in the mountains and I shouldnt have been and I almost caused a riot.
It was because of the carrot.
You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesnt drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you cant wipe them because youre holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesnt clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
Thats happening to me.
Somehow I find my way towards my table. I use my ears for navigation.
Dodie who always sits next to me is a loud slurper because of his crooked teeth. I hold my bowl above my head so other kids cant pinch my soup while Im fogged up and I use Dodies slurping noises to guide me in.
I feel for the edge of the table and put my bowl down and wipe my glasses.
Thats when I see the carrot.
Its floating in my soup, huge among the flecks of cabbage and the tiny blobs of pork fat and the few lonely lentils and the bits of grey plaster from the kitchen ceiling.
A whole carrot.
I cant believe it. Three years and eight months Ive been in this orphanage and I havent had a whole carrot in my dinner bowl once. Neither has anyone else. Even the nuns dont get whole carrots, and they get bigger servings than us kids because they need the extra energy for being holy.
We cant grow vegetables up here in the mountains. Not even if we pray a lot. Its because of the frosts. So if a whole carrot turns up in this place, first it gets admired, then it gets chopped into enough pieces so that sixty-two kids, eleven nuns and one priest can all have a bit.
I stare at the carrot.
At this moment Im probably the only kid in Poland with a whole carrot in his dinner bowl. For a few seconds I think its a miracle. Except it cant be because miracles only happened in ancient times and this is 1942.
Then I realise what the carrot means and I have to sit down quick before my legs give way.
I cant believe it.
At last. Thank you God, Jesus, Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler, Ive waited so long for this.
Its a sign.
This carrot is a sign from Mum and Dad. Theyve sent my favourite vegetable to let me know their problems are finally over. To let me know that after three long years and eight long months things are finally improving for Jewish booksellers. To let me know theyre coming to take me home.
Dizzy with excitement, I stick my fingers into the soup and grab the carrot.
Luckily the other kids are concentrating on their own dinners, spooning their soup up hungrily and peering into their bowls in case theres a speck of meat there, or a speck of rat poo.
I have to move fast.
If the others see my carrot therell be a jealousy riot.
This is an orphanage. Everyone here is meant to have dead parents. If the other kids find out mine arent dead, theyll get really upset and the nuns here could be in trouble with the Catholic head office in Warsaw for breaking the rules.
Felix Saint Stanislaus.
I almost drop the carrot. Its Mother Minkas voice, booming at me from the high table.
Everyone looks up.
Dont fiddle with your food, Felix, says Mother Minka. If youve found an insect in your bowl, just eat it and be grateful.
The other kids are all staring at me. Some are grinning. Others are frowning and wondering whats going on. I try not to look like a kid whos just slipped a carrot into his pocket. Im so happy I dont care that my fingers are stinging from the hot soup.
Mum and Dad are coming at last.
They must be down in the village. They must have sent the carrot up here with Father Ludwik to surprise me.
When everyone has gone back to eating, I give Mother Minka a grateful smile. It was good of her to make a joke to draw attention away from my carrot.
There were two reasons Mum and Dad chose this orphanage, because it was the closest and because of Mother Minkas goodness. When they were bringing me here, they told me how in all the years Mother Minka was a customer of their bookshop, back before things got difficult for Jewish booksellers, she never once criticised a single book.
Mother Minka doesnt see my smile, shes too busy glaring at the Saint Kazimierz table, so I give Sister Elwira a grateful smile too. Sister Elwira doesnt notice either because shes too busy serving the last few kids and being sympathetic to a girl whos crying about the amount of ceiling plaster in her soup.
Theyre so kind, these nuns. Ill miss them when Mum and Dad take me home and I stop being Catholic and go back to being Jewish.
Dont you want that? says a voice next to me.
Dodie is staring at my bowl. His is empty. Hes sucking his teeth and I can see hes hoping my soup is up for grabs.
Over his shoulder, Marek and Telek are sneering.
Grow up, Dodek, says Marek, but in his eyes theres a flicker of hope that he might get some too.
Part of me wants to give my soup to Dodie because his mum and dad died of sickness when he was three. But these are hard times and food is scarce and even when your tummys stuffed with joy you still have to force it down.
I force it down.
Dodie grins. He knew Id want it. The idea that I wouldnt is so crazy it makes us both chuckle.
Then I stop. Ill have to say goodbye to everyone here soon. That makes me feel sad. And when the other kids see Mum and Dad are alive, theyll know I havent been truthful with them. That makes me feel even sadder.
I tell myself not to be silly. Its not like theyre my friends, not really. You cant have friends when youre leading a secret life. With friends you might get too relaxed and blurt stuff out and then theyll know youve just been telling them a story.
But Dodie feels like my friend.
While I finish my soup I try to think of a good thing I can do for him. Something to show him Im glad I know him. Something to make his life here a bit better after Ive gone, after Im back in my own home with my own books and my own mum and dad.
I know exactly what I can do for Dodie.
Nows the moment. The bath selection has just started.
Mother Minka is standing at the front, checking Jozef all over for dirt. Hes shivering. Were all shivering. This bathroom is freezing, even now in summer. Probably because its so big and below ground level. In ancient times, when this convent was first built, this bathroom was probably used for ice-skating.
Mother Minka flicks her tassel towards the dormitory. Jozef grabs his clothes and hurries away, relieved.
Lucky pig, shivers Dodie.
I step out of the queue and go up to Mother Minka.
Excuse me, Mother, I say.
She doesnt seem to notice me. Shes peering hard at Borys, whos got half the playing field under his fingernails and toenails. And a fair bit of it in his armpits. I can see Mother Minka is about to flick her tassel towards the bath.
Oh no, Im almost too late.
Then Mother Minka turns to me.
What is it? she says.
Please, Mother, I say hurriedly. Can Dodek be first in the bath?
The boys behind me in the queue start muttering. I dont glance back at Dodie. I know hell understand what Im trying to do.
Why? says Mother Minka.
I step closer. This is between me and Mother Minka.
You know how Dodeks parents died of sickness, I say. Well Dodeks decided he wants to be a doctor and devote his life to wiping out sickness all over the world. The thing is, as a future doctor hes got to get used to being really hygenic and washing himself in really hot and clean water.
I hold my breath and hope Dodie didnt hear me. He actually wants to be a pig-slaughterer and Im worried he might say something.
Mother Minka looks at me.
Get to the back of the queue, she says.
He really needs to be first in the bath every week, I say. As a doctor.
Now, booms Mother Minka.
I dont argue. You dont with Mother Minka. Nuns can have good hearts and still be violent.
As I pass Dodie he gives me a grateful look. I give him an apologetic one. I know he wouldnt mind about the doctor story. He likes my stories. Plus I think hed be a good doctor. Once, after he pulled the legs off a fly, he managed to stick a couple back on.
Ow, this stone floor is really cold on bare feet.
Thats something Dodie could do in the future. Design bathroom heating systems. I bet by the year 2000 every bathroom in the world will be heated. Floors and everything. With robots to pick the twigs and grit out of the bathwater.
Look at that, Borys is the first one in and the waters brown already. I can imagine what itll be like when I finally get in. Cold, with more solid bits in it than our soup.
I close my eyes and think about the baths Mum and Dad used to give me. In front of the fire with clean water and lots of warm wet cuddles and lots and lots of stories.
I cant wait to have a bath like that again.
Hurry up, Mum and Dad.
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