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Bye-bye Strawberry. Hello Mobilfon

I screamed and screamed. I could see the Chinese girls and Marta turn and run towards me. I could see their terrified faces, white in the blaze of the headlights. I felt the clamp of Vulk’s hand on my shoulder, the grip of his arm across my throat. Then I blacked out.

When I came round, I was jolting and swaying about in a vehicle, pounding along a road in the dark. I could smell the familiar horrible tobacco stink of the leather upholstery pressed against my cheek. My stomach twisted up with horror and despair. How had I let this happen? You fool, Irina. Stupid. Careless idiot. Drop your guard for one moment and you’ve had it. You might as well be dead. Better to be dead. Better dead than…No, don’t think of it. Blank it out. Blank.

My shoulders were shaking. My hands and feet were icy cold. Mamma, Pappa, please help me. I am your little Irina. A treasure not a toy. Don’t be angry. Help me. Surely someone will help me. This is England.

“Little flower OK?” That sludgy voice! I was crumpled up on the floor in front of the passenger seat, my legs folded awkwardly under me, my face resting on the leather seat. A few inches from my face was the tattered bunch of flowers.

“Little flower think she can running from Vulk. Little flower think she clever. But Vulk everywhere more clever. I vait. I come back. Houp! I catch. I make possibility.”

Stop. Think. There must be some way…The car door-maybe it will open. The car is going fast. You’ll be hurt-maybe killed. Better dead than…No. Stop. Think. Talk to him. Trick him with words. Think of something, quick. Mamma, Pappa, help me. Make a plan. The car door opens. No, the door is locked. No, the door opens. You fall, you roll. You are hurt but you are alive. You run. Someone will help you. This is England. You run. He runs after you. He has a gun.

Vulk shoved the battered bouquet at me so that the stems caught my hair.

“You like it, flower?”

I shut my eyes and kept quiet. I could hear the creak of his leather coat as he leaned over me. I could smell tobacco and tooth decay. He touched my face. I felt his rough fingers tracing the line of my cheek and my jaw. The car lurched. I kept my eyes shut. The fingers played down my neck. I felt them pressing and lingering in the hollow of my collarbone, creeping down under my blouse.

“Beautiful flower. You like it, flower?”

Think. Speak. You are clever-use your wits. The right words could save your life. Say something.

I couldn’t say anything. My throat went into spasm. I started to retch violently. A dribble of lumpy fluid trickled out of my mouth onto the car seat. I felt the car slow down, swerve, and bump over rough ground. He must have pulled off the road. He leaned over and opened the car door on my side. We were on a shadowy track that seemed to lead into some woods. He pushed my head out of the door.

“You sick outside.”

I retched again and again, my head hanging over the side of the car into the darkness. Vulk waited.

Now. Now’s the time to run. Jump. Run for it. Into the wood. Duck behind the bushes. Vanish into the shadows of the trees. Lie still. Hide.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness. My body tensed. And as though he could read my thoughts, Vulk said, “You run I shoot with gun.”

Better dead than…Blank. Dead. Blank.

I jumped.


“You’d better beat it,” says Wendy. She is dialling something on her mobilfon. In the half-light, her face looks ashen and mad. Andriy stares at her, wondering what had possessed him.


“Beat it. Before the police come.”

He understands ‘police come’.

“But I…”

“You rammed him with my car, didn’t you? Dispute over wages.”


Andriy looks across at the farmer, but he seems to have passed out.

“Who do you think the police will believe? Here.” She tosses him a car key.

His heart leaps. But the key is not for the sports car, it is for the Land Rover. “You can take that bloody strawberry tart, too.” She gestures towards the top of the field. What does she mean? He pockets the key and steps forward to embrace her. She backs away.

“Just go.”

He climbs into the Land Rover and tries the key. It starts up instantly. The pedals and gear movements are rough. The last car he drove was his father’s Zaporozhets. His first thought is to drive out through the gate and put his foot down, but his passport and two weeks’ wages are tucked in an old sock under his mattress. And there is something else that holds him back-that girl, her dark hair spread on the pillow, waking from sleep. He won’t go without saying goodbye to her. Goodbye and God be with you? Or goodbye and see you again? That’s what he wants to find out.

He turns off the engine and goes back to the men’s caravan, which is leaning crookedly on its one wheel. Yola is there, sitting on Tomasz’s sloping bed, shaking and crying uncontrollably, and Tomasz is comforting her.

“I’m going,” says Andriy. He retrieves his passport and money, and starts to stuff his other belongings into his bag. “Before police come.”

Yola looks up, startled.

“Police coming?”

He nods. She jumps up, pushing Tomasz out of the way.

“I go too. I get my bag.” She makes her way towards the door. “Wait. Please wait.”

Tomasz pulls his bag down from his locker and starts to pack too.

“I come with you.”

Emanuel is sleeping on Vitaly’s bunk, but he opens his eyes and raises himself up on one arm, shielding his eyes from the light with the other, and mumbling something in his own language.

“We’re going. Goodbye, my friend.” Andriy closes the door quietly and returns to the Land Rover with his bag.

He drives the Land Rover round the edge of the field, overtaking Tomasz, who is running straight up through the strawberry clumps, his bag and his guitar bouncing on his back. The second gear on the Land Rover keeps slipping and the steering is loose. He’ll have to drive carefully.

He knocks and opens the door of the women’s caravan. Inside is hysteria and chaos. Yola is trying to gather her possessions by the light of an oil lamp and at the same time to calm Marta and the Chinese girls, who are sobbing uncontrollably.

“Where’s Irina?” he asks.

“Man take it,” says one of the Chinese girls, trembling, and the other chimes in, “Woman hairs man take it.”

“Man in gangster car has taken Irina,” Marta explains in Polish.

Blood swims before Andriy’s eyes. How has this happened? How has he let this happen? What kind of man would let his girl (is she his girl?) be snatched away like that? He feels faint and sick.

“Which way?”

The girls point vaguely down the field. His heart shrinks at the uselessness of it. What a fool he’s been. The blonde. The Ferrari. What a stupid useless idiot.

“Let’s go. Let’s go.”

He grabs Yola’s bag, and Marta’s, because she wants to go with her auntie, then the two Chinese girls start shrieking and wailing.

“We no stay. We come. We go. Bad woman hairs man come again.”

“You pack up quick quick,” says Yola.

They are all scrabbling about, shaking hysterically, and Tomasz is getting in the way, clunking them with his guitar each time he moves. Andriy thinks he sees a flash of blue lights between the trees down in the valley. Suddenly he realises what to do. He jumps into the Land Rover, manoeuvres round, backs up, and hitches the caravan to the towing bracket. There is even a socket into which he plugs the connector. It hardly takes two minutes. Then he is off.

As he bounces along the edge of the field, a small figure in a green anorak stumbles out in front of him, seeming still the worse for eight cans of lager. He slams on the brakes. The caravan lurches and almost leaps off the towing bracket. Hm. He’ll have to remember not to brake so sharply.

“Get in,” he yells. Emanuel clambers into the back of the Land Rover and settles into the hay.

At the bottom gate, Wendy is still crouched over the prone body of the farmer. She looks up briefly as they drive off and Andriy thinks he catches the flicker of a smile on her face, but it could be just a trick of the light.

He can’t get up into third, and it keeps slipping out of second, and trying to control the rebellious sway and tug of the caravan hitched to the back with the steering so loose is no joke. And there, wailing up the valley, are the flashing blue lights. Holy bones! He’s only gone a few kilometres, and they’re after him already.

How has this happened, Andriy Palenko? Fifteen minutes ago, you had a Land Rover, money in your pocket, the open road, a childhood sweetheart waiting for you. Now you have six passengers, an unruly caravan and the police on your back. Why didn’t you just say no?

Ahead of him, on the left, is a turning-a grassy track that seems to lead into a wood. He veers off the road. After a few metres the track widens into a parking place with an old picnic table. He pulls to a halt. In the back of the Land Rover Emanuel is asleep on the hay. Andriy sticks his head in the door of the caravan.

“Everything normal in here?”

The four women and Tomasz are crouching in a huddle on the floor. Marta has been sick.

“Where are we?” asks Tomasz.

