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Once you're with people, once you're stuck between shame and shame, all is lost: acts are stronger than the actor, words are stronger than the speaker, present stronger than the future – you have no control over every single reaction, every gesture and facial twitch. The winner is the lie of the moment. If only these were great moral decisions! If only there were fire and battle and storm and blood of the innocents... But no, but the contrary. A small shame, a tiny shame, first, seconds, tenth, hundredth, so tiny it's invisible to the naked eye, bacteria of the soul.
I steal from this house every time I come back there, from the house I grew up in, the house I left; I have to take something with me: a shawl, a box, a book; salvage something from that sinking boat. The shelves, the wardrobes, the chests are emptier, as piece by piece I deconstruct my life, I deconstruct my memory, remove it from this house, scatter it around, make it rootless like I am, so that all that remains behind is emotionally neutral – old socks, a pencil, a candle; or too heavy to move – time, childhood, my dying mum.
We agree on many things: regulation of the market, distrust in economic authorities. We don't agree on.... something fundamental. There is something deeper there; I shrink from admitting it's our sisterhood, I don't want to be reduced to Jungian sibling rivalry. I demonize her, in my mind she represents all I don't want to be, the City-working conformist, the money-driven always-winner. In contrast to describing people around us, we lack a language to describe the person inside us,ourselves, so I'm doomed to draw myself as a negative of her, what I'm not, not what I am.
We were talking, little tired Paul walking around the room from person to person, from corner to corner, wobbling. The fireplace was going. He stopped in front of the hot, hot, hot glass screen, and extended his little finger, questioning. No, don't touch, I said, and got up to lead him away. Too late. In the unrestrained curiousness of a fourteen-month old, he firmly placed the palm of his hand on the hot, scolding hot glass. It was just a second, quite enough. Before he started screaming, I was already running to the bathroom with him in my arms.
'Your house is so beautiful, like a postcard.'
'Did you know, we won the Best Investment Prize of 2008 in our town! But your house, it's so charming, so old.'
'Isn't it. And we found a great worker to do our bathroom, a perfectionist, great find. From one wall, throughout the floor and up the other, it's all one tile pattern.'
'I know exactly what you mean, the guy we had, really good, took a week to do the 130 square metres downstairs, and he designed the pattern himself.'
Polite smiles over the heads of their small children playing, oblivious.
There were three deer, we were tracking them, and than he said: 'look, boar!'. So he set up his gun, on the stand. There were three going up, and there was a lead man. And he said 'take a shot', but I waited, I did not want to shoot it in the back, 'cause it ruins the meat. So I shoot, I didn't shoot him in the heart, but I shoot him in the lungs, and he bled into the lungs. And the one I got was significantly bigger than the one he shot. But your dad things it's small.
'I have it all worked out. This is what I do. This is my hobby, I enjoy it. Everything is ready to go. Tomorrow we eat the liver, heart and kidneys. And we eat the meat on the 25th. Do you have any idea how many books I have on this?'
'Listen, I'm sure that going hunting is tiring, and difficult, but staying at home with the child when it's being fussy is really exhausting.'
'Ekhm, I have to be at work tomorrow, I have a ton of things to do. I have to finish up everything for this year.'
People ask me often why I'm not coming back, home, to Poland.
A friend of mine has just graduated after an MA in Polish literature and language. She decided not to teach foreigners, as some of her friends do, earning 150 pounds a month. Her first job in an insurance company's administration, paid 400 pounds (medium wage nowadays is 550 pounds). Her three-month contract was not renewed, as she asked fot a raise. She's been unemployed for half a year now. She and her boyfriend are moving to Norway this summer. They say they want to live somewhere normal.
Why I'm not coming back, to Poland.
Two years ago, when PIS (Law and Justice), the catholic conservative party, won, the first thing they did was, during the night, when few members of the parliament were present, to vote a change in the public TV and Radio legislation. They appointed members of their own coalition to men the commission running it, and they included some MPs of the extremely catholic League of Polish Families. Subsequently, members of the League took the commission over, and voted the PIS members out. Nothing of this has been communicated by the public media news.
‘You're just such an idiot! I don't care about the view, I piss all over it! Now we're stuck behind a shit truck. I hate stuff like that, I can't stand it! That's just fucking great. No, I don't care! He's going left too, this is just fucking perfect. You don't know what you're doing, do you? I'm really upset now.’
‘This was the whole point! The whole point of driving this way was to look at the pretty view, and see the nice town. My dad told me to take this road. You're so impatient! You really upset me.’
