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Authors: Sally Quilford

Anna's Return

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Anna’s Return

Copyright © Sally
Quilford 2011 – All Rights Reserved

 

Anna’s Return

Chapter One

Janek estimated that the little girl could not have been
more than eight years old, yet she seemed to be alone. She sat opposite him on
the train, staring out of the window with sad blue eyes. Occasionally her head
turned slightly and she and stole a glance at him. She clutched a small satchel
in her hand, and under her seat was a suitcase that was almost as big as her.

He supposed he must look very frightening to her. Weeks
without proper food had left him very thin. He did not want to scare her, but
the reason he sat in that carriage was because he thought there was less chance
of her trying to strike up a conversation with him than if she had been an
adult. He spoke English, but that would not get him very far if anyone on the
train was a collaborator. Once they were out of the Ardennes he might be safe,
unless the Germans advanced even further south.

The little girl spoke, startling him. As she spoke in
French, he had no idea what she said, but when he looked at her, the meaning
was clear. She had opened her satchel and taken out some bread and cheese, both
of which she broke in half. She was offering him food. Experience had made him
suspicious, so he ignored her at first.

As if she understood his reluctance, she reached over and
put the food on the seat beside him, before tucking into her own. He murmured,
‘Merci’ which was the only French he knew, and even then he did not think he pronounced
it correctly. It was all he could do not to eat the food ravenously, but he
knew that would give him away. So despite the pain in his belly, he ate slowly.

“Do you speak English?” she whispered in that language,
looking around just in case anyone stood nearby.

“Yes,” he said.

“You are not French?”

“No.”

She moved seats and sat next to him. Instinctively Janek
moved back. He had become wary of human contact. “Are you a German?”

“No.”

“I won’t tell on you, I promise. I’m on the run too. My name
is Anna.” She spoke English without the trace of an accent.

“Janek,” he said, under his breath, pronouncing it Yanek. He
swallowed the last piece of cheese, wishing he could eat it all over again.
When Anna held out her remaining food to him, he shook his head, despite his
tummy groaning in disagreement. “Who are you running from, Anna?”

She ignored his question. “It’s all right, Janek, I’m not
very hungry.”

He felt ashamed that it didn’t take much persuasion for him
to eat the rest of her food. “Mama is dead now, and my step-father does not
want me. So I am going to my father in England. He is a Lord. Or a knight. I
forget which, but before she died mama told me where to find him. She was a Russian
ballerina, so he couldn’t marry her. I don’t really understand why that is. I
mean, if people love each other, they should be able to get married no matter what
other people say.” Her voice dropped even lower, to a confessional murmur. “Mama
hid some money for me to use to get away. Step-Father didn’t know about it. I’m
afraid he would be angry if he knew. He might accuse me of stealing.”

“You’re away from him now, Anna. Don’t worry anymore.
Besides it was your money if your mama left it for you.”

She nodded. “That’s true. Your English is very good.”

“My father owned a hotel in Poland and before the Germans
invaded, we had a lot of English visitors. I learned from them. I used to very
much enjoy talking to them.” He also made some English friends, and his hope
was that when he reached England they might help him somehow.

“Where is your family now?”

“The Germans took them away.” He did not have to say
anymore, not even to a child. Everyone in Europe knew about the camps, even if
the rest of the world were either ignorant of their existence or chose to
ignore them. “My father gave me money, but most of it has gone on transport. I
did not want to leave him but he said that one of us needed to survive, to tell
the truth about what happened.” Janek still carried the weight of the guilt he
felt on parting from his family.

“I’m sorry.” Anna slipped her little hand in his. The
child’s sympathy touched him deeply. It had been a long time since anyone
treated him kindly.

“So have you travelled all the way from Russia?” It felt
easier to ask her questions than to answer them.

“Oh no. From Germany. I could have gone to Russia, but Mama
said that although it’s beautiful, it isn’t a nice place to live because of the
government.”

“You managed to get out of Germany? How?”

“I don’t know really. I just did. It was much easier than I
thought. Sometimes if I saw a family, I stayed near them, so that guards would
think I was with them. And I am very little, as you can see, so I was often
able to lose myself in crowds.”

“You should not be alone, Anna.”