“I don’t know. I don’t know where we are or where we’re going. We stay here. In the morning we decide.”

He sits down on the floor next to the others, resting his head in his hands. He realises his knees are shaking. He is covered in sweat. If the police come, he will just explain everything. He will tell them it was all a mistake and take the consequences like a man. This is England.

Yola definitely has nothing to apologise for. Definitely not. When your lover betrays you and insults you with slapping ticker, if you are a woman of action, you have to act. There was that big dolt Andriy, trying to make everybody calm. What use is calm in a situation like that? Naturally the wife would try to put the blame on her. All lies. But try telling that to the policeman. She knows the mind of a policeman-she was married to one once. And the way the policeman thinks is this: guilty person is one who has motive. Does Andriy have motive to run over Dumpling? No. Does she have a motive? Yes.

So best thing is to keep out of police’s way. Back to Poland. Quick quick. But this beetroot-brain says he can’t drive any more, he wants to sleep. And you can see from the way he is looking at the bed that he thinks he should be allowed to sleep here in the women’s caravan. And that knicker-thief Tomasz (he thinks she doesn’t know, but she does) has taken off his shoes. Pah! What a stink! All the girls start to shriek and cover their noses. She folds her arms across her bosom and says firmly, “This is women’s caravan, for women only.”

But will this pig-headed beetroot-brain listen?

“Yola,” he says, “you may have been queen of strawberry field, but here on road, I am boss. And if I am going to drive to Dover, I need good night’s sleep.”

Yola explains patiently that in absence of farmer, for which, by the way, she denies all responsibility, she is senior figure, and she will decide about sleeping accommodations.

“I am mature and respectable woman, and I cannot be expected to share my sleeping quarters with any man.”

Well, his reply is so uncouth that she will not repeat it, except to say that it referred to her age, her underdo things, her country of origin, and her relationship with the farmer, which being a pure business arrangement, and moreover one conducted in a foreign country, has no relevance to any discussion of her character, a nuance which is probably too subtle for a Ukrainian.

“Andriy, please!” Tomasz intervenes, in a very calm and dignified way. “Is no problem. You can sleep in Land Rover, and I will stay here on floor.”

“No! No!” cry all the girls in chorus. “No room on floor!”

“Well, then we will all sleep in Land Rover. Somehow we will manage.”

Well, they did manage. Somehow. So that’s that.

Andriy really let rip at Yola, and now he feels better. Out in the cool pre-dawn the sky is already growing lighter and the stars have disappeared. Tomasz has taken off his trainers once more, placed them on the bonnet and stretched himself out on the front seats of the Land Rover, his feet sticking out of the window, perfuming the breeze with his socks. Andriy wonders where Irina is spending this night. The thought makes his stomach clench unpleasantly. He crawls into the back, fitting himself around and on top of Emanuel, who has slept through everything, curled up knees to chin on the sweet-smelling hay. There is an old blanket on the floor that he pulls up over them. Although the air is chilly, the silence of the wood, the breathing of earth and roots and sap at last put him into such a deep sleep that he doesn’t wake until the morning sun strikes through the silvery tree trunks.


I jumped.

I fell. The ground was soft. I rolled, picked myself up, and I ran. Mamma, Pappa, help me, please. I am little Irinochka.

I was thinking-the trees-I must get into the trees. I scrambled up the bank into the wood, dodging between low branches. Here I would have a chance. If I was lucky, the trees would stop the bullets. I braced myself for the shots as I ran, flinching, waiting for the bang that would tell me I was dead. There were no shots. All I could hear were footsteps, his and mine, crashing through the undergrowth and dead branches on the ground. Crash. Crash. No shots. Why no shots? Maybe I was dead already. It was so dark. Dark like the cupboard under the stairs. Dark like a grave. Before, there’d been a faint glimmer from the headlights, but now I was past that, running into pitch blackness. It was too dark to run. Too many obstacles, shadows that turned into trees, branches that hit you in the face, tree roots that grabbed at your legs, terrors invisible. No moonlight here. On one side, I thought I could see the edge of the wood, the grey gleam of sky through the trees.

I veered right, slithered down the bank back onto the track and sprinted silently along the grass. I could still hear him behind me in the wood. Crash. Crash.

Now there was a bend and the track climbed steeply uphill, with a jagged hedge on one side. Above the hedge I could see the sky, stars, breathless, skipping up and down as I ran. I stopped, panting for breath. My chest was exploding. Blood was pounding in my ears-boom boom boom boom-Keep going. Don’t stop now. You are younger and fitter. You can outrun him. I tripped on a tree root, fell, picked myself up, and ran on-boom boom boom. When I couldn’t run any longer, I stood still in the lee of a tree trunk and listened. My breath was coming in great gulps. I could still hear the crunch of footsteps in the wood, I couldn’t tell how far behind me. So he hadn’t given up yet. I ran again, wildly, stumbling and tripping. Slow down. Take care. If you fall, you are finished.

This is how a hunted animal feels, I thought, gasping for breath, terror rushing in through all your senses, drowning in your own fear. I found a gap in the hedge and squeezed through, the thorns grabbing at my clothes. On the other side was starlight, a long ploughed field. I was breathing wildly, panting, choking. I tried to run, but the furrows were impossible, so I walked for a bit, breathing slow mouthfuls of air, stumbling in the ruts. Then I stopped, crouched, and listened. Silence. No footsteps. No gun. Nothing.

A bit further up I cut back onto the track and ran again, more slowly now. My heart was banging about like a wild bird in a cage. Is it finished? Has he gone? How will you know? Last time, he waited until you thought he’d gone, then he came back.

As I climbed the hill, the sky grew lighter. When I couldn’t run any more I carried on walking. I didn’t stop for a long time. At last I found a hollow where a big tree had been uprooted. I made a bed of dry leaves and pulled some branches over for shelter, so I would be invisible from the track. I lay there, keeping quite still, waiting for my heart to slow down-boom boom-watching the dawn breaking, pink and peachy, with little clouds like angels’ wings.

Andriy is the first to wake, conscious of something warm and heavy on his legs. He thinks at first it is Emanuel who has rolled over onto him in the night. He gives him a gentle shove, and comes up against warm fur covering solid muscle. Holy whiskers!

The creature is huge and hairy, and it snuffles in its sleep. He sits up and rubs his eyes. The dog sits up, too, and gazes at him with what he can only describe as adoration in its soft brown eyes. It is a big, handsome dog, short-haired and mainly black, with some white hairs around its muzzle and belly which give it a mature, distinguished air.

“Woof!” it says, beating its sturdy tail against the side of the Land Rover.

“Hey, Dog!” says Andriy, rubbing its ears. “What are you doing here?”

“Woof!” says Dog.

Emanuel wakes next, to the sound of the tail thumping rhythmically against the side of the Land Rover, and he seems less pleased to see the dog.

“Is OK, Emanuel. Is good dog. No bite.”

“In Chichewa we have a saying. Where the dog pisses, the grass dies.”

“Woof,” says Dog. Andriy can see that despite himself Emanuel is quite taken with the enthusiastic tail-wagging and the tongue hanging out, wet and pink, between the sharp white teeth.

But the most passionate meeting is between Tomasz and Dog-such a foot-nuzzling, face-licking, tail-beating, jumping-up, rolling-on-the-ground frenzy. Finally in a snuffling ecstasy Dog finds Tomasz’s trainers on the bonnet of the Land Rover, and though Tomasz tries to stop him he runs off with one in his jaws and chews it completely to pieces. Well, this is quite a splendid dog, thinks Andriy, for the sooner those trainers disappear the better. And a dog with such a good sense of smell may help you to find a missing person.


Yola feels the dog is showing far too much enthusiasm, sticking its nose up her skirt on any excuse, in a way that reminds her of…No. She is a mature and respectable woman, and there are some secrets she is not going to share with any nosy-poky book-readers.

It also shows a great interest in urine. When the women wake up, about an hour after the men, it tries to accompany each of them in turn as she goes to urinate in the woods and has to be driven off. “Where is this dog from?” asks Yola. “It should go to its home.” But nobody seems to know. Then it looks at her with such tender appeal in its eyes that her heart melts instantly, for she is a soft-hearted woman, and she takes Irina’s orange ribbon and ties it under the dog’s chin in a charming bow.

