In the Camps

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‘In the Camps’ was first published in Reasoning: Twenty Stories.

A pair of buzzards were patrolling the fields at Weissbirken, behind the Enescus’ house. Noel was fetching wine from the car, and he stopped to admire their slow circling, their distant exchange of cries. At the table he mentioned them to the Enescus as a simple thing Londoners can enjoy. He had been in the Waldviertel since the start of the year, and even the disease that was thinning their numbers could not spoil his happiness.

Nicolae stopped uncorking the bottle to listen, but offered no reply. A prisoner in Romania until he accepted deportation, he had learnt to keep his observations inward, preferring freedom of silence to freedom of speech. When Noel had finished, he resumed turning the corkscrew, and Mira said, serving soup from a tureen, ‘My husband likes walking and looking at birds. You should go with him; he would enjoy company.’

‘But you’re a walker as well,’ said Noel.

She had shown him her photograph, in breeches with an alpenstock, sitting on a bench in the Viennese Woods. She smiled with pride at the reference, but said, ‘I walk as far as the front of the church, for the bread. And since Nicolae retired, he needs scientists to talk to.’

‘And since you can’t go walking with him, does he go to Mass with you?’

‘Perhaps you should come walking with me next Sunday,’ said Nicolae.

Noel accepted, and ate his soup. A single man with married friends, he had learnt to know the husband by observing the wife: alone with Nicolae, he would lose that advantage. He also shunned closeness with older people, afraid of revealing a vacuum inside him. He observed, ‘For a Greek Orthodox, life in Austria must be strange.’

‘But we are not Greek Orthodox. Nicolae cuts things apart; he has no religion. And I am from the Carpathian Mountains – Roman Catholic area.’

‘Then was it difficult to worship in Romania?’

‘No, not so difficult. In the mountains they left us alone – we are Ruthenian, not true Romanian, and nobody care what we believe. In Tulcea it was hard to find Catholic churches, and then I worshipped as Orthodox.’

‘Mira is versatile,’ said Nicolae.

He had said it playfully, and she responded in kind. ‘Poof! My husband always like trouble! We live in a democratic country, a country he choose, and even here he do not like the law, he say the law is like donkey!’ She rose with brisk affection to clear the table. Nicolae said, ‘But even she turned criminal for a while, when she was living as a refugee.’

‘How so?’ said Noel, intrigued.

‘By cleaning for local housewives illegally, like so many refugees! They think we must sit in the Pension all day, being robbed by the people who should serve us?’ She was serving fish casserole from the sideboard. ‘I do not like Austrian women. In the church they nod and say Grüss Gott, but mean nothing. As char-woman they treat you like skivvy. Sometimes they send old clothes to the Pension, even take you walking in the forest. But they say they do not like these dirty refugees; refugees are damaging Austria!’

‘But at least you’ve found a free country,’ said Noel.

‘There are no free countries,’ said Mira. ‘Always there are visas and customs men; everywhere there are police.’

‘So you mind your own business.’

‘In Ruthenia I am Ruthenian Catholic. In Tulcea, after we marry, I am Orthodox. That is all right; religion is dying, but it bring us closer to Communism. For Nicolae also I should not believe, but even Nicolae does not ask reasoning from a woman. He know I creep to church when he is out walking, and tell himself it is not his business. God forgives. But the people like Baptists, who try to change everyone – they are always in trouble.’

‘It’s true,’ said Nicolae. ‘I met Baptists in prison.’

‘Nicolae met all kinds of clever people. There were people who went to the prison to say they believe in God, and people who went to the prison to say they believe in nothing. But no one went to the prison for being God-fearing people. Sometimes I think it was harder to live in a Pension than to live in the camps.’

‘How long were you there?’

‘Ten years a refugee, while I wait for Nicolae.’

‘But you did wait.’

‘God helped me trust him,’ said Mira.

He was only in Austria for another six months, and had not intended friendship with the Enescus. He was working for an institution that was interested in the buzzards, tagging and taking blood from live specimens to see why some survived the disease and some did not. There was evidence that the disease could spread to cattle, and it was necessary to remind local farmers that wild birds were protected by law. He also had a dinner date, not successful.

He drove to Weissbirken on Sunday morning, to find Nicolae already waiting by the open front door, with a walking stick and a canvas knapsack beside him on the step. He looked both wily and innocent, like some unexpected hero from German folklore: the tailor who kills seven flies with a blow, and wins a kingdom by boasting; the traveller whose knapsack conjures forth armed men. He had a map, and showed Noel the route to Spittal, a village ten kilometres away.