 “Mama always said I’m very grown up for my age. I’m ten
even though I know I look younger. And you’re not that much older than me, yet you’re
alone.”

Janek supposed he must look younger, given that there was
very little meat on his bones nowadays. “I am eighteen. Old enough to take care
of myself. I am going to England to join the Polish forces there, so I can
fight for my country.”

“Perhaps we could take care of each other. Until we get to
England. I have some money for food and to pay for a boat.” There was something
pathetically hopeful about the way she spoke, and a slight tremor entered her
voice. Despite her bravado, she was very much a child, all alone in the world.

Janek shook his head. “I travel alone, Anna. I cannot be
responsible for anyone else. Certainly not a child.”

“Do you have any younger brothers and sisters?”

“I had a younger brother, yes. But he died several years
ago. I see now it was a blessing.”

“If he hadn’t died would you have escaped with him? Or left
him behind?”

Janek did not know how to answer that question. “I am
grateful for the food, but do not look to me to be your saviour.” He grieved
for the boy he had become. A year or two before he would not even have
considered leaving a child in distress, family or not. But since he had
escaped, he thought only of how he could keep moving and not be slowed down in
his quest to reach freedom.

Anna moved back to her own side of the carriage, and once
again stared out of the window. He could see the beginnings of tears in her
eyes and sensed how hard she was fighting to hide them from him. He felt like every
kind of monster, abandoning her, but she would possibly be safer alone than
with him. As a child she could blend in with the crowd, in the ways she said.
With him, looking the way he did, they would both stand out more.

The guard came along for the tickets. Janek was familiar
with the command to see tickets, but was not prepared when the guard to fire
more questions at him in rapid French. As he stared aghast, afraid that he
would be exposed at any moment, Anna started talking to the guard in equally
rapid, perfectly accented French, her eyes flashing angrily. Had she betrayed
him? Only then did it occur to Janek that she might be a young collaborator.
There had been plenty in Poland, children forced into it by fear and hunger. Or
perhaps she was angry with him for not helping her to reach England and was
getting her revenge that way. The moments that she spoke to the guard seemed to
last for an epoch.

When the guard shrugged and left the carriage, Janek waited
for him to return with the police.

“Don’t worry,” said Anna, pushing the door shut before
sitting back down. “I’ve told him that you’re my servant and that you’re deaf
and dumb, so can’t answer him.”

“And he believed you?”

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry to say that you look like a
peasant at the moment, and you were staring at him rather dumbly.  Besides, no
one would expect a well brought up child like me to travel alone.” She paused
for a beat. “But you don’t owe me anything for doing it.”

“Anna, believe it or not, you are probably safer alone.”

“Yes. You’re right. I am. We’ll say no more of it.”

“Thank you. For the food and for not betraying me.”

It was some time later when Janek noticed a change in the
speed of the train. It was going faster, and when they reached a junction,
instead of going straight on, as it should have done, it moved onto another
track.

“They are diverting the train,” he said. Anna, who had been
dozing, opened her eyes. “Why are they doing that?”

“Do you think the guard didn’t believe my story?” she asked.

“They would not divert a train for one escaped Pole. They
would just have police waiting at the station. I think ... I think the brakes
have gone.”

Outside the train screeched along the track. “Anna, get onto
the floor, quickly.” Janek caught her arm and pulled her down, throwing himself
over her as the train finally made contact with something – perhaps a buffer on
that line – and the carriages started to buckle and bend, sliding from the
track, as metal hit metal, and the frightened screams of the passengers could
be heard above it all.

When Janek finally got outside, having climbed out through
the carriage window, he saw that some of the carriages had rolled over. People
were yelling and crying. He knew he should run. In a short time the area would
be teeming with the authorities. He climbed down the embankment and was halfway
across the field when he remembered Anna. He had left her in the carriage. What
would happen to her if it the guards found out she was alone? Everything inside
him cried out that she was not his responsibility. He had his own life to save,
so that he could fight for his country.

