The Chrysalis of Winter

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Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
Nina is born into bohemian affluence but her expectations dwindle through three European wars, and a baby born and stolen in a Siberian labour camp.
First 10 Pages

The Chrysalis of Winter

Prologue: Winter 1988

Wolomin, Poland

The metal box had survived the transitions in Nina's life. Once, it contained her father's papers; the deeds for the Glass Studio, contracts with icons of the early talkies and a few faded images of him and his stars. She remembered how the lack of detail in their sepia faces had made them appear bored rather than glamorous. When she commandeered the tin for her own purposes and transferred its contents to a box file, she had no inkling that a burst pipe in the flat above would cascade through her cupboard and destroy the papers. But she had learnt that the memories that count are etched inside oneself. She ran her fingers across the patina, a greyer version of the jack-frost patterns on the windows of her childhood bedroom. Using both hands she eased open the lid and looked down at the first page of her manuscript, at the chronicled meanderings of a kindred spirit, where unanswered questions had found solutions. Writing had been a cathartic exercise that numbed the present, relived the past, and made sense of it all through different eyes. Not really her life at all, then. For the strangest thing about spending the past five years pulling the threads together, was that she could no longer remember what was true and what was not. She took out the stack of typewritten pages and hugged them to her, expecting a flood of memories but instead she was infused with a sense of calm. She roused herself and wrapped the bundle in a well-worn Hermes scarf that she had laid out on the floor, taking as much care as she would with a special gift for her daughter. The stallions reared; their rich golds and whites still bright against the black silk background. Like her beloved dapple gray, Wildfire, on their last ride together. After she'd gone, had Rafal's man rescued him? Or was he butchered to feed the Soviet hierarchy? Such tragedies, so many wrong decisions. Leaning forward, she replaced the manuscript, closed the lid and secured it all around with sticky insulating tape. Sonja would be able to find someone to edit the story. She had the right contacts. There was still the matter of the ending to resolve, of course. But, God willing, she should have a couple of years left and where better than Madrid to find a conclusion. She smiled at her expectation of literary drama, at her faith in old friends and the endless possibilities their patronage offered.

Easing onto her feet, she grimaced at the stiffness in her joints and made her way to the open trolley case that sat near the door. She positioned the box beneath her Burberry coat and reached for the items that had been removed to make way for it. She started with the pile of old ladies' lingerie. The words themselves were contradictory. As a young woman packing for her first visit to Madrid, her yearning for sophistication had been restricted by post-war shortages. Today, Nina's black knickers and vests were a practical choice and quite without glamour; bought to replace the faded pinks and poisoned whites that she had thrown away. The one exception, she shook out to admire anew. An ivory-silk petticoat trimmed with French lace, much too small but too precious to leave behind - a relic of her mother's Viennese youth. She tucked the underwear into the gaps, replaced her sweaters, closed the lid and wrestled with the zip, tugging and pulling until her hoard was safely secured. The case was a common-looking thing, but at least she could take it on board the plane, keep it safe. She pulled it upright and leant it against the door....

As usual, she had been awake since five. Today, the flint in her gut had sparked excitement, not guilt. Finally, Sonja wanted her mother. It had taken a long time to achieve this turnaround. But she would show no sign of bitterness. Not even complacency - just flexibility. She was not too old to change. Words jumbled through her mind; a quote, what was it? There is no future. The future is now. 'Amen to that', she said. And however many new dawns she faced, each one would be an opportunity to put things right. Of course the grim reaper was plodding towards her, but she had no wish to know when or how he would come. She looked around the room. There were worse places to die; that wasn't the point. She simply did not want to be judged, at the end, by how shrunken her life had become.

By twelve o'clock she was dressed and ready to leave, but weary. On the faded tapestry of the upright sofa, eyelids drooping, the once doe-like face slackened by age, she straightened her back and resumed her vigil. A sunbeam burst into the room, the dust mites swirling onto the chimneybreast as if a film was about to be projected there. But the hearth bore only the slightest trace of coal-dust and no promise of warmth, let alone entertainment. It was too raw to be without a fire and even though discomfort had become her natural state, Nina shivered and rearranged her coat, tucking the folds around her knees.

From where she sat, she could see the remains of the cobbled courtyard at the back of the house; the home she and Rafal had inherited in 1948. It used to lead directly to the orchard, until a utilitarian fence sliced it in half and the site was commandeered to give access to an ugly housing scheme. Henryk the gardener, and his trees, were long gone. And God knows what happened to the boys who had helped him harvest the apples. Of the linden trees, only two were left standing near the house, their smooth bark cracked with age into shallow plates. Once, they had encircled the extensive patio, their male and female blossoms alive with the humming of bees. Over-zealous builders, remodelling the grounds of the mansion to suit the needs of the communist state, had hacked them down. A wayward branch tapped at the window and startled her. It reminded her of the grandfather clock, which had long since lost its ability to count down the seconds. Even so, it remained in its place next to the oak dresser, like an emancipated servant watching over her still. Her thoughts returned to the linden trees, how they symbolised family and Catholicism. She saw Pope John Paul II presiding over the open-air Mass in Victory Square in Warsaw, the people weeping. Her vision blurred and she blinked the haze away. A year ago, and still she felt emotional. She was there with Hannah and the ever-pessimistic Magda, the three of them clinging to the last vestiges of their homes and their pride. The Holy Father had made them believe again in the truesovereignty, the Church. Rafal, of course, he had never really believed. His religion was always politics. And it showed; their visit to the beautiful Baroque Basilica, the church of the Holy Cross where Chopin’s heart was buried, marred by his lack of empathy; his mind elsewhere, as it usually was. And what good had it done him? He hadn't lived to see the church rebuilt nor the Mass being broadcast every Sunday, across the nation. She wondered what he would make of that; that the communist regime was on its way out, sooner rather than later? Well, thank God she would not have to sit here and wait for it to happen. She was leaving, actually leaving; getting back the life she deserved.

