The border

Travels to Communist Czechoslovakia

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  • Published 20170801
  • ISBN: 9781925498417
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

Robots do not hold on to life. They can’t. They have nothing to hold on with – no soul, no instinct. Grass has more will to live than they do.
Karel Čapek


JUNE, 2016: WHEN you tell people ‘I met a Nazi once’, their eyes jolt open and their interest picks up. Meeting a Nazi is like saying, ‘I met the devil’, or some modern equivalent, and I survived – right? Which is like a miracle, though, in my case at least, not true. But when you say you survived an encounter with a communist regime, people seem less interested. What people may not realise is that, in terms of the death toll, there’s very little difference. Despite the fact that recent studies place deaths under Hitler and Stalin as fairly commensurate – including deliberate killing and deliberate deaths by neglect, the figures come in at twelve million and nine million for Hitler and Stalin respectively – people still think of the Nazis as being worse.

As American psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1960s experiments suggest, the ‘agentic personality’ doesn’t discriminate according to nations or political affiliations. Defined as the ability to inflict pain on others to the point of death as long as such actions are authorised by an institution, the agentic personality, the psychological equivalent of the machine gun, is a fairly universal human trait. Viewed from Milgrim’s perspective, the Nazis were no more inherently evil than those serving innumerable other criminal regimes, such as the communist dictatorship that ruled Czechoslovakia for four decades, and no doubt has a contemporary equivalent in sadistic institutions in democratic capitalist societies: those selling sub-prime loans in the build up to the GFC in the US surely exhibited agentic traits?

So this is that story, the story of my encounter with the machine-gun wielding, terrorising totalitarian communist regime. Or, if you like, it’s the story of how my father avoided being sent to a concentration camp. My grandfather wasn’t so lucky, but that, as they say, is another story.


MAY, 1971: LEAVING Sydney for Europe.

‘We’re in Paris, we’re in Paris,’ we chant, my little blonde brother and me.

Dad’s driving our white VW bug and Mum’s in the front and we’re heading through France to Austria and then into Czechoslovakia, which is where my dad is from. Mum’s reading the map and Dad’s avoiding the busy Paris traffic and all my brother and I want is a Vegemite sandwich, but Mum says we’re not going to get one here in France.

We stop to go to the loo, then we drive some more, and then we stop to buy some food and find a big grassy park and have a picnic.

‘I want penis-butter,’ I say. ‘I want vagina-mite,’ my little brother echoes.

‘Well I’m afraid we haven’t got any peanut butter or Vegemite,’ Dad explains using his I’ve-got-bad-news voice.

‘Ohhhh!’ we groan in an ascending scale.

‘In France people don’t eat peanut butter or Vegemite,’ Dad says. ‘But they do eat some very delicious things and we’re going to try some today. We’ve got some brie cheese, which is special, runny French cheese, and some paté.’

‘Urggh, runny cheese,’ I say, watching suspiciously as Mum carefully puts a gooey looking triangle onto a piece of French bread and hands it to me. ‘Here, have this.’

‘Yuck, it smells like vomit!’ I say, unable to even put any in my mouth.

‘OK, well you’ll love this, paté is delicious,’ she says, this time smearing the buttered bread with something dark and soft that looks like baby poo.

She hands it to me and I sniff it. ‘Go on,’ Mum says, ‘it’s yummy.’

But I can’t open my mouth. ‘It looks like pooh!’ I say.

Mum tries again with my little brother but he’s even less interested in the French food than I am even though Dad tells him, ‘French children love this stuff. Come on, why not think of it as a bit of an adventure?’

In the end we both manage to eat some of the bread, which is too crunchy on the crust and scratches my throat as it goes down, with butter – even the butter tastes funny – and a few black grapes, which are full of seeds.

Later, back on the road, Mum and Dad are talking in serious voices while my brother and I make annoying squeaky frog noises into their ears from the back seat.

‘Do you think everything will be all right at the border?’ Mum says.

‘They said I’d be fine at the consulate. We’ve spent a fortune getting my Czech citizenship: ten thousand dollars. Don’t worry.’

‘I just don’t trust them, the Russians,’ she says and the edge in her voice makes me feel a little frightened. ‘The stories we’ve heard about people disappearing into Siberian prisons or camps and never being heard of again…’

‘Don’t worry,’ Dad soothes, and then after an especially loud squeaky frog noise from me into his ear, he says, ‘Hey kids, cut it out. I’m trying to drive.’

