The first time I saw her, she was a thin, scrawny little scrap of humanity, of maybe about 9 or 10. Blonde hair stuck to her face by wind and rain, her little hooded coat less than adequate against the bitter north-east wind. Her enormous blue eyes gazing in wonder as she grasped her Father’s hand and trooped up the hill towards her new home. Even in those faded clothes she seemed to glow, as though she was lit from within and to my young, boyish eyes, she looked like an angel, something not of this world. She turned and glanced at us, shyly, then averted her gaze and marched stoically onwards, her battered suitcase banging against her thin little legs as she struggled up the steep incline.
It was the late 1960s and Pete, Gordon and I were out on our bikes, as usual. Hanging around shop doorways, hoping we could persuade some grown-up to go in and purchase ten Woodbines, with our hard-earned pocket money. The local tobacconist had got wise to us and threatened to tell our parents if he caught us smoking again. And so, we hung about, trying to look cool; well, as cool as our 12 years would allow !
So, there we were, watching the two foreigners walking up the hill.
I knew they were foreigners ………… I knew all about them. My Dad worked for the Council and he had heard, from someone in the Housing Department, who, in turn, had been told by one of the Housing Officers, that the incomers were from some Eastern Bloc country. The Father was a political emigre, or something like that. I had listened, thrilled, as Dad told Mum how the chap had been jailed for his beliefs.
I had no real idea what “dissident” or “asylum” meant; but it all sounded very ‘cloak and dagger’ and I had been longing to see what this strange man would be like. I imagined some huge, muscular soldier, rather like the heroic characters in my comic-books. Strong and defiant, with a determined chin and steely eyes. But my imagination had never prepared me for the reality.
He was tall, dark and very thin, as thin as his daughter. His face was gaunt and his eyes sunk into his skull, giving him an almost skeletal-like appearance. At 12 years old, I knew nothing of the hardships he had endured; of the torture, both mental and physical he had suffered, but as I looked across the street and into his haunted eyes, I felt some of the misery and was ashamed of my disappointment in his appearance.
The next time I saw the girl was about two weeks later. Pete and I were going to the park to kick a ball around with some other lads. Poor old Gordon was laid up with the chicken-pox and we had waved to him through his window. We reached the beck and saw a group of kids hanging about near the old tree. Years ago, someone had fastened a thick rope to an over-hanging branch and we boys and a couple of the braver girls, used this rope to swing out over the beck, emulating Tarzan and other heroes of the Saturday Cinema matinees.
A female figure was lying on the ground and, at first, I thought one of the lasses had scattily let go of the rope and crashed to the ground, but as we drew nearer, I saw it was the blonde angel, the little foreign girl and she was crying.
Children can be so cruel and anyone who is ‘different’ was always ‘fair game’ and the angel was certainly different.
She had been taunted because she spoke with a strange accent; her English was limited; her clothes were shoddy; all manner of reasons. I dropped my bike and yelled at the other kids, telling them to leave her alone. As one of the older boys, I commanded quite a bit of respect and so they ceased their taunting and shoving and parted to let me pass. The angel was sobbing softly and a large cut on her leg was bleeding profusely. I dug in my pocket and pulled out a grubby hankie, then, licking it, as I had seen Mum do, I dabbed at the blood and then tied the hankie, like a bandage, around her leg. She looked up at me with those luminous eyes and managed a wavering little smile, then, in a soft voice, she warbled her thanks. My adolescent heart melted, but I was aware of a dozen pairs of eyes burning into my back, so I gruffly muttered that it was “OK” and helped her to her feet.
Even Pete seemed captivated and suggested we take her home. So we pushed our bikes and strolled slowly as she limped alongside and, in her broken English, she told us her name was Iraina and that her Mother had died of pneumonia a year ago, while her Father was still imprisoned. She told of their escape from behind the Iron Curtain; of the hardships they had endured and of her delight at being safe in Britain. She told us how she wanted to become British, and be accepted. No longer have doors slammed in her face. How she wanted to be just like all the other girls, she wanted to ‘fit in’.
I guess I became her ‘minder’ after that and secretly reveled in the role. Iraina was still at Junior School and we Grammar School lads certainly would not be seen with those ‘little kids’, but after tea I would cycle down to the beck and casually hang around, pretending to be waiting for Gordon or Pete, but secretly keeping an eye on her. Iraina always looked over and nodded shyly and then she would smile and her beautiful eyes would light up and my stomach would lurch and I felt as though I was flying, floating blissfully on a cloud.
Each time I saw Iraina, she had changed slightly. Oh, the blonde hair, blue eyes and angel-like face were still there, but it was her attitude. She seemed a little more confident, more forward. Her English improved and her accent was hardly noticeable. I noted that she was often in the company of much older, more ‘knowing’ girls. …………..The ones that hung around, smoking and flirting with boys. By now she had gone on to the Secondary Modern School and a lot of her new friends were unfamiliar, but I was becoming old enough to see that they were leading her astray.
One evening I saw her lounging about outside the chip shop. Her limpid eyes were plastered with thick, black makeup and I’m sure her Father would not have approved of the length of her skirt. But I thought she looked beautiful. She was with a group of girls I had never seen before and she was far lovelier than any of them. She smiled her gorgeous smile and called me over, acting like Queen Bee. Then held onto my arm in a proprietary way and I almost burst with pride. We walked back to her house and I was glad to discover that she was still the same lovely girl, when she lowered the bright, brittle image that she had so carefully constructed.
We talked about many things; about her Father, whose health was failing and about my A levels and hopes of going to University. I said I would graduate and get a marvellous job and we would live together in splendour and she giggled and joked, little knowing that I was semi-serious. She spoke of her new friends, of their big houses with patios and conservatories and how she was finally accepted, how she was ‘fitting in’.
I saw very little of Iraina for a couple of years as I was studying hard, determined to do well, still secretly harbouring my dream of a life together. Also, we moved in such different circles. However, we did meet occasionally and each time I saw her I knew she was my soulmate; that what I had felt, all those years ago was, in fact, love. Inside, she was always her usual, lovely self, but her veneer of sophistication was more polished. The makeup was elaborate, the hair teased and lacquered, the clothes more revealing and the high-heels positively gravity-defying. She was running with a very wild crowd now and I voiced my concern for her safety.
Iraina just laughed, a tinkly, sparkling little laugh and told me I was being silly. She said I was ‘old-fashioned’ , that her clothes were the latest fashion and that this was how she had to act if she wanted to be ‘one of the crowd’. She told me not to worry, that she was still my Iraina, that it was all for show.
We said our farewells the day I went off to Uni, I had done well in my exams and had been accepted at Edinburgh University, to study Medicine. She promised to keep in touch, but as I kissed her goodbye, my heart was strangely heavy. I wrote every day and, for a while, so did she.
The last time I saw Iraina was a few years later. I had got my Degree and gone on to study Pathology, then, after qualifying I secured a position back in my home town.
The body was wheeled in and the sheet that was covering it was removed. There she lay, her blonde hair spread out around her shoulders; her beautiful blue eyes staring coldly into space. Her flimsy blouse was ripped, her skirt pulled up over her hips and her panties were missing. The deep purple marks around her slender neck had probably been the cause of her death, that or the many needle marks on her arms.
This is a Word Game from a couple of years ago ……
The words to be included were;
TROOPED, JAILED, SOULMATE, PATIOS, MINDER, WARBLED, GRASPED, SCATTILY, DOORS, PANTIES, EMIGRE.