Marta observes that the dog’s paws are scratched and bleeding, as though it has run some distance, and she applies some excellent Polish antiseptic ointment. They even share some of their bread with it, which is all they have for breakfast, but this is unnecessary, as it disappears into the woods and comes back later with a rabbit in its mouth.

After eating, it stretches itself out at Tomasz’s feet, its head resting on its paws and one ear cocked, to listen to their discussion. For now it seems they must engage in endless discussions about where to go, which is completely unnecessary, because Yola has already decided they are going to Dover.

Doubtless they will even find the Ukrainian girl there. She wasn’t such a bad girl after all, but probably she brought this disappearance upon herself by too much indiscriminate smiling. Once these gangster types get an idea into their heads, what can you do? And the flowers were a nice gesture.

As far as Yola is concerned, everything is clear. Andriy, who to his credit has apologised in a gentlemanly way for his outburst last night, got them into this jar of pickles from flirting with the farmer’s wife, and now he must get them out of it, quick quick, before police come.

“When police is involved, one small thing may go on for ever. Everything unnecessarily tied up in paper.” She knows from experience just how bureaucratic a bureaucracy can be. She was married to a bureaucrat once. “Meanwhile poor Mirek is waiting for us in Zdroj. Mirek; Masurian goats; plums ripe in garden. Time to go home.” She wipes a dramatic tear from her eye.

“Who is Mirek?” whines the hippy-hair Tomasz, with a face like a belly ache.

“Mirek is my beloved son.”

“Beloved also of God,” adds Marta, rolling her eyes heavenwards. “One of God’s special ones.”

Why does Marta always keep on about the poor boy’s difficulty, unnecessarily broadcasting it to the whole world? She has already scared off at least two potential husbands with her pious mewlings. Yola gives her a discreet kick.

“And his father? Is his father also waiting?” Tomasz persists.

“His father is gone.” Yola fixes Tomasz with her steely eye. “Why you asking so many questions, Mister Stinking Feet? You got enough problems of your own without sticking your nose into mine.”

Now everybody wants to have their say.

“We go London,” says one Chinese girl. “In London is plenty Chineses. Plenty money work for Chineses. Better than in strawberry.”

“I have an address for a man in England. Wait, please, thank you.” Emanuel starts to shuffle through his papers. Shuffle shuffle. “Outstanding good man. His name is Toby Makenzi, and with his help I hope I will recover my sister’s wherebeing.”

“Emanuel, why you not coming to Poland with us?” says Yola kindly. That boy needs a mother, not a sister, she is thinking. Maybe even a little brother. And Tomasz says, “Emanuel, if you come in Poland I will teach you to sing and play the guitar.”

In Yola’s opinion, Emanuel is already a much better singer than Tomasz.

“I wonder where Vitaly is,” Marta says. Yola noticed Marta earlier looking at Vitaly out of the corner of her eye, in a way that can only mean one thing, and she thinks it ironic, to say the least, that someone so religious should be attracted to someone with such an air of sin about him. But it is often the way.

Then Tomasz starts up again, giving her that doggy eye.

“I will go to Dover with you. From there to Poland. Boat, bus. We go all together. Maybe your boy needs a father? What you say, Yola?”

Yola smiles noncommittally. “First you get new shoes.”

Hair too long. Bad smell. Not her type.

“Andriy? What is your plan now?” she asks.

Andriy says nothing for a few minutes, and Yola is about to ask him again, when he says in a quiet voice, “I will first find Irina.”

The others all fall silent. Marta starts to cry.

I must have fallen asleep. I woke up when a beam of sunlight struck the hollow where I was curled up. My limbs were stiff from the cold damp ground. My whole body was aching. I stood up, stretched. Then I remembered. Vulk. The woods. Running. Was he still out there waiting for me? I crouched down again. It was too soon to celebrate, but I was alive, unharmed, and it was a new morning.

The sun must have been up for a few hours. The air was still fresh and misty, that soft mistiness that promises a warm day to come. You know how some mornings you wake up, and you’re full of happiness just at being alive? I could hear birdsong and the bleating of sheep and another sound, further away, a sweet, joyful sound. Church bells. It must be Sunday. In Kiev on Sundays you hear bells ringing out like this all over the city, and you see all the country women coming in wearing their best clothes with their headscarves tied over their ears and their gold teeth flashing, and crossing themselves as they come out of church, and Mother makes curd cake with raisins, and even our cat Vaska gets cream for a treat, then he licks his paws and rubs them behind his ears-will you remember me when I get home, Vaska? Will I ever get home? Suddenly, my eyes were full of tears. Sniff. Snuffle. Stop it. You must keep a clear head and keep your eyes open. Make a plan.

Below me, I could see the track between the field and the wood along which I had run last night. I remembered my terror. My thumping heart. The stars jumping above the jagged hedge. In daylight the path looked so nice and rustic as it wound its way innocently up the woody hill. In the other direction, it curved away below the contours of the land and disappeared from view. Where was I? How far did we come last night? How long did I black out for?

I scanned the fields one by one; maybe from here I’d be able to see the strawberry field. I’d recognise it from the two caravans. The landscape seemed familiar, but I soon realised that all fields look much the same, like a pattern of brown and green handkerchiefs, sprinkled with parsley. Do they sprinkle handkerchiefs with parsley?

Maybe not. There was a lane rising between tall hedges, a row of poplars. I counted them-one, two, three, four, five. Were they the same poplars? Not far away was a cluster of trees that could be the copse at the top of the strawberry field. But where was the caravan? Over in the west I saw a strange white field that gleamed like a lake. But the edges were too square. It looked more like a field covered in glass or plastic. Were there any such fields nearby? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t see any houses at all, just a stubby church spire rising from a clump of trees over near the shining field. Maybe there was a village there, hidden by the fold of the land; maybe over there were church bells and people walking to Sunday worship.

Down below, where the bottom of the track must reach the road, something was glinting-I could glimpse a flash of sunlight on metal through the leaves. It must be a parked car. My heart started up again-boom boom. My stomach twisted. Was he still down there waiting for me? Would he come looking for me? I lowered myself silently back into the hollow and pulled a branch down to cover me from view. This time, he wouldn’t get me. However long he waited, I would wait longer.

If Andriy found driving forwards with the caravan difficult, reversing it is even worse. It seems to have ideas of its own. It is late morning by the time they are ready to leave. Emanuel stands watch, waving him on as he backs out of the woody picnic spot onto the lane. Yola, Marta and the Chinese girls are in the back of the Land Rover, with Dog at their feet. Tomasz is in the caravan, trying to catch up on his sleep.

Once they are on the main road, the driving is easier. It is quite interesting to tow something so heavy, he thinks, you have to plan ahead to avoid sudden manoeuvres. He has started to get a feel for it by the time they get to the Canterbury bypass, when suddenly he spots a police car up ahead, and two officers checking the passing cars. Holy bones! Are they onto him already? He makes a sharp left turn, puts his foot down, and now finds himself heading on a one-way road into the city centre, the caravan swinging along behind, and the others all shouting different directions at him from the back. The shouting is pointless. It just distracts him. There is nowhere to go but straight ahead.

He finds himself in a maze of narrow streets; cars parked all over the place; pedestrians wandering around without looking. What a nightmare! This left-side driving business is no joke. How can he get back on the ring road? He takes a right turn and squeezes the caravan through a narrow archway, which might have had a no-entry sign on it, but too late now, when suddenly Marta shouts, “Stop! Stop!”

He slams the brakes on. The caravan bucks and jolts. Remember not to do that again, Palenko. Gentle pumping action next time. From the caravan, there is a crash and a shout, and a few moments later Tomasz stumbles out in his socks and underpants, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“What’s happening? Why have we stopped?”

“I don’t know,” says Andriy. “Why have we stopped?”

“Look!” says Marta, pointing.

He clambers out and stands on the pavement with the others. They are all gazing upwards. In front of them, a towering creamy mass of carved and weathered stone, arches upon arches of strange intricately patterned tracery, the stone as delicate as paper, soars higher and higher into the sky, and the solemn figures of long-dead saints gaze back down at them from their pedestals.

