(Edited by Kathryn Hummel)
In the early 1980s, when I was in the last year of secondary school in Toruń, a historic city in northern Poland, I was asked to help my friend Ania to prepare for her final exams (matura). The offer involved moving to her house for two months and being fed and paid by her parents, Mr and Mrs F, in exchange for my tuition. Before I agreed, I asked whether I would need to repay the money if she failed her exams. No, they told me — the money was for my work, not for its result. And so I moved in, not least because in Ania’s place I had my own room, while in the dormitory, where I lived then, I had to share a room with three other girls. Moreover, I needed money, mostly to buy ‘luxuries’ like clothes and cosmetics. I was at the stage of my life when I thought that I could conquer the world, if only could get the shoes or dress I saw in a window display.
By the same logic, I needed this job to change my life. Still, I wouldn’t have accepted it if I hadn’t liked Ania; I was too lazy for that. The truth was that I liked her a lot, even though I found her eccentric and completely different from me. She didn’t listen to rock music, but Wagner and Schubert; read Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann of her own free will. But it wasn’t so much the highbrow taste that rendered her different from her peers (there were several snobs in our class who claimed to have similar preferences), as the intensity with which she engaged with art. When she liked a painting or a story, she saw herself in it, occupying the same space and breathing the same air as its characters. Music literally moved her — she confessed that sometimes she felt like jumping out of a window when listening to something, as she heard in it a call to transcend herself; become disembodied. Not surprisingly, in her childhood she wanted to be a ballerina.
Ania lived with her family in an apartment that took up the whole second floor in an old three-storey tenement block in the centre of Toruń. Four people lived there: Ania, her parents and paternal grandmother Maria. Every one of the seven rooms was filled with a huge number of books, paintings and records. There was also a great piano in the salon. One could deduce from this abundance that the Fs had behind them many generations of people who had been surrounded by literature, music and art. Another sign of their artistic and intellectual heritage was a certain simplicity, even naivete, about them. Unlike my family, who, when in the presence of more educated people, always put on a certain air, trying to impress the strangers, Ania’s family played no roles; their culture and naturalness embarrassed me. When talking to them, I became inarticulate and clumsy, especially around the father, maybe because at the time all older men embarrassed me. Luckily, he was usually locked in his study reading, so I didn’t see much of him
During these two months I learnt about the Fs’ history. It transpired that neither of Ania’s parents were native to Toruń. The paternal side of the family were from the Habsburg Poland, principally Krakow, and many of them had studied and even lived in Vienna. The most famous of them was the painter Józef Mehoffer, the leading representative of the Young Poland movement, the Polish equivalent of Art Nouveau. He was a brother of Ania’s great-grandmother, if I remember correctly. Others were also well-known Krakow painters, stage designers, illustrators, decorators, jewellery designers, writers and journalists. The family legacy from this period was a large number of art nouveau paintings, including several by Mehoffer, and objects made of glass and ceramics. Clearly, they needed space to house all these objects and their quantity didn’t allow for all of them to be treated with due respect. Many of the paintings were lying in piles; others were gathering dust in cardboard boxes. Indeed, one room was devoted to storing these items. The Fs constantly received new works from friends, students and distant relatives.
How Ania’s father ended up in Toruń, I’m not sure, but most likely it had to do with his job — he specialised in the history of Teutonic castles and it seemed like Toruń University led the way in research of this type. Apparently, he was a good scholar, but lacked the brilliance which Ania attributed to her paternal ancestors. When I was living with the Fs, he wasn’t a full professor yet, despite being well into his fifties. His mother, who was then in her eighties and quite deaf, was a retired academic, specialising in German literature. She also had a daughter, Aunt Helusia to Ania, who worked as a doctor in Michigan. She was married, yet childless.
Ania’s maternal ancestors came from the Russian, less economically developed and cultured, Poland. They were aristocrats, who, after losing their estates somewhere east of Warsaw due to the war and communist takeover, tried to adapt to the new reality and get proper jobs. Ania’s grandmother Basia became a maths teacher; Basia’s older daughter Teresa an accountant, and the younger — Ania’s mother — an editor in a publishing house. Basia and Teresa both lived in Lodz, the most proletarian city in Poland, famous for its textile factories, as if in attempting to shed their aristocratic baggage, they reached for the other extreme. Ania liked her grandmother Basia and aunt Teresa, but didn’t hold them in high esteem because they weren’t artistic or intellectual. Of all the members of her family, Ania resented her mother the most, for two principal reasons. One was that she forced Ania to clean a large part of the house every day, vacuuming the rugs in four rooms, even though they looked clean to me, as well as the staircase connecting their floor with that of their neighbours. I sensed that at the bottom of this request was a desire to instill in Ania a sense of duty and routine and to prevent her from drifting off, but for Ania it was testimony to her mother’s pettiness and cruelty. The second reason why Ania disliked her mother was that she gave her pills. Ania told me that they were to keep her quiet; her mother said that Ania had to take them because she suffered from a ‘psychiatric disorder’ which needed to be kept in check. There was also a mismatch between their personalities. Ania was like a large Labrador who, after coming back from a walk in the woods, wants to shower its owner with affection by jumping all over them with muddy paws. Ania’s mother wouldn’t have kept such a dog.
