Between feeding her six month old baby, my daughter read out the harrowing account from Lesbos of unrelenting rain, desperation on all sides and Syrian children dying.
The name Marah is from the book of Exodus – a hard place. Under fireworks, Marah, the Stroud charity held a sleep out on Thursday night in Saint Lawrence churchyard in recognition of homelessness.
Earlier that day at the Independence Trust I had a conversation with someone who told of twenty years of heroin addiction, alcoholism and homelessness. Not having used alcohol or drugs for months, what was helping most? His dog he said.
Twenty five years ago I wrote ‘Platerest Fireworks.’ Platerest was a place near Bucharest where there was an awful so-called orphanage: Windows with no glass, spasmodic running water, dodgy wiring and no light bulbs. A coach arrived on 5 Nov from Cornwall and amongst the contents was a box of bulbs. With a Leonard Cohen-like drone in mind, I wrote this then.
Late afternoon on the fifth of November
Darkness was closing on tiny hands frozen
Like hatched little birds without any words
What do they know and remember?
There they remain on the fifth of November
Filaments broken in darkness unspoken
Silent as time, how they could shine
What do they know and remember?
The fifth of November, cross Europe to bring here
Matresses, towels and a box of light bulbs
What should we give, how should we live
What do we know and remember?
The night of the fireworks, the fifth of November
Screwing the bulbs in and switching the switch on
They clapped and they cheered, lit up through tears
What did they see and remember?
The fifth of November, something still remains there
But beauty is candlelight silent on Christmas night
What will they see and where will they be
Where will they be in December?
Multiply that today by n. For me things are linking up. Through stone carving I have made friends at Marah and it was suggested I drop-in at the Independence Trust above the launderette. There a group of us photocopied and hand stitched Haiku Hiking. Stuart had already posted it on his blog ‘Radical Stroud’. On Tuesday the mindful meditators, who meet in silence at St Laurence Church at 8am, gave money for copies and Ruth at R&R Books displayed them in her shop window. By then Clare at Made In Stroud had begun collecting for refugees and on Friday I poured the Haiku Hiking takings into her fish bowl fund. Standing at the counter was Richard, a doctor who has just been to Calais with aid and on Sunday flies to Lesbos. He will take the cash to buy blankets and food.
From Marah in Stroud to Lesbos, a hard place.
Now another piece of moving writing from James about refugees and our country and citizens:
Shrouded in overcoats and headscarves two figures waited outside the barracks as Easter night snow swirled around them. The suspension sunk and the baby started to cry when they squeezed into the back of the Citroen.
“La la la” cooed one of the old women in Slavonic tones. This was Antonina. The baby gazed at her and quietened. White flakes, illuminated in the headlights, swirled dancing in the dark.
Outside the little church the congregation had gathered. Censor swung, charcoal glowed, incense smouldered and bubbled; fragrance drifted, candles fluttered, guttered, hissing in the falling snow, blown out in gusts to be relit again and again.
“Thy Resurrection O Lord … we glorify,” they sung and processed.
The server bearing the icon, stepped aside for the bishop to hammer on the door with the cross.
The door opened, light flowed out. “Christos Vosgrecia” he proclaimed.
“Voyesinus vocgreci,” they cried in reply.
Bells jangled, the baby sat up wide eyed.
“Cristos Anesti .
“Christ is Risen.
“He is Risen indeed.
“This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it …,” sang the choir.
“ … in this garden which Thine own hand has planted,” he chanted.
“Parky parky vospa depomorinsa” sung the deacon swinging the censor with rhythmic vigour.
Saint Anne’s church grew dense with incense. Candles burned, wax dripped, the baby slept and Antonina insisted on holding her throughout the night. Next to her Xenia stood solid. Had they known each other as girls even before 1914 in Pinz, Belarus? Were they in Siberia together? Xenia was taller and looked stronger. Both their faces were deeply lined. They had certainly shared the same barrack in the Devon camp for the last forty years.
Olga stood on the other side. Frail in a fur coat, her neck dressed with a necklace of pearls. She was much the same age, the daughter of a grand duchess from St Petersburg, escaping to Paris in 1917 then London. Her sons were diplomats.
“Again and again: Gospedi, Christ is Risen …”
Tables were fully laden, the feast awaited in the hall. “The calf is fatted” and as dawn began to break the priest blessed the pile of painted eggs, pashca and kulitch sprinkling holy water.
The bishop, Metropolitan Anthony, sat with Antonina and they talked together. He understood her.
The baby had no grandparents and in the years that followed as she grew up, in a way Antonina was her grandmother, her babushka.
Antonina never mastered English. She had been a refugee all her adult life. Married young of peasant stock her husband was a wood cutter in a Czarist forest in Belarus, Little Russia. Come 1917 and the Bolsheviks, the young couple with countless others were sent to Siberia. In the cattle truck there was dysentery and her sick husband was ordered off, almost certainly to be shot but she never knew.
Through the twenties and thirties, her twenties and thirties, she was in Siberian camps.
Come 1941, Operation Barbarossa, and the displaced multitude in Siberia were ordered out again.
[Boots with felt insides were for sale in Stroud. I bought a pair and trekked off in them to the dentist in Dursley. When I arrived the boots were covered in mud so I left them outside. Sat in the waiting room wearing just the felt insides, an elderly gentleman approached.
“I have not seen boots like that since I was a boy,” he said in a broken accent. “I used to make them in Siberia. We would dip them in water and they froze immediately with a coating of ice. They kept me alive.”
He explained he was Polish and his parents were dead. Alone he had crossed Europe somehow and by the end of the war he was in Palestine where he became a British army cadet. Demobbed he came here, worked for Listers and married a Dursley girl …]
Horrific accounts are told of the long marches from Siberia after Stalin entered the war as an ally of the West. Antonina’s journey took her both to India and Africa, where one of her kidneys was removed.
Prior to D Day, South Devon had been the base for thousands of US troops. By the end of the war the semi-circular corrugated asbestos rooved barrack huts at Stover near Newton Abbot were vacant. It became known as Little Poland. It was said, some housed there were not Polish and Catholic but Orthodox. They claimed to be Polish as many Russians at the end of the war were sent back and shot by the Soviets within sight of the British escort. Antonina and Xenia never hid their backgrounds or their faith.
Mr Small was the name she would speak of with most fondness and gratitude. He had been the manager of the camp and probably in the 1960s or even 70s, had arranged for the barracks to be partitioned. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they had rooms of their own. On her wall there was a photo of the baby, my daughter, never having been children of her own. Now my daughter herself has a baby.
Antonina had an electric kettle and in it she would boil eggs for Easter. There was also a wooden cased wireless given by Mr Small. When the valves glow ‘Vienna, Vatican, Riga, Sofia, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Bolzano, Kiev, Moscow …’ are illuminated on the glass dial.
‘Memory eternal Antonina; refugee and a saint.