He has seen the golden-domed cathedrals of Kiev, the sky-line miracle of the Lavra, but this is different-yes, this is quite something. No paint or gilt. The beauty is all in the stone. What would it have been like to work up here in the sky, chipping and carving away at this luminous stone with a hammer and chisel, instead of hammering at the coalface in the dark underground? Would he have become a different kind of man-closer to the angels?

He bows his head and crosses himself in the Orthodox way, just in case. No one speaks. Marta closes her eyes and crosses herself too. Yola pulls down the hem of her skirt below her knees and crosses herself with both hands. Tomasz goes back into the caravan and puts his trousers on. The Chinese girls just stare.

Emanuel whispers to Andriy, “What are these beastings and goblins? Why have they put symbols of witchcraft upon a Christian church?”

“Don’t worry,” he whispers back. “It’s OK.”

Dear sister,

Today I was blessed with a visitation of Canterbury Cathedral which is an outstanding Ediface built completely of stone and miraculously carved with fearsome fiends and hobgoblins sitting outside gaping open-mouthed. But the inside is filled up with mysterious Peace for in this Cathedral are many wondrous window glasses such as I have never seen even in St George’s on Likomo Island that deepen sunlight into red and blue and stories of Our Lord and His Saints are told in colourful artistry.

And a priest came upon us and asked if we would pray and I was afraid to partake of the protestant faith but the Catholic Martyr whispered that all such Cathedrals belonged formally to our Good Religion and were stolen from us by mindless protestants. So we went into a small prayersome chapel beauteous in stillness and light and we asked the Lord to deliver our sister Irina who was seized by the Spawn of Satan and nobody knows her wherebeing. And I also prayed for that godless fellow who has slipped through the fishing-net of Love. After the prayers everyone said Amen even the dog I wish you could see this dog it is outstanding in piety. For in this silent glimmery chapel I felt the Presence of the Lord standing close beside us listening for our prayers and I felt His breathing in the cool stony air.

Then I heard Organ music and a choir was singing Sheep May Safely Graze which stirred me up for this Cathedral is named after Saint Augustine. Then good Father Augustine of Zomba knocked on my memory door and his kindly ways which watered my eyes with rememberances of home.

Andriy feels better, more at peace, after their prayers in the cathedral. It isn’t until they are back at the caravan that he notices Emanuel is missing. He returns to the chapel to look for him, but he has disappeared. Somewhere in the cathedral, an organ is playing and a choir is singing. Drawn by the music, he follows the sound along a stone aisle where the ancient glass throws pools of coloured light on the floor. A service is in progress, and there in the front row of the congregation is Emanuel.

His eyes are shut, so he can’t see the odd looks the others are giving him, but his mouth is open, startlingly pink in his youthful brown face, and he is singing aloud in a sweet high voice, along with the choir. And as he sings, tears are pouring down his cheeks. There is something so vulnerable and yet so powerful about the closed eyes, the open mouth, the tears and the music, that it makes Andriy catch his breath. Who is this young man? Andriy feels an urge to put his arm around him, but he holds back, as you would hesitate to wake a sleepwalker, for fear that the sudden shock of reality would break his heart.

A flash of memory comes to him-a circle of enraptured faces at a secret Orthodox service down in a woody ravine, where his grandmother took him as a child. The priest sang the litany and sprinkled them with holy water, promising forgiveness for their sins and solace for the grinding daily hardship of their lives. “Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.”

His father said that religion was the opium of the masses and it was a shame that his mother, who was a good woman in every way and a good communist, should believe such nonsense.

In the silence at the end of the music, he goes up to Emanuel and touches his arm. Emanuel opens his eyes, looks around him, and smiles.

“Ndili Bwino, my friend.”

Her prayers have made her feel pleasantly righteous, and after righteousness it is natural to feel hungry and thirsty. So as far as Yola is concerned, their first priority when they get to Dover is to have some lunch.

Unlike in Canterbury, where all the shops were open, in Dover everything is very closed. At last down a back street they find a small, gloomy shop with two narrow aisles, smelling of spices and something musty and not very nice. The shopkeeper is a plump Indian woman of about Yola’s age, dressed in a green sari, with a red spot on her forehead. Yola studies her curiously. She is not unattractive in an Asiatic sort of way. The red spot seems to be in the wrong place. Surely it should be on her cheeks.

Yola as the supervisor is naturally in charge of the shopping, but in the interests of harmony she lets everyone have a say. They agree on five loaves of white sliced bread (better than coarse Polish bread and quite inexpensive), margarine (more modern than butter, and also cheaper), apricot jam (Tomasz’s favourite), teabags and sugar (they have been drying out and reusing their teabags, but there is a limit), bananas (Andriy’s choice, typical Ukrainian), salted peanuts (a special request from Emanuel), a large bar of rum and raisin chocolate (Yola’s own little luxury), two large bottles of Coca-Cola for the Chinese girls, and a tin of dog food. Tomasz lingers in the off-licence section, studying the labels, but his request for a bottle of wine is firmly rejected by Yola. Unnecessary. Too expensive. Andriy is also hanging around in the off-licence, looking at the beer.

“Did you see the mark-up Vitaly has been making on the beer he has been selling us?” he says grumpily. Typical Ukrainian.

Marta has stayed in the Land Rover with the dog, and Yola cannot remember her special request.

The Indian shopkeeper tut-tuts as she puts all this through the till.

“You are not eating a balance diet.”

“Not balance?” It is Yola’s responsibility to see they eat properly.

“Protein. You must have a protein. If you eat all this you will be feeling sick.”

Yola looks at their pile of shopping and realises that she is right. Just looking at all this stuff is making her feel a bit unwell.

“What can you recommend?”

The shopkeeper hmms and ruminates.

“Pilchards.” She points down the aisle. “Fishies. Good for you. Cheap. In tin over there.”

Yola thinks the fishes in the picture on the tin look plump and appealing and she is pleasantly surprised by the price. They take two tins.

Between the waist of the shopkeeper’s sari and the bottom of her blouse is a soft bulge of brown flesh. In civilised countries this area of a woman’s body is normally concealed, but Yola notices that the Ukrainian is staring at it fixedly.

“Madam,” he says, very politely, “I wish to ask, from where you learn such wisdom?”

What a flatterer that beetroot-brain is, almost like a Pole. (Of course Polish men are renowned throughout the world for being flirtatious, on account of their habit of hand-kissing, but sadly this does not make them good husband-material, as Yola has discovered to her sorrow.) The shopkeeper laughs modestly and points at a picture above the counter of a smiling wrinkled old woman dressed in bright blue, with a triple string of pearls and a stylish blue hat.

“This lady is my inspiration.”

Everyone gathers round to look. The old woman in the picture looks back with a cheerful smile and a wave of her gloved hand. Yola thinks that to have both a veil and little blue feathers in a hat is unnecessary: one or other would have made a sufficient statement.

“She is a lady of extreme age and wisdom. In her long years, which unfortunately are now over, she gave many cheery indications of the important things in life. To have friends come from afar is a pleasure-this is one of her great sayings.” The shopkeeper folds her arms on the counter with a friendly smile. “You not from round here. I think you all come from afar, innit?”

“You are right, madam.” Tomasz smiles ingratiatingly. “We have come from all the corners of the world- Poland, Ukraine, Africa, China.”

He too is staring at the brown bulge. Really, what can you do with men?

“And Malaysia,” adds Chinese Girl Two.

“Well, have a lovely time, my dears, and bon appetit.” The shopkeeper beams at them over the counter. “That is another of her sayings.”

“This is a great saying,” says Emanuel. “I will commit it to memory.”

But Chinese Girl One whispers to Chinese Girl Two, “I think that saying attributed to the old lady in blue is in fact a saying of Confucius.”

And Chinese Girl Two points at the red spot in the middle of the shopkeeper’s forehead, and whispers, “I think it is a bullet hole.”

They giggle.


Andriy feels quite queasy by the time he’s finished his lunch. Those pilchards in tomato sauce-they were good, but perhaps he shouldn’t have eaten so many. While the others set out on foot to the ferry terminal, he spreads his towel on the pebble beach and stretches out in the sun, with Dog beside him. The slow pull and surge of waves down at the water’s edge is soothing. Dog falls asleep almost instantly, hissing and snoring as rhythmically as the sea. Andriy is incredibly tired, but each time he is on the point of sleep the fluttery panicky feeling starts up and wakes him. I did not do it. The left-side driving, the excitable passengers, this self-willed caravan, the argument with Ciocia Yola, and a niggling unspecific anxiety which swirls around in his head like a mist without taking any fixed form, all have tired him out yet left him unable to relax.