But what if she was hurt? Or worse still, what if they sent
her to the camps? She was not a Jew or a Pole, but she was Anglo-Russian. Russia
had not yet declared war on Germany, but England had. He was not sure what
happened to English Prisoners of War, or whether her German step-father could
save her. Assuming he even tried. All Janek knew was that if he left her to her
fate, he would be seeing her face every time he closed his eyes. He could not
become that person, no matter how much his brain told him he should be. His
heart disagreed, telling him that if he left a child to suffer, he would live
with the guilt the rest of his life. Nothing he did after that time would mean
anything, no matter how bravely he fought the war.

He turned and ran back to the train, where everything was
still in chaos. At first he lost his bearings, unsure which window he had climbed
down from. Then he saw her, sitting on the embankment, sobbing quietly, looking
even younger than ever.  People rushed around her, but not one person stopped
to help.

Someone had to take care of her, and whilst all his common
sense told him to leave her there, his conscience would not allow it. He had
seen many unpleasant things since leaving Poland. He would not give himself
entirely up to the horror by abandoning a little girl who had shown him
kindness. Perhaps by saving her he could salvage something of the boy he used
to be.

“Anna!” He rushed to her and held out his hand, which she
took gratefully. “It is alright, little one. Come with me. I will take care of
you.”

 

Chapter Two

“I think this is the place,” said Anna. They had arrived in
southern England the night before, sleeping in the station waiting room before
getting the train to Surrey. Although exhausted, they still had to walk some
five miles from the local station. Anna had very little money left, so they
were both very tired and very hungry. “My father is Sir Lionel Silverton, and
this is Silverton Hall.”

It was certainly impressive. A Georgian Manor in the
leafiest part of Surrey. Janek had read about such places from his English
friends, but had never seen them. He wished he had time to admire it, but there
were more important things to do.

“I will leave you here,” said Janek when they reached the
gatehouse. “I must get to London.”

“No!” Anna grabbed his arm. “Please come in with me and help
me explain, Janek. I won’t know what to say.”

“You always know what to say, Anna. You are better at being
on the run than I am. You speak Russian, French and English, whereas I speak
only Polish and not very good English.”

“Please...”

“I will come to the door, but I cannot stay. We agreed,
remember?”

“Yes, I know,” she said, glumly. “We go as far as England
together, then separate. I wish we didn’t have to though. You’re the only
friend I have.”

“That will change when you meet your father.” Janek was not
as certain of that as he pretended. It was only as they neared the front door
that he began to question if Sir Lionel even knew he had a daughter. What if Anna’s
mother had lied? Anna’s real father might be someone else entirely. It would
leave the child in an impossible situation. Then she might become his
responsibility. But that would not happen. He was sure there were societies and
other places in Britain that looked after children. He would help her to find
one of those.

They approached the house hand in hand, Janek becoming
acutely aware of how shabby they must both look. Anna had been forced to leave
her suitcase behind on the crashed train, and he only had the clothes in which
he stood.

A homely looking woman in her thirties answered the door.
She introduced herself as Mrs Palmer.

“I am Anna, Sir Lionel’s daughter. And this is my friend,
Janek.”

“Sir Lionel’s daughter? Not the little Russian girl?” said
Mrs. Palmer. Her face broke into a warm-hearted smile. “Well, I never. I met
your mother when she came to London to dance. You are just as pretty as she is,
with that lovely black hair and those blue eyes. And she had wonderful
cheekbones. I’m sure you’ll get those as you get older.” Mrs. Palmer paused for
breath. “Oh listen to me prattling on and you’ll want to be seeing your father,
won’t you? I’ll go and tell Sir Lionel.”

Janek guessed he was not the only one breathing a sigh of
relief. At least Anna’s parentage was not in question.

Five minutes later, Sir Lionel came to the hall, accompanied
by a young woman in her late twenties. She was rather overblown looking, with
peroxide blonde hair and blood red lipstick. At first Janek thought she must be
another daughter.

“I am Sir Lionel Silverton and this is my wife, Geraldine.
Who did you say you were?” Sir Lionel looked them both up and down, with
distaste in his eyes.

“I’m your daughter, Anna.”

“Natalia’s girl? Well, this is a turn up for the books.” His
welcome was nowhere near as warm as Mrs Palmer’s, but at least he was not
unfriendly. “Where is your mother?”

“She’s dead ... sir...” Anna clutched Janek’s hand, and he
understood she was overwhelmed by the grandness of the house and of the man
standing before her. “I escaped from Germany, with my friend Janek. He saved me
from a train crash. May I stay with you?”