And shocked by his cranky voice I sit back in my seat and turn my face to the window and only make the noise a little bit.

We’re on our way to meet our Czech family for the first time. Mum and Dad have saved up enough money for us to stay for six months. It’s great because I don’t have to go to school, although Mum says I need to keep up with my reading and also that I need to send the class a regular post card. After Czechoslovakia, we’re even going to a Greek Island for a few weeks. Yay, I’m the luckiest girl in first class!

‘Look, the Austrian Alps,’ Dad says, pointing out the car window. ‘See the snow on top of the mountains?’

I peer out the window, nose to the glass. ‘But it’s summer, so why’s there still snow?’

‘Because it’s so high up the snow doesn’t melt up there.’

‘But it’s closer to the sun?’

‘But it’s also further from the earth – now, here’s something you might like to know,’ he says, changing the subject. ‘We’ll be in Czechoslovakia soon. Did you know that the English words for pistol and robot are originally Czech words?’

‘No,’ I say, ‘I didn’t know we used any Czech words in–’

‘How long till we reach the border?’ Mum interrupts.

‘Won’t be long now,’ Dad says.

‘I’d love to see Český Krumlov if we have time,’ Mum says, but Dad is silent at the wheel.

We slow right down as we approach the border crossing. Signs beside the road begin ‘Pozor!’, but I can’t understand the funny words. Parallel booths are locked in on both sides by a high wire fence topped with barbed wire. There are two watchtowers set back from the border, one on either side of the booths, tall, metal and scary. Dad says the fence is electrified. I start to ask why the fence is electrified and what they use it for, but Mum shushes me. Soldiers with Alsatian dogs and holding machine guns patrol the booths.

We pull up and my Mum sucks in a big breath. ‘One wink and everything’s okay, two winks if it’s bad,’ she says.

Why is she talking about winking when there are soldiers with machine guns on both sides of the car? What’s so funny?

My father says something through the open window in a foreign language and the soldier barks something back. He gestures pointing with the end of his machine gun for Dad to get out of the car. The soldiers remind me a little of robots.

He looks at Mum. I can’t see how many times he winks. Then he gets out of the car. The robot/soldier barks some more things at him. My father leans back into the car and tells my Mum, ‘My passport – quick – my citizenship papers and the letter from the consulate.’

Mum rummages in the maroon Qantas carry-on bag and hands him the information. ‘Ours too?’

He nods. Mum shakes her head and hands him the whole folder.

He disappears outside. The soldier looks at the papers and grunts. He waves another soldier over with his machine gun. They talk rapidly in a strange language that must be Czech and nod their heads mechanically. My father watches them but his fingers on his right hand twitch at his sides, which doesn’t seem to be a good sign.

Another soldier comes over and looks at my Dad’s papers. He says something and soon they’re all laughing.

‘What are they saying?’ Mum tries but Dad waves her with his fingers, no.

After a while, the first soldier says something to my dad and I hear my dad’s voice get higher as the words come out faster. He holds his hands out palm upwards and shrugs.

The first soldier stares at my dad hard and asks him another question.

My dad answers, shrugging his shoulders again. Eventually the soldier motions with his machine gun for Dad to go back to the car and points for us to enter Czechoslovakia.


FEBRUARY, 1948: EXTRACT from Dad’s diary.

‘Prema, look out!’

Everywhere in front of us students are going down; are being mown down by automatic rifles. We’re in the group just behind the leaders – who are members of the National Students Committee – at the head of the ten thousand strong student demonstration, and when the leaders start to drop, we’re suddenly exposed to the firing guns.

Bloody Russians, mercenaries hired by the commie bastards, are shooting at us – a peaceful demonstration for godsake! – and our own government powerless to stop it; ousted by the communists in fake elections. We’ve come here with a petition for President Edward Beneš protesting the communist coup but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be allowed to deliver it. When the guns turn my way, I shout, ‘Look out! Run, everyone, run!’ Meanwhile, the idiots behind us keep pushing in, pushing us forwards, some students nearby go down and then get trampled by students still pushing to get in from behind.

Ratatat-tat, don’t they hear it?

Ratatat-tat. ‘Run!’ I shout as loudly as I can. ‘The Russians, they’re shooting at us. Run for your life!’

