Closing the door silently behind her she slipped out into the grey dawn. She slid the wedding ring from her fourth finger, hid it down the side of a pot of crocuses and drew a deep breath of free air.
She loved them all with a gut twisting ache, but she had to be free.
The station was near. She boarded the first train to London, then traversed the narrow ribbon of water. She would go to Prague. Then on...on and on.
At Paris she changed trains, settling herself in an empty compartment.
Presently an elegant young couple also entered and sat down opposite. They smiled and nodded politely and she felt painfully aware of her own dishevelled state. Running her fingers through her tatty mousy hair apologetically she stared self consciously out of the window. The train pulled out. The couple murmured to each other in a language she didn’t understand and then the man spoke in beautiful English.
“I am going to the buffet car. Can I get you anything?”
“Oh...thanks..” she was flustered. “Um yes please, a coffee.” And she fumbled in her purse.
With a small laugh and slight hand gesture he waved away the money.
The lady smiled. She thought she looked inexplicably sad beneath her refined poise.
“You are from England?”
“Um, yes, the north, York.”
Why had she told her? She didn’t want to belong to anything or anyone or anywhere. Then in the first conversation she had pinned herself down on the map.
“I have not been there, but I have heard of it. A great Cathedral I believe?”
“Yes!” She felt compelled to answer. How impossible to escape, even for a day.
“And what do you do?”
“Oh, nothing really,” she replied stubbornly. And then with an attempt at polite conventionality, “I mean I don’t have a job at the moment...”
She tried to turn the conversation.
“So where are you from?”
Why do we define ourselves by the little geographical space we occupy on the earth? By what we do, or don’t do? It would be so much more meaningful to ask, “What do you love?” But that binds us even tighter. The cords of love are the most tenacious, treacherous and impossible to escape.
Before the lady had a chance to answer however, the man reappeared with three steaming cups.
“The one on the left,” he indicated with a smile.
For a few moments they all sipped in silence. Late afternoon sun rays streamed through the little wisps of steam hanging in the air. The drowsy motion of the train was like a lullaby.
She tried to gather her thoughts. Her brain felt hazy like the atmosphere and she succumbed to an overwhelming drowsiness.
When she awoke it was night. Lights were shining in from outside and rain ran in diagonal rivulets across the windows. The train had stopped.
The couple were gone and in their place sat an elderly lady.
She had a dull headache and was still trying to gather her thoughts when the guard came through the door requesting tickets and passports, in German. Goodness, how long had she been asleep?
She felt in her inside pocket and drew them out. As she handed them over she saw in the half light that her passport had changed colour. It was no longer British blue but bright red. She gasped and snatched it back.
“This...this isn’t mine!” she stammered.
“Was?” the guard snapped.
“Madam,” he continued in clear but laboured English, “please may I examine your passport and tickets! Russisch, Russian? Yes?”
“No! No…!” she was shouting now.
The elderly lady was watching closely. Her eyes were full of sharp intelligence.
Waves of panic overwhelmed her.
“This is not my passport! I am English, Englisch!”
Firmly taking the passport from her flailing hand he looked at the picture, then at her slowly and back again, looking puzzled.
“But this is you madam…I don’t understand. Here, your photo...”
He passed the little book with the picture page open for her to see; a photo of an elegant woman, with a smooth dark bob. Her eyes registered the image with a start of recognition, noted by both the guard and the old lady.
“But, but, this isn’t me!” she screamed. “She was here before, sitting there!”
She pointed at where the elderly lady sat transfixed.
“She’s gone. She must have taken my passport and put hers in my pocket...I don’t have dark hair!”
She looked around wildly.
The old lady fumbled in her handbag and produced a small mirror, silently holding it to the distraught woman.
Staring in disbelief at the alien image reflected back, horribly familiar and unfamiliar, she wailed, “This isn’t me! I can’t even speak Russian!”
"We seem to have a little problem here madam," he spoke with strained politeness, "Shall we see if we can sort it out, without any more... unpleasantness?"
“I'm English!” She was sobbing now. “Look, my things, my book, it’s English…I have a photo of my husband, my children in England tucked inside...”
Grabbing her bag she pulled out a dog-eared volume. It had a title in a language whose letters were unfamiliar. No family photo.
“Ah yes, Dostoevsky…” the man said in the voice one uses to humour a recalcitrant child. “He is very good, Ja?”
The old lady suddenly spoke, addressing the man in German. When she had finished they both turned and looked at the wretched woman sobbing in the corner, her head pressed against the window, tears running down the inside of the glass mirroring the rain outside.
They exchanged a few more words and with a nod to the old lady he left the compartment but remained outside, hand resting on his gun.
