6.07 / London Calling

Bábochka (Butterfly)

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Sometimes, at work, the fur was so soft beneath her fingers that Hannah felt she might be sick.  The colours on the tips were not the same the whole way down – the surface might be dark grey, but part it, look along the shaft and the hairs were gold, red, tawny, bronze, sometimes five or six different shades that you’d never see unless you studied each one individually.  That was what made it so beautiful.  The way it changed when you turned it in the light.

The girl strode into the shop, growled a few words in the most backwater Russian then thumped a soft parcel and a few shillings on the counter.   She wore a man’s gabardine coat, a grey twisted turban, and a brash red dress, long and full and filthy round the edges.  On her way out she caught Hannah staring, slack-jawed and horrified, and glared back.  Her eyes were as green as verdigris on old copper.

‘Papa!  Who was that?’ asked Hannah, watching the girl march down the gaslit fog of the Saltmarket, towards the River Clyde.  The clocks on the shelves chimed seven.

Hannah’s father Yakov tore a little paper at the side of the package and a silver fishhead peered out.

‘That was Lubya,’ he said, nodding.  ‘She must have found work on the docks today.  She buys a camera.’

‘A camera?‘ Hannah looked in the window’s display of fixed clocks and repaired watches.  An unbleached square in the lino showed the three Kodak Brownies had indeed become two.

‘How could that girl afford one of those cameras?’

Hannah’s father smiled.

‘Komst.  Let me show you something.’

In the back room he lifted the rug and a loose floorboard, brought out a watch box and opened it.

‘She uses this as a deposit.’

Hannah’s eyes widened.

‘Is that real?’

Inside the box was a brooch, a butterfly, overflowing with precious stones.  She picked it up and tilted it back and forth, watching the light ripple between the gems.  The wings were striped with diamonds, the upper ones ending in a burst of rubies, the lower ones in sapphires, each wing with an emerald ‘eye.’ It even had a pair of tiny gold antennae.

‘I’m convinced it is,’ he said, ‘And if that is so, it’s worth more than all the clocks in this shop.  Maybe even the furs in your uncle’s.’

Hannah handed back the brooch.

‘She must have stolen it, Papa, there’s no way…’

‘Enough, Hannah,’ he said.  ‘You have no idea what life is like over there.  You don’t know what else she might have lost.’

Yakov rattled down the shutters and they started walking home to the Gorbals.  Hannah glanced round.  Even in this biting cold, men lingered on the street, half-hidden by doorways and railway arches, murmuring and sharing cigarettes.  They reminded her of mushrooms, pale and thin in their flat caps and frayed trousers.  She felt their eyes fix on her and shivered, clutching the parcel tighter.

‘Why don’t they go home, Papa?’

‘What is there for them?  Hungry wives, children?  Any man would avoid that.’

Crossing the bridge, the starless, tarry sky broadened above their heads, and a sharp wind blew off the Clyde.  She pulled her fur collar closer but the smog and condensation made her chin sticky.  She let it go again.

On the south bank, a lamp lighter set his ladder against a post.  Climbing a few steps, he lifted his torch, flicked open the glass door and lit it.  Behind him, a flash of red caught Hannah’s eye and she saw the girl, sitting in the doorway of a derelict tenement.  She must have gone to an Italian’s straight after she’d left because she had a package of fish and chips on her lap, wide open and steaming hot.  For an instant, Hannah saw her tearing into the meal: coat sleeves pushed up, both hands cramming food in her mouth, skin glinting with grease.  However, as soon as the lamp was lit, she turned and hunched her shoulders, curling over her food and into the shadows.

‘David’s asked me out for lunch tomorrow,’ said Hannah. ‘There’s something he wants to ask me.’

Yakov muttered under his breath.

‘Papa, with the money he’s making now, we’ll be able to leave for America in a few months.  All of us.’

Yakov took her elbow and faced her, heels scratching on the ground.  How small he had become, Hannah thought.  A sallow little man in a Homburg.

‘When I first met your mother, my heart dissolved like a sugarlump in hot tea,’ said Yakov.  ‘It trickled warmth into every part of my body, and I felt that if I stepped out in the snow it would melt round about me. So many times this happened, right up until the day she died.  Does this happen when you see David?’

‘Yes!’

‘Feh!’ said Yakov, shaking his head.  ‘You’ve spent too long with your uncle.  Acht, broch.’

‘What?’

‘My sister sent a postcard but I left it in the shop.’

‘Never mind,’ said Hannah, slipping her arm through her father’s.  ‘We’ll get it tomorrow.’

