Authors: Joanna Jodelka
Stork Press Ltd
170 Lymington Avenue
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To Professor Konstanty Kalinowski
Dear Professor, you were right…
that year was more like November than ever.
Ugliness in all its splendour – as if for show – proud.
Not only had the leaves already managed to fall, they
had also managed to blend in with the surroundings, dance
with the mud and start the slow process of decaying. Besides,
everything had begun to look as if it had decided to disintegrate
more vilely than usual.
At least that’s what the inhabitants of Great Moczanowo
thought and felt.
Evidently the filth they’d once chased away from their village
had now returned, since this is where it had come from; they
sensed it in the air and beneath their feet again, everywhere;
just as they felt everywhere the unimaginable crime which had
taken place here and would remain here forever.
They hid and wanted to believe that it was the wind, heavy with
rain, and not the ever-present shame which crushed them to the
ground, bowed their heads and didn’t allow them to go out without
reason. Did not allow them to gabble, gossip, grumble either in
the shop, on the streets or anywhere. They spoke so quietly they
barely heard themselves speak, and the dogs, chained to their
kennels, barked less; or maybe that’s just what everyone thought.
They were afraid of punishment. Punishment for everything
which, barely a month ago, had painted leaves and life in
But what a knot of activity it had been at the time. Everywhere,
in homes and by fences, in front of the shop and even by the
church – although there a little muted. Half of the sentences had
begun with ‘apparently’, and every detail – carried, so it seemed,
by a still summery, warm breeze – had circulated lazily round
the neighbourhood, there and back, provoking smiles and joyful
spite cut through with a touch of outrage, as if a comma.
People had sighed, rolled their eyes, pulled faces – openly,
with satisfaction. A well-known and valued formality. Of
course, the prophetic ‘it’s all going to end badly’ had nearly
always cropped up, but only as part of the ritual, like an ellipsis
without great significance. Because, when it came out into the
open, all hell was going to break loose…
Later, contrary to the norm, nobody had said ‘and didn’t
I say so’, even the stupidest of peasant women. Because what
would that have meant?
For many more years to come, when – out of sheer curiosity
– those working at regional administration were asked about it,
they mumbled something which was a little unclear and with
apparent shame, both the firm believers in God and those who
only went to church on special occasions. United as never before.
If then, some thirty years ago, a stranger had by some
miracle stopped in the village, he would probably have thought
it a touch more sleepy, a touch more depressing, but apart
from that much like any other ‘ordinary God-forsaken hole’.
He wouldn’t have discovered that this was precisely what the
people thought of themselves, terrified that God had forgotten
about them, or wishing He would forget. That if they didn’t talk
about it, nobody would ask, ever.
But God was on the side of the pessimists again; He was
obviously partial to them in these parts. Or perhaps He had
Because they clearly weren’t afraid of Him.
Because it had been a priest – His servant a killer.
Because evil had been conceived.
Such things not even the people forget.
– retired restorer of monuments and
buildings – didn’t have to get out of bed to see the old apple
tree wither outside his window. He didn’t feel sorry; the tree
was no longer any use. It hadn’t produced any fruit for a long
time and when it had the apples had been maggoty and sour.
He thought the same about himself.
Maciej Bartol – commissioner in the Poznań police – had already
been awake for several minutes. He felt the day was going to be
a scorcher. He wondered whether his ex-girlfriend was going to
wear the floral dress today, the one whose straps slipped down so
readily. He didn’t open his eyes; he didn’t want her to disappear.
Romana Zalewska – architect – picked up the telephone while
still nearly asleep, spoke briefly but to the point, as though
she were in the office and not in her own bed, naked. She’d
mastered the art to perfection. Fifteen seconds later her head
was nestling in her pillow again, free of guilt; she had, after all,
worked late into the night.