She looked around at what had once been an ample living room before it was divided up to create space for her bedroom. In the tiny kitchen, simply a knocked-through cupboard, there was barely room to arrange tea trays for her friends. For standards had to be maintained, they all agreed on that. Basic bathroom fixtures, as decreed by a communist mindset, crowded the old scullery. Naturally, they did not include a bidet. The older she got, the more she missed that luxury. An essential, not a luxury at all, but years of living without one had turned it into such. Another benefit that life in Madrid would restore.

She shivered. 'Perhaps I should have stayed in bed a little longer. Either that or lit the fire when I got up.' She said the words aloud, a recent habit that she found quite comforting. 'No, how would that help? Smoky hair, smuts on my clothes... better cold than grubby, Nina.' Drawing back the sleeve of her camelhair coat, she checked her watch, pushing it up over her wrist bone where it dangled like a bracelet. She fingered the face, felt the scratches made when she dropped it on the platform of the Gare du Nord all those years ago. Should she telephone the taxi company again?

A dog yelped and the second-floor tenant's bicycle clattered onto the blue and white Italian marble tiles that had somehow escaped the pilfering, communist workmen. She stood up and crossed to the door, listening. She could hear Madame Kowalska in the hallway, grumbling, as she did most mornings on her return from her walk. She pictured the young man upstairs rushing down to check his bike for scratches. 'He'll not be pleased,' she muttered, 'there'll be another argument. For such a small dog that one creates too many problems and gets far too much consideration.' She walked to the window to check he had left no faeces on the patch of lawn. 'Of course, the need to pamper him is perceived. It's not a reality. Dogs... no more than wolves, all of them.'Even as the words formed, so too did the image of the bloodied felt boot, the savaged knee joint where the leg ought to be. Damn, will it never go away?' Her stomach writhed as she remembered the pain of hunger and despair.There were too many memories surfacing these days. All she wanted to do now was get away from this house which was no longer hers; from people who didn’t know or even care who she was. An old woman with the biggest set of rooms to herself, they said, imagine! She'd heard their mutterings often enough.

Slowly, Nina moved around her space, stroking the polished wood of the grandfather clock as she passed. The hands read eighteen minutes past twelve. She stood over her two check-in suitcases. 'Well, Auntie, here we are again, one more trip.' She chuckled, 'I suspect that even real crocodile has lost the power to whisk me into the George V in Paris.'She remembered the array of cosmetic bottles that always sat in the little satin pouches and the secret compartment in the base that had held Auntie's jewellery. There was no longer a need for that facility. What Nina had managed to retain, she wore. She smiled in memory of happier times. Customs would find nothing of value today. The smaller case, less ostentatious, she had bought in London, after the war. Its leather was faded and scuffed but quality, of course, was timeless. It used to be that the first thing the hotel porters looked at was your luggage, and how they treated you depended on that. A different era, but nevertheless she would not replace these two with cheap imitations made somewhere in the Soviet Block. She bent down and grasped a handle. Maybe it was time to move them into the hall. Then, when the taxi arrived, she would have nothing to do but lock the door. She dragged her belongings to the dresser, then picked up the keys and rubbed them between her fingers, the metal scarcely registering on the bloodless tips. Where had she put the tiny set for the suitcases? Was it worth locking them? If they were to be searched, or worse, plundered, there was no point in making it more difficult for the perpetrators. She dismissed the idea of searching for them and fingered the scarf at her throat. 'Now where did I put my gloves?'She crossed to Uncle Ramon's favourite armchair and stroked its worn arms. 'What will happen to you, I wonder?' The kid gloves had slipped onto the floor. She picked them up and eased them over her arthritic fingers. The once familiar battle of fear and anticipation raged inside her again. But she shut her mind to the memories; the loss, the pain, what she was capable of. 'Not today, today is about the future,' and, as if on cue, the doorbell jangled.


Winter 1916

Potsdam, Prussia

The war was now into its third year and Nina's shape-shifting evolution from girl to woman was happening without the opportunity to flaunt her burgeoning breasts. This was not the path she had expected to walk.

Four years previously, the twelve-year-old, sandwiched between her parents and excited by her first grown-up event, had walked into the reception to mark the official opening of the Babelsberg Glass Studio. On the edge of the family estate and visible from the window of her bedroom, Nina had watched the structure take shape. At first with childish resentment, as the old flower market was dismantled and the enigmatic throng of growers and traders no longer came and went with the changing face of the seasons. But once the glass walls of the new studio were in place and the bouncing sunlight danced and twinkled on the panes, excitement took over. She had counted down the days in her diary and now there she was, inside what could have passed as a film set. Glamorous ladies, pompous men, and straight-backed waiters with silver trays leaning down to offer her bite-sized morsels that she found to be more beautiful than tasty. Already the proud owner of a Kodak No.2A Brownie camera, she was equally fascinated by what she glimpsed on the periphery; moving picture equipment, cameras and lights and cables, and the workers who guarded those shiny-new objects. In the atrium, she watched photographers plying for the attention of the stars; hoping their shots would feature in Berlin's newspapers. Her father took The Press.How she would love to see her own face, in print, smiling out over the breakfast table.

There were no women among the technicians, yet she imagined her future to lie right there, in that confusion of bustling modernity. In what capacity and how she would bring that about, were questions she didn't even ask herself at the time. It was enough that her father had bought a camera for her, not her brothers, and that he practically owned the studio, having used his inheritance to build it. Added to that, all three of his sons were determined to follow the family's military tradition. Making films interested them, of course, but it didn't compare with the status and pomp associated with being young Hussars. So that left only Nina, eager to follow in her father's footsteps.

That particular day, she had worn an almost-grown-up white muslin dress but had been unable to convince her maid that she was old enough for a chignon. Claudette had drawn back the thick, chestnut tangle that hung almost to Nina's waist, brushed it savagely - there was no alternative - then gathered it into the gap between her bony shoulder blades. Once tied with a white satin ribbon and with a matching bow pinned to the top of her head, the girl had tugged at the switch, craning her neck to see in the mirror. 'I look like a child,' she pouted. The maid's response was in her eyes and the smile that twitched her lips. She knew that Nina wanted nothing more than to emulate her mother. But that day was a long way off.

Viennese by birth, Ilse, with her carefully coiffed nut-brown mane, was elegant in a moss green silk dress that clung to her slim figure and flowed with the movement of her long limbs. Her husband, Endris, reluctantly conforming to fashion, was uncomfortable in a tight black suit that curved and nipped into his ample waist. The high white collar setting off his bow tie added to his discomfort. His hair, fortunately, was unrestrained. The colour of a golden haystack, it hung thick, wavy and unmanageable.

Nina had quickly assessed the other women in the atrium as they glided like arrogant swans from one fashionably dressed group to another, gossiping and twittering. Her mother outshone them all. Even though, according to Ilse, the angels had chosen to smile on her and physical attributes were no more than a happy accident. Unlike intellect and compassion, she said, which needed to be worked on. Nina was still unimpressed by such qualities.

The main attraction that day had been the Danish actress Asta Nielsen, who had worked for her money and placed her unremarkable looks in the hands of competent artists. Those of the hovering women who had seen her latest silent movie, Die Arme Jenny, found it difficult to reconcile her poverty there, to her obvious glamour here. In fact, they preferred her on-screen vulnerability, something reassuring for them to pick at and unravel. Nina, on the other hand, admired the way the actress stood aloof and oozed confidence. Here was a new role model to set her sights on. And, as the daughter of an eminent film-producer she was perfectly situated to follow Die Asta's celluloid progress.

Now, finally, four years after her first glimpse of her idol, her parents were hosting a luncheon in the star's honour, in their own home.

Nina had already met the actress more than once and even watched the filming of Dance of the Dead; the first silent movie her father's company had produced. One day during that process, when her presence in the studio had been overlooked, and filming was stopped so that the frustrated director could run Die Asta's previous release, Poor Jennyfor comparison, the young girl had secretly watched Jenny's seduction by her unscrupulous boss. And the catastrophic turn her life had taken. Later that day, the adolescent Nina had questioned her seventeen-year-old brother and confidante, Klaus, as to the full implications of the rather sketchy images and subtitles. He made it clear that he disapproved of her clandestine viewing of an adult film. But a deed done cannot be undone, he said, and he gave in to her questioning.

Jenny'smisfortunes had left a lasting impression on Nina's mind. A helpless female manipulated to an untimely death; the grim reaper turning up while she lay abandoned on the snow. She had projected the character onto the actress herself and given her a kudos she did not deserve. So, to have Asta Neilsen here, today, as a guest at their table, was the high point of Nina's currently dismal and practically non-existent, social life.

Outside, on the edge of the copse nearest to the Goettner mansion, the first snowfall weighed on the willow like the flimsiest of shawls. It lay along the length of the boundary fence that separated the pasture from the trees. Once, the barbed wire had deterred marauding wild pigs, before villagers made hungry by the war had decimated their numbers. A woodpigeon flurried onto the

Submission file


Stewart Carry Tue, 25/07/2023 - 16:58

The writer's control over the language and the subject is very impressive although the lengthy narrative could benefit from additional dialogue.