‘On Saturday morning?  We’d be delighted, Miss Buchanan,’ said Uncle Leonid, beaming down the telephone receiver.

Hannah rolled her eyes and continued buttoning the sable on the window mannequin.

‘So,’ she said when he put the phone down. ‘You’re missing shul tomorrow?  Your posh new rabbi won’t like that.’

Leonid shuffled to the front shop, grinning and dabbing his forehead with a silk handkerchief. Hannah wondered how he’d got so fat while his brother had stayed so slim.  Perhaps Leonid’s little Irish mistress in the Gallowgate was a good baker.

‘Kleyne Hannah.  I will give you an extra five shillings if you go, how does that sound?’

‘Make it ten and pay me in sable.’

He laughed, waistcoat buttons straining.

‘Saving for your American trousseau, eh?  Alright, alright.  You never know, with the Buchanan’s there might be mink offcuts too.  Dyed, of course.  All they’re short of is class.’

By midday Argyle Street was teeming, and Hannah had to work hard to keep moving through the clamouring foreigners, poverty-stricken Highlanders and pale, angry Glaswegians.  A young man in a patched jacket caught Hannah by the arm, startling her.

‘Unite against hunger,’ he said, thrusting forward a leaflet.  ‘March against the New Unemployment Bill.’

She glanced at the dense text, stuffed it in her pocket, then turned up Queen Street.

David was waiting in the shipping company doorway.

‘Hello, Han,’ he said, kissing her cheek.  His lips were always wet.  Sometimes, when he talked, a thread of saliva spanned them for the entire conversation.  Hannah tried not to think about the smear he’d left, the smell of his mouth traced down her face.  She wiped it with the back of her hand.

George Square Cafe was busy, but a businessman left as Hannah and David arrived and they took his place by the window.

‘Tea, please,’ said David to the waitress.  ‘Black.’

‘I’ll have a cream tea,’ said Hannah. David tutted and Hannah ignored him.

The waitress took their menus and left.

‘How’s your day been?’ Hannah asked.

‘Awful.  The Shotts contract with White Star is a mess, I need to see their man again next week…’

Hannah nodded.  If she interrupted David’s monologues he’d just pick up again at the same point afterwards.  Her attention drifted.

‘White Star and Cunard are in so much debt they might have to merge…’

Out the window, Hannah looked at the Square’s monuments, all grey granite lions and dead men on horseback, frozen mid-canter.  The City Chambers, the Royal Bank, the General Post Office, all so rigid, ancient, unmoving.

Not like New York.  Aunt Irena sent postcards of the Cotton Club, sign blazing, long yellow taxicabs stretched outside; aerial photos of Manhattan Island, skyscrapers all set up in a grid; the Statue of Liberty gazing out over the ocean, the proud pose of a Hollywood headshot.

‘Even if I can do it, it won’t happen before the next cargo loads…’

Then, through the crowd, a turn of bright red.

Lubya, standing on the other side of the street with her camera, in front of a backdrop she’d painted herself.

Three silver birches burst across the left of the picture, almond-shaped leaves framing a blue cobbled pathway.  The path was lined with strange round flowers and led to a purple turreted castle with tiny fluttering flags.  Behind the castle grew a forest of painted pines and a range of snow-dipped mountains.  In the pink sky flew a tiny biplane.  Where she’d got the paint or boards from was a mystery, but she’d transformed them into a folk tale.

‘The thing is, it wouldn’t have been so bad if…’

Hannah watched Lubya flicker and weave through the crowd.  Without the overcoat her red dress was unmissable, puffed sleeves emphasising her slim waist, and a new matching headscarf drawing attention to her cheekbones.  Hannah could only imagine how Lubya cajoled the punters, her English must be faltering at best, and she never smiled.  But whatever she did, it worked.  People stopped and stared and a little crowd of office workers, shoppers, and flat-capped men gathered round.  A young couple approached her and she nodded, then brought out a crate stool from behind the boards.  She showed the pair how to pose, the man standing and the woman sitting, then walked backwards, looking down into the camera.  Hannah watched her red skirts swishing, left to right, left to right.

‘No-one listens – that’s the main thing.  They just talk at each other…’

Lubya stood up and nodded again, the couple kissed, and the little crowd cheered.  Hannah smiled.  Then the waitress brought their order.

David shook his head at the cream tea and whispered, ‘You really shouldn’t have, you know.  Who knows what their kitchen’s like.’

‘For goodness sake, David, I doubt they wiped the scones with bacon.  When did you get so prim about keeping kashrut, anyway?’  She took a sip of tea.  ‘You know, Aunt Irena says Americans eat pancakes with bacon and maple syrup.’

‘Well,’ said David looking at his tea. ‘We won’t be doing that.’

‘Of course not, but…’

‘I don’t want to go to America,’ David said, looking up.  ‘I want to go to Palestine.’

‘What?’ Hannah’s teacup clattered onto the saucer.

‘Hannah, they talk about it all the time in The Echo – Jewish people from all over the world are moving there.’

Hannah stared at the unfamiliar, orange heat in his eyes.

‘Come with me,’ he said, grabbing her hand. ‘I can get us cheap passage on a liner, and when we get there we’ll join a kibbutz – grow grapes, figs, potatoes…’

‘Enough!’  Hannah pulled away her hand and shoved her chair back.  ‘Are you crazy?’

She stood up and started yanking on her coat.

‘I’m not going to some God damn desert to work my fingers to the bone.’

‘Hannah!’ David opened his palms to her and smiled.  ‘We can have a little piece of heaven.’

Hannah leant over him.

‘Don’t you dare dictate heaven to me.’

Hannah opened the green velvet curtain that separated the front shop from the work room, letting out the burnt tang of paraffin.  Elsa, the other seamstress, sat at her workbench, foot pumping the sewing machine trundle, eyes straining out a pattern under an ancient oil lamp.

‘Hello, pet,’ said the old lady without lifting her head.  ‘Nice lunch?’

‘Didn’t live up to expectation,’ Hannah replied.

‘Aye, well,’ said Elsa.  ‘There’s always next time.’

Hannah sat down at her own bench behind a pile of thin sable strips, all of which had to be hand stitched together once her heart stopped thundering and her hands stopped sweating.  Almost anything was better than this – but Palestine?  What was there in Palestine?  Heat?  Dust?  Shul?

A shiver rattled up her spine.  David.  That was really all there’d be.

She picked up the first strip.

It wasn’t unusual for men who’d travelled from outwith the city to sleep out on George Square’s public benches the night before a march.  However, when Hannah arrived on Saturday morning, there were already far more bodies than benches: gaunt men, flat footed and hen-toed, not half as aged as their faces suggested; wrinkled men hobbling from Great War wounds, never allowed to heal; boys with fluid limbs, broad backs and black teeth.  Hannah darted through as fast as she could, shoulders only unclenching when she reached the bustle of Sauchiehall Street.

Passing a photography studio it dawned on her that Lubya must be undercutting them.  She wondered how she got away with it – how she managed any of it with no English?  Hannah wondered where she slept.  The Gorbals, where she and Yakov still lived, was run down and bursting at the seams: Uncle Leonid had escaped to the suburbs as fast as his pocket would carry him.  However, behind the Gorbals was the Backlands, where whole families crammed into fetid single ends with bars instead of windows.  Hannah had heard that sometimes all they had was straw on the floors.  She hoped it wasn’t true.

Big band music blared out behind the final bedroom door at 4 Park Circus.

‘Miss Buchanan.’  The maid chapped.  ‘The furrier’s girl’s here.’

‘Marvellous!’ Hannah heard scuffling and the wireless turned marginally down. ‘Come in.’

Sitting at her dresser in a shiny peach robe, Elizabeth reminded Hannah of a pearl: round, expensive, and utterly cushioned from the world.

‘Hannah!’ she said, holding out her chubby hands.  ‘I saw the most fantastic fur in Shanghai Express, I just had to have one for America next month.  You can do it, can’t you?’

America.  Hannah managed to smile. ‘I’m sure we’ll manage.’

Elizabeth chattered away, describing the film while Hannah took her measurements.  Her fingers paused for a moment as they traced down Elizabeth’s waist.  She’d started wearing a full corset, Hannah noticed, rather than a girdle, nipping in a fake waist above her tremendous thighs.  Elizabeth was big, and no amount of expensive clothing disguised it.  Not that it would stop her trying.  Even in Glasgow, there was new money and new money.

‘You do make the best furs, you know Hannah,’ said Elizabeth, all big blue eyes.  ‘You won’t let me down, will you?’

‘No,’ answered Hannah, snapping the tape back in its case.

Walking back down Sauchiehall Street, Hannah calculated it would take her and Elsa two weeks to make what Elizabeth wanted, a silver tipped chinchilla with an oversized collar.  The problem was not the stitching, it was sourcing the huge amount of pelts needed.

She was jerked alert by a man running past, flat feet hammering on the cobbles.  Then she realised – there was no-one else on the street, not a single person, and the noise in the distance was not the usual undercurrent of traffic.  Hannah began to run too.