Finally people begin to understand, beside me a guy has his brains blown out and goes to the ground with a thud. I want to stop to help him, but I’m responsible for the forty-odd students I brought with me from Klatovy and I don’t want to get shot myself. I turn and run as fast as I can amid the cries of ‘Please, God’, ‘Mum’, ‘Someone, help us!’ jumping over the body of a young girl who’s screaming, ‘Wait! I’ve been hit, my stomach’s falling out,’ and who’s now being trampled by the stampede of students from the front. I try not to look too closely at the gaping, bloody wound.

Everything’s totally crazy. The professor goes down but has only tripped and Prema pulls him up again. But then the young guy next to Prema goes down, blood splattered across his face. Another beside me falls, shot in the back while running away, and another, and finally the people at the back start to realise what’s going on and everyone turns and runs. The students are all running blindly now desperate for any kind of cover, terror in their faces, the nearest corner, a tree, anything they can hide behind, pushing, screaming, some falling over.

I force my way out of the inner courtyard, the red-arm-banded Russian mercenaries had been waiting for us hidden inside the castle walls, and hurtle pell-mell through the main gate. As I run my mind flashes back, replaying the earlier scenes.

We met at Wenceslas Square first thing in the morning, all students, most of us eighteen or nineteen years old. We’ve come from colleges and universities all over Czechoslovakia and have travelled here today by whatever means possible to participate in the demonstration. We march down the square, through the old town, across the Karlův Most and up the hill to the castle. Finally, with only about a hundred metres to go till we reach the castle entrance, we pause.

‘Can you see any guards?’ Prema says. ‘I can’t see any behind the gates…’

‘You’d think there’d be some,’ I say. ‘They must know we’re coming by now.’

‘They’ll be there, don’t you worry,’ the professor says.

Just at that moment a few figures appear with helmets on, bayonets fixed on the end of their automatic rifles, and then more of them appear from around the corners.

‘Look! There must be two hundred or more,’ I say, over the commotion of the other students. ‘So what happens now?’

The rifles move up into firing position. The leaders in front stop, watching, fascinated, while the students behind keep pushing to get in with cries of ‘Freedom’, ‘Democracy’. No one hears the captain’s order to shoot.

I don’t really hear the first shots myself, just see the little puffs of grey smoke coming out of the ends of the rifles, and then I stare, transfixed, as the first rows of students almost instantly go down…

Ratatat-tat, the shots chasing us, reverberating down the winding streets of Malá Strana. I make good headway – all that training as a long-distance runner finally paying off – as I go leaping over the fallen, careful not to trip on the litter of abandoned signs that read ‘Freedom’, ‘Democracy’, or the red, white and blue flags now torn, bloody and trampled with mud. Soon, clearing the crowd, I slow, and panting, winded with the effort, wait for the rest of my group to catch up. All around me students rush past. Seeing Prema and the professor, I wave the rest of our group over until we’re all assembled again and then urge them on, away from the castle and down the backstreets towards the Charles Bridge. Gradually the ratatat-tat fades – once we reach the river I can’t hear it any more – and I assume the Russians have been ordered to turn back.

‘Keep going,’ I say. ‘They might follow us.’

The professor, puffing and red in the face, is struggling with the exertion. Prema, too, has lost his usual nightclub pallor and limps along as we push our way through the crying girls and onto the Charles Bridge, where even some of the boys are crying too.

Chaos: students running every which way then sprinting off and scattering in all directions. I lead the others back up towards Wenceslas Square and then onto a parallel street that runs behind the square, not wanting to run into any soldiers or patrols.

‘Don’t say anything about the college or the demonstration,’ the professor tells us. ‘Pretend you have a job in a factory, just in case.’ But we don’t run into any soldiers. Most people are already at work, we just see an older man out for his constitutional, and a woman lugging home two bulging bags of shopping. In the distance, the howl of sirens is the only sign of what’s really going on. Soon the domed roof of the railway station appears over the tops of the apartment buildings ahead and we slow down to a walk. Two SNB policeman stand in front of the station.

‘Don’t forget,’ the professor says, ‘talk about the factory.’

‘Can anyone see any soldiers?’ I ask

‘Just those two down the other end of the station,’ Prema says. I follow his line of sight, but there’s just more policemen – they look all right to me.

