During my recent break I ignored the outside world, and got some writing done. I completed a few pieces, finding inspiration from DeviantArt, including the piece below. I just found some time to polish it today.
It’s around 1,500 words – 10ish minutes.
The original artwork was:
She glimpsed the bus, still daubed with camouflage paint, across the square, and relaxed a little. Thank goodness she was in time! Thank goodness that buses were running again at all!
Panting, Ramona paid the grubby driver, and crashed down into the tattered seat. Exhausted, just wanting to catch up on her rest, she closed her eyes. As the driver revved the engine and put the bus into first, hopefully, its rhythmic hum would soon carry her away.
Work hadn’t wanted her to come. Or rather, hadn’t wanted her to take time off. Even this morning, they had left her with little time to catch the bus. It had taken many months to find this job, and she could not afford to lose it. But it worked both ways. Ramona was an excellent worker, not easy to replace, and they had grudgingly granted her request, provided she made up the time.
But this journey was important.
Leaving her parents alone for the night, she had caught the popular afternoon bus out of Krovje. Destination… her former life! It soon became clear, however, that even on this sweltering afternoon, the journey would be made even more uncomfortable by the heater, which insisted on pumping out even hotter air.
“What can I do?”, the man mopped an already-sweaty brow, “I’m just the driver. Open the windows if you want, or”, he added with menace, “you can get off”. There were no more buses that day.
The combination of the heat and the gentle rocking made Ramone nauseous, but this sweet twenty-year-old couldn’t sleep. Not properly. There was too much anticipation. The next few hours could change her life.
“Promise me we’ll meet again. Here. Next year, five years, ten. However long it takes. After that, I never want us to be apart.” Sitting up on the tired blanket, the boy became serious. A pause. “While I am away…”, he began deliberately, before vigorously scratching at some imagined itch, abandoning his rehearsed speech and instead blurting, “When I come home, will you marry me?”
Not traditional. This abandoned old barge, the Iris, oozed engine oil rather than romance, but it had become their den, their rusting oasis. Left to rot, a man had once tried to turn Iris into a restaurant, but the venture had floundered. Everything failed, back then. Desperate times.
Anton’s question caused Ramona, too, to jerk herself upright. The blanket fell away to expose one of her perfect breasts. Needing a moment to prepare, she focussed on his new fatigues, which lay in an untidy pile where she had undressed him. Composed, now, she turned and gazed hard at her man, unused to his newly-shorn, severe ginger crop. Still no more than a boy himself, about to embark on a man’s adventure, she forgave the lacklustre surroundings. “Anything, my love”, she cooed, wrapping her milky-white legs around his torso. She had secretly waited for this moment, wherever it occurred. Raising her soft face above his, she smothered him with her rich, chestnut hair. “After this madness is over… of course I will! I want us to stand side by side, for ever.” Ramona emphasised her agreement with a long, deep kiss, until Anton struggled a hand free.
“This day. The nineteenth. At 10 PM.”, he checked his wristwatch. “Whatever happens, wherever we end up, I promise I’ll come back here to find you. Every year, no matter how long.”
The same age, Ramona and Anton had been sweethearts since fifth grade, the winter when she nearly fell through the ice, and Anton gallantly dragged her to safety. It seemed natural, people commented, for their camaraderie to blossom into more, just as they themselves blossomed through their teens. Nobody was surprised when they became a couple.
But two weeks past Ramona’s sixteenth birthday, fate intervened. The political situation had yo-yoed for years, to the left, to the right, each government consumed only with correcting the misdeeds of the previous. They tried to ignore it; they had each other, but when the generals attempted the coup… the Civil War had begun!
Ramona was equivocal. Brought up to become a wife and mother, what did it matter? Whoever was in charge, the poor would be hungry.
Anton was more forthright, however. With a youth’s black-and-white vision, he wasted no time volunteering. “We can’t let them win. The army is the cat which skims the cream. If we don’t keep them in their place, we’re finished anyway.”
He was due to leave early the next day.