Not hundreds, but thousands had gathered in George Square: a baying mass of heads and bodies; men, women and police officers.  Their faces were a twist of emotions, and they kept pushing, shoving, hitting: officers with their batons; ordinary people with whatever they had to hand.  Hannah watched two younger men pull a middle-aged woman back from the crowd, two streams of blood running down her cheek, chin, neck, staining her white shirt scarlet, yet still she held her head upright.

Then Hannah heard a whistle, two short, piercing blasts.

Mounted police had gathered at the eastern entrances to the Square, at both sides of the City Chambers.  On the third blast they charged.

At the other side of the Square, Hannah’s eyes caught brash red.

Curled in a ball, slid down the wall of the post office, Lubya had one arm round her knees and the other wrapped around her head, slim protection against a police baton.

Hannah looked down the wall of the bank alongside her.  There was just enough space.  She ran.

The seconds felt like minutes.  All sound around her muted, like in dreams where she could breathe underwater.  The bank’s sandstone wall scratched against her knuckles and she heard the slow tear of tiny skin cells.  The air rushed past and her skin felt cool.

Beside the Cenotaph she saw a mounted officer turn and head towards her.  She crossed the road and cut along the post office wall.  The horse was fast approaching.

‘Lubya!’ She grabbed the girl’s wrist and pulled hard.  ‘Get up!  Vstavat’!

The girl’s head jerked up and Hannah saw her green eyes had almost disappeared in black, swollen pupil.  The horse’s rider swung back his baton.

‘Vstavat’! Now!’

Lubya uncurled from round her camera, stood up and they ran, forwards, to the east end of the Square, past the thrash of hooves, muscle, sweat, foam, past the rider’s striking baton.  At the corner they ran off the Square, and did not stop running till the Saltmarket, till Hannah’s pounding heart let her hands stop shaking enough to jam the key in the lock for her uncle’s shop, to let them in, to lock it closed behind them.

In the fur lined shop, the blood rushing through Hannah’s ears was deafening, and her heart raced so fast she felt like crying with laughter.

Behind her, Lubya sat with her head in her hands, still gripping the camera, knuckles blanched.  Her whole body shuddered.

‘Here, you’re going to drop…’

‘Nyet!‘ Lubya grabbed it to her chest, teeth bared, eyes searing, and Hannah stumbled back.

But as quickly as her eyes lit they burnt out, and Hannah saw.

The full skirts and turban were yards of material wrapped round the thinnest of bodies.  Her brilliant green eyes seemed all the more so because of the dark shadows beneath them.  Her cheekbones were not high but drawn.  It was all, all sleight of hand.  Inside Hannah’s chest, her heart spilled.

‘My God.  You’re tiny.’

Cautiously, she slid her arm round Lubya, and the girl began to sob hard, ribcage rippling like wicker, bones so near the surface Hannah was scared they’d crack.  Lubya was talking to herself, Russian too fast and choked for Hannah to hear.

‘L’ubimaya, I don’t understand.  You must speak slowly.’

Eventually she raised her head, but kept her eyes trained on the ground.

‘In Ukraine, the Party took our wheat,’ she began.

‘Soldiers came with trucks to our village.  They shoot anyone who will not help, leave us with nothing.  They tell us still we must work in the fields or they will shoot us, but every time we harvest the soldiers take our food.

‘First we eat the cattle.  Then we eat dogs, cats, little birds, frogs.  We dig in fields for grain buried by mice.  We collect grass, black potatoes, make soups from rotten beans and nettles.  For two years we have no food.

‘In spring the acacia blooms and everyone eats their flowers.  Our neighbour has no acacia tree, and she climbs into ours.  I tell my mother this woman is eating our flowers.  My mother tells me leave her, this woman’s husband has eaten their baby daughter.

‘Everyone died.  Everyone.  My father, my brothers, everyone.  The Slivka’s, the Rafalko’s, the Olesky’s.  Finally there is only my mother and I.’

She looked up at Hannah.  Her irises were shattered.

‘My mother give me the butterfly.  Then she make me go.’

Lubya closed her eyes and her eyelids shone, oily lashes overlapping on her cheek like the barbs of a blackbird feather. Hannah stroked her face, brushed her dry skin with her thumb, and let her fingertips travel up behind her skull, behind the dampness of her headband, a slim shield of bone between Hannah’s palm and all the things Lubya had seen.  She watched tears brim in Lubya’s eyes again and brought the girl’s face towards her own, Lubya’s eyelids towards her mouth.

Once.

Twice.

The sharp water drew over Hannah’s lips, loosening them.  Clocks tick tocks scattered around them like insect steps on sheets of paper.  Hannah kissed Lubya’s cheek, her ear, the dark salt of her neck.  Then Lubya kissed her back.

‘Where did she get it?’ Hannah asked, later.

‘What?’ replied Lubya.

‘Your mother.  The butterfly.’

Lubya smiled.

‘Before the revolution she worked as a maid in a big house.  I believe she stole it.’

Hannah walked to work early next morning.  On the bridge she stood for a while, rested her elbows on the railings and let the cold creep through her clothes.

Sometimes, at Passover, when Yakov and Leonid had drunk too much, they talked about the pogrom.  It had started on Easter Sunday, and neither the priests nor the police had done anything to stop it.  After three days Hannah’s father, mother, aunt and uncle had run away, taking anything they could carry, and they had never gone back.  Her father said he would never forget the snowsled they passed as they left Kishinev, trailing red tracks on its way to the cemetery.

Lubya’s story was different, though.  Hannah couldn’t comprehend the numbers.  Fields.  Villages.  Towns.  Cities.  The sweet, vile smell of rotting flesh, infusing everything.  Lubya said she’d stopped noticing it.  Hannah’s heart perforated with a million tiny holes.

Leonid left the shop at eleven and did not come back.  Officially he was seeing a supplier, but as Hannah had called every supplier they had to find Elizabeth’s chinchilla and no-one had mentioned him, she suspected he was ‘visiting’ Bernadette.

‘Wonder how that’d go down in that fancy new Jew church of his, eh?’ cackled Elsa.

Without Leonid the shop was more relaxed, even though both women had twice as much to do.  After tracking down chinchilla in Manchester, Hannah divided the rest of the day between chasing invoices, helping Elsa with alterations, and waiting on customers.  All day long, waves of the afternoon before kept crashing back on her, sapping her concentration, shoring her thoughts calico red.

At seven she dismissed Elsa, locked the takings in Leonid’s big iron safe, and marked up the accounts.  Then she set her pen down with a jolt. The realisation was startling, yet so obvious.  I can do this.  I do all of it already.

‘It’s me, Papa,’ Hannah called, stepping inside Yakov’s shop.

‘Hold on, I’ll be only a minute.’

Hannah saw Yakov stooping under a gaslight in the workshop, eyeglass in, open watch in hand.  In the stillness, she looked round the shop.  The salesroom was clean but so tired.  Almost nothing had changed since her mother had died, nine years ago. The walls had grown up around them and they hadn’t even noticed.

‘There’s something there for you,’ said Yakov.  ‘The Ukrainian girl…’

‘Lubya?’

‘That’s the one.  She came in this morning.  Said she needed her brooch.’

Hannah’s blood chilled. ‘She what?’

On the work bench beside him sat Lubya’s camera.

‘She said she had to go.’ Yakov’s tweezers picked out a tiny fractured cogwheel.

‘She gave me back the camera.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was too beaten to re-sell, she seemed so desperate.  So I gave her the money.’

He stopped and looked up, squinting at Hannah through the eyeglass.

‘Vos, no shouting? No I-told-you so?’  He smiled and looked back down at the watch. ‘Acht, Hannah.  You’re a good girl.  Your Mamele would have been proud.’

‘Anyway,’ he continued.  ‘On the way out the door she asked me to give the thing to you.  I didn’t even know you knew her.  Did you?’

Hannah sank onto the stool beside her father.  She lifted the camera, brushed her fingertips along the scuffed leather, slid them over the buttons.

‘No.’

Yakov flipped out the eyeglass and stretched his back, shoulders cracking.

‘I’ve checked, it still works.’  He took his overcoat off the hook, then stopped.

‘You know, the funny thing is, I’d thought I’d give you it anyway.  Did you see your Aunt’s last postcard?’ He reached into the workbench drawer and shuffled around, then handed it to Hannah. ‘It reminded me of you.’

The postcard was black and white, taken from high above the New York city streets, buildings like stacked black matchboxes in the distance.  From the right of the picture stretched a streamlined chrome plinth, stretching out like a huge metal masthead, ending in an eagle’s hooked bill: one of the Chrysler building’s four huge gargoyles.  Kneeling on the nape of the eagle’s neck was a young woman with a camera.  She had no ropes to secure her, no men to help her, and she was balancing.  Miles above the ground, taking pictures of the world below.


Cara McGuigan lives in Glasgow but works in Edinburgh, and spends an awful lot of time daydreaming on buses. She has just finished the fantastic Open University Creative Writing diploma, and will be published in New Writing Scotland 29 later this year. She wonders if she'll ever learn to drive.