Sir Lionel looked a little taken aback. He turned to his
wife, who Janek saw imperceptibly shake her head. He wondered if Anna had
noticed. Probably. She was a perceptive child, and easily picked up on the
subtle nuances of body language. Her hand gripping his tighter still told him
that she had seen it.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” said Sir Lionel. “As I’ve
told you, Anna, I’m married now, and to be frank, your appearance here is rather
uncomfortable. I’m afraid you and your friend Janek will have to go elsewhere.
There’s no one to take responsibility for you here. I’ll give you both some
money...”

“Just one minute...” Janek stepped forward, speaking
angrily. It was not just so that he could free himself of responsibility to
Anna. If he had to keep taking care of her so be it. But he would do his best
to ensure this man understood his obligations first. “I want nothing from you,
sir. But Anna, she is your daughter. Your responsibility. And I will not leave
here until I have your assurance that she has somewhere safe to live.”

“We don’t want her,” said Geraldine, speaking for the first
time. “Take her away.”

“I’ll take responsibility for her, sir.” No one had seen Mrs
Palmer come back to the hallway. “Excuse me for speaking out of turn, sir, it
wouldn’t be right to leave the poor little thing to fend for herself during
wartime. Not after her mother meant so much to you.” Mrs Palmer glanced at
Geraldine defiantly, clearing reminding Sir Lionel’s wife of things she would
rather forget. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep her out of yours and Lady Silverton’s
way.”

“Yes,” said Geraldine. “Bring her up with the servants.”

“She is not a servant,” said Janek. “She is a well-brought
up, intelligent young lady, and she should be treated as such.”

“It’s alright, Janek,” said Anna. She looked up at him with
tearstained eyes. “I’ll stay with Mrs Palmer. I like her better anyway.” She
turned to her father. “Janek needs money to get to London. And for food.”

“Anna...” Janek protested. Over the weeks they had travelled
together, her directness had amused him. Now it embarrassed him, even though he
knew she meant well.

“Yes, you do. I’d be dead if not for you.”

Looking around the hall, Janek had the sad impression that
for at least two people there, that would not have been such a bad thing. He
hated leaving her in this place, but he was heartened by believing that the
doughty Mrs Palmer would fight for her.

“I’ll give you five pounds,” said Sir Lionel. “That should
be enough. What are your plans?”

“I intend to join the Polish forces in Britain, sir, and
fight for my country.”

“Good man. Mrs Palmer, why don’t you give erm...?”

“Janek,” said Anna. “Janek Dabrowski.”

“Yes, Mr. Dabrowski. Give him some food before he leaves.”

“Is that really necessary, Lionel?” said Geraldine, folding
her arms and tapping her foot on the floor. “You’re giving him money and food,
when all he’s brought us is trouble.”

“Despite what you think, Geraldine,” said Sir Lionel,
through gritted teeth, “I still like to believe I’m master in my own house.”

“Of course, darling. Of course. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to
be such a grouch. It’s just that when you told me about her I didn’t expect
we’d have to bring her up.”

Sir Lionel did not answer. He walked away without saying a
word to anyone.

An hour later, Janek was walking down the drive with money
in his pocket and some food that Mrs Palmer had insisted on packing for him.
“Don’t worry, dear,” she said, “I know a man who can get butter and cheese on
the black market. Sir Lionel doesn’t mind as long as his table is
well-stocked.”

“Janek!” Anna ran after him, and when he turned, she flung
herself into his arms. “Please don’t forget me, Janek.”

“I won’t forget you. Hey, you saved my life.”

“Promise me that when the war is over, you’ll come back. We
can live as brother and sister. Say you will, Janek. You’re my only friend.”

“Yes, I’ll come back and we can be brother and sister.”

“I love you, Janek.”

“Take care, little one.”

He had believed it would be very easy to relinquish
responsibility for her. After all, he had only saved her to salve his own
conscience, and he could tell himself without a stain on his conscience he had succeeded
in that aim. But as he walked away, leaving her in a home where she would not
be loved or appreciated, and knowing that he had lied about returning for her
one day, he felt a lump in his throat and tears stinging his eyes.

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