Ooh, come here. Ooh, you're not in best shape today, are you? Are you? You're moody, and you cry, and you want to be with mummy... You're quite the different little boy normally, aren't you? You should see him, he's so open, and curious, and so cheerful. There are all sorts of things he does, on Monday nanny takes him to his playdate, on Tuesday there is a speaking class, on Wednesday.... Yes, yes. And he goes swimming, and dancing.. Don't you? No, don't eat that! Bad boy! Come to mummy! I just don't know what's up with him today.
Basement. Quiet. Cool. Cold, even. Old pots and pans, unused furniture, unused appliances, unused space. Cool. Quiet.
Ground floor. Two kids run around the rooms, making a mess, chewing on things, making happy and unhappy noises. Carols are playing, candles burning, table cloth pure white in the bright light. Half-finished dishes, half-drunk drinks, stained napkins. Adults make small talk. Tea gets cold.
First floor. An older woman turns the pages of a gossip magazine. Another one lies on the bed, breathing heavily through her open, chapped lips, eyes staring at the ceiling, beyond the ceiling, at nothing really.
‘Why don't you write your story on this, Ania? She's gonna lift her top and squeeze cream right into the dish. Squeeeeze! Hehehe. No, she's not as hot as Nigela. But she's got huge tits. She has an American accent. She's got a huge ass. My God, huge tits and a huge ass. Hey, look at the size of her ass! Amerykanka! Look at that ass, check it out! I see you baby, shaking that ass, shaking that ass! She's definitely, she's either American or Canadian. No, she has a Michigan accent, from up there. She's making cookie crust, right?’
‘When people say they worry about society, things like that, I don't know what they mean. For me thinking about the society it's like, like buying a Porshe, I mean, I'll never do it. Well, maybe I'll buy it in the future, but you know, I don't have the money now, I don't think about sport cars, I mean, I'll never buy a Porshe like some people buy milk. I mean, maybe, but it's not likely right now, so I don't think about it. As long as I'm well, and my family, and we have money, I mean, that's it.’
The morning was white and crisp, light frost breathed over the fields and the forest and the meadows during the night, and all colours were toned down. Every blade of grass, every twig, every little plant with its head hardly above the frozen sand wore its own spiky armour of ice; they were dressed in long needles, like white starlets. The puddles were frozen nearly solid, so clear you saw all the leaves underneath, on display. The dog disappeared into the bushes, and emerged in a barking ball of fury, preceded by a white and grey blur of a cat.
‘It must have been '78 or '79, quite a story, the first time we bought a new truck for the company. I knew this guy, and we were going to go to Wroclaw to get it on the 26th of December. It was a big deal, he knew the right people, you couldn't just buy a truck privately in communism. I called him the day before, to confirm, everything was fine. We were to leave at 2am the next day. I call him, at 2am, no response. I knock on the door, no response. And I got really pissed off.’
‘By that point, I had nothing to lose: I broke into the apartment. Broke the door down, went in. And there he was, stone drunk; I grab him by the collar, he begun to come to, I dragged him out, left the door open as it was, what the hell. Into the cab, and off we went. We had a meeting in Wroclaw at 8am, and the whole way I gave him nothing to drink, not a drop; by the time we got there he was having the worst hangover in his life. He knew the people in that company.’
‘The guy, he knew how much to pay to whom, he used to work there; it was a public company, and they had to get rid of a mashine, there was a truck going. All the documents were signed, but we still had to drive 200km to the Czech border where the truck was waiting on a transit parking. We sent it off to Gorzow, and went back to Wroclaw around 3pm, to finalise the transaction, and only then, only then did I take him to dinner. You don't have problems like this nowadays, there are other issues in capitalism.’
What is patience?
In English they say patience wears thin. Perhaps patience is like a fur coat, soft and thick. But every every egoistic statement, every stupid slip, every clumsy mistake, every badly hidden laziness pluck hair after hair of this thick fur coat until you're left shivering with anger, ready to strike down the fool who makes life a misery.
In Polish they say patience is exhausted, it's even closer to truth, as patience takes so much energy, so much effort, it saps at your very being until there's no more to spend, and you turn and walk away.
‘Your great-grandfather was from Rogozno, and his family were fishermen. His father was a barrel-maker, and he sailed on the Northern Sea with fishing boats. My father father, your grandfather, born in Klecko in 1895, spent the whole of his military training in Szczecin, in the Prussian army, three years. When the First War came, he fought in Belgium, and in Verdun, he was a saper. He was wounded, or taken ill, and he was recovering in a hospital in Gniezno, and when the end was near he ran away to Klecko. The Wielkopolskie Uprising happened in 1918.’