We hurry through the station and up onto the platform but there aren’t any more soldiers and we board the train without fuss. After the long run it’s bliss to put my feet up and stretch out on the seats. As the train pulls out, Prema rubs his twisted ankle, the professor sits puffing, and I close my eyes and try not to think about the students who didn’t make it back from the castle, who didn’t survive the demonstration, the hundreds of bodies mown down by the Russian soldiers…

My scholarship, my impatience to finish my degree at commercial college, the students I must tutor tomorrow in English, none of this suddenly seems very important.


1971: THE PINK glass sparkles on the dresser – a perfume spray, a dish for jewellery and a matching vase. ‘It’s all crystal,’ Mum says, ‘Bohemian crystal. Here, feel how heavy it is,’ she says, handing me the perfume spray.

‘Wow,’ I say. It’s much heavier than normal glass.

My brother’s eating salted peanuts from a dish on the coffee table. ‘Don’t fill up on peanuts, you won’t leave any room for dinner,’ Mum tells him while she shows me a tiny floral coffee cup and saucer. ‘Isn’t this pretty?’

Dad’s talking with his parents in the other room in what I’m now starting to realise is Czech, which is short for Czechoslovakian, or ‘Czecho-salivan,’ as my brother and I call it, and which is what the language here is called.

Dinner is roast pork, dumplings, gravy and some kind of vegetable dish which is made of cabbage and which my brother won’t eat. It’s a bit strange because my grandparents stand beside the table and wait for us to eat first. It’s hard to eat while you’re being watched, especially when your grandfather is ‘old’, and has been ‘sick’ ever since he came back from Auschwitz, but Mum just says, ‘Eat up kids, the sooner we finish the sooner they’ll sit down.’ And Dad smiles and says something in Czech, which makes his mother laugh a high-pitched laugh and which he translates for us as, ‘I just told them how impossible it is to make decent dumplings in Australia, you can’t buy the right flour.’

After my grandparents have eaten, the adults talk a little while and my brother and I play I-spy and study the album cover of the Beatles’ Help!, which is apparently a very special thing because it’s very hard to find a copy in communist Czechoslovakia. When my grandparents go to bed, my parents tuck us in, my brother and I are head to toe on the couch, and I listen in the half-light to my parents talking.

We’ve been in Czechoslovakia – Czechoslovensko as my cousin George says – for a few weeks now. Last week we arrived at my Uncle Karel’s flat, and now we’re going away with them to their holiday home in the mountains for a few days. We’re sitting around at the kitchen table with Aunty Vera and Uncle Karel waiting for them get ready, but for some reason they’re running late. My brother and I are making the squeaky frog noise when Mum tells us to go outside and play tennis against the wall with our cousin George.

‘OK,’ I say, shoulders slumped until we are out on the stairs and then I say, ‘Last one to the bottom’s a rotten egg,’ and race my brother and George to the bottom of the stairs.

I’m winning against my brother 40-love when I turn to watch a big black car drive up to the flat. George, who’s sitting this game out – he’ll play the winner – watches closely and when the car pulls up he bolts, disappearing into the back door of the neighbouring building. My brother and I keep playing, but when we see two men enter Uncle Karel and Aunty Vera’s building we stop.

‘6-1, 6-0,’ I say, announcing the score proudly.

We muck around with our rackets. I’m hitting the ball straight up on the racket, which is horizontal, until, a few minutes later, we watch my father and Karel get into the back of the car with the two men and then drive off.

‘Where’s Dad going?’ I say, but I know my brother has even less idea than I do.

‘Let’s go ask Mum,’ I say, leading the way back upstairs and into the flat where Aunty Vera is talking loudly in Czech and my mother, not understanding, is standing at the window facing the street and looking out.

‘Where’s Dad?’ I say, but instead of answering Mum just shushes us and ushers us into the lounge room, then closes the front door to the flat with a slam.

‘You just amuse yourselves and keep quiet,’ she tells us, resuming her lookout at the window before trying uselessly to find out where they’ve gone from Aunty Vera.

‘Where have they gone?’ she says. ‘The police?’

But Aunty Vera’s answer, a fast jumble of unrecognisable words, tells us nothing. Only Aunty Vera’s worried expression and sharply raised eyebrows and shaking head let Mum and me know that wherever Dad’s gone it’s not good.

