They were two little girls on a very big boat.
They were two little girls on a very big boat. They peeked out from behind big legs, big laps, looked at each other amidst all the baggy trouser knees and coat tails, the scarred stockings and re-stitched hemlines, and left all the big people to approach each other. The boat was full of people, all the fathers mothers aunts uncles grannies taking all the children to, to where they were going, they had to start thinking of where they were going, they were saying not to think about where they came from, they had no past, their lives beginning there, and the two little girls who recognised each other at once did not look away, found each other, never parted that whole lifetime voyage.
They would get to where they were going but for a while in the present no other world needed to be imagined, any other world refused to be.
They went about together, recognised by everyone as those two little girls who were such good friends since meeting on this boat; their friendship was smiled upon by all. Because they were together they were safe and strong. They would always create together an irresistible force.
We know everything about each other, Leyla told Ada one day on the deck of the big ship, the world a thousand shades of grey, metallic greys, mineral greys, the huge skies and huge heaving ocean, everything was grey except them. If you saw opals in grey shades you'd see them in these waves. If precious stones came in grey you'd see them here. The whitish grey of smoke, the white distant spume curling upon the ocean waves turning silvergrey in the long twilight.
A huge wave that rose above them.
You remember things that don't make sense. Could two children have been alone out on the deck.
No-one else was around. They looked out to the stormy sea.
In memories as in dreams you see yourself from the outside, you are the viewer as well as the point of view. They were two little girls who would not stay inside when the skies hung low and spreading in the colour of tin and tablespoons, in silver and charcoal, the two of them were bright and shiny, coloured bright, bundled up against the wind though they were on their way to a country where it was always summer, always sunny, where they would go to school and speak English all the time.
They didn't know each other's language but they knew nearly as much, then as much, then more English than any of the old people even the ones who had lived in Chicago and London.
We know everything about each other, Leyla said. This was one complete utterance Ada would always remember word for word. She understood it to mean: and we always will.
Even while she was to discover memory's labile nature, she never doubted this true memory. It was reproduced faithfully each time, she was sure, and the inevitable degradation applied only to the fading of the other utterances of that moment.
The waves crash against the ship's hull, hull, bow, stern, side, words they knew in English. Gunwales. They learned English on the ship but Ada cannot dredge from memory's swamps the person who taught them, she sees a small library room on the ship, with a low wooden ceiling, but this is the library room on the ship when she was much older, so much older, taking another ship to another place, a ship that reminded her of the earlier ship, with its own library room where she learnt the words that now are the first words she can think of.
The adults sat at the long tables in the dining hall. Ada sees their bundles and suitcases sitting alongside them throughout the meals, which they would not have been. Would they have? No, wouldn't the bundles and cases be kept in cabins and closets? Did people on the boat lug their belongings with them all the time? There is no-one to ask, no-one remains who was there, no-one who could furnish details which she would add to her memories, details that would become her own memory. As far as she can recall now, she had always remembered the bundles and suitcases. And the way the adults kept saying no-one should take the old worries with them. Nobody ever discussed conditions on the boat once they had left it, left the ship, it was a ship, a big passenger ship, coming ashore one grey day in the land of sunshine and the first thing they did was look around for kangaroos— someone on the boat had told them about kangaroos and had led Ada and Leyla to believe that there would be flocks of them bouncing on the wharfs and streets and everywhere they looked or went. Ada is sure of this, the way Leyla and she looked for the kangaroos, because her family and her family both remembered it for years to come and to this day Ada can't be sure whether telling the two little girls to expect to see kangaroos was one of those jokes adults might play, looking complicit at each other over the children's heads, amusing themselves with the children's gullibility, with their trust, or whether whoever it was did actually expect they'd see this creature at once or whether there were layers tones nuances they could not have recognised, they'd have to live a lot longer to be able to recognise.
It became a saying among them, ‘looking for the kangaroos', meaning expecting something that would never arrive, or wanting something that did not exist, or people who bought lottery tickets (something her mother despised for reasons Ada never fathomed or questioned while she might have asked). As for the kangaroos, Ada and Leyla didn't know whether they were the size of insects or of elephants and when they didn't loom giantly the little girls peered closely at the ground as queues were formed in the halls for the examination and stamping of papers. Which probably happened, or that part comes from other people's memories or images.
Tell me what we did then. Tell me where we went. Tell me how we came to live in those homes of childhood, those separate homes in far apart suburbs in different directions from the city centre. That empty city spreading vastly to the West away from its ocean shores, away from its harbour and along a river and towards the blue-grey hills.
There is no one to tell her. They all died before such questions came to Ada. In the immediate future of their arrival in the country, all that – the relocations to suburbs, step by step, first a hostel, eventually a house – would have been part of her own childish memory in those years and the following years. Each separate memory, in order to survive, has to be played, like a song on your playlist, to keep its place and it has to be played again so as not to fade and yet each playing changes it, this we know.
Ada came to consciousness at that time. On the boat. That's what she realised, or decided. She became herself, not yet 9 years old. She has no memories from before that time, there are only ghosts and glimmers of mind-matter like fading dreams, old-movie sounds and images from others' stories. For she was obedient to the adults saying that their life was starting now, she was as if hypnotised to forget anything from before. I became who I am is what Ada thought for a long time after, for a long time this thought having a sense of freshness and insightful truth until it became a habit of thought that could have its origin in any kind of myth-making, self deception, reflexive falsity.
Born in Italy of Hungarian parents, INEZ BARANAY grew up in Australia. In the 1980s she began publishing short fiction in small press anthologies of experimental, feminist, and multicultural writing. Since 1989, she has published over a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction (three of them first published in India), as well as many short stories and essays. Most recent books are a novel, set in Berlin, Ghosts Like Us, and Local Time: a memoir of cities, friendships and the writing life. She lived in Turkey in 2011-2017.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.