Ania’s mother was very attractive. She was tall, had a slim figure and kept her hair very short, like Jean Seberg in A bout de souffle. That summer, on one or two occasions, I even saw her in the same type of dress Seberg wore in Godard’s film. She looked most attractive when driving a car, a new Audi if I remember correctly, which was a gift from aunt Helusia. (Ania’s father didn’t have a driving licence, a sign of the lack of practical sense on his side of the family). Ania’s mother looked more like her daughter’s sister, and her husband’s daughter — although in reality the age difference between Ania’s parents wasn’t that huge; something like eleven or twelve years.
Unlike Ania, I preferred the maternal branch of her family. I was especially enchanted by Grandma Basia and Aunt Teresa, who came maybe twice or three times during my stay, each time bringing bags full of meat, on account of it being a rationed product in Poland: everybody’s ambition was to eat it as much as possible. They were very energetic and fun. Moreover, there was something working-class about Teresa — maybe because at the time I met her she was working in a large textile mill (although as financial director) and was smoking the proletarian cigarettes Radomskie. The vitality of this family was also signified by the career chosen by Teresa’s youngest son Stanisław, who became a footballer and was at one time the greatest football star in Poland. I dreamt about meeting him, but he never visited the Fs during the time I lived there. Ania’s mother and Teresa must have been very close, as every evening when Teresa was staying with her sister, I saw them at the kitchen table talking until late into the night. I also saw Teresa holding her sister’s hand or hugging her; I suspect because Ania’s mother was crying. While Teresa was looking after her sister, Grandma Basia spent much time with Grandma Maria. She took her for walks in the park and to the doctor and they played cards together.
Ania claimed that she looked like her father, but I think she got something from both lines of her family. She had very dark eyes and dark hair like her father, but some of the relatives from her mother’s side also had very dark hair. She was tall like both her parents, however she didn’t have her mother’s grace. She also didn’t update her wardrobe unless her mother forced her to do so. Her favourite garment was a dark-green jumper which she put on as soon as she returned from school, irrespective of the weather. It had long, faded and misshaped sleeves that found themselves in places where they did not belong, like bowls of soup or caught by some sharp object, and so I often heard her mother sighing or shouting: ‘Ania, sleeves!’ Ania wore her long unruly hair in a messy bun and moved like a tank that pays no attention to whatever is around it. I suspected her lack of coordination was to blame for the decimation of the Fs’ collection of glassware and china. Yet it was I who broke a precious item soon after I moved in. I was alone in the sitting room and got up to inspect something which I found incredibly alluring — an Art Nouveau green-blue goblet shaped like the head of Medusa, with a narrow stem. I took the goblet into my hand and the head detached instantly. Panicked, for the next hour or so I thought about different ways of covering the damage, including asking Ania to confess to her parents that she broke the goblet, as I thought it would be easier for her to get away with such a crime. However, in the end I covered up my crime by putting the two parts of the goblet together, which gave the impression of it being intact. For the remainder of my stay with the Fs, I kept checking and praying that nobody touched the object and found out what had happened. Luckily the Fs. rarely went into this room and my offence was never discovered.
Sharing a house with Ania, I might have become her best friend, but I wasn’t the only person who visited her. Her peers liked her and liked the house — there was probably no other place in Toruń so saturated with culture and full of things, which at the time felt very luxurious to Poles. For example, there was always candy in glass bowls and peach juice for the youngsters, and a large selection of alcohol for the adults — presents from aunt Helusia, or bought with her money. There were some people who came to stuff themselves with these dainties, but others just liked to come, sit and talk. Some of her friends from primary school had known Ania much longer than I had, and I felt jealous thinking that I did not belong to their circle; that I didn’t know her then and wasn’t even from Toruń. These were mostly girls from ‘good houses’, but they were flamboyant and mischievous. On occasion the visitors were also boys. The one who came most often, Marek, had known Ania the longest, from kindergarten. He was very handsome, yet in my opinion, not very bright. Marek wanted to be an actor and wanted Ania to join him at acting school in Krakow. This was, however, something Ania’s mother didn’t like the sound of. She told him off and he stopped visiting soon after I left. In the years to come, he became a well-known actor and had four children with two different wives. I sometimes wondered if he ever thought about Ania. Probably not: men do not ponder over their past; they quickly move on, particularly the successful ones.
