The Letter

FictionIssue Four

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By Chris Childs

 

I try not to retch at the sickening stench of boiled cabbage. The queue is moving slowly, but no one complains. Nightmares of starvation, and worse, still visit us all in our sleeping hours, even though many years have passed since then. Food at Broadmeadows migrant camp is bland and stodgy; generally a combination of over-cooked mutton, lumpy mashed potatoes and my old enemy, boiled cabbage, but it is enough to keep us alive. It warms our stomachs, if not our souls. Usually the men queue in silence; cracked enamel plates, cups and trays in hand, performing this last remaining ritual of male provider. Empty shells, with dead fish eyes.

 

I reluctantly join the queue today. Stanislaw is lying, slothfully on the bed in our converted army hut, staring vacantly at the corrugated iron ceiling. He had another rough night with no sleep. Last night I tried to block out the noise of him pacing around the hut and his nonsensical muttering. He was really starting to frighten me. I worry he is losing his mind. His mood changes from withdrawn and non-communicative, to angry and argumentative, especially when I show an interest in having fun with the others. I want to forget the war, Hitler and those other camps; start to live a little in this new and strange country, so very far from Europe. It isn’t much, but Broadmeadows migrant camp has card nights and weekly socials in the mess hall. Music. Dancing. At eighteen, I am still young enough to want to dance. I want to dance and dance until I can forget everything that has happened.

 

Stanislaw can’t forget. As time goes by he seems to be going backwards. He’s become more disconnected from day-to-day life, drawn more and more into past memories, horrors of the war, and what they did to his loved ones. Like many others he lost almost everything in the war. Before the war he’d been a young man full of hope and dreams.  Career. Home. Family. Now long gone.

 

We found each other in the war’s aftermath, two lone refugees with no one, or nowhere, to go home to. I was drawn to his decisive, take-charge personality. He was a decade older than me. He seemed wise and always knew what to do next to keep moving.  Kind and considerate, he treated me as if I was a lady. He helped me see we could have a future. Perhaps it was a different future to what we’d planned, but it was one where we were together, in a peaceful land. Was it love? I thought it was, back then. I’m not so sure anymore. Now that Stanislaw has lost his way. I need him back. I feel so alone and confused.

 

‘Anna.’

 

Marek interrupted my train of thought, whispering my name, as he walked towards me. He caught my eye meaningfully as he approached and mumbled something I didn’t catch. Lettuce? Let us? I struggled to understand what he was saying.

 

Our tin trays bashed noisily together as he came closer and I felt my cheeks flush red. I remembered how he had held me as we danced last Saturday night. I remember the smell of his skin, the lightness of his step, my husband’s jealous stares. Later, I tried to reassure Stanislaw that it was nothing, that I’d much rather dance with him, if only he’d allow himself some happiness. His disapproving back formed a wall between us, as we lay sleeplessly that night.

 

“Hey lady! What’s the hold up?”

 

Thoughts of Saturday night were forced out of my mind, as I was rudely jolted back to reality. The queue had disappeared and the cook’s assistant, dripping ladle poised mid-air, was looking at me with exasperation. I hastily placed my tray on the steel bench. As I did, I saw something pale blue sticking out from under one of my empty plates.  Curious, I pulled it out. It was an envelope with my name scrawled across it. I gasped with surprise and quickly crammed it into my skirt pocket, hoping no one had noticed. The cook’s assistant was still waiting for me to slide my tray across so he could start spooning slop. I mumbled an apology and moved along, forcing myself to go through the motions until I could slip away and discover the contents of the envelope.

 

I raced back to the hut with our meals. We ate in silence perched side by side on the camp bed, Stanislaw locked in his world of memories and I immobilised by what unknown message was in my pocket. Finally, my husband grunted that he was going outside for a cigarette. Now that I was alone with the envelope, I hesitated. My heart raced uncontrollably. I was being overly dramatic.

Just open it, for God’s sake.

 

My beautiful A

I can’t stop thinking about you and how we belong together. S is wrong for you. You will never be happy with him. Please run away with me to Tasmania. We can start a new life there. Get married! I have something that you can slip into S’s food. He won’t suffer and you can be free of him forever. Please meet me in my hut tonight. I will leave my door unlocked.

I love you forever, M

 

I heard Stanislaw’s cough as he approached the hut. Panicking I shoved the letter back into the envelope, folded it into a tight wedge and jammed it into a crack under the window frame. I’d have to dispose of it later when Stanislaw was asleep. How to deal with its sender would also have to wait.

 

It was the following day before I had the opportunity to tackle Marek. Stanislaw had been unusually attentive and, other than a quick visit to the shower block at first light while I was still sleeping, he’d not let me out of his sight. It was mid-afternoon before he announced he was tired. He rolled over on top of the bed and began snoring loudly. I picked up my shoes and crept towards the door. The letter was still wedged in its temporary home, protruding more than I remembered. I really had to be more careful, I thought as I pushed it deeper into the cavity. I dared not remove it now. The rustling paper was likely to awaken Stanislaw.

 

I pulled the door gently behind me and rushed up the path towards the camp’s edge. I had to warn Marek to stop sending me letters, to forget all about me. Things had gone too far. What I had thought of as harmless flirting had turned into a serious obsession on Marek’s part. I loved my husband. He was my past, present and my future. My decision was made. This ridiculous, romantic lust had to stop now, before it got out of hand.

 

Marek’s door was slightly ajar. Good, I’ve caught him in. I needed to say my piece quickly and race back to my sleeping husband before he stirred.

 

I smelled it first; the unmistakable sweet, sickly smell that had become so familiar back in Europe. Blood. Human blood. My throat constricted and I gulped for air, my hand was welded to the door handle. Marek lay motionless on the linoleum floor in a pool of drying blood. His mouth hung open in a silent scream, his eyes wide and staring. Marek’s blue and white striped cotton pajamas looked ridiculously out of place in this macabre scene.

 

The familiar yellow hilt of a small axe protruded from Marek’s skull.

 

“Oh, Stanislaw, what have you done?” I sobbed under my breath.

 

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THE FACTS

This is based on a true story. Names have been changed out of respect for the descendants of the accused man and his wife, but are available on public record, including newspaper accounts of the time.

On 6 September 1949, at Broadmeadows Migrant Hostel, a 27 year-old migrant was found dead with an axe in his skull. Within days a fellow migrant was charged with his murder. The accused man’s wife explained that she had received unwelcome advances, including love letters, from the deceased man, who had misinterpreted their friendship. The deceased man had urged her to kill her husband with poison and then run away with him to Tasmania, to start a new life as man and wife.

Whilst awaiting trial the accused man attempted suicide. There was much public sentiment expressed in the media that a victim of torture under the Nazis, and a cuckolded husband, should be treated leniently. He was found guilty and sentenced to eight years’ prison for manslaughter. In prison he was given psychiatric treatment, including electric shock treatment for depression. A later retrial determined he had been temporarily insane at the time of the murder and therefore not responsible for his actions. In modern times he would probably have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was released and reunited with his wife in mid-1950.

 

Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.