‘It was spontaneous, you see, and Klecko was one of the first areas to be liberated; my father was one of the main leaders of this movement, a military man. In the Second War, he was in the reserve already; still, he was called up to Kowno, you know how far this is. That way he went on a bike, but on the way back, he had to walk. He did not get there in time, by the time he got there, it was all over. Klecko held for three days, when the Germans went in they executed 110 people.’
‘There is a monument and everything. These people, the partisans, they were pointed out by the Germans that lived there. Out of those 110, three men climbed out of the pile of bodies, wounded, survivors. They escaped via the lake, and...One of them was met by a German in Warsaw – unbelievable, they met in a cinema, he sold him out, and he was killed. The other, I can't remember, but the point is, out of those 110, only one person survived. And the Jews in Klecko, one day, they just disappeared. The Germans took them out during the night.’
'The ironic thing is, the same barracks where your grandfather served in the Prussian army, your uncle, my brother Tadzik, he served in the Polish army there, during communism, so he was a communist of course. We had a real row one day, fortunately we managed to renew the contact a few years before his death. In a way, he was right, Jaruzelski, then, when the martial law came in, Solidarnosc was in no position to take over, there was no way they would have created a stable situation, there would be anarchy, and the Red Army would come in.’
It's a misty cool day, there was frost on the puddles when I was walking the dog; I crushed the ice cover with my shoes, such a nice sound, ice breaking, I picked up a piece and put it to my eye, rapid frost, that's what it must have been, the ice was clear like glass, with few imperfections, I watched the dog run back to me with a big stick in its mouth, bigger than it was, such a happy dog, with its big stick an someone to take it walking, even on Christmas Eve, even when it rains.
It's a misty cool day, dark grey, the sun too low for the light to penetrate, so it feels like it's evening time already, like there never was a day, just this grey light, the long evening of a day, Christmas Eve. I'm brushing my wet hair in front of the mirror, listening to the radio, my favourite Polish station, always such nice calm voices. They're saying Christmas feels less hectic this year, calmer. I think they're right, I hardly noticed it coming this year, so natural, like the coming of winter, for once I really don't mind it, really.
Nice warm place, nice warm people, honest and kind, the family of my father. We have tea and cake, and coffee and vodka, and we chat and smile and cuddle children, who run off to the other room to play with plastic toys. We talk, and there are effortless smiles, and hospitality, and good Polish food; my sister takes out her laptop, and we watch old old photographs and try to name the deceased family members. It's all so natural and pleasant, and when we break the host and exchange Christmas wishes I hug each one of them tight, grateful.
Blond and acne-ridden, smiling shyly my cousin stoops in the door frame, hiding his height, large hands behind his back, they tell his age, fifteen, on the brink of being a man, trapped in the body of a boy. In front of him a dark haired girl, beautiful already, two heads shorter than him but tall for her age, my cousin, eleven years old, on the brink of womanhood, in her first bra under a white blouse, a young woman trapped in the body of a girl. They talk, consciously far apart, and the air between them is boiling.
It takes us a good four hours of my step-mum's crazy, reckless speeding through the massive Polish plane before the horizon starts bulging slowly, coils of a sleeping snake, the hilly range of Carpathians is visible. A storm stopped over the peaks, clouds grey and rosy in the light of the setting sun, and is showering the pines with the most delicate powder of snow. In the valleys the houses have huge, steep roofs, and large wooden verandas, lovingly carved and painted. It's a fairytale land, and I glue my nose to the car window like a child again.
After an hour of hiking we reached the hut, we unwrapped the whimpering snooty-nosed boy from his many layers, and he became the happiest little man on Earth: his cheeks blushed, his hair messy from the hat, soup all over his top, he ran around the hut, bumping into chairs, laughing with joy, picking at the Christmas tree, everyone wanted to touch him, for him to look at them, it was as if someone turned the light on, I followed him exhilarated, and someone mistook me for his mum, and my heart jumped, and I thought, it's worth it.
'The one thing I never thought would happen, the one thing that never crossed my mind, was that the Russians would leave voluntarily. Really, why would they do that – they had the army here, the domination over the region, what could ever cause them to leave? A war was more likely than this.'
'The one thing I never thought would happen is just happening now, no-one ever thought all the banks would collapse, no-one ever thought there would be so much uncertainty, what kind of an investment can you make when you can't trust the banks any more?'
This year, I resolve to be more grateful for the things I have, to cherish them and hold on to them, to strengthen relationships, to make sure the people dear to me know how much they mean to me, and that there is so much love in me for them, to give that love, and the proofs of it. This year I resolve to be strong and hardworking, happy and joyful, inspired and courageous; I resolve to let go of my mistakes and embrace the possibilities, embrace the learning, go forward joyfully. This year will be a one to remember.
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