And presenting to him the gift which she had intended for their wedding night, Ramona made the boy’s last evening memorable.
The shuddering jolt woke the girl, the driver shrieking at a passer-by as he furiously engaged the brake. A chicken in front of the bus, he cursed to any passenger who would listen. Road signs were starting to reappear now, and opening one eye, Ramona found herself a third of the way, though the war had made places difficult to recognise. Content to continue her repose in the still-sweltering bus, she closed the eye.
Her first personal heartbreak came about six months in. On the other side of the village, Anton’s home was hit. A mortar, a shell, whatever, wrecked the house. Anton’s father – Ramona’s future father-in-law – was killed instantly. His mother escaped, out shopping, though the loss was pivotal.
“I have a sister, near Sourina. There is not so much fighting there. She has offered me a home. You and I will stay in touch”, she promised, pressing the address into Ramona’s palm. But even that irregular correspondence ceased about a year later.
Despite her frequent letters to Anton, she was never sure that they were received. “I’ll try my best”, offered the dishevelled adjutant, “but there is heavy fighting down south. No promises”. And never a response.
There seemed to be a fracas on the bus, and Ramona instinctively hunched herself into a ball. But she needn’t have worried. The driver seemingly set his own rules and needed a break. Shooed off the bus, the war had taught Ramona to comply, and she meekly alighted. But, having nowhere to go, she waited by the bus until allowed to re-board. Ramona smiled as a mother cajoled her sluggish toddler onto the bus, and was relieved to be only another half-hour from her village. The baking heat was only becoming worse.
Floating again, Ramona returned to her nightmare. As the conflict dragged on, the rumours spread that they were winning. The fighting was further away, and the village returned to a relative peace.
Then, was it the last throw of the dice? A rapid SAMU advance took everybody by surprise. The village was overrun.
Such was their ferocity, much of the village was destroyed. Ramona and her family barely escaped. Their home was not so lucky, made uninhabitable by a shell. One more refugee family among millions.
They settled in Krovje. Only a few hours away, in another universe.
Ramona forced herself awake as they approached her village. Just after 4 PM the bus entered the still-ruined square. Unsurprising, really – the war only finished recently, and this was an insignificant little village. Many inhabitants had, like Ramona, evacuated.
Ramona’s goal. The reason she had taken time from work, and the reason she made that uncomfortable bus journey.
Stepping from the bus, she took a gulp of fresh air. Ahhhh It still smells of flowers! Almost immediately, Christina appeared. Her best school friend, she had informed the efficient Christina about her plan, and had gratefully accepted the offer of a bed. “You’re so skinny!”, began the conversation, and with so much to catch up on, the pair talked uninterrupted for hours, giggling just as they had at school.
As the day dimmed, however, Ramona made her excuses.
“If I’m not back”, she winked, “don’t wait up”. Christina knew her intention – who can keep secrets from their best friend?
Arriving at Iris, the gangplank was missing. To prevent access? Seemed futile. Only the short stub of a jetty remained. And, on closer inspection, it appeared that the barge itself was holed, resting lifeless in the mud.
Save for the running water, the scene was silent.
In the old days, the decaying cabin had been the reception, but now… unrecognisable. Its walls pockmarked by gunfire. Most of the roof missing. The glass gone from the windows. Was it always that way? She couldn’t remember. Even before the war, it had been derelict since the restaurant closed. Worst of all was the sulphurous smell. Her nose wrinkled in disgust.
Unsettled by her forbidding surroundings, Ramona returned outside, seated herself against the cabin’s wall, and, in the still-warmth of midsummer, settled down to wait. Repeatedly checking her watch, each second lasted an hour, though she would have willingly waited all night. But the girl was tired, gradually her adrenaline sapped and drowsiness took hold. Soothed by the lullaby of the river, she fell into a light sleep, almost missing the creak of the cabin door.
Incidentally, I also found this painting, “Reclining Nude” by Zinaida Serebriakova, which reminded me of Ramona.