By the time Lena reached the British embassy, her feet ached, the sky was dark and overcast, and a cold wind whipped her face. She climbed the familiar stone steps and pushed through the heavy door. At least she would find a few hours of shelter inside.
Two dozen people already stood in the queue. Only one station was open today; the clerk looked dour and inscrutable. A well-dressed woman with a large hat waved her hands excitedly, pleading her case, rummaging through her handbag for documents.
“I’m sorry, madame,” the clerk said, loudly enough for all to hear. “We cannot continue with your application without the proper documentation.”
The woman withdrew from the counter, avoiding eye contact with those behind her. The queue shuffled forward. Eva’s boyfriend, Heinz, had a theory that the first fifteen applicants of the day were always denied, so perhaps it was just as well Lena had not arrived earlier, lining up for the doors to open at nine thirty. She didn’t believe Heinz; the process seemed utterly random.
A boy accompanied by elderly man moved up to the counter. The man spread a dossier of documents in front of him. The clerk looked at them with a cold, skeptical stare. Everyone in this queue wanted the same thing: the coveted visa for England.
Lena reached into her bag for Otto’s letter. Apparently, her Czech friends Peter and Lotti had now arrived and were staying with him in the ancient cottage in the south of England.
Mein Schätzchen, he’d written, using his favorite term of endearment. They always wrote and conversed in German, his native tongue. There are five of us now. It’s like the Prague days. We’ve established a commune of sorts. You belong here with us.
A second clerk appeared, opening up an additional window. Things should move a bit faster now, Lena thought—but then she recognized the man with square shoulders and the thin-rimmed spectacles. She had encountered him on three of her previous attempts, and he was sure to recognize her.
“Back so soon, Mademoiselle Kulkova?” he’d sneered the last time.
The problem on that occasion had been that she couldn’t prove she had enough money to get herself to England. Lena touched her skirt, felt the outline of the pristine 1,000-franc note lying safely in her pocket. Tonight she would return it to Heinz so another expatriate could use it: to present to some bureaucrat, to prove solvency, as needed.
Lena felt a tap on her shoulder. A dark-haired man with a pencil-thin mustache jerked his chin wordlessly to the space in front of her. She’d been daydreaming; the queue had moved ahead. Lena edged forward, irritated. Jamming together like the morning crowds on the Métro wasn’t going to get them there any faster.
A younger man stood at the counter now, pleading his case loudly in very bad French with a thick Eastern European accent.
“L’autre homme promissons que si je revenir . . .”
The clerk raised his eyebrows and curled his upper lip in contempt. Lena’s own French was fluent, perfected during her twenty months living in Paris. But she would speak English, she decided, when her turn came to face the clerk. It wasn’t as polished as her French—but anything to make a good impression. She took a deep breath, trying to shake the nervous twitch in the pit of her stomach.
She pulled out Otto’s letter again and removed the enclosed letter of invitation from . . . what was her name? A Mrs. William Courtney-Smithers had written in an elegant script on heavy, ivory-colored paper embossed with the family coat of arms. The address: The Grange, Upper Wolmingham, Sussex. Lena was to come and visit immediately. Spring was on its way, and the daffodils were sure to be spectacular. Mrs. Courtney-Smithers was anxious to show Lena all the delights of the English countryside.
Lena had no idea who this woman was. Obviously wealthy, but it didn’t sound like Otto’s landlady, based on what he had written in earlier letters. Yet somehow Otto had procured this invitation. He was clearly very impressed with her. Just go back to the embassy and show them this letter, he wrote; she’s very rich, almost an aristocrat.
“Next!” The first clerk, not the man with the glasses, called her up to the counter.
“Please, I would wish to apply for a visitor visa,” Lena said, in what she hoped was perfect English. She presented her passport. “I have been invited to stay with Mrs. Courtney-Smithers, an old friend of my parents, and I want very much to see her.”
Lena handed the letter to the embassy clerk, trying to prevent her hands from shaking. The clerk glanced at the letter. “Where is the envelope this came in?” he asked.
“I think I threw it away.” She concentrated on saying the th sound, placing her tongue behind her top front teeth and blowing gently, as she’d learned in school.
“Pity. I’m sure it was a fine envelope. Tell me, Miss, er, Miss Kulkova: What is the good lady Mrs. Courtney-Smithers . . . What is her Christian name?”
“Her Christian name?” What does that mean?
“Her first name. Son prénom.”
“I don’t know, sir.” Lena said. She knew enough not to suggest William; that must be her husband’s name. “My parents always referred to her as Mrs. Courtney-Smithers. It would have been not respectful for me to address her as anything else.”
“How did your parents make this lady’s acquaintance, may I ask?” He stared at her with piercing blue eyes. Lena was determined not to lower her gaze.
“Through my father’s business. She and her husband came to Prague; I believe he was in the same line of business as my father,” Lena said. “Carbon paper,” she babbled on. “My mother and aunt showed Mrs. Courtney-Smithers all over Prague. She loved it.”
The piercing stare again. Lena was sure liar must have been emblazoned on her forehead.
She remembered the 1,000 francs in her pocket. “I have money. I mean, I’m sure Mrs. Courtney-Smithers will be very generous, but I can pay my own way.”
“I see. Well, Miss Koulkava”—butchering her name—“I’m afraid we are not issuing any visitor visas at the moment. We would only be able to issue a temporary visa for you to enter if you could prove you were in transit to another nation, such as the United States or Australia.”
He looked again at the letter, before handing it back to Lena with a thin smile. “You will have to wait until the war is over before admiring the daffodils in England.” He looked over her head and shouted, “Next!”
It took a moment for her to realize she had been dismissed. She stood with her mouth hanging open, as if waiting for the next question, until she felt the shoulder of the man with the thin mustache pressing against her, taking his place at the counter.
BARBARA RIDLEY was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication in numerous professional journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. Ridley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and her dog, and has one adult daughter, of whom she is immensely proud.
Adapted from When It’s Over, by Barbara Ridley, Copyright © 2017 by Barbara Ridley. With the permission of the publisher, She Writes Press.