Short Fiction ~ Emma Venables
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
The pram protests the potholes on Budapester Strasse I throw all my weight against it and almost laugh – I’ve lost so much of myself these past few months that my force is meagre. I hear myself groan with the effort, expending energy I can’t afford to lose, but the pram chunters forwards and I manage to save myself from meeting the mud, the sand, the fragments of lives long lost.
I straighten my spine, listen to its crick and crack. Almost gasp with the relief. I let go of the pram for a moment, push my hands to my head and try to dispel the thoughts, the acknowledgement of all kinds of hurt, with pressure on my temples, my cheeks, my jaw. Something my mother used to do, to herself and me, when motherhood and childhood got too much for us both.
A man walks towards me. I try to make myself compact – chin down, eyes down, shoulders hunched forwards – as if I can somehow infantilise myself at will: become a child pushing a dolls’ pram, rather than the grown woman I am. I sidestep as he gets closer. My ankles wobble against the earth’s camber. I hear the thrum of my pulse. He does not reach for me, does not drag me to the darkest places amidst the rubble and tear at my clothes. I turn and watch him until the debris conceals all but the top of his head, and then I take the pram’s handlebar and continue on my way.
Now isn’t the time to wonder how I’m going to make it home, but I find myself drawing the journey in my mind, illustrating it with Berlin’s jagged edges – the broken arm of the standpipe on Pariser Strasse, the body of the National Socialist hanging from the lamppost on Augsburger Strasse, the gaping shop fronts on the Kufürstendamm that look like mouths with fangs ready to sink into looting flesh – us Berliners continue to rummage, continue to hope, despite knowing there’s nothing left.
I inhale, feel the city’s dust-laden air clog up my lungs and cough it out. Would the journey be easier, more worthwhile, if I had someone waiting for me in the lopsided apartment with the cracked windowpanes? If I were to open the door to my mother’s cool hands upon my forehead, her relief that I made it home in one piece, with the twigs I’ve managed to pilfer from the Tiergarten? If Walter were to enter the hallway moments after me and wrap his arms around my waist, rest his chin on my parting and ignore the tickle of lice, the scent of unwashed hair? These ghosts, voices, questions mingle with the pram’s rattle in my mind. Tinnitus for the defeated.
I lift my face to the sky. Rain has begun to fall. Patches of moisture form on my shoulders. My hair clumps about my ears. I rub my breasts, frown to stop myself from sobbing at the damp patches on my dress. I’m not sure if they’re from the rain or from expectation unmet. I want to bash my chest for not being enough for her, for its insistence on continuing to try several days after I laid her beneath the broken cobblestones in the courtyard. Makeshift grave. Makeshift crucifix. Makeshift prayers.
I push the pram around the corner. My knuckles blanch with the effort of keeping it upright. I notice a woman walking on the other side of the street. My heart slumps in my chest. I want to avoid the women as much as I want to avoid the men. She smiles at me, raises her hand in a half-wave. I squint in an effort to unblur her edges, try to find some familiarity in her threadbare coat, laddered tights, the toes that peep through her shoes. She must be about sixty, but then again, we all look older than our years nowadays.
The woman walks towards me, ankles skirting the rubble. I wince as she misses a piece of cracked guttering by a hair’s breadth. She doesn’t notice her surroundings. Her eyes are fixed on me. I know what’s coming and I don’t know if I can bear it once more. I’d spin around, pram and all, and walk in the opposite direction if I could, but I don’t have the energy, the coordination, the navigation skills to get home through streets I once knew by heart but now I can no longer differentiate between one bombed-out block and the next.
And so, I wait. I wait for bony fingers on the pram’s hood. I wait for the sag of the pram against the woman’s weight. I wait for the woman’s features to draw into the expression older women seem to have when bending to greet the next generation. I wait for her to step back, hands to her cheeks. I wait for her to put her hand on my arm, shake her head. I wait for her to give me her only handkerchief to help soak up the milky mess blooming on my dress. I wait for her to walk away, the fingers on one hand poised as if still clutching the pram’s hood and her head bowed, mourning the silence, the presence of wooden limbs where chubby flesh should rest.
I wait like a woman in line for the guillotine as the other woman walks past; she keeps her eyes on the ground and her hands in her frayed pockets. I watch her until she disappears from view and feel the loneliness that comes from loss and avoidance. Could I call her back? Beg her to look at, to acknowledge, the branches gathered where my daughter should be with her fists jammed into her mouth and her belly convex with nourishment? I shake my head. I would laugh at myself if I had the energy. I lean my weight against the pram, force it forwards in the direction of home.
Emma Venables' short and flash fiction has been published in magazines and journals such as Mslexia, Lunate, and The Cabinet of Heed. Her short story, ‘Woman at Gunpoint, 1945’ was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.