Apart from her young friends, Ania was visited by our English teacher, Miss K, who was then in her mid-to late forties and was a spinster living with her mother. Despite this status, which at the time in Poland normally attracted disdain, she was very popular among her pupils — they recognised that she was single not because she couldn’t find a husband, but because she was too cool to follow such a conventional path. She was also the first of several English philologists I met in Poland who completely identified with English culture. For me, they were like English people trapped in Polish bodies and I thought real English people must surely be like them, only more so — but when I eventually moved to England I discovered that nothing was farther from the truth. (Somebody told me recently that Polish English philologists are no longer like Miss K: the mass emigration of Poles to the UK after 2004 changed the old respect for England into scorn.)
Miss K often brought records of British and American pop-rock to school. She also brought records to Ania’s house. Ania, however, wasn’t impressed. She didn’t like music of this type, finding Grieg and Wagner more enticing, and didn’t respect British and American culture on account of it being repetitive and formulaic, unlike German and French culture, which — at least in its best manifestations — managed to break a new mould. However, there were snippets of Anglo-American culture which Ania enjoyed, like the song ‘Green Sleeves’ by Leonard Cohen. Not only did it remind her of her favourite piece of clothing, but there was also some deeper connection between the song and her. She immediately embraced it and kept singing in her rather tuneless voice:
Green sleeves, you’re all alone
The leaves have fallen, the men have gone
Green sleeves, there’s no one home
Not even the Lady Green Sleeves
At the time of my stay with the Fs, I often thought about the beauty and affluence which surrounded Ania, so unusual in Poland. Normally, such circumstances would arouse envy and resentment, but I felt that nobody begrudged the Fs, maybe because they never used their wealth against other people; they were modest and generous. Perhaps there was also a sense that they needed their capital to balance against some deficit in their lives, or to cushion them against forces that would be unleashed in the future. Sometimes, people advised them how to ‘invest’ and ‘get smarter’ — what goods to bring from abroad to sell at a profit in Poland, where to exchange foreign currency at the best rate — but they seemed unable to follow such advice.
To earn my weekly salary and the Fs’ gratitude, every day I spent two to three hours on revisions with Ania, and she passed her matura with decent grades. Probably she would have done so even without my help, but Ania’s parents claimed that it was essential. Ania, being herself, couldn’t help but comment that with her matura she lost her only link to Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, who both failed their Abitur. My grades were excellent, which resulted in Ania’s repetitive claims that I had a ‘great brain’, while for me it was only a testimony to my talent for learning by heart; for imitating, not creating. By and large, everybody was happy and there was a small party to celebrate our successes, attended by both of Ania’s grandmothers, Aunt Teresa, Miss K and a couple of Ania’s school friends. Afterwards, Mr F suggested that I sit the entrance exam to the Toruń University and that if I passed I could continue living with them, but I wanted to become more independent and study in Warsaw. I was also worried that if I lived with them longer my crime of breaking the goblet would eventually be discovered.
Ania didn’t go to university that year, or the next one. Instead, she started to work in the local library, which turned out to be the only paid occupation of her entire life. She worked there for two years and after that the chief librarian didn’t want to renew her contract, ostensibly because of financial cuts, but in reality — as Grandma Basia said — it was because Ania wasn’t good at library work or, indeed, any work.
In due course, Ania told me that my stay with the Fs was a watershed between the good times and bad times for her family. Most likely this was pure accident, although for the rest of my life when I thought about the Fs, I felt a small pricking in my heart — the pain of guilt rather than merely of sorrow. Even before I started my studies in Warsaw, Ania’s father was diagnosed with eye cancer. The following summer when I visited them, he had a glass eye. Although it was artificial, to me it seemed full of sorrow.