He must have started to drift away at last, when he is brought back abruptly by a thunderous crash just a few feet from where he is lying. His blood freezes; his heart begins to pound. Half asleep, as if waking from a nightmare, he listens to the dreadful sound-a long crescendo, a terrible reverberation, a slow fading rumble. It is the long-drawn-out growl of the earth crying in pain. It is the roar of the coalface collapsing in the darkness below ground.

He sits up, rubs his eyes. There is nothing. Nothing but the waves pounding on the pebbles a few inches away from his feet. The tide has come in. And yet, in that moment of wakening, he relived the terror of looking into the fuming blackness of noise and dust, and knowing his father would never emerge alive.

That sound-no, he will never be able to work underground again. He cannot go back down there. In fact he had never wanted to be a miner in the first place. He would have stayed on at school and studied to be a teacher or an engineer. But when he was sixteen, his father had shoved a pick into his hands-they were long past the time of power tools-and said, “Learn, son. Learn to be a man.”

He had replied in that clever sixteen-year-old way that makes him wince now to remember, “Is a man someone who grubs about like a beast under the ground?”

And his father had said, “A man is someone who puts bread on the table, and puts his comrades’ safety before his own, and doesn’t complain.”

In Donbas, there is only one way to put bread on the table. When they said the pit was uneconomic, international solidarity couldn’t help, the mineworkers’ union couldn’t help. So they had gone back underground and helped themselves. Well, you have to live, don’t you? When the roof fell, Andriy had lived, and two others. Six had been killed. The story didn’t even make the headlines beyond Donbas.

But why him? Why did he live, when the others died? Because a voice in his head insisted, if you want to live, run-keep running. Don’t look back.

He watches a bank of grey clouds massing up on the horizon.

And why Sheffield? Because Sheffield is the place where the puddings are pink, and the girls put their tongues in your mouth when they kiss. And there was something about the blind man, the gentleness of his voice when he spoke of the welcome that awaits strangers in his city, the way he clasped your hand and seemed to look right into your heart, even though of course he wasn’t looking at all. Yes, now you remember, Vloonki was his name.

And once he gets to Sheffield? Andriy hasn’t thought that far ahead. Tomorrow he will look for Irina, and when he has found her, he will be on his way.

However long Vulk waited for me, I would wait longer.

From my leafy hiding place I watched as the sun carved its slow arc from the wooded hills in the east, up over the rolling patchwork of green and gold fields, and down to the other horizon. It was strange, because although I could see the sun moving, I felt inside me as though time was standing still. I was waiting-waiting and trying not to think about why I was waiting, because those thoughts were so horrible that if I let them creep into my mind, I might never be able to chase them out again. “You like flower…?

When I get back to Kiev, I thought, I will write a story about this. It will be a thriller, following the adventures of a plucky heroine as she flees across England, pursued by a sinister but ridiculous gangster. Thinking of my story made me feel better. When you write a story, you can decide how it ends.

As the sun moved across the sky, a spume of streaky clouds that unfolded in its wake started to thicken and turn heavy. Strange how I had never noticed before how expressive clouds can be, like people, changing, ageing, drifting apart.

At some point I must have fallen asleep, because suddenly I opened my eyes to find the sun had disappeared and what I had thought was a line of hills, blue in the distance, was in fact a long bank of cloud that had swallowed up the sky. It was going to rain. I was incredibly hungry. If thought if I didn’t eat something soon, I would faint. I squeezed myself out of my hollow and peered down the track. Where I had caught the gleam of sunlight on metal before, there was nothing now but leaves. Had he gone, or was it just that the sun had moved round? Was he hiding, waiting for me? Maybe everywhere I go from now on, he’ll be hiding, waiting. Stop. Don’t think those thoughts. If you think like that, you will be his prisoner all your life.

I knew I had to find food. I looked around me. There were trees, bushes, grass, leaves. Were any of them good to eat? I pulled a handful of grass-well, if cows eat it, it must be OK. I chewed at it, but I couldn’t bring myself to swallow. There were some red berries on a shrub with a vivid toxic lustre. Mamma, Pappa, you know about this sort of thing. Don’t be foolish, Irina. You know you shouldn’t eat berries or mushrooms unless you are absolutely sure. How many times do I have to tell you that?

Even as I was turning these thoughts over in my head, I had already started to walk back down the track. In the daytime, it seemed no distance. I crawled through and walked down the other side of the hedge to keep out of view. At the bottom, the track widened out and there was an old wooden table with benches on each side, though some of the planks had been pulled off. There was no vehicle in sight, but the ground was gashed with tyre marks. Either he’d been back, more than once, or there’d been other vehicles. I looked more closely. There, in one of the wheel-ruts, I spotted the stub of a cigar. My heart started up-boom boom. I remembered he had a cigar last night, but was it the same cigar? Or had he been back? Had he been sitting in his mafia-machine, smoking a cigar and waiting for me? “Little flower…” I stamped on the stub and ground it into the grass. And there was another strange object, something grey and rubbery. It looked like part of a shoe. What a stink! But Vulk’s shoes were shiny black.

Then I noticed, beneath the broken table, a screwed-up bundle of paper. I knew at once what it was. Another stroke of good luck! I picked it up. That smell! I couldn’t help myself. I was salivating like a dog. I unwrapped the bundle and counted them. One, two, three…There were lots! I stuffed them into my mouth. My stomach growled with pleasure. They were cold and stiff, like dead men’s fingers. They were absolutely delicious. And something else was buried there beneath the chips, something golden and crispy. I broke off a piece and put it on my tongue. It was like manna. It was…It was all gone.

Then I thought, what an idiot you are, standing here by the roadside where anyone passing could see you, stuffing yourself with somebody’s thrown-away leftovers. If Mother could see you…Well, she can’t, can she?

Somebody’s leftovers…Whose leftovers? Did he have some chips in the car last night? No, I would have noticed the smell. So they must be someone else’s. Or maybe he went and bought some chips, and came back here, and sat in the car and waited for me to return. Waited for me so he could…Stop! Don’t think that thought. Every time you think of him, he possesses you.

The ferry terminal is almost deserted, and silent apart from the wailing of a small tired chocolate-smeared girl tugging at the skirt of her equally tired mother. Marta remembers the bustle and excitement of their arrival, only a few weeks ago. Now everyone seems so despondent. Andriy stayed at the beach. Emanuel has gone to look at the boats. The two Chinese girls are outside having an ice cream. Yola and Tomasz are wandering around looking for the office where they can get their tickets changed. Yola’s face is red: maybe from stress, or maybe from too much sun earlier on the beach, when her hat blew away, and the bad language that followed was appalling. Tomasz is wearing one smelly trainer and one trainer that is wet and two sizes too large for him. He too got sunburned on his nose. Marta can’t really concentrate on what everyone else is doing because she is desperate for the toilet.

While Yola and Tomasz go off in search of the ticket office, which is in another part of the building, Marta follows the signs to the toilets. She is just making her way back when she catches sight of a young man lounging around near the coffee bar, talking on his mobile phone. He seems to be looking out for someone. He is quite tall and smartly dressed, with a gold chain round his neck and a glittering jewel in one ear. His shaved head gleams shiny brown, and he is wearing black sunglasses, which give him a slightly sinister air. There is something familiar about him. She tries to get another look without staring too obviously. Suddenly, he grins and waves. Should she wave back? Then he takes off his dark glasses and she recognizes him at once: it is Vitaly.

He slips the mobile phone into his pocket and saunters over to her.

“Hi, Marta. How’s things?”

“OK.” She hesitates. So much has happened since their last supper together. “Well, to say the truth, Vitaly, not good. We had to leave the strawberry place. The farmer was injured and Ciocia Yola is worried about police.”

“Hm. Police is not good.”

“They are trying to change tickets at this moment.”

“They are going back to Poland?”

“We are all going, as soon as possible. And you, Vitaly, what are you doing? You look so smart. Are you finished with strawberry?”

“Bye-bye strawberry. Hello mobilfon.” He smiles mysteriously, then he lowers his voice. “Recruitment consultant,” he says in English.

“Vitaly!” Marta is impressed. “What is that?”

“Dynamic employment solution. Cutting edge fwhit fwhit”-he does a quick double slicing movement with the edge of his hand-“organisational answer for all your flexible staffing need.” His fluency is breathtaking.

“You have become a businessman, Vitaly! English-speaking VIP.”

She stares, feeling a little embarrassed at her own shabbiness. Already the curly-haired smiling strawberry-picking Vitaly with his appealingly wayward air has dissolved into this new smoothly confident businessman who slips effortlessly between Polish and English.

“It is a pity you have to go back so soon. I can find you an excellent employment in this area. High wage. Comfortable living situation.”

“Oh, Vitaly, how you speak temptation! I would stay, but I think Ciocia Yola wants to go home. She misses her son.” She catches the sinful twinkle in his eye, and thinks how pleasant it would be to lead him back to the path of righteousness.

At that moment, Yola and Tomasz reappear with thunderous faces. They have not been able to change their tickets. The office is closed. They have been told by someone-they are not sure who-that they must come back tomorrow or go to the office in town and queue for a possible cancellation. Now they are arguing about who it was who gave them this information, and what exactly she said. Yola says she was the office cleaner or maybe another disgruntled passenger, and her word is not to be trusted. Tomasz says she was an official from the port authority, and it is unfortunate that Yola sent her away with a wasp in her ear without listening to what she had to say.

“Why could they not simply put a notice up, instead of making us run around like idiots in this heat?” fumes Ciocia Yola. “Where is toilet? Did you find toilet, Marta? Who is this?” She stares. “Vitaly?”

Vitaly extends his hand, and shakes hers warmly.

“I hear you are thinking of returning to Poland, Yola.”

“Who has told you this?”

“Ciocia, I told him,” says Marta in her most soothing voice. “Don’t be cross. But Vitaly says he can find us excellent high-wage work in this area. Vitaly, tell Ciocia what it is you do.”

“Recruitment consultant. Cutting edge fwhit fwhit dynamic employment solution consultant with advance flexible capacity for meets all your organisational staffing need.” He seems to be picking up speed as he repeats it.

“My God!” says Yola. “Vitaly, you have become somebody.”

He lowers his head modestly.

“I am working for British company. Nightingale Human Solution. I have been on training seminar.”

“Trenning semeenar-what is this, Vitaly?” Marta cannot conceal the wonder in her voice.

“Oh, is nothing,” Vitaly smiles modestly. “Anyone can do it. You only have to learn some words in English. And of course contacts. The main thing is to have contacts.”

“You have contacts, Vitaly?” asks Yola. Despite her previous status as supervisor and gang-mistress, she too is awestruck by this newly transformed Vitaly.

“He has mobilfon,” whispers Marta.

Only Tomasz seems unimpressed.

“We are not seeking new employment, thank you, Vitaly. We are planning to return to Poland as soon as we can change our tickets.”

“Ah, changing tickets is impossible. You will have to buy new tickets. You will need money for this.”

“This excellent employment you talking about,” Yola pursues. “What is this high wage?”

Vitaly pauses for a moment as though performing mental arithmetic.

“It will be in region of five or six hundred pound a week. Depends on performance. Maybe even more.”

They all gasp, even Tomasz. It is three times what they were earning in the strawberry field before deductions.

“And you can say goodbye to caravan. You will be staying in luxury hotel.”

“And so this employment-what will we do?” asks Marta.

“Poultry.” Vitaly slips back into English. “You will be contributing to the dynamic resurgence of the poultry industry in the British Isles. Or as we say in Polish”-he winks at Marta-“you will be feeding chickens.”

Marta pictures herself surrounded by a happy flock of plump brown birds, who cluck and strut as she scatters handfuls of grain among them. Her heart melts.

But Tomasz whispers to Ciocia Yola, “Think of Mirek. Remember the police.”

“Yes.” Ciocia Yola looks dejected. “We want no trouble. Better we go back. If we can find some way with these idiots who are running ferryboats these days. We will try again tomorrow. What do you say, Marta?”

Before Marta can say anything, Vitaly intervenes.

“I have heard, through my contacts, that as the farmer is not killed, merely injured, is no problem with police.”

“But even if he is injured,” says Tomasz, “they must make enquiries.”

“It will be only formality. It would be pity, I think, to pass by this opportunity to earn plenty good English money. Think of investments you made in your fare for coming here. Think what luxuries you can buy for your son with this money, Yola.”

“Mhm,” says Yola. Marta can see the thoughts passing across her face.

Suddenly, there is a burst of loud merry music by her ear. Di di daah da! Di di daah da! Marta jumps. It is Vitaly’s mobile phone.

“Please excuse me!” He whips it out of his breast pocket and starts jabbering in a language that is not English, nor Polish, nor Ukrainian, nor Russian, waving his free hand in the air. He is getting very agitated. An argument seems to be developing. At one point, he covers the phone with his hand, and whispers to the others, “I’m very sorry, forgive me. Urgent business matter.”

Marta tries to catch some words, but he is talking too fast. Yola and Tomasz are conferring together, weighing up the joy of chickens against the joys of returning to Poland, when suddenly the Chinese girls appear, clutching their well-licked stubs of ice-cream cones. They stop in mid-lick and start to giggle when they recognise Vitaly. They too are amazed at his transformation.

“He has become a…what are you, Vitaly?”

Vitaly beams, stows his phone in his pocket and puts his dark glasses back on.

“Dynamic employment cutting edge fwhit fwhit recruitment consultant for all you flexible solution.”

He performs a small bow. The Chinese girls giggle even more, but Vitaly quietens them with a dramatic hand gesture, and continues in his astonishingly fluent English, “If you ladies are also seeking a new employment, I have number of interesting possibilities which I would be happy to present for your consideration.”

They exchange glances that are both nervous and excited.

“I may be able to find good position for you in Amsterdam. Have you been to Amsterdam? It is a city of extraordinary beauty, built entirely on water. Like Venice, but even better.”

“I have see pictures,” says Chinese Girl Two. “Is more beautiful than Kuala Lumpur.”

“But no doubt you have boyfriends waiting for you back in China? You girls get up to all sorts of tricks, eh?” Vitaly’s voice has become suddenly low and sweet like honey. “You naughty Chinese girls sometimes sleeping with boyfriend, eh? Make nice love?” This is more like the old smilingly sinful Vitaly than the new businessman Vitaly, thinks Marta, though she is rather surprised by his questions.

“Not boyfriend,” says Chinese Girl One. Chinese Girl Two just shakes her head sadly.

“No boyfriends. That is very good news. Well”-he consults his mobile phone again, and presses a few buttons-“I think there may be good position for you looking after children in family of diplomat. Chinese diplomat based in Amsterdam. He has six children, three boys and three girls, and you will look after three each, so that is why two persons are required. They are very intelligent children, so great care and patience are needed. You must never beat them or shout at them. Do you think you will be able to do this?”

“Yes, yes,” they exclaim. “But…”

He catches Chinese Girl Two’s eye and quickly adds, Temporary job. Three months only. Regular nannies are on vacation. “Hey, don’t be afraid, you know me. You can trust me-I am your friend, I look after you.” He winks. “You will live with this family in their large luxurious house in the heart of Amsterdam ’s old city. You will have your own elite apartment, and you will travel everywhere by boat. It is very prestigious position with high level of responsibility, and pay will be commensurate. You will be in euros.” He glances once more at his phone. “Five thousand euros per month.”

They gasp; it sounds a lot, even though they have no idea of the exchange rate from euros to pounds to yuan or ringgit. “I need to make some telephone calls to ascertain full details, and see whether this job is still available. I will meet you here tomorrow at midday. Bring your bags with you. And passports.”

“I too would be interested in such a job looking after children,” says Marta.

Suddenly, the fluffy brown chickens seem much less appealing. Vitaly looks at her, studies her for a moment, focusing his gaze on her nose, and smiles kindly.

“I think looking after chickens is better for you.”