Edmund Wieczorek – retired postman – had been awake for two
hours. He didn’t want to miss the two students who’d recently
moved in on the first floor when they returned. They’d come
home at dawn, as usual – not alone. He liked them; they were
the only unpredictable cog in the monotonous life of those
living in the tenement on Matejko Street. There was something
Krystyna Bończak – mother of two boys – was making up another
parcel. The prison on Młynarska Street, again. Cigarettes, yet
again. She’d prayed and cried through the night, again. She’d
fallen asleep in the early hours of the morning and woken up
in the morning; still, she was happy the day had already begun.
Everything appeared different in the day.
The man in strange glasses was putting on a new shirt. He was
pleased: he’d just managed to fasten the cuffs – good, they
wouldn’t reveal his wrists. He approached the window which
never opened, and looked out at Warsaw from the height of the
thirtieth floor. There was nothing to see during the day.
Ksawery Rudzik – real estate agent – woke up earlier than usual
and much earlier than needed. He didn’t like and, on principle,
didn’t tolerate wallowing in bed; he’d simply open his eyes and
get up. Always, but not this time. He hadn’t treated himself to
a night in one of the most expensive hotels in Warsaw only to
leap out of bed. He was bursting with pride.
As if to reinforce it, he stretched languidly and with pleasure.
Only five years ago everything had been different. He’d failed
his bar exams for the second time; as usual it was the sons
of high-fliers who’d got in but he was nobody’s son and very
much wanted to change this. Five years of law, five years of hard
slog, rotten food and jars from his mother – good but somehow
shameful, five years of hope that everything would change, that
he’d be able to go to restaurants, dinners and so on.
It had seemed unlikely. It had seemed unlikely even when,
for lack of money, he’d started working for a real estate agency,
something which he hadn’t boasted about too much initially.
Until it had become clear, both to him and his employer,
that he was damn good at it. Complications didn’t put him
off – impoverished, greedy beneficiaries who quibbled over
unassigned shares in a tenement; couples which, with a
flush on their cheeks, had only recently acquired credit for
their dream apartment but were now at each other’s throats,
pulling out their dirty linen and justifying their unjustifiable
reasons; opinionated landlords and fussy tenants – he liked
all this. He’d stand between them with the expression of one
who knew more, who’d solved harder cases. With superiority
but also kind-hearted understanding which for years he’d
rehearsed in front of a mirror. Law was also proving very useful:
magic articles, incomprehensible paragraphs, an appropriately
concerned expression seasoned with a loud, sympathetic sigh
in the case of taxes, a couple of sentences on the tardiness of
courts and cases ‘like these’ going on for years. All this, thrown
in at the right moment, worked wonders.
Yesterday, he’d passed the state exam as a real estate agent.
He was one of no more than a few lucky ones. The milieu was
closing in: he knew that and it suited him. Why let in new
blood? There were enough people there already, the rising
economy was not going to last forever, one had to prepare for
worse times. He smiled with contentment as he looked down
at Warsaw from on high, from a good position.
He wondered a little longer whether to phone Kasia but
decided against it. He would have to swap her, too, in the end.
A pleasant girl, pretty enough – and he did love her in his own
way – but she didn’t suit his perfect world. He remembered her
showing him the beautiful handbag she’d bought at a bargain
price. He’d praised the hideous string object curtly.
He couldn’t understand why she didn’t notice how it made
him sick, how he now hated those cut-price joys, those beautiful
cheap handbags and shoes, how he loved the big, ostentatious,
brazen golden logos of good brands, how he’d always loved them.
Another visitor also appeared, unwanted in this place, at
this moment. His mother. He wasn’t going to call her either.
The endearment in her voice annoyed him, telling him to look
after himself, dress warmly, avoid draughts, and that accent of
hers, the turn of phrase which reminded him of where he came
from. His lousy surname was enough. His first name wasn’t too
bad; it could have been much worse – his other grandfather
had been called Szczepan.
He quickly chased away any scruples for not visiting his
mother, for spending as much on one night in the hotel as
would last her a month.