My brother and I are busy playing plastic animals on the record player (I brought my farm animals with me all the way from Australia), when suddenly Mum appears. ‘Where’s George?’

‘I don’t know. He went next door, I think.’

‘Run and see if you can find him. I need someone who can translate what Vera’s saying so I understand.’

‘Are we still going to the mountains?’

‘Never mind about that now. Just see if you can find George.’

I run off back downstairs, sneakers squeaking on the tiles and into the next door building until I find an open door on the second floor and, hearing voices inside, I call, ‘George?’

When there’s no answer I suddenly think of the creepy men that took Dad away and, heart pounding, run back to the flat.

‘Well?’ Mum says.’

‘I can’t find him.’


‘What’s happening? Where’s Dad?’

‘I’m not sure, sweetie, but I think your dad and Karel might have been arrested.’

‘Did they do something wrong?’

‘That’s what I’m trying to find out. Now you – you just go play with your brother. Okay?’

Time drags. We have lunch – rye bread and salami, which isn’t so bad once you get used to it – and then dinner, which is beef stew. After dinner, Mum tries talking to Aunty Vera using her pocket English–Czech dictionary, but the only word they can agree on is ‘police’.

It’s growing dark and my father’s been gone for nine hours and fifteen minutes. Mum’s stopped crying and sits with her eyes closed, snapping them open every time a car, now infrequent, passes below.

My brother and I sit staring blankly at Czech TV, unable to understand a word. My brother’s eyes start to droop.

‘We’ve exhausted our resources,’ Mum says.

We’ve tried playing I-spy, singing ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gumtree’ in rounds, and Mum tried the radio but couldn’t find anything in English so she turned it off. Mum says it’s a violation of human rights to keep us here all this time, children and a mother, without news. It’s very bad, I think, what’s happening to my father, though I don’t really understand, and no matter how many times I ask Mum she just keeps saying she doesn’t know where Dad is and ‘it’s all the bloody communists’ fault’. I don’t really understand what’s happening except my dad’s in trouble with the government here. Does that mean he’s a spy?

Then, quietly, she says to herself, ‘Please God, not Siberia. Anything, just not that… Bloody Russians.’

I close my eyes. Isn’t Siberia the place they take spies? It’s an hour and a half past my bedtime but I’ve got to stay awake to make sure Dad’s okay.

‘Mum,’ I say, forcing myself to sit up, ‘Is Dad a spy?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she says, huffing at me and I slump back down. ‘Go to sleep.’

Finally, at quarter to ten Mum says, ‘OK kids, if he’s not back in the next fifteen minutes I’ll put you to bed and we’ll drive to the consulate in Prague in the morning.’ My eyes flick open but my brother doesn’t stir.

At ten, Mum moves us into bed. ‘I guess that’s what I’ll do, try to find the Australian consulate tomorrow,’ she says.

My brother is already asleep, but I lie awake listening to my mother talking to herself and pacing up and down near the window in the kitchen.

I check the time. It’s been ten and a half hours since my dad disappeared. Finally there’s the sound of a car from the street below, a big car, and I sit up. The front door opens, men’s voices and then – Dad!

I sneak out, not caring if I wake my brother up now its good news, and watch from the doorway. When dad sees me he says, ‘Go to bed’, and I go back to the couch, telling my brother, ‘Dad’s back but he said to go to bed’, but I still can’t get to sleep.

Later, Mum and Dad are getting undressed in the dark and climbing into bed.

‘I’ll tell you once we get to the hotel,’ Dad says, ‘Let’s just get across the border in one piece, Okay?’

‘I thought they’d taken you to Siberia,’ Mum wails. ‘I was going to drop the kids at a hotel and come back and wait through the night, and if you still weren’t here, go to the consulate in Prague first thing in the morning, and–’

‘Well I’m here now. I’ll talk to Karel about things in the morning.’

‘What about the mountains?’

‘Do you still want to go?’

‘Is it safe? It’s not for me, it’s the kids, I just–’

‘I can’t make any promises,’ Dad says. ‘I think we’re okay for the moment, that the regime will let me finish my visit–’

‘Okay,’ Mum says, ‘let’s sleep on it. We’ve come all this way, and then we can decide in the morning.’

‘Okay,’ Dad says, the bed springs squeaking as he climbs in. ‘That sounds like a plan.’