After his disagreeable doze on the beach, Andriy decides it is time to take a look around Dover. Dog, still wearing his orange ribbon under his chin, comes with him, padding along at his side, sometimes going off to follow an interesting trail, then racing to catch up.

The sky has turned heavy and the light has a greyish, dirty hue. His head is aching from sleeping in the sun, and a cloud of pessimism has settled over him. He had felt so sure earlier that he would find Irina in Dover -a feeling based partly on a hunch, and partly on the fact that he too came into England via Dover, though with a different agent. But now he doesn’t know where to start. He finds the streets of Dover depressing: shops closed, houses and hotels run-down, people sullen, with tight faces. It feels like a town whose heart has died. In fact it reminds him of Donetsk, idlers with no work hanging about the streets, drinking, begging, just staring. Too many strangers like himself, looking for something that isn’t there, waiting for their luck to change. And all the time the dismal grating noise of the sea in the background, and the miserable wail of gulls.

As he wanders through the streets, the impossibility of his task grows on him. Where should he start to look? And why is he even looking for this girl? What happened to her has happened, and although of course you would have prevented it if you could, really she is not your responsibility. Her boxer boyfriend should be looking after her. Bye-bye, end of story.

Retracing his footsteps back to the beach, he passes a young man with a bucket and a fishing rod. He looks Ukrainian, with his round face and dark eyes, but it turns out he’s Bulgarian. He says, in a mixture of broken English, Bulgarian and Russian, that he has been fishing off the pier-he points vaguely beyond the beach-and the fish are for sale. Andriy buys a small mackerel and two other unspecified fish for fifty pence, and starts to feel more cheerful.

The others are already at the caravan by the time he gets back. The Chinese girls are sitting inside poring over their horoscopes and whispering with suppressed excitement. Tomasz has found an old piece of tarpaulin and some blue rope in the lorry park on the way back, for which he has amazing plans. Yola and Marta are eating ice creams, and Marta has brought one back for him. Emanuel has had the foresight to fill up the two empty Coca-Cola bottles with clean water from the public toilets.

Andriy feels a prickle of annoyance when they tell him about their encounter with Vitaly. Bye-bye strawberry, hm? Hello mobilfon? The others are talking excitedly about their new employment prospects. Will his pride allow him to ask Vitaly to find something for him? And if he does, will it be like the mark-up on the cans of beer-a business opportunity disguised as a favour?

“Come, Andriy,” says Marta. “It will be the last night we will all spend together. We must celebrate.” And suddenly Dog comes bounding up with a partly frozen chicken in his jaws.

Dear sister,

Our small strawberry family is at an end. The Polish mzungus are to undergo chicken employment and the Chinese girls are designed for Amsterdam. Only Andree and I and the Dog will endure in the caravan. For our celebration Toemash has induced a bottle of Italian wine and we found a field near Dover which is blessed with an abundance of carrots which Martyr confronted with eagerness. The Dog also has bestowed a frozen chicken upon us.

While Martyr was knifing the carrots Andree and I went about to collect firewood and so we fell upon a shaded hollow where we came upon Toemash and Yola walking together and talking with solemn voices. And when they came back to the caravan Yola was holding the hand of Toemash and in the other hand a pair of woman’s underwearings.

Then Toemash and Andree constructed a tip-top tent from the tarpaulin and blue rope collected by Toemash, and I was given to sleep on my own in the back of the landrover befitting my small size.

The feast prepared for us by Martyr was outstanding and also Toemash’s wine and soon it was time to sing. Toemash has composed an outstanding song about a band of travellers and their stories of love and misbehaviour which he sang with the companionship of his guitar and I would be very interesting to learn to play a guitar for Toemash has already taught me some chords. On my turn I sang the Benedictus from the B Minor Mass of Bach which Sister Theodosia taught to me and we gave thanks for the Friendship we have enjoyed together in the strawberry place. And in my heart I prayed once more to be reunited with you dear sister and for the speedy deliverance of Irina for I knew a storm was coming for the red sun went down through an angry swelling of white and grey clouds which obscured the rising of the moon.

When I had finished the chips, I licked the scraps off the paper. Then I licked the grease off the paper. Then I considered my options.

If I turned right, I would be heading towards the row of poplars and the gleaming white field. If they were the same poplars, that way would take me back to the strawberry field, where I could collect my bag and the bit of money I’d saved, and the others would look after me and help me get away. If I turned left, it would probably take me towards Dover. I’d go to the police and they would send me back to Kiev, where my mother would be waiting for me with tears in her eyes. “I warned you, Irina, but you wouldn’t listen!” she’d say, sniffling all over me. And I’d hang around in the apartment, just me and Mother and the cat, getting on each other’s nerves, wishing Pappa was there, and dreaming of coming to England.

I turned right.

The sun had gone down and the light had started to fade, and now an annoying wind had sprung up. I’d better keep moving or I’d freeze to death.

I started to walk, swinging my arms briskly by my sides for warmth because I only had a light jumper. Lucky I’d put my jeans on over my shorts the other evening, when the midges started to bite. The lane wound around between tall hedges, so most of the time I couldn’t see where I was going, sometimes climbing a bit, sometimes dropping down again. Nothing looked familiar. The row of poplars had disappeared from view altogether.

I lost track of how far I’d walked. A car passed, its headlights blazing, but it didn’t stop. Then it started to rain. I didn’t mind at first, because I was thirsty, and I stuck my tongue out to catch the water. Then my jumper started to get soaked through and I started to shiver, with the wind tugging at my wet clothes and lashing the rain into my face. This was dire!

I started to run, my head bowed into the rain, my hands stuffed down into the pockets of my jumper. Another car passed and I waved my hand, but it had already whooshed away in a cloud of spray. Just as I could feel the rain penetrating through to my skin, I came upon an old shed or garage made of corrugated iron, set back from the road. I pushed the door and it creaked open. Inside it smelt of oil, and a hulk of some old motor was rusting in the corner under a plastic sheet. There was even a chair. That was a bit of luck! I sat down. The chair wobbled. It only had three legs. Well, there was nothing for it but to sit and wait until morning.

Snug in the warmth of her bunk, Marta listens to the rain pattering on the curved roof of the caravan, a soft, intimate tapping sound, like a friend asking to be let in. She is thinking about Irina. On the other single bunk, Ciocia Yola is muttering in her sleep, engrossed in some nocturnal argument. Even in sleep, her aunt usually finds someone to berate. The raindrops get louder, more insistent. A brisk wind has picked up, rattling the lightweight panels of their fragile home and blowing through the check curtains that are drawn across the opened windows. The Chinese girls in their double bed are wide awake too, huddling close together. Ciocia Yola wins her dream argument with a final snort and gets up to close the windows. Marta puts the kettle on and spreads some slices of bread with margarine and apricot jam, and the inside of the caravan is soon warm and steamy. They all sit on the edge of the double bunk in their nightclothes, eating bread and jam, and talking in whispers for no particular reason.

Then there is another louder tapping sound outside, and men’s voices. Marta opens the door. Andriy and Tomasz are standing there looking like two wet socks on a washing line. Their awning has blown away. Although this is a women’s caravan for women only, Ciocia Yola relents when she sees how bedraggled they are.

“Come in. You can shelter from the storm.”

They towel themselves dry, and sit on the edge of the bunk too. Marta pours them steaming mugs of black sweet tea. Then she hears Dog barking softly-snoof! snoof!-and there is another knock on the door. Dog and Emanuel have come to join them. They are not wet-it was dry in the back of the Land Rover-they just want company. To have friends come from afar is a pleasure, says Emanuel, wiping his feet on the mat as he comes in.

Somehow all seven of them squeeze in, Andriy perched on a stool, Tomasz, Emanuel and Dog sitting on the floor, the women huddling up on the double bunk, drinking tea, eating the rest of the bread and jam, and listening to the rain hammering on the roof. I will always remember this night, thinks Marta. Friendship like this is a gift from God.

After a while, when they start to feel sleepy, Tomasz and Andriy stretch out in the single bunks and Emanuel curls up on the tiny floor space in between. Marta and Yola squeeze into the double bed with the Chinese girls, and Dog goes underneath. Marta, who is in the middle, has to nudge off her aunt and the nearest Chinese girl with her elbows. The girl’s weight, when she rolls down onto Marta, is surprisingly firm and warm. She wonders which of the two it is. Even though she never got to know very much about the Chinese girls, the closeness of their caravan life has made them somehow intimate.