The old lady lent forwards and spoke softly, glancing sideways at the man outside.
"I told him that you are unwell, in your mind, that I am an old family friend and you have confided in me, told me you are having a...breakdown, eine existenzielle Krise, Ja! I said I had become worried so arranged to meet you on this train. I told them that you do not desire to acknowledge who you are but that you are no danger, no problem to anyone, that I will look after you. He took a little convincing but not as much as you might imagine. Anyway, that is why he has left us, but is still watching.”
She gaped at her.
“But why? Why did you tell him that? There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s everything else that’s wrong! What’s it got to do with you? And who even are you? ”
“My name is Frau Jager, if that’s what you mean. Isn’t it strange how important our names are, and yet convey in themselves so little. You for example are in this fix because someone has stolen your name, and yet you remain the same person do you not?”
This was all so strange and unexpected that she sat back in her chair staring at the remarkable old lady.
“Why did you believe me?”
One learns over the years how to tell when a person is telling the truth and when they are not,” she smiled enigmatically. “ Now,” she continued briskly, “We must get down to business and make our plan quickly before he bothers us again!”
“Our plan?” she stammered.
“Indeed! You do not wish to spend hours, days even in a detention centre or prison cell before this is resolved do you? These officials,” she waved her hand contemptuously, “are so stupid and slow...Nein, we will do a little sleuthing ourselves I think!”
“First we must leave this train. You have a valid passport with visas to travel I think - let me see.” She held out her hand for the red passport.
“Yes, all perfectly in order for Europe, but," she looked more closely, "not I think for Britain…"
Handing it back she gazed at the woman sitting opposite.
“Ja! It is a good likeness! They chose well! Only the hair to deal with and that is easily done if you know how. Amateur but effective. She must know it will only buy a little time while the confusion is resolved. That's where I can help you. I am quicker than the police...The question is why did she do it? Presumably she needs to enter Britain and cannot under her own identity. But why?”
They both stared out at the dark countryside streaking past as if it might yield an answer. The rain had stopped and a perfect moon was racing along beside them, in and out of scurrying clouds.
“Tell me,” she continued, “exactly what has happened to you from the moment you left your home. We must examine all the details.”
And so she did. What a strange tale it sounded; no more believable than the new fiction.
Frau Jager watched her carefully as she spoke and when she finished she said quietly, “So in a way what I told the guard is true is it not? You are having a kind of existenzielle Krise after all. How very extraordinary. And now someone has stolen your unwanted identity you are desperate to retrieve it! Erstaunlich!”
She looked thoughtfully out of the window.
“It seems clear that the young man placed some sleeping drug into your coffee. Very easy. It was a long stretch of track, no stops, no one likely to join the compartment until Frankfurt, where I boarded. While you sleep they change your hair, a quick job with dye and expert scissors, a little make-up. She attends to her own. They replace the contents of your bag with...”
She held out her hand:
“Crime and Punishment, in Russian of course, a newspaper, your own purse, nothing more...unless…”, she held the book upside down. A small photo fluttered out from between the leaves; a faded image of a little girl with dark ringlets and serious eyes.
“Who is she I wonder?”
Frau Jagar held the photograph up to the light. Turning it over she saw one word, scrawled in English on the back. It simply said "Sorry".
She passed it across the table.
"A message for you I believe. The key if only we can find the lock!"
The younger woman stared at the photograph, her head spinning.
“We will alight at Dresden,” said Frau Jager with sudden decision. "Disappear into the crowd, then board another train back to Paris. I know someone there who will help you. I will speak to our guard. Poor man! He is quite out of his depth! You must do what I say; you must confirm that you are indeed Nastasha Sokolov. You are struggling with a traumatic stress disorder and you have episodes where you refuse to acknowledge your identity. Apologise for the earlier scene and assure him you are now better and happy to leave the train in my care. They will not question that you speak English to them, it is the natural common tongue between Russian and German.”
This was all managed surprisingly well. The fact is no one wants to be landed with a disturbed person and when it comes to it most officials will happily palm them off on to a friend or relative if one presents themselves at an opportune moment. It was with obvious relief that the man escorted them off the train.
It suddenly dawned on her that this old lady could be just as much in some bizarre plot against her as the young Russian couple. And now she was completely in her power, having lied to the German official, she had cut herself off from official help. Frau Jager, if that was even her real name, had her completely at her mercy.
Foolishly she voiced her dismay.
“How do I know I can trust you?” she blurted out. “ I can’t believe what I’ve just done! I must be mad! I was so disorientated and now,” she cast around for words in her panic, “I may as well be your...prisoner!”
