Authors: Kerstin Gier
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It’s always nice to dream with you.
What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
THE DOG WAS SNUFFLING
at my bag. For a drug-tracking dog it was a surprisingly fluffy specimen, like a golden retriever, and I was just going to tickle it behind the ears when it bared its teeth and uttered a threatening “Woof!” Then it sat down and pressed its nose hard against the side of my bag. The customs officer seemed to be as surprised as I was. He looked twice from the dog to me and back again before reaching for the bag and saying, “Okay, then, let’s see what our Amber’s found in there.”
Oh, great. Less than half an hour on British soil, and I was already under suspicion of drug smuggling. The genuine smugglers in the line behind me probably couldn’t believe their luck. Thanks to me, they could stroll through the barrier at their leisure, with their Swiss watches and designer drugs. What customs man in his right mind was going to pick a fifteen-year-old girl with a ponytail out of the line, instead, for instance, of that nervous-looking guy with the shifty expression back there? Or the suspiciously pale boy with tousled hair on the plane who had gone to sleep before we even reached the runway to take off? No wonder he was grinning so gleefully. His pockets were probably stuffed full of illegal sleeping pills.
But I decided not to let myself get upset. Beyond the barrier, after all, a wonderful new life was waiting for us, with exactly the home we’d always dreamed of.
I cast a reassuring glance at my little sister, Mia, who had already reached the barrier and was bobbing impatiently up and down on the balls of her feet. This was only the last hurdle standing between us and the aforesaid wonderful new life. Everything was okay. The flight had gone smoothly, no turbulence, so Mia didn’t have to throw up, and for once I hadn’t been sitting next to a fat man stinking of beer and competing with me for the armrest. And although, as usual, Papa had booked us on one of those cheapo airlines, the plane hadn’t run out of fuel when we had to circle above Heathrow while we waited to land. There’d also been that good-looking dark-haired boy in the row in front of me on the other side of the plane, who turned around to smile at me remarkably often. I’d been at the point of saying something to him, but then I’d seen he was leafing through a magazine for football fans, moving his lips as he read, so I hadn’t. The same boy, incidentally, was now staring rather curiously at my bag. In fact, everyone was staring curiously at my bag.
Wide-eyed, I looked at the customs man and smiled my very nicest smile. “Please … we’re in such a hurry, the plane came in late, and we were waiting for ages at baggage collection. And my mom is waiting out there to meet my little sister and me. I promise, word of honor, there’s nothing in my bag but dirty laundry and…” At that exact moment I remembered what else was in the bag, so I fell silent for a second. “Well, anyway, there aren’t any drugs in it,” I finished in a rather subdued voice, looking reproachfully at the dog. Stupid animal!
The customs man, unmoved, heaved the bag up onto a table. A colleague of his unzipped it and folded back the top. Everyone standing around probably realized instantly what the dog had smelled. Because, to be honest, it didn’t really take a dog’s sensitive nose to place it.
“What in hell…?” asked the customs man, and his colleague held his nose while he began clearing my clothes to one side with his fingertips. It must have looked to the spectators as if it was my things that stank to high heaven.
“Cheese from the Entlebuch Biosphere reserve in Switzerland,” I explained as my face probably turned much the same color as the burgundy bra that the man was inspecting. “Five and a half pounds of unpasteurized Swiss cheese.” Although I didn’t remember it smelling quite so bad. “Tastes better than it smells—honest.”
The silly dog, Amber, shook herself. I heard people chuckling, and you could bet the genuine smugglers were rubbing their hands together with glee. I thought I’d rather not know what the good-looking dark-haired boy was doing. Probably just feeling thankful that he hadn’t asked me for my phone number.
“That’s what I call a brilliant hiding place for drugs,” said someone behind us, and I looked at Mia and sighed heavily. Mia sighed too. We really were in a hurry.
However, it was naïve of us to think that only the cheese still stood between us and our wonderful new life—in fact, the cheese just lengthened the period of time during which we firmly believed we did have a wonderful new life ahead of us.
Most girls probably dream of other things, but Mia and I wished for nothing more fervently than a real home. One we’d stay in for longer than a year. With a room for each of us.
This was our sixth move in eight years, meaning six different countries on four different continents, starting at a new school six times, making new friends six times, saying good-bye to them six times. We were experts at packing and unpacking, we kept our personal possessions to a minimum, and it’s easy to guess why neither of us played the piano.