As she drifts between sleeping and waking, Marta rehearses last night’s meal over in her head. Really, it was a masterpiece. First she fried Andriy’s fish in margarine with wild garlic leaves, and some mushrooms which Tomasz brought back from the field. She used just a splash of wine to make a delicious sauce for the chicken, which was cut into small pieces and simmered slowly in herbs and tea. It was unfortunate that their earlier shopping was so limited, she said to her aunt, with a note of reproach in her voice, but there was still some stale bread left which she cut into delicate croutons and fried lightly with a sprinkling of fresh roadside marjoram to make a tasty accompaniment. The carrots were chopped into fine julienne strips, then boiled and served with a margarine and apricot glaze. She regrets the theft of the carrots, which she knows is a sin, but prays that their owner will be rewarded in heaven, for when we feed the poor, we feed Our Lord. And although there was only a small teacup of wine each, it was enough for them to raise a toast in honour of their friendship, and a happy reunion in the unspecified future.

“To all caravan dwellers everywhere!” Tomasz said, raising his cracked cup.

In fact nobody gets very much sleep that night. They lie awake listening to the storm outside, and talking in low whispers, until at last the wind drops, the rain patters away, and the sky grows light.

Vitaly is waiting for them at the ferry terminal next day. He is talking on his phone again and looking around with an edgy, anxious air. Marta notices for the first time the restlessness in his eyes, and it makes her feel uneasy. After the intimacy of last night, his brash mobile-phone patter seems to strike a false note. But he smiles with delight when he sees them.

He has a companion with him, a young man with the same shaven head and a complexion as dark as his own, but older, with slightly coarser features and a scar across his left cheek which has caught the tip of his lip, whom he introduces as Mr Smith.

“Mr Smith will be your escort,” he says to the Chinese girls. “He will accompany you to Amsterdam and introduce you to family of distinguished diplomat. Is this not so, Mr Smith?”

Mr Smith smiles, and the scar on his upper lip pulls tight against his teeth.

“Ladies. Please come with me. You have your passports?”

He leads them through the crowd to a large silver car that is parked outside.

“Goodbye,” they say, waving their hands through the darkened glass.

Song Ying, known to the others as Chinese Girl One, comes from Guangdong Province in southern China. Her father works in a new bank in a large industrial town, and is a person of some standing in the local community. Her mother is a teacher. Song Ying is their only child, and they dote on her, sparing no expense, so she is raised with rather an elevated expectation of what her life will be. She is a bright girl, and they have paid for her to have private lessons. At nineteen, she passes the entrance exams to be accepted into the prestigious Beijing University Business School. Her parents have saved up enough money for the fees. Her course starts in the autumn. Or at least that’s when it was due to start.

Sixteen months ago, her mother became pregnant. The authorities had become lax about the one-child rule, and she thought she might get away with it, but recently, in one of their periodic bouts of orthodoxy, they have been tightening up again. She is summoned to the provincial council and given the choice of aborting the foetus or paying a substantial tax. Song Ying’s mother uses some of her savings to have an ultrasound scan done privately. The scan tells her that she is carrying a boy. Song Ying’s parents discuss the choice facing them late into the night. Her father urges her mother to have the abortion, but her mother weeps so much that in the end he relents. They go ahead and have the child; and they pay the tax.

The tax takes up all the money they have saved for Song Ying’s education and more, leaving them in debt. The baby is beautiful. He is spoiled by all the members of the family, and grows fat very quickly. Song Ying’s mother is happy and hardly notices Song Ying any more, except to tell her, “Look, you have a beautiful brother. Isn’t that enough?” Song Ying’s father takes a promotion in order to help pay the extra tax, and another night-job in a restaurant. “Don’t worry,” he tells his daughter, “I will find you a good job in the bank even without a university degree.” Song Ying cries into her pillow at night, but nobody hears.

Then Song Ying learns of a college in England where for a modest fee overseas students can enrol and get a student visa, without having to attend any classes. With a student visa, she can come to Britain to study, and still work part-time. No one will check how many hours she is working. The college will gladly confirm that she is attending classes, so long as she pays the fees. They will even help her to find a job. She can work all the hours she likes, and so favourable is the exchange rate with the yuan that, even after paying for the airfare and the college fees, the money she earns will more than fund her first year of university in Beijing-she does the calculations carefully, for she cannot afford to make a mistake. Then she applies to the college, is accepted, and signs an agreement to pay for her airfare and her fees from the wages she will earn.

The college is not what she expected-it is just some rooms above a betting shop in a shabby street miles from the centre of London. There are only four classrooms. Most of the students, like herself, have not come to study. Her job in a busy restaurant often leaves her feeling too tired to concentrate on the few English classes she does attend. Through the college, she meets Soo Lai Bee, a Malay-sian Chinese girl, who has enrolled for an English language course (the college does run some genuine courses alongside its other activities). For Song Ying, having grown up without brothers or sisters in the intensely protected environment of her parents’ home, to have the company of another girl of her age is delightful. They speak the same language, and they have so much to talk about. Soo Lai Bee is sympathetic to her troubles, and has problems of her own to share. They become inseparable. When the college puts out information about the strawberry-picking job, and offers to provide (for a fee, of course) the requisite papers declaring that they are students of agriculture, they both decide on the spur of the moment to give it a try.

Although the college found Song Ying the strawberry-picking job, she has not yet earned enough to pay her college fees, let alone save enough for university. However, she is hard-working, intelligent and ambitious. Surely she will find a way to achieve her dream?

To be Chinese in Malaysia you have to be twice as clever and work twice as hard to get anywhere, that’s what Soo Lai Bee’s father told her. Even then, it’s not always enough. So when Soo Lai Bee, known to the others as Chinese Girl Two, got five straight A’s in her STPM exams and still failed to get a place in medical school, while a number of Bumiputra Malay students with lower grades got quota places, her hopes were dashed. It’s because the Chinese are too successful in Malaysia, her father muttered darkly. If the majority Bumiputra population gets resentful, there will be riots against the Chinese. Look at Indonesia. Even so, it rankled. Her parents, who were ambitious for her, agreed that she should study in England.

Yes, it would cost a lot of money. But her father had funds, having built up a successful family construction business. If you’re Chinese in Malaysia, the only way to do business is to team up with a Bumiputra company. They get the contract, under regulations which restrict granting of contracts to non-Malays, then you buy the contract from them. They get the business, you do the work, the law is observed, and everybody is happy.

In fact Soo Lai Bee’s father got on quite well with his Bumiputra business partner, Abdul Ismail, who had made his millions selling on Bumiputra-quota car-import permits to the Chinese, and dabbled in construction contracts as a sideline; they even met socially sometimes. It was at one of these gatherings that Soo Lai Bee met Zia Ismail, his son. It was partly the fact that he was Bumiputra that attracted her to him; it was partly the fact that she was not Malay that attracted him to her. It is the privilege of young people to fall in love with the wrong person, and they did.

Abdul Ismail was furious. He gave his business partner an ultimatum: break up the relationship, or break up the business partnership. Soo Lai Bee wept and wept, but really, there was no choice. Her mother and two older sisters put pressure on her. Her father warned that without the business partnership, and the lucrative public sector contracts, there would be no fees to fund her English university education. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you, said Zia Ismail.

Her English medical school place was conditional on her achieving a Grade 7 in the International English Language Test, and her parents thought it best to get her out of the way at once. She signed up with a college for overseas students in London. Within two weeks of her departure for England, Soo Lai Bee learnt that Zia was engaged to someone else.

At first she was sad, then she was furious, then she was glad to be away from home, and in a new country where nobody cared what race you were. At the college, she made friends with Song Ying, another Chinese girl, who wasn’t even studying but just needed a work permit. They talked for hours about mothers, fathers, boyfriends, brothers, sisters, Poles, Ukrainians, Malays and Englishes. They laughed and cried together. They went off to pick strawberries together. They went off to Amsterdam together.

Two Caravans | Two Caravans | Buttercup Meadow