Wednesday 11 January 2017

The First

Richard Hough

espresso, extra shot 

I never knew her name though her face haunts me still. When I entered the waiting room at Winchester’s railway station, she was already there, sitting alone, staring into the past. The first thing I noticed about her was those beautiful, sapphire-blue eyes. Even in my student days, when Frankie was telling us to Relax and Band Aid was wondering if “they” knew it was Christmas, I was attracted by a woman’s eyes above any other physical feature; it was what initially drew me to my wife some ten years after this brief encounter.
Closing the door to keep out the fumes of passing diesel trains, I tried to avoid any awkwardness by greeting the stranger with a cheery “hello!”
A sad, wizened face turned towards me and I was immediately reminded of my boyhood neighbour who constantly complained about me and made my life a misery. How I hated that old hag. This traveller dourly returned my greeting.
“Goot evenink,” she murmured. It was then I saw something, deep within those eyes. Torment was present; heartache perhaps for a lost lover? No, that wasn’t it. It was pain of a much different kind.
Having been raised in Birmingham, I was used to meeting people from different ethnic
 backgrounds. Many were, for example, immigrants from India and Pakistan. My closest
boyhood friend was of Afro-Caribbean origin but I had never encountered anyone with an
 accent such as this stranger possessed. I seized upon the novelty to strike up a conversation 
which would have such a lasting impact on the rest of my life.
After we had exchanged the usual pleasantries concerning the weather and interminable delays to the Sunday train timetables, I grew a little braver.
“Excuse me for being rude but I’m guessing you aren’t local. May I ask where you’re from?”
“I am Russian but I haf lived in Enkland for many years.”
Being inquisitive, I wanted to know more about her homeland.
“How olt are you?” she demanded, those sorrowful eyes looking into mine. I replied I was to remain a teenager for just a few weeks more.
She explained when she was my age she lived in abject poverty in Petrograd, the Russian capital at the time. Her father had gone off to fight Germany but the superior fire power of the German army had proved too much for her countrymen whose morale was already low. Many Russians were killed, her own father never returning from the war. Csar Nicholas II (she almost spat the name) lived in luxury whilst she and so many ordinary people went hungry. The people in the capital city of this huge country had virtually nothing to eat, even bread being in short supply. Their leader was weak; all he could do was to keep dissolving parliament, each time to little or no effect.
The winters were always cold and harsh and eventually people took to the streets in anger and frustration. As those steely eyes stared into mine, a tear formed. Her ageing, husky voice almost faltered as she explained why she had joined that awful revolution. She had seen so many terrible things in March 1917. Men did such awful things to each other, things which surely no deity could reasonably forgive. Worse followed until even soldiers eventually deserted their leader.
As a young, hungry woman who had lost her father and had younger siblings to help feed, this tormented soul had joined the forces of rebellion. The horrors she had only previously witnessed from afar, she became guilty of committing herself. Those same atrocities she had condemned before hunger had consumed her sense of morality. She forfeited her eternal soul to help replace one form of tyranny with another and it was the futility of this which distressed her most, a view she readily voiced.
Even now she was elderly she still could not forget the abhorrence of those times. They haunted her dreams but worse, they pursued her wherever she went. Her people, she said, sacrificed so much for nothing more than endless years of new horrors. She prayed daily her countrymen would once again be at liberty.
As the tears came more freely from those tired, angst-ridden eyes, this stranger whom I suddenly knew so well, implored me to enjoy my freedom and live without hatred. I knew I could help her end the nightmares.                                                  
I often relive every detail of that evening wondering if the woman, whose name I never asked, found peace when I closed her eyes for the last time. Since then I have supplied an end to many other stories but this is the one I remember most, my first.

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