Later that night, my brother asleep beside me, I wake up suddenly and lie rigid in bed.

Mum gets up to go to the toilet and drinks from the bottled water but doesn’t go back to bed and sits staring through the curtains at the street below. Finally, at dawn, my body gives in and I slide into darkness. When I wake up I’m alone in the room.

Dad is busy packing our suitcases into the car and we say goodbye to my aunty, uncle and cousin and drive back to Prague to the hotel where we stayed when we first arrived.

We’re mostly quiet during the drive but upstairs in the hotel room while my brother and I take turns having baths, Mum and Dad have an argument.

‘Did you tell your parents what happened at Karel’s?’ Mum says.

‘Yes, Dad thinks it’s because of the student demonstration in ’48 and my escape, but I’m going to talk to Vlad about it. Vlad, he has friends in the right places, he’ll know if we should worry or not.’

‘I don’t care what Vlad says, I say we leave as soon as possible. They tore up your letter from the Czech consulate in Sydney, threatened to imprison you indefinitely and only released you if you agreed to make a communist propaganda film.’

‘I know, I know.’

‘They left me and the kids without a word of explanation for ten hours. They drove you to Barrandov film studios, gave you a script and forced you to read it in front of a bloody camera, and it was full of lies! They made you say that your life in the West was full of misery and poverty, that your children didn’t have shoes, that you didn’t earn enough money to pay for food. Who are these people? That they could force you to make a propaganda film–’

‘Shhh, keep your voice down. The kids–’

‘–under threat of imprisonment. No! I will not keep quiet about this. We need to leave, you said as soon as you spoke to your parents? And what about that big black car that followed us everywhere today, and that’s probably still parked outside?’ Mum walks over to the window and lifts the curtain. ‘It’s parked outside our hotel room!’

‘It’s probably just routine. We’re automatically under suspicion, visitors from the West. I’m an enemy of the state as far as they’re concerned. As Karel said, they haven’t actually done anything yet, have they?’

‘Haven’t done anything yet?’

And then my mum disappears crying into my dad’s arms. ‘It’s okay,’ he says.

‘I just couldn’t stand it if they took you away. What would I tell the kids?’ Mum cries. ‘How could I ever go back home and leave you here? Not even being able to speak with you. I won’t let–’

‘Shhh,’ Dad says. ‘I’ll tell Karel we’re leaving. I just wanted to make sure we weren’t overreacting. I wanted to spend as much time with my family as possible. They’ve all had it hard here since my escape, okay? I owe them that. Karel lost his job, remember that? The communists took it away and made him do forced labour.’

‘Let’s just go straight to Greece – we could spend extra time there on the island.’

‘Let me talk to Vlad, okay?’

My dad goes to bed soon after but my mum stays awake, smoking and pacing up and down in front of the window, and I still can’t sleep, even though I’m completely exhausted, and I lie twitching beneath the covers wondering if there are more robots below. Why don’t we just leave like Mum says?

Suddenly, Mum freezes beside the window, staring out through a gap in the curtains. With one decisive pull she flicks them open and, looking down, she gasps.


‘HOW FAR TO the border?’ Mum wants to know. Her eyes are red from lack of sleep and her face tight with worry.

‘We should be there in about an hour or so.’

‘I hope we don’t have any more trouble. I just want to get out of here. What an absolute nightmare this has been.’

Outside it’s a sunny day and we soon leave the spires and old buildings of the capital behind and find ourselves in the countryside. Then, just like dad said, after driving for about an hour or so we approach the border crossing. I sit up in my seat. We drive slowly and then stop. But this time the robot/soldiers take my father away as soon as he shows them his papers. My mum calls out, ‘What’s happening now?’ But my dad doesn’t answer, there’s no winking, he just disappears with the soldiers into one of the square concrete buildings on the far side of the booths. My mum sucks in a breath. I wait to hear her breathe it back out but she must do it silently because I wait and wait and there’s no sound.

My brother starts making the squeaky frog noise and Mum instantly tells him to ‘shhh’. He keeps doing it though, just more quietly and after a few minutes he starts whining, ‘I’m hungry. When’s lunch? I want a peanut-butter sandwich.’

Mum snaps ‘shhh’ again and then says, ‘We need to wait here until your father…’ She stops. Takes a deep breath, shudders. ‘For your father. Then we’ll have lunch once we’re out of Czechoslovakia. Once we’ve crossed the border.’

