Pic credits: a.chsanauskaite

That night, we girls of the People’s Republic Waitressing Ensemble knew we were not on form even as our leader skated from the kitchen and around the restaurant with her tray held high, her skirt a dazzle of sequins as the men clapped and whooped at the sight of her, this girl from a strange land, so beautiful, so quick, but looking out from the kitchen the rest of us saw her lurch and—though those men didn’t notice the bottles of beer jolting, or the surprise on her face as she steadied her tray—we tightened our grip on our own trays then, as soon as she took her place beneath the portrait of Our Illustrious Father on the far wall, we came spilling out right on cue, our trays loaded with greasy pork and weak beer—the food of our poor country—though what did that matter when these men had come for the spectacle of us skating waitresses in our short skirts singing hymns of patriotic love, and we sang as loudly and sweetly as our tired voices could: how Our Illustrious Father was born under a bright star, how He would always lead us well and true, but our voices wavered, and as we glided around the room some of us stumbled, our skates grazing the shoes of those foreign men, our hips bumping their chairs, and some of them frowned, though how could it not be so when, locked in our dormitory the night before, instead of sleeping we’d huddled around a tiny television one of the cooks had smuggled in and watched soap operas and advertisements, our hearts racing at the sight of people who had toothpaste and washing machines and freezers full of food, and now we were so tired we wanted to yawn not sing, yet here we were skimming between tables, trays straining our arms as the men watched us with greedy eyes, even the two guards in their discreet suits by the door, so we forced our voices into pretty harmonies, and we arched our backs to show off our chests in their tight blouses and, while we stamped our skates and sang that Our Illustrious Father had made our country a paradise, we were thinking of the foreign city just beyond the door where people had toothpaste and washing machines and freezers full of food, and we fetched more beer, and more until the men were drunk and singing, the guards too, then we crowded around the entrance to sing with them, louder now, circling them fast on our skates so that, before the guards quite realised it, we were out in the street—never mind that Our Illustrious Father would demand our return, and missiles would be made ready—fleeing pell-mell into the city, driven by our frantic hearts.

Gerri Brightwell is a British writer living in Alaska. In spring 2016 her latest novel, Dead of Winter, was published by Salt (UK). She is the author of two other novels: Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003) and The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008). Her writing has also appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Copper Nickel, Redivider, BBC Radio 4's Opening Lines, and many other venues. She teaches in the M.F.A. programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

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