The station at Przemsul was frantic. The kind of dirty, smelly and noisy frantic that signals a refugee crisis… I’ve seen a few. My grandfather lived through many and made sure I knew their signature.. and what the reality was beneath the headlines.
They were streaming into the central concourse of the station in their hundreds, eyes wide in terror of the unknown – safe, yes, but not home, not warm, not even together with friends. With fathers left behind to face the tanks in this so-called battle, never complete families…
Like a football crowd, the refugee women emerged from the dark tunnel that bled them from the platforms, off the latest surviving train from Ukraine.
Children…many of them had children. One woman, eyes red with tears and lack of sleep, clutched a small baby inside her quilted coat, only the top of its wool-covered head visible; a thin wisp of steam the only sign of its life. She hurried up the steps as best she could, clutching the left hand of a toddler as she half-urged, half dragged him along the space.
I felt something heavy collide with the heel of my boot, and whirled to get out of the way. A young, smartly-dressed couple hurriedly apologised and edged past me, the woman’s blond hair bouncing with the intensity of her approach. She was pushing what looked like a new pram along the concrete towards the line of emerging refugees.
The pram was packed full of clothes and food supplies; the bright edges visible over the dark sides of the buggy.
Designed in Syria, perfected in Ukraine…
Designed in Syria, perfected in Ukraine… I thought. The quote kept coming back. Filled with the bile it deserved to carry. Images of the many destroyed cities we had seen from the train filled my mind.
The young couple stopped when they saw the refugee clutching her children. The eyes of the women locked on to each other. I could see tears cascading from the blond’s elegantly made-up eyes, over her cheeks, turning to steam in the icy cold.
They continued to approach each other, but more slowly. The refugee began shaking her head… “No. no… not know you,” she said. It was a wail, the sound of last hope dashed.
“You do know me, you know kindness…as you would do for another!” said the blonde, taking the other’s hand and placing it on the frame of the pram.
“This is for you… I’m sorry it is so little, but in here is warmth, and food and a little money. It will help with the children.”
Against my better judgement, and bad for my smart uniform, my own eyes were streaming.
I could taste the agony in the air, as the well-dressed couple pulled away, leaving the loaded pram with the woman and her two children. The toddler had tried to climb into the buggy, but his mother had to restrain him. They were all so very tired. The moment racked my soul. I was glad it did so… it showed I was still alive.
‘You have to do something…his words said, softly in my head. To truly live is to care…’
By rights, I should never have been here to witness this – an Englishman in Poland. But my grandfather’s tales of devastation at the hands of madmen were deeply etched into my consciousness. Having fled to a welcoming England, he had spent the rest of his modest life helping others. He had been so proud of his former skills, that he had paid for my training as an engine driver.
Years later, with a sadly failed marriage behind me, I moved myself back to his former country in search of something real. Now – here – I should have smiled… but didn’t.
The refugee family, along with hundreds of others, had just got off my train… I had to check myself for being so parochial; the train for which I was the driver. The end of a long shift being chased by Putin’s tanks in this ‘battle’ for the soul of a nation had placed me here… Witness. – after the horror – to the most profound kindness. I looked around the station. There were hundreds of prams. All of them filled with simple but life-supporting things. The refugees with children were being guided to them by the station staff.
My grandfather arrived in England with nothing. He had been helped by kind people. The refugee woman before me had nothing but their three lives and the new pram in front of them. I strode the few feet and stood before her. She tensed in alarm at my uniform.
“It’s okay,” I said softly. “I am a kind man, too. I drove your train.” I watched her relax, slightly.
I took a breath and could swear I felt his presence.
“I have a small house here,” I said. Would you like to come home with me and spend a few days while we work out what can be done?”
I reached out my hand… she looked down, then at her children. Finally, she took it. Her fingernails dirty on my palms. I closed my skin over them to share the warmth. It’s such a simple gesture, but it means the world.
Authors note: This fictional story is based on true events currently happening in Poland, on the Ukrainian border.
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.