Saturday was a crisp, fresh late winter day which seemed to promise better things ahead. That, and the tune going around Katarina’s head that was clamouring to be heard, gave her a brief sense of hope and perhaps made her less cautious. Before she knew it a few words of the song in the shell had slipped out through her lips.
“Katarina! What are you doing?” Her mother grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her hard. “Don’t you ever do that, ever!”
“Ow!” Katarina struggled free, feeling her face flush. “What? I’m sorry, what did I do?”
“That tune. You were singing, words, bad words, about bad things.” Her mother’s voice dropped to a hiss. “You must never, ever do that!”
“But..” Katarina stopped. The song had slipped out so readily that she had hardly noticed. “But… I’m sorry… what did I sing that was bad? I don’t know any songs, only the ones we sing at school, the Song of National Renewal and things.”
Her mother sagged. “Yes! That is fine, of course, you were singing the Song of National Renewal,” she said, her voice louder than necessary.
“But…” Katarina could feel tears threatening to appear.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Her mother held out her hands but Katarina stepped back. She turned and ran from the room, up the stairs and into her bedroom. She flung herself on the bed and reached down to find the shell. Its warmth cheered her and she held it to her ear, relaxing in the embrace of the song. How could anyone be upset by something as beautiful as this? It was sad and full of longing, yes, but it also reached into her and made her feel alive, strong and brave.
‘Tap, tap.’ Katarina jumped at the knock at the door. She slipped the shell back into its hiding place between the bed and the wall and sat up.
“Come in,” she called but she looked down as her mother entered.
“Listen, sweetheart, I am sorry.” Her mother perched on the edge of the bed and crossed and uncrossed her ankles. Katarina risked looking up. Her mother’s eyes were pleading with her. “I am sorry,” she repeated. “I thought you were singing something forbidden, something dangerous. I am sure I was mistaken.” There was a tremor in her voice. Her mother seemed frightened, afraid not just of doing something wrong – they were all afraid of that – but afraid of something else too, something bigger. Katarina moved closer and leaned against her, breathing in the scent of the lemon soap she always used, feeling the rustle of her housework apron against her own jumper.
“You see darling,” her mother continued in low tones, stroking her head. “There are some things that are dangerous, things we don’t really understand. We don’t always understand what is good for us. There are things we aren’t allowed and that is because if we had them, we might not be able to cope with them and we might get corrupted.”
Katarina frowned. She knew that there were things they must not do, like holding meetings that the government or local council had not organised, and she knew that all singing groups were watched and that everyone must clap and cheer when President Westlake went past; she knew about the riots, though no-one would tell her much about them and no books she had read gave her more than the sketchiest details. She knew that the government was there to keep them safe, but why should anyone worry about a few words on a girl’s lips?
“What things are dangerous?” she asked.
“You know, you should know, perhaps you don’t – music.” Her mother sighed and pulled away.
“But…” Katarina paused, reaching for the right words which might lead her mother to say more. “I don’t. I mean we sing at school and no-one says that is wrong so what…what do you mean?”
“I mean the old songs, ones we used…” she stopped and seemed to be considering what words to say next. “People used to sing and they sometimes suggest things that might not be sensible, might not be safe, so the government says we mustn’t sing them because we have to be safe.” Her voice shifted a tone and she continued. “It is right to ask questions of course – you are at the, er, appropriate age – but it is up to me and your father to help you find the answers. You can ask us anything. It is alright, but you must do what we say and accept our answers.”
“Why was Mrs Malcolm taken?”
Her mother stared over at the wall opposite. Hanging there was a painting of an elderly lady which Katarina had been given for a birthday that she was too young to remember. She understood that it was her great-grandmother.
“I think,” said her mother at last, “it was…”
The doorbell rang. They both jumped. Katarina grabbed he mother’s hand. She did not know why she was so nervous but her heart was beating fast.
Downstairs they heard her father leave his study and walk across the hallway. They heard the turn of the handle, the slight creak of the hinges and low voices. Then her father called.
“Katarina! There is someone to see you.”