First Prize 2019 – A Long Way from Home by Clare Reddaway


A LONG WAY FROM HOME

Lily hugged her bundle close to her chest. The lane was crowded, and she was being jostled and pushed. If she wasn’t careful it would be damaged. Elbows sharp, she shoved her way towards a doorway. The brick walls that lined the lane were four storeys high, casting the street into deep shadow. Lily leant against the wall and took a breath. That smell! Of sewers and rotting vegetables, overlaid with the tang of soy sauce and something sweet she couldn’t identify. A man stumbled into her. He backed off, bowing and smiling. His feet were bare and his jacket faded and worn. A rickshaw pushed through the crowds, the driver shouting hoarsely for space. He was gaunt, but the sinews on his arms were so prominent he reminded Lily of an anatomical drawing. Except he had skin. His passenger was a European woman wearing a long silk coat the colour of raspberries and a wide brimmed hat embellished with an ostrich feather. She was fanning herself against the heat. She saw Lily. The woman’s eyes slid over her without a pause, as they did over the outstretched hand of the opium addict and the piles of rags that covered the sleeping beggar.

Lily had had a coat exactly that colour. She was wearing it the day she burst into the drawing room of her parent’s Viennese town house, to tell her father the good news.

“You must come with us,” she had begged her father.

“How can I?” he’d said, pacing up and down. “And why should I go? This is my home.”

Her mother had wanted to join them. She was frightened. She read the news from Germany. But she couldn’t – wouldn’t – leave her husband and he had refused to listen.

“They won’t touch me, I am an important member of the community, they will remember that. And where you’re going….” Lily’s father shook his head. “I’m not sure that it is preferable.”

“Please don’t listen to him,” Lily’s husband Otto had held her hands tightly. Otto had been pushing for them to leave for months. By the time that Lily agreed there were few opportunities left. They had queued for hours outside the Embassies and Consulates of country after country, but everywhere the diplomats shook their heads. They were very sorry, they said, but the quotas were full. It was only China that was letting in the Jews. Lily and Otto had hugged and kissed and cried tears of relief when they got their visas.

“We’re on our way,” Lily told her father. “To the Paris of the East! To Shanghai!”

From where she was standing Lily didn’t think that Shanghai was much like Paris. Well, not the Paris that she knew anyway. It was crowded and filthy, alien and frightening. Her legs were swollen and her head was beginning to swim in the heat. She mustn’t stay slumped against the wall. If she sank down onto the ground she might never get up. She must carry on. Wearily, she braced her shoulders, stepped back into the crowd, and headed out of the alley.

Otto had fallen sick on the ship. They were steaming through the Red Sea when he first came down with a fever. Lily sold her ruby pendant to pay the doctor, but Otto continued to deteriorate. By the time they docked in Shanghai the only piece of jewellery Lily had left was her wedding ring. Otto was weak but he managed to walk down the gangplank. He said he felt safe for the first time for years. She wasn’t so sure.

When Lily arrived at Hongkou Road it was already crowded. The street was lined with tiny shops selling everything from wooden spoons to red silk wedding outfits. On the pavements in front of the shops were stalls, often just a sheet on the ground displaying one or two carefully laid out items. Lily picked her way past. Here was a silver teapot with an ivory handle. There was a mahogany box in the shape of a grand piano, which, if you pressed a button, played Strauss’s Blue Danube. Next to it were seven silver forks, their handles inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Here was an entire dinner service of Dresden china, including two soup tureens and twelve coffee cups, their handles noodle-thin. Lily paused. How had someone managed to transport a dinner service all the way from Europe, unbroken? She glanced at the woman standing beside the sheet. She was older than Lily, in her forties. Her shoes were expensive, but scuffed and Lily knew she would feel every piece of grit through the soles. Her face was lined, her hair covered with a scarf, her eyes – Lily couldn’t look at her eyes. She hurried on.

Lily found a space between a man selling a carriage clock and a pair of brown brogues and a woman whose fur stoles were attracting interest from a couple of giggling sing-sing girls. Lily unwrapped her bundle, put the cloth on the pavement and laid the case down carefully. She unclipped the clasp and pushed up the lid. The violin gleamed. The strings were taut, the bridge in place, the cat gut bow lay ready next to the body. Lily traced the swirls on the violin’s waist. She could hear its warm, rich tone. It was a late 19th century Thibouville-Lamy. She loved it.

“Nice,” the seller of the carriage clock said as he pinched out his cigarette. “What are you asking for it?”

