and days to come, until something in him altered, until he got bored with hard-boiled eggs and the sight of cattle in green pastures and he rediscovered the will to arrive at his destination.
He knew his growing apathy was dangerous. He began to wish that his best friend, Rudi, was with him. Rudi never surrendered to anything, and he wouldn't have surrendered to the opium of the passing miles. Rudi fought a pitched battle with life through every waking hour. "Life is just a system," Rudi often reminded Lev. "All that matters is cracking the system." In his sleep, Rudi's body lay crouched, with his fists bunched in front of his chest, like a boxer's. When he woke, he sprang and kicked away the bedclothes. His wild dark hair gleamed with its own invincible shine. He loved vodka and cinema and football. He dreamed of owning what he called a "serious car." In the bus, Rudi would have sung songs and danced folk dances in the aisle and traded goods with other passengers. He would have resisted.
Like Lev, Rudi was a chain-smoker. Once, after the sawmill closed, they'd made a smoke-filled journey together to the distant city of Glic, in the deep, purple cold of winter, when the sun hung low among the bones of trees and ice gleamed like a diamond coating on the railway lines, and Rudi's pockets were stashed with gray money, and in his suitcase lay eleven bottles of vodka, cradled in straw.
Rumors of an American car, a Chevrolet Phoenix, for sale in Glic had reached Rudi in Auror. Rudi lovingly described this car as a "Tchevi." He said it was blue with white and chrome trim and had only done two hundred and forty thousand miles, and he was going to travel to Glic and see it, and if he could beat the owner down on the price, he was going to damn well buy it and drive it home. The fact that Rudi had never driven a car before didn't worry him at all. "Why should it?" he said to Lev. "I drove a heavy-lifting vehicle at the sawmill every day of my fucking life. Driving is driving. And with American cars you don't even have to worry about gears. You just slam the stick into the 'D-for-drive' position and take off."
The train was hot, with a fat heating pipe running directly under the seats. Lev and Rudi had a carriage to themselves. They piled their sheepskin coats and fur hats into the luggage rack and opened the vodka suitcase and played music on a tiny, shrieking radio, small as a rat. The hot vodka fug of the carriage was beautiful and wild. They soon felt as reckless as mercenaries. When the ticket collector came round, they embraced him on both cheeks.
At Glic, they stepped out into a snow blizzard, but their blood was still hot and so the snow seemed delectable to them, like the caress of a young girl's hand on their faces, and they stumbled through the streets laughing. But by then the night was coming down and Rudi announced, "I'm not looking at the Tchevi in the fucking dark. I want to see it gleaming." So they stopped at the first frugal guesthouse they found and sated their hunger with bowls of goulash and dumplings, and went to sleep in a narrow room that smelled of mothballs and linoleum polish, and never stirred till morning.
The sun was up in a clear blue sky when Lev and Rudi found their way to the Tchevi owner's building. The snow all around them was thick and clean. And there it was, parked alone on the dingy street, under a solitary linden tree, the full extraordinary length and bulk of it, an ancient sky-blue Chevrolet Phoenix with white fins and shining chrome trim; and Rudi fell to his knees. "That's my girl," he said. "That's my baby!"
It had its imperfections. On the driver's door, one hinge had rusted away. The rubber windshield-wiper blades had perished to almost nothing in successive cold winters. All four tires were worn. The radio didn't work.
Lev watched Rudi hesitate. He walked round and round the car, trailing his hand over the bodywork, scooping snow from the roof, examining the wiper blades, kicking the tires, opening and closing the defective door. Then he looked up and said, "I'll take her." After that, he began to haggle, but the owner understood how great was Rudi's longing for the car and refused to lower his price by more than a fraction. The Tchevi cost Rudi everything he had with him, including his sheepskin coat and his fur hat and five of the eight bottles of vodka remaining in the suitcase. The owner was a professor of mathematics.
"I wonder what you're thinking about?" asked a voice. And it was Lydia, pausing suddenly in her new task, which was knitting.
Lev stared at her. He thought it was a long time since anybody had asked him this. Or perhaps nobody had ever asked him, because Marina had always seemed to know what was in his mind and tried to accommodate what she found there.
"Well," said Lev, "I was thinking about my friend Rudi and the time when I went with him to Glic to buy an American car."
"Oh," said Lydia. "He's rich, then, your friend Rudi?"
"No," said Lev. "Or never for long. But he likes to trade."
"Trading is so bad," said Lydia, with a sniff. "We shall never make progress as long as there is gray
- On Sale
- Aug 26, 2008
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little, Brown and Company