I look at the soldiers and their guns and start to imagine they’re robots again, their faces, so plastic looking and hard. Do they have pistols, too? I start writing a postcard to my class back home in my head about the soldiers, and the Czech words in English. An hour passes. I wonder how long they’ve taken Dad for this time and if they’re going to make him do another movie. When a second hour drags on, Mum turns around and looks at my brother and I. Her eyes are very blue and sharp. I don’t want to look at them but she makes me.

‘Look at me you two,’ she says, and my brother, who’s busy picking at a scab on his knee, stops and looks up too. ‘Okay. This is important. Your father’s been gone a long time. So what I want you two to do, okay, what I want you two to do is to sit here and not open the door to anyone or talk to anyone until I come back. Do you understand? Don’t open the door. You just sit tight until I come back. Got it?’

I nod and look down. My brother says, ‘And then are we going to have lunch?’

Mum sighs and tries to be patient. She looks like she wants to snap at him but she doesn’t. ‘Yes, then we’ll have lunch. But in the meantime, you sit tight. Understand?’

We both nod.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘I’m going to go see what’s taking your father so long. I’ll be right back.’

She gets out of the car and closes the door. She knocks on the glass and I lock all the doors from the inside. ‘Good girl,’ she mouths.

She walks over towards the building but she’s stopped by one of the soldiers before she even reaches the booths. My heart starts beating very fast and I suddenly need to go to the toilet. My brother starts quietly to moan, ‘I’m hun-gry, I’m hun-gry,’ stretching the syllables out and kicking the seat in front with his feet.

My mother draws pictures in the air and the guard shrugs his shoulders.

She points at her watch and raises her hands up.

The soldier shrugs. He points to the car with the machine gun but Mum doesn’t move. He nudges her with the gun. She won’t move. Then he takes the gun so he’s holding it in both hands and lifts it up. He points the gun at the car. My mother turns and walks quickly back towards the car.

She knocks frantically on the glass and I unlock the door. She gets into the car but the soldier has followed her. She climbs in and locks the door. The soldier walks right up to the car, still holding the machine gun but not pointing it at us anymore. He stands just outside my side of the car. When he suddenly bends down to peer in, his face close to the glass, I jump in my seat. I start to cry.

‘Don’t move,’ Mum says. ‘Don’t look at him. Just look at the floor. That’s a good girl. He’ll go away.’

The man’s face is on the other side of the glass, his skin up close looks smooth and moulded and hard, and as he points the big gun in his hands, I force my eyes to do what Mum says. I look down at the floor as the wee starts trickling onto the seat, hot against my skin.

Dad’s been gone three and a half hours and five minutes. The tissues mum used to wipe up the wee are smelly and yellow on the floor of the car. My brother has given up moaning and kicking and is now making little sighing noises that go up and down. Otherwise he’s very quiet and still. Mum sits in the front seat, twisting her wedding band on her finger, her eyes darting back and forth from the buildings to the tollbooths to the car, the places we last saw my dad, and they don’t stop.

Outside it’s a sunny day and I can hear birds singing in the trees. It’s growing hot in the car but Mum won’t let us wind down the windows. The cars come and go. The soldiers joke among themselves. Every so often they pull up another car and take someone away like they did with my father. They’ve taken three people away, counting my dad.

The guns look heavy. I imagine holding one, pointing it and shooting it. Only I would shoot the soldiers, not the people driving the cars.

Finally, four hours after Dad disappeared, he comes striding out of the building and walks quickly towards us, his fingers twitching at his sides.

I follow him with my eyes until he gets in the car, Mum’s back in her seat now though my brother still hasn’t stirred, and then my eyes slump closed but I force them straight open again. Is Dad okay?

‘Are the kids all right?’ he wants to know. ‘Did they hurt the kids?’

‘No,’ Mum says, as an image of the soldier outside my window flashes into my mind. ‘The kids are fine. We’re all fine. What the hell’s going on?’

‘Let’s just get out of here. I’ll tell you once we’re across the border.’

I hold my breath as we accelerate towards the booth and into Austria, fearing the soldiers will reappear with their guns at any second, but the gate magically opens and we drive straight through. Behind us, I hear the soldiers laughing and watch one throw his cigarette butt in a curling arc onto the road.