It was March and the trees were still bare, though the roadsides were bright with celandines. At scattered houses, villagers tended to flowerbeds or mowed their lawns, or fetched firewood from log-piles under the eaves. Occasional Sunday traffic moved sedately past. They had passed the church at the end of Weissbirken when Noel looked down sloping pasture towards the main road and the river, and the woods beyond. The mewing of buzzards reached him through gaps in the breeze.

‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘how dead it all seems. The sun is out and the first flowers are appearing, but you look across the valley and all the trees are still bare of leaves. What are we looking at – is it spring or winter, life or death?’

‘In Romania,’ said Nicolae, ‘I learned trust in small things.’

He was walking with face averted in shadow, his pace stoical, his stick striking evenly on the metal road. ‘There was a cold spring once, and all of us were hungry. We were in Tulcea, building Ceauşescu’s new brothel, not far from my native village. The longing for home was terrible.

‘We started laying traps for the birds, and one day we caught a heron. They are not good to eat, but we would have killed it anyway if its nesting partner had not been close by.’ He stopped speaking. ‘If you survive, but without dignity, did you really survive? Or what if you die with your identity intact?’

‘So what did you do?’ said Noel.

‘We let it go, and off they flew together. We felt at the time it was worth hunger. Like us, they survived.’

He continued, ‘It’s strange how the smallest things seemed most important. The self-satisfied sound of an anarchist’s snore, a pompous bore of a party official with his endless petitions to the government for release. But later that spring I saw the sundew in flower. And every Sunday, on her afternoon off, Mira would put on her best dress and walk down the road past the camp. I looked forward to those sightings as much as when we were courting, and even Ceauşescu couldn’t take them away.’

Nicolae had set the pace of their walking. He had moved steadily for some time, still swinging his stick monotonously, perhaps less for support than to still restlessness. But now his breathing quickened; he moved more slowly; and Noel, who had begun to fear him, remembered he was old.

He stopped abruptly by the turning to a farm. In the smoke of spring bonfires it stood back from the road, semicircled by trees. Nicolae sat down on the verge while Noel politely gazed away, towards a field where a farmer was shooting crows. The man stopped every minute to reload his shotgun while the crows rose cawing their confusion from the wood. Two buzzards rose with them. The man took aim and one fell at his shot; immediately the second one followed it.

‘Did you see that?’ said Nicolae, breathless, on his feet.

‘I’m a witness,’ Noel said. ‘We’ll report him when we get home.’

‘Can you wait till then?’ said Nicolae. ‘Do you realise how much damage he could do in that time?’

‘It’s a matter for the police,’ said Noel. ‘Let’s go back.’

Nicolae made a decision, and it was the end of Noel’s friendship with the Enescus. When he marched across the field to remonstrate with the farmer; when the farmer, ignoring him, raised his gun to shoot, and Nicolae grabbed the barrel so that the shot went wide; when the farmer became so threatening that Noel was forced to go and defend him, all this forced an intimacy that nothing could have made him accept.

The farmer’s wife saw the fighting, and called the Polizei. Later, when Noel was giving his statement, he was asked why Nicolae had resisted arrest: why he fled when the police arrived; why they had to chase him across two fields; why, when they caught him, he so struggled and screamed that at last they were forced to use handcuffs to quiet him.

And at the station, once they had all been separately questioned, when it was found that his account and the farmer’s agreed, and when the sergeant agreed that there would be no charges, came the painful necessity of the phone call to Mira. And since Nicolae would neither speak to policemen nor listen to them, it was also Noel’s part to tell him that Mira was coming and the police were letting him go.

He looked grey and vulnerable, sitting in the interview room, clutching his knapsack across his chest as though it might still throw forth armed men to defend him. He asked, with feeble hope, ‘And the farmer?’

‘They’re not charging anyone.’

‘She’ll call me a fool,’ said Nicolae.

Years later, with the falcons at Bradgate Park, Noel had to kill a hobby that had been shot down and cruelly bated. It made him think about the buzzards, partly because it was one of a nesting pair, partly because he felt Nicolae’s rage.

He tried telling his current companion about the Enescus, with halting and shame since it meant revealing a vacuum inside him. He said, you try to enjoy the fruits of living, but a part of you is still in the camps. You can share friendship, even love, but you never forget your own suffering. ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ she said; ‘trust me.’ She loved him. You don’t understand, he said. If people trusted each other, the world would be filled with their screaming. She took his hands in hers and held them.

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