Mom was a professor of literary studies (with two doctoral degrees), and almost every year she held a post as a lecturer at a different university. We’d been living in Pretoria until June, and before that we’d lived in Utrecht, Berkeley, Hyderabad, Edinburgh, and Munich. Our parents had divorced seven years ago. Papa was an engineer and as restless as Mom, meaning he went to live in different places just as often. So we couldn’t even spend our summer vacations at one and the same place; it always had to be wherever Papa was working at the time. Right now he was working in Zurich, so this last vacation had been comparatively good (several trips to the mountains of Switzerland and a visit to the biosphere, home of the cheese), but unfortunately not all the places where we’d happened to find ourselves were as nice as that.
Lottie, our au pair, sometimes said we ought to be grateful that our parents’ work meant we saw so much of the world, except, to be honest, once you’ve spent a summer on the outskirts of an industrial area of Bratislava, it’s easy to keep your gratitude within bounds.
Starting this fall, Mom would be teaching at Magdalen College, Oxford, fulfilling a great dream of hers. She’d wished for a teaching post at the University of Oxford for decades. And the little eighteenth-century cottage she’d rented just outside the city fulfilled a dream of our own. We were going to settle down at last and have a real home. In photos the house had looked romantic and comfortable, and as if it were full of wonderful, scary mysteries from the cellar to the attic. There was a large garden, with old trees and a summerhouse, and from the second-floor windows you had a view right down to the Thames, at least in winter. Lottie was planning to grow vegetables, make her own jam, and join the Women’s Institute. Mia wanted to build a tree house, get a rowboat, and tame an owl, and I dreamed of finding a chest full of old letters in the attic and solving all the cottage’s mysteries. We also definitely wanted to hang a swing in one of the trees—a swing made out of a rusty old iron bedstead where you could lie and look up at the sky. And we were going to have a real English picnic at least every other day, and the house would smell of Lottie’s homemade cookies. Maybe of cheese fondue as well, because the customs officers had chopped our nice Entlebuch Biosphere cheese into such tiny little pieces that there was nothing else to be done with it.
When we finally got out of customs and into the main arrivals hall of the airport (incidentally, it turned out that there was no law against bringing a few pounds of cheese into Great Britain for one’s personal use), it took Mom less than a minute to pop our dream of English country life like a soap bubble.
“There’s been a slight change of plan, mousies,” she told us after we’d all hugged and said hello, and in spite of her radiant smile, you could see her guilty conscience written all over her face.
Behind her, a man was approaching with an empty baggage cart, and without looking closely, I knew who he was: the change of plan in person.
“I hate changes of plan,” muttered Mia.
Mom was still smiling for all she was worth. “You’ll love this one,” she said, untruthfully. “Welcome to London, the most exciting city in the world!”
“Welcome home,” said Mr. Change of Plan in a deep, warm voice, heaving our bags up into the cart.
I hated changes of plan too, from the bottom of my heart.
ON OUR FIRST NIGHT
in London I dreamed of Hansel and Gretel. Or, to be precise, I dreamed that Mia and I were Hansel and Gretel and Mom had taken us into the forest and left us there. “It’s for your own good!” she said before she disappeared among the trees. Poor little Hansel and I wandered helplessly around until we came to a mysterious gingerbread house. Luckily I woke up before the wicked witch came out of it, but I felt only a second of relief, and it occurred to me that my dream wasn’t all that far from the truth. Mom had said, “It’s for your own good!” about seventeen times yesterday. I was still so furious with her that I felt like grinding my teeth nonstop.
I did realize that even people over forty have a right to a full and satisfactory love life, but couldn’t she have waited until we were grown up? A few years weren’t going to make much difference to her now. And if she absolutely had to spend time with Mr. Change of Plan, wouldn’t a weekend relationship be enough for her? Did she have to turn our whole life upside down? Couldn’t she at least have asked us?
Mr. Change of Plan’s real name, incidentally, was Ernest Spencer, and he had driven us here in his car last night, making conversation all the time in such a cheerful, casual way, you’d have thought he didn’t even notice that Mia and I were so disappointed and furious that we were fighting back tears and didn’t say a word. (And it was a long drive from the airport into the city.) Not until Ernest was taking our baggage out of the trunk of the car did Mia get her voice back.