I close my eyes, Mum and Dad are talking about the map in the front, and even though I’m no longer hungry, I’m really tired, but I can’t fall asleep.


JUNE, 1993: ‘DAD’S got something for you,’ Mum says, as she cleans the juicer.

Carrying the strange-looking, cancer-fighting juice, I walk down to the front of the house to Dad’s room.

I knock on the door, eyes taking in the bottle of morphine and the tray of medicine and pills on the desk, and then my father’s emaciated body over on the bed. He’s sixty-three and has stage-four terminal cancer, and a couple of weeks to live.

He opens his eyes when I approach holding out the juice but when he looks confused I place it on the desk and say, ‘I brought you some juice’. I sit down carefully, not wanting to jar his fragile body with the springs of the bed.

‘Hmmm,’ he says, as his eyes flutter closed again.

‘Dad?’ I prompt after a few minutes. ‘Mum said you had something you wanted to give me.’

While I wait for an answer, I take in the electric typewriter on the desk, my old typewriter from my first year at university, obsolete in the age of the PC, where he’s been slowly typing up his memoirs.

Without warning his eyes flutter open and he says my name and sits up.

‘How are you feeling?’ I repeat the inevitable question.

He sighs. ‘I feel well today. I just did a wonderful meditation.’ His morphined-out eyes are clear but distant at the same time.

Wrapping himself in his dressing gown he sits up and reaches for a pile of papers on the bedside table. He hands them to me. ‘They’re about the demonstration,’ he says, ‘and when the Nazis came for your grandfather.’

‘Thanks,’ I tell him. There are about thirty pages, three separate pieces, untitled. The typewriter has a dodgy letter ‘e’ that places it above the rest of the text.

‘I don’t want you to think I’m unhappy; I’m not. I’ve led a happy life,’ he says, his words incongruous with the way he looks, the yellowed skin, hollow eye sockets, his once fine athletic physique reduced to skin and bones.

‘Okay,’ I say, not really knowing what to say, shocked that he could be in so much physical pain and about to die and still say he’s happy.

I sit with him a few moments, I don’t read the pages, and then I leave.

He dies a few weeks later. We never talk of the pages again but when I finally look at them I see they’re a kind of diary, entries on the three most important events of his life: the day the Nazis arrested his father; the day the Soviet-controlled puppet government shot at him with machine guns for participating in a peaceful student demonstration; and the day his girlfriend, Mila, saved him from life imprisonment and how he escaped from communist Czechoslovakia and ended up in Australia as a refugee.


MILA FETCHES THE newspaper article from the carved sideboard made of heavy dark wood. She rustles around in a couple of drawers first before she finds it and then she holds it out. Small, just a few rows of print, and in Czech. I can’t read a word.

She explains, ‘At the time this was the only notification that the demonstration had taken place.’

‘It was the only newspaper article?’

‘Yes.’ While her grey hair is dyed a faint mauve, she still looks elegant with her high cheek bones, long legs clad in black trousers and simple grey jumper.

I look from Mila’s steady gaze down to the newspaper clipping. ‘So this explains why no one at the reading I gave at the university last week had heard of it.’

‘That’s right. The regime made sure it disappeared, they didn’t want people to know about the peaceful student protest against the communists or about how the Russians soldiers killed them. They hid it.’


‘They also lied in the article about how many students they killed. Here they say there were about three hundred to four hundred students shot, but the truth is there were a lot more.’

‘How many more?’

‘Perhaps a thousand, or maybe even two thousand.’

‘That’s incredible. I can’t believe it. And people today don’t even know the demonstration took place?’

She shakes her head. ‘It’s incredible.’

I’m reminded of my father during those last weeks before he died, sitting at the typewriter when the morphine and pain allowed and typing up his stories for me. He knew I wanted to be a writer, though back then I’d never had anything much published. Giving me the pages was one of the last things he ever did.

I decide then and there that one day I will write about it.

Mila smiles. ‘I will wait to read it,’ she says and nods her head.

Replacing the article in the drawer, she returns to the dining table in her flat in Prague and offers me some more Becherovka. Accepting a top-up, I wonder at her keeping the clipping all these years and at the miracle of it finally finding me.

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About the author

Justine Ettler

Justine Ettler has a PhD in English and is the author of the bestseller The River Ophelia (Picador, 1995), reprint forthcoming (Critical Mass, 2017),...

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