Frau Jager laughed.
“Don’t be absurd my friend. We’re in a public place, you’re free to go. If you wish to leave my company and my help that is your prerogative!”
"And don't you have places to be, things to do anyway?"
"Nothing that cannot wait. The beauties of retirement my dear!"
She felt impossibly confused. How was she to tell what was real and what was not?
“But how can I know if I can trust you?” she persisted.
“You can’t know," the old lady replied steadily, "you can only believe...or not!”
She looked at her for a long while with indecision, then suddenly made up her mind.
"Alright, I will trust you. I don't really have much choice do I!"
Eventually they arrived in Paris, fatigued beyond words. It was now morning. The sun was rising in golden splendour above the Seine.
"The friend I spoke of, he works for your government. He is a good man, a powerful man. He will help."
Frau Jager led her through the sleepy morning streets until they reached a tall stone building.
A refined man welcomed them. In a mixture English and German the strange story was told.
He lent elbows on his desk, fingers pressed together thinking.
"We can run some checks on your stolen passport, see where it has been used…Leave it to me."
They were led to a comfortable room where they could rest and hot coffee and croissants were brought. She could have wept at this unexpected kindness. Afterwards, laying her head on the sofa she slept a deep and natural sleep.
"It's a sad story..," he said, when he returned later that day.
"Natasha Solokov visited England six years ago. During her time there she met a man and bore a child, a daughter. Even though her visa expired she stayed on. The relationship broke down. The father gained custody of the child, the reasons are not entirely clear. She was to be deported." He sighed, "Distraught, she tried to 'kidnap' the child and take her illegally back to Russia. Of course she was caught and the child taken. A ban was placed on her so she could not return to Britain. Last year the child died in a tragic accident. Natasha, I suppose was determined to say her goodbyes, whatever the cost. She had to contrive a way to enter the country. I don't think she really cared what happened afterwards. The man travelling with her is her brother. My people have traced them to a small boarding house in Hastings. A watch was placed. I have just received an update. They were followed to the local cemetery where Natasha was seen kneeling at a graveside, placing a posy of violets and rosemary. They are now heading back to Dover presumably in an attempt to reach Europe before their subterfuge is discovered. They did not bank on the cumbersome system being circumvented by my friend here!" He smiled at Frau Jager.
"The question now is, do you wish to press charges?"
"Well," she stammered, "I don't know. I mean, I feel sorry for her...but, but I need my identity back don't I?"
"Are you a mother my dear?" asked the man gently.
"Yes," she gulped.
"I have a suggestion. My people can meet them when they embark on French soil. We can retrieve your passport from Natasha, and return hers. Yours can be forwarded in due course. What do you think?"
"Well, that would feel better, yes. But how do I travel with no passport at all?"
"Don't worry about that," he smiled. "My people will handle that. Frau Jager is prepared to accompany you I believe."
He looked at the old lady who inclined her head.
She passed the red passport across the desk. As an afterthought she also retrieved the book and photograph from her bag.
"May I send a note? What is 'God bless you' in Russian?"
Turning over the small photograph she carefully copied the strange letters underneath the 'Sorry' and slipped it back inside the book.
"Are you ready?"
A black car was waiting outside to take them to the station. As promised they slide through immigration seamlessly.
"What a difference it makes to have friends in high places!" She commented.
Frau Jager smiled.
The train swallowed the miles, it's regular rhythm like a reassuring heartbeat.
York station, a brief taxi ride and home.
The two walked up her dusky drive together in silence, while the taxi waited at the bottom. When they approached the pot of crocuses Frau Jager stopped and felt around in the loose soil. A few seconds later she placed the wedding ring in the younger woman's hand, smiling.
And suddenly laying her hand on her arm she spoke earnestly, "We must consider my dear, in what sense we exist if not in relation to others." She paused for a moment and continued, "And what ties us to reality but the bonds of love?"
The younger woman nodded slowly.
"I believe Frau Jager that you are right!"
She thought of the sad, elegant lady and the beautiful dark haired child.
"Thank you for everything."
"Well, I must be away," said the older lady briskly. "I am expected in Vienna the day after tomorrow. If I leave now I believe I shall make the appointment!"
She waved her hand as the taxi drove away.
Anna stood silently watching long after the lights had vanished out of sight, then she turned and slipped quietly in through the door of her home.
A few weeks later a parcel arrived with Russian stamps. The smeared postmark looked like it might be St Petersburg. She tore it open eagerly. Inside was her book, the one from her bag on the train, and tucked inside the photograph of her family. There were two words written in English on the back, ‘Thank you’.