Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: H.M. Gruendler-Schierloh
Elisabeth hugged her parents and little sister goodbye on the crowded platform. Tears running down her quivering face gradually nestled in the cotton collar of her white T-shirt until its embroidered rim felt soaking wet.
“Now, don’t be silly,” her mother said, her voice hoarse with suppressed emotions. “It is only for a short time and remember, this is supposed to be an educational project as well as a big adventure.”
Elisabeth nodded. Of course, mom was right – so why did everything feel so awful at the moment?
Minutes later she was on the high-speed train, pulling out of her hometown Augsburg, the beautiful 2000-year-old city in the heart of Bavaria. The pleasant countryside of Germany with its neatly outlined patches of lush corn fields and green meadows flying past, Elisabeth thought about what lay ahead and her spirits lifted.
London, she mused, recalling how long she had yearned to see it.
She had made her first attempt to go there when was 18, but her mother would not allow it. “No, oh no,” she had protested. “I want you to wait until you are at least 20.”
When that magic age finally arrived, mom tried once again to talk her eldest into delaying that “English adventure” just a tiny bit longer. That’s when Elisabeth had put her foot down and started her travel preparations.
Having grown up in the picturesque, but relatively uneventful farm villages of Southern Germany, she had fantasized for years about living in a city – the bigger, the better – until London, England, had eventually crystallized in her young mind as the most desirable metropolitan area on the European continent.
So, things were arranged and ironed out – and now she was on her way – to work as an “au pair” for an English family.
Trying to envision her future, she dozed off.
The train coming to a screeching halt startled her awake.
They had just arrived in Ostend, Belgium.
Rubbing the remaining tiredness from her eyes, she pulled her suitcase from the luggage rack above her head and stumbled toward the exit.
It was time to transfer to the channel ferry.
Yawning, and very hungry now, she stood in line at the dock, as a lot of impatient people pushed, grumbled, and bullied each other out of the way, attempting to be among the first ones to get aboard.
Finally, the last waiting passenger made it onto the ferry, the gangway was being pulled up, and with people shouting and waving back at their loved ones left standing at the pier, the ride across the channel began.
Elisabeth was overcome with a giddy joy as the boat peeled away from shore to burrow into the borderless vastness of the surrounding waters. All around people were drinking, talking and laughing. In the background someone started playing an acoustic guitar and soon several of the seafarers were singing along in a colorful mix of German, French and English. Elisabeth attempted to join in, when she realized that it was party-time for everyone, except her.
Pressing her hands into her aching belly, she leaned into the wind, counting on the cold gusts of spraying moisture to prevent her from vomiting into the furiously foaming swirls below.
When they finally approached Dover, England, she was bolted out of her misery. The row of majestic white cliffs lining the shore in the distance, slowly drawing closer and growing bigger, simply took her breath away. Like giant guardians from an ancient past reaching sky-wards, the stark-white pillars hovering over the English coastline spelled sheer magic.
After the boat docked, she tried hard to regain her equilibrium and talk her still churning stomach into settling down before she climbed aboard another train.
Her excitement grew. She was in England now and London was practically within reach.
The train ride was pleasant and without any particular occurrences, but her hunger pangs were quickly becoming painful. Since she didn’t want to dip into her emergency fund just yet, she wolfed down the cookies her mother had stashed into her handbag. Then she continued to stare out the window to take in as much of the view as she could.
At long last they arrived at Victoria Station.
Descending from the train, Elisabeth froze.
This place was incredible: People running every which way, porters hurrying past, passengers hugging each other to say hello or goodbye, trains zooming in and out. What a commotion! Besides, she could barely make out any of the conversations buzzing about her. Although once in a while she recognized words of the language she could quite proficiently read and write – and hoped to learn to master verbally as well – right now she was far removed from that level of achievement.
She felt lost and a little scared.
I’m the darn foreigner here, she thought, promising herself to never again show any biases toward immigrants anywhere.
Leafing frantically through her pocket dictionary to supplement her vocabulary with whatever she could find instantly in that booklet, she finally managed to summon a taxi and communicate to the driver where he should take her.
Upon arriving at a stylish English country house in the park-like suburb of Ealing, she found the doors locked. Realizing with a sinking feeling that no one was there to let her in, she sank down on her suitcase and waited, hoping not to have to spend the night on the sidewalk.
Suddenly she heard, “A bit deserted, aren’t you, love?”
Elisabeth looked up to see a handsome young man with wavy dark hair and sparkling green eyes scrutinizing her. Flashing a mischievous smile, he held out his right hand. “My name is Nigel.”
She just kept staring at him.
He bent closer. “Look, I don’t bite. I just saw you sitting here and it is obvious that the Minards aren’t home. Are you visiting them?”
He reached for her luggage and she jumped up to stop him.
“No, no, no,” is all she could think of shouting in perfect English.
Just then, a heavy-set elderly lady appeared.
“Nigel,” she hollered, “You are scaring the girl.”
She turned to Elisabeth. “Doesn’t he, dear? My son is a bit impulsive sometimes, but he means well. When he looked out the window and saw you sitting there, he had to play the knight in shining armor to rescue the maiden.”
She giggled, then patted Elisabeth on the shoulder.
“I’m Patty Clairmont,” she said. “We live in the house over here.” She pointed at an old red brick mansion across the street. “And you are more than welcome to stay with us and have a nice cup of tea until the Minards show up.”
Taking into account that the sun was fast going down, Elisabeth suddenly felt very grateful for the woman’s hospitality.
And, of course, there were her son’s thick dark hair, sassy green eyes, and engagingly impudent grin.
Her host family soon returned and welcomed her warmly into their home. She spent several glorious months in England, helping with housework, watching the children, attending language classes and exploring the city. As her English improved, her attachment to London grew and, somewhere along the way, she also managed to fall madly in love.
Then, before long, she found herself once again at Victoria Station, hugging Nigel goodbye, promising to write to him.
She wrote, he wrote.
He called, she called.
It wasn’t enough.
When he finally told her how much he missed her, and asked her to come back to him, she didn’t even hesitate.
There was no doubt in her mind that she had to return.
And so, a few months later, she traveled again – only this time it was not an adventurous trip into the unknown, it was more like going back to where she belonged.
There they were a second time: Mom, Dad, and little sister standing with her on the platform at Augsburg’s central station, waiting for the ICE to pull in.
Once again she bade farewell to her family. However, she didn’t feel the apprehension that had weighed her down the first time she left.
“You don’t seem very sad,” her mother teased, the corners of her corn-blue eyes glistening. “As they say, love conquers all.”
Elisabeth smiled in agreement. Whatever regrets she had about leaving her family again, those were easily absorbed into the delirious anticipation she felt about being reunited with Nigel and the city of her dreams. Love not only seemed to conquer all, it also appeared to cancel out, or at the very least camouflage, anything resembling departure pains.
Another hug, another grin, some tears, then she was off again – daydreaming on the train from Augsburg, German, to Ostend, Belgium; braving another bumpy ferry-ride to the wondrous White Cliffs of Dover; dodging the crowds at London’s Victoria Station; then, finally, heading back to the quiet suburb of Ealing and into the arms of the man who was waiting for her.