Neither of them understood how little time he had to become
someone, that shortly everything would stabilize, that the door to
the world he wanted would close soon and everyone would live
in pre-determined positions, that he had to hurry, that he could
run around tower blocks in sensible shoes and rent apartments
to students, but that he had to have shoes which wore down and
an expression which showed it didn’t matter.
He pondered a little longer, donned a carefully chosen
shirt, smiled at the man of success he saw in the mirror and
went downstairs for breakfast. He picked a good table (he saw
everyone and everyone saw him), helped himself to a small
portion of ham and vegetables, not too much; he’d already seen
people at various receptions with plates loaded because the
food came free. He even tempted himself to a little extravagance
in the form of a fruit salad.
He began the ceremony of relishing the moment, the
breakfast and himself – everything was excellent. He just felt he
was investing too much energy in the difficult art of appearing
natural in a situation which was unnatural to him.
Thoughts about whether he was acting naturally started to
grow in strength and could have ended with him spilling coffee
and treacherously revealing his natural defects. Fortunately,
the man at the next table caught his eye.
He liked to evaluate people; it had become his passion of
late, and the accuracy of his judgement had increased his bank
The man couldn’t have been much older than him; it was
only the glasses that added gravitas. They were a bit strange –
dark lenses too pale for a pair of sunglasses and yet too dark for
corrective lenses; besides, the frames were also neither here nor
there, neither old nor new. The dark blond hair had perhaps been
well cut three months ago but had now been forgotten about and
rested messily on the collar of a boring, grey shirt unfastened
to reveal a cord with a gold pendant. The man looked a bit too
ordinary to be a guest at a five-star hotel, nor was he a tourist who’d
strayed from his group, even less so a sales representative. Most
importantly, he was acting naturally. This, Ksawery could sense
perfectly well, although he couldn’t explain how he’d arrived at
the conclusion. The man under observation wasn’t interested
in his surroundings. He wasn’t eating breakfast, or smelling the
warm bread rolls; he wasn’t starting his day on a pleasant note,
wasn’t smiling. He was behaving as if he’d found himself at a
petrol station and was filling up with the fuel necessary for life,
no more. This was how a man behaved eating breakfast standing
up at a train station, but not here, thought Ksawery.
It didn’t give him any peace. If, for example, the man had
entered his office, he, Ksawery, would have raised his eyes
from the computer but only for a moment, and immediately
pretended he was very busy. He rebuked himself for such
thoughts – he had to be careful, had to be alert, the man might
be a philosopher but one who had inherited a tenement from
his parents, he’d heard of such cases. One could always learn
something and he, Ksawery, learned even at moments such as
these. As a counter-balance, he praised himself.
He must have watched the stranger for too long because
the latter tore his eyes away from his plate, met Ksawery’s gaze
and without a moment’s hesitation bowed in greeting. Ksawery,
caught staring, was at first unable to do anything. He didn’t
get another chance, however, because the stranger calmly
continued to eat without looking at him.
And he, too, didn’t turn his head in the man’s direction.
He wasn’t proud of himself but quickly found a satisfactory
explanation for the awkward situation – a foreigner; our
kinsmen always turned their eyes away and pretend to look in
the opposite direction.
After breakfast, he walked past reception, asked for his bill
to be made ready and a taxi to the airport to be ordered. He
knew that the nice woman didn’t need any information as to
where the taxi was to take him, but it had sounded good and
she’d smiled differently somehow; this he’d also rehearsed. He
was learning how to make an impression and was improving.
The taxi was of better quality, too – a Mercedes with a neat,
tidy and polite driver. Ksawery calmly arrived at the airport,
didn’t hurry and wore the expression of a man who is not in a
hurry. The airplane was even delayed according to plan. Ksawery
was sure that he was the only passenger in the departure lounge
pleased with the delay and it wasn’t at all because he’d barely
arrived on time himself. He decided to go to the bar but still
couldn’t decide whether to grumble a little or order a drink with
a large quantity of ice. He didn’t decide; he didn’t have time.