Maybe to help her father or because of her quest for transcendence, the period of her father’s illness coincided with Ania’s growing religiosity. It wasn’t enough for her to go to church: she wanted to spend the whole day there, ideally lying on the cold floor in front of the cross. Such religious fervour was a source of embarrassment not only to her family, but also to the local priests, who, maybe because they didn’t want to be reminded of their own moderate commitment by somebody over-zealous, asked Ania’s mother to spare the church visitors such a spectacle. After many hours of intensive praying, Ania had visions which her mother tried to treat with higher doses of pills. This only led to complaints and accusations from Ania that her mother wanted to poison her. By and large, her relationship with her mother worsened in step with her growing religious devotion. At the same time, Ania’s prayers didn’t help her father. His cancer was spreading; after the summer vacation he stopped working and spent most of his time in bed. When the winter came, he was accompanied by Ania who, on returning home from church, slipped on an icy road and broke her leg. The injury was complicated and she needed an operation. It turned out that the operation was botched and she needed another one. Apparently, the next one was better, but she spent over a year with her leg in plaster; when it was over, she was hobbling.
Ania’s father died a painful death. After the funeral, Ania’s mother said that it was unnatural for him to have died before his own mother, to which Ania angrily replied that she would prefer if her mother died before her paternal grandmother. This was almost like a curse. Almost, because Ania’s mother survived her mother-in-law, who died less than a year after her son, but her own health also worsened. She constantly suffered from headaches, a condition that was initially dismissed by doctors as resulting from the strain of looking after a sick family, until they were so bad they couldn’t be ignored. It turned out that the pain was caused by brain cancer. In search of a cure, Ania’s mother travelled to Warsaw to see specialists there. On one such visit we met in a café. As usual, she looked elegant and still young, but very thin and tired. She told me how grateful she was for me being such a great friend to Ania and that she hoped I would stay in touch. This made me very sad because I didn’t think I was such a great friend — rather, only her paid friend — and because it felt like this was my last meeting with Ania’s mother, which indeed it was. I didn’t even attend the funeral, because it happened shortly before I gave birth to my daughter. Like my relocation to Warsaw, motherhood added to the difficulties of keeping in touch with Ania.
After the death of Mrs F, the decision was made that Aunt Teresa, who had just retired, would move to Toruń to live with Ania. At the time, I visited Toruń with my daughter, who was then only a few months old. Aunt Teresa was delighted to see us, but Ania didn’t like the idea of me having a child. She didn’t like small children and she told me that I shouldn’t waste my talent on motherhood; I should do something more creative, to which I replied, somewhat masochistically, that it was fitting for me to have a child, given my talent for mimicry.
It was early autumn and we were walking through the park near Ania’s house, which was full of colourful leaves. Nowhere else had I seen autumn leaves so vibrant and mobile — as if they were in a perpetual dance, celebrating the arrival of the season. Ania was also in a celebratory mood. The death of her mother liberated her and she was looking forward to her new life with Aunt Teresa, who wasn’t bothered about hoovering the house every day or eating nutritious food. A couple of months after my visit, Ania’s old psychiatrist retired and she got a new one, who was young and inexperienced. She agreed with Ania that she had been prescribed too many pills and gave her fewer and different medicines. I knew that Ania had tried this trick with her previous doctor, but without success: Ania’s mother was too strongly in favour of stuffing her with pills, perhaps because she knew better than anybody else what was at stake if something went wrong. And now something did go wrong — Ania started having visions and ‘saw’ her aunt trying to kill her. In self-defence, she took some scissors and stabbed Aunt Teresa in the neck, cutting her arteries. Luckily, her aunt survived the attack, although she spent many months recovering in hospital, permanently lost her voice, and was so traumatised she didn’t want to return to Ania’s house. She died about two years later. Now, only Grandmother Basia remained among Ania’s close relatives and so it was Basia who moved in with Ania when she left the psychiatric ward. By this point Basia had two grandchildren with mental problems — Ania and her cousin Stanisław, the famous footballer, who had become an alcoholic. Abandoned by his wife with whom he had four children, Stanisław was living alone in his mother’s apartment.
Being as good and practical as always, Basia didn’t ponder these misfortunes, only got on with the work that needed to be done before her death. One was to vacate the apartment in which Ania lived all her life. It did not belong to the Fs but to the council, and neither of Ania’s parents had been smart enough to buy it for very little back in the early 1990s when there was an opportunity to do so. Now it was no longer possible: the council wanted to reclaim it and Ania was threatened with eviction. Ironically, while during the whole communist regime — including the darkness of martial law — the Fs had managed to keep their refined bourgeois life undisturbed, under capitalism this was no longer possible. Using some contacts, Basia managed to get an extra year to pack the apartment’s contents and find a new home for Ania — somewhere in Toruń, as all her friends lived there and she could walk the streets on her own.
Several very busy years passed until I saw Ania again; I got divorced, moved from Poland to Britain, and remarried. The next time I saw Ania, Grandmