I first met K – in the street. We would say hello as we passed each other with bags of shopping. She walks with a stick and often wears a red hat. And for about a year she always got my name wrong.
‘Are you Steve?’, she would say. I would laugh and explain that I wasn’t. Perhaps this was an elaborate joke.
One day we stopped and chatted. She told me that she was originally from Slovakia. Sometimes I help carry her shopping up the steep red brick steps that lead to her house.
It’s Christmas Eve and I went to walk by the sea and get some last minute shopping. As I was walking up the hill I could hear my name being called. And there she was at the top of her garden, this time wearing a white hat and red coat.
I walked up the steps.
‘Hello K – , how are you? Merry Christmas!’
She wanted me to go and pick up some rubbish on the pavement.
‘I don’t like looking at that’.
I went back down to the street with the litter picker she’d provided.
‘Would you like beer, wine, or a rum and coke?’ she asked.
‘Wine would be good’.
‘It’s ok, we can drink’, she said, ‘it’s gone 12 o’clock’. But only just I thought.
She went inside and came back with a bottle of white wine, two glasses and a tube of Pringels. She held the glasses and I poured the wine.
‘Don’t let the buggers grind you down’, she said, adding, ‘I like the word ‘bugger’. It’s hard. ‘B’, she said, ‘and g – g and then rrrr’.
‘And they are buggers’ she added.
We click glasses.
It’s a good socialist slogan. It clearly describes a situation of two irreconcilable class interests.
‘We have a saying in Czech’, she adds, ‘Nevzdáváme se’, she looks at me, enquiring with her blue eyes, ‘We Don’t Give in’. She is in her eighties and her skin is soft and wrinkled and there are laughter lines etched into her face. And she has too, a serious side.
She tells me a little of her life, growing up in Slovakia, living in Bratislava, moving to Prague, the Prague Spring. Here on the bench we are transported to the history of Central Europe.
‘One day, during the war’, she said, ‘I came home and there were three soldiers in the kitchen and my mum was making them coffee. They had put their machine guns in the corner of the room. I was very frightened because they had holes in the steel around the barrel and I thought the bullets could come out side-ways’.
She looked at me again and decades disappeared and once again that moment of war came alive.
‘They were from Rumania. My mum spoke to them in French. They were so glad that someone could speak to them’.
We talked about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl Renner, Red Vienna and the Weimar Republic.
She lived through the Prague Spring. ‘We heard the tanks come through the streets. I had heard this sound before during the war’, there was a long pause, ‘and once you have heard this noise, the tank tracks on the cobbles stones, you never forget it’.
We both sat on the bench in her garden and from there we could look out across the mist coming down over the sea.
‘And then we became refugees’.
‘First we went to Vienna’.
‘Why did you come to England?’ I asked her.
‘We have another saying in Czech’, she said, ‘To put the sea between me and my enemies’.
‘That’s just like the refugees today’, I said.
‘Exactly. It’s not about France or the first place you come to, it’s about feeling safe from all the danger and fear you have faced’.
We had just about finished off the bottle of white wine she had produced.
‘And now you’ll go home’, she suggested. ‘I’ll finish this off with the box of fish and chips and mushy peas I bought from Morrisons’. She lifted up the bottle which still had a good glassful left.
We both stood up from the bench and the images conjured up of war, revolution, occupation, fascism, Stalinism, receded once again.
‘It is about oppression’, she said slowly, looking at me intently, ‘and feeling that you do not have to be oppressed’.
I picked my shopping bag up and started to leave.
‘Nevzdáváme se!’ she shouted, laughing, as I started walking down the red brick steps.
She stood at the top of the garden, in one hand the wine bottle, in the other a glass, smiling with her eyes and waving.
I turned round and stopped and waved and replied, ‘Nevzdáváme se!’