“What will you offer?” said Lily.

The man laughed.

“I don’t want a violin. Wish I did, I could have bought enough to equip ten orchestras.” He laughed again and shook his head. “Good luck to you.”

Lily was numb. The violin was the only thing of value they had left to sell. Otto was searching for a job in a workshop or factory, but competition was fierce. Keeping the violin was sentimental, soft. So what if she missed her violin like a lost limb if it was far from her. When they got on their feet she could buy another one. Right now what they needed was fresh food and private space. They were in a camp with fifty people to a room, sleeping in bunk beds and eating soup at communal tables. Otto needed cleanliness and fresh food if he had any chance of getting back his strength.

She couldn’t stay here, Lily thought, not next to this man with his cynicism and his ugly brown shoes. She clicked the violin case shut and picked up her cloth. The man touched his hat to her and she nodded, as she walked away.

The last time she’d cried had been at the station in Vienna. Otto was on the train with their suitcases. The journey to Genoa was still possible, who knew for how long. The ship was leaving in three days.

“You’ll be back in a year or so. When this madness has passed,” her father had said and he’d smiled as he kissed her. Her mother’s face crumpled. Lily hugged her and hugged her, feeling her birdlike frame shaking with tears.

“Follow us,” whispered Lily, “Come with us.”

Her mother shook her head, as she kissed her goodbye.

Lily tried to be positive as she searched for a new site. She needed to be able to convey the beauty of the violin, to be able to sell. She didn’t feel like selling. She felt like a heavy dark mass was sitting on her shoulders, sinking deep inside her and enveloping her mind.

“Breathe,” she thought. “Breathe.”

This time, instead of the reek of Shanghai she smelt … sugar. Coffee. Cinnamon. She smelt … Vienna. And there, amongst the aluminium pans and incense shops, she saw it. Café Rudolf. She drew close to the windows. There was a tray of Apfelstrudel. Of Kardinalschnitte oozing with cream. There were wedges of Esterhazytorte with its thin layers, bright pink Punschkrapfen and slices of dark chocolate Sachertorte, of course there was Sachertorte. The door opened. The smells made Lily feel faint. She walked in.

It was as though she was at home. The décor, the flowers, the food, even the pictures of the Austrian Alps, all were Vienna. Every table was full, the faces familiar, she could understand the chatter, she could read the newspaper headlines –

A waiter with curly hair and melting eyes approached her.

“A table, ma’am?”

“I can’t… I haven’t ….” She hung her head. She had no money. Not even for a coffee.

“Perhaps, ma’am, you might play for us instead?”

The waiter gestured to the violin case.

“Oh – no – I couldn’t, I’m not – I haven’t played since -”

But then she thought, why not? She was used to playing in public. Not in cafes of course, but in the Conservatoire, for small select concerts. She opened the case and took out the violin. She fitted it to her shoulder. It felt natural. She felt whole. With a few twists she tuned the instrument. Then she began.

She started with the Blue Danube. It had been in her head since she had walked past the music box. As she found the notes, she saw the winter balls in Vienna, the ladies in long silk dresses and glittering jewellery, the men dapper in white tie. They were swirling as they waltzed, round and round under chandeliers flashing with candles and cut glass.

The audience was rapt, tapping their feet and swaying.

Lily played on. From Strauss, she moved into music that was darker and wilder, without the polish of a waxed moustache and the smoothness of a well fed cheek. She thought of her Vienna, of all she had left behind, of her father and mother and their faces as the train pulled out of the station, the faces she knew she would never see again. She playing the yearning music from the east, the music of heartbreak that they played in the shtetls when they gathered in the squares, the laments that make the skin crawl and the hairs on the back of the neck rise up. The music that warns that the soldiers are coming, because there are always soldiers coming.

She played the music of one who is far far away and who might never see the place she called home again.

When she put her bow down, every man and woman in the café stood up and cheered. Many had tears streaming down their faces. They too felt her yearning. They too longed for home.

Lily took a moment to remember where she was.

The waiter handed her a hat, winked and pushed her towards his customers.

They smiled and reached into their pockets.

“Wonderful my dear,” “Heartbreaking,” “Beautiful,” “The sound of home” they said as the coins filled the hat. And “When will you play for us again?”

When Lily left the café her feet took up a rhythm, one two three, one two three. She had a purse full of money, a job and most important, she had hope. She gave the man with the carriage clock a cheery little wave as she waltzed her way home along the Shanghai street.

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014