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Paper Castle

Friday, 3rd February 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Rosemary Hayes

From her peripheral vision Irena saw the boys stop playing and stare at her as she walked past.

Not today, please not today.

She focussed on the footpath, bag clutched against her chest, and kept walking. Only a few more steps until she was in the safety of her home….her castle.

“Hey, old lady. You stink.” They had been kicking a ball to each other in their front yard. Now it lay forgotten on the lawn as they approached their low front fence  - they had a new game to play.

Irena tried to hurry but the arthritis in her hips flared in protest.

“When are you going to clean up that dump you live in? Stinks the whole neighbourhood out.”

The taunts of the older boy fuelled the younger one’s courage.

“Yeah. My dad says only pigs live in a place like yours. So you must be a pig.”

Oinking noises commenced. Irena thought about the contents of her bag and the boys taunts turned to white noise. She would be all right when she reached home. She was always all right inside her castle.

The stone hit her in the side of her face.

Irena stopped, pressed a hand against her cheek. When she pulled it away blood coated her fingers. Only then did she turn and stare at the boys. They were laughing.

Nothing changed, nothing ever changed. They were just like everyone else. Persecutors. Her heart raced, perspiration soaked her skin, her hands shook as they held her bag like a shield. Home. She had to get home.

Laughter and stones followed her all the way there.

The rusty iron gate swung closed behind her as she hobbled towards her door. Lining the cracked pathway, left and right, was an accumulation of years of collecting. Others might call the piles all over the yard junk; broken, needless things other people would throw away or take to the tip, but to Irena these things were protection.

Somewhere from inside the voluminous folds of her frayed skirt she pulled out a key.  Only when she was inside, the front door closed and locked, did the world stop pressing against her mind. She was safe now, safe inside her paper castle.

Although the sun shone in a clear sky outside it was gloomy in here. She switched on the light then reached out and touched the first stack of newspapers that towered from floor to ceiling. Next to that stack was another, and another, and another. The whole inside of the house was a labyrinth. These mountains of newspapers, magazine, books and other less discernible items blocked any light from entering the windows.

As Irena headed to the back bedroom through the maze she didn’t notice the stale air, the smell of decay and age, didn’t hear the scuttling of insects, or the squeaking of mice, didn’t see the years of neglect. All she saw was her defence against the world.

Here in the back bedroom the piles were smaller, incomplete. Irena opened the bag she was holding. From the community recycling bin behind the supermarket she had collected her prize: discarded newspapers, magazines, cardboard, paper. One by one she slowly, reverently, placed them on a waist high stack.

The higher the stack rose the easier she could block out her memories, from today, from yesterday….from long ago. At least, that’s what usually happened. But each time Irena placed more paper on the stack she saw the blood. The boys. The rocks. She pressed her fingers against her still bleeding cheek. Why had they hurt her? She didn’t hurt them, she didn’t hurt anyone. Yet still they hurt her. These boys weren’t the first and they certainly weren’t the worst.

Irena’s bag was now empty but she needed – craved – more. She grabbed newspapers from another pile and used these to continuing stacking. She would do this, moving the piles like shifting sands in the desert, until the memories stopped.

The more recent ones, the boys, other neighbours hostility, they were easiest. The ones from the war weren’t so easy. The newspapers dry pages rustled as she battled to keep control. Unbidden, unwanted, those memories returned.

Irena was twelve when the German soldiers came to her village in Poland. Five came to her family’s door one night. Someone had told them – lied - that they were hiding Jews. Her mother and father blocked the doorway. Bodies against rifles. They stared down the barrels and denied it.

Irena and her older sister Klaudia huddled together inside watching wide-eyed and trembling as the soldiers pushed aside their parents to search the house.  The immediately spotted  Klaudia. Beautiful, sweet Klaudia on the threshold of womanhood.

The leader of the soldiers shouted orders in German. He strode towards the cowering girls, grabbed Klaudia and dragged her to a bedroom.

Her parents screamed and raced towards their daughter. Three soldiers fired their guns and mother and father dropped to the ground.

Irena ran to her parent’s side. They were covered in blood. Their eyes open and glassy. One soldier held his rifle to her head. It was cold. Hard. She didn’t move. Just watched as the door to the room Klaudia was taken into closed. One by one the soldiers went in and later came out; laughing, slapping the others on the shoulder.  Irena didn’t understand. What were they doing?

Soon four soldiers had their turns. Before the last one came out, a shot rang out from the bedroom. Irena jumped. Regardless of the rifle she ran to her sister. Inside the bedroom she saw Klaudia on the bed….motionless. The bullet wound marred her face. Irena walked over and lowered Klaudia’s dress, covering blood streaked thighs.

Irena didn’t understand. What had they done to her?  A shadow filled the doorway. The soldier that had pointed the rifle at her had entered. Irena soon found out what they did to her sister.

After that she was constantly on the move. Place to place. House to house. Country to country. Nowhere to call home. Nowhere to feel safe – until she created her paper castle.

The newspaper pile grew, shifted, grew, shifted, until mercifully, the memories faded.

Harsh noise vibrated the air. Irena lifted her head. Outside. Machinery of some sort. She hurried through her maze to the front door and flung it open. Two bobcats were in her front yard, scooping up her possessions and loading them into the back of a truck.

“No.” she screamed. A man standing near her gate approached.

“I’m from the council. We sent you numerous letters giving you a chance to voluntarily clean up your place. All this rubbish is a health hazard to not only you but the neighbours.” He handed her an envelope. “We have a court order allowing us access to clean up.”

The letter slipped through Irena’s fingers and dropped to the ground. She ran inside and locked the front door. No. No. Her castle. They can’t!

They are.

Irena hadn’t cried since her family was killed. She cried now. Is there no end to those who can just take and take? Would she never have control over her own life?  She walked through her maze and sat at her tiny kitchen table stacked with more paper. Her gaze rested on a bowl filled with odds and ends. Then she saw it.

Yes, there was a way she could take back control. A way she could be at peace again.  A way her paper castle would protect her forever. She picked up the small box. Opened it. Closed it. Then lit the match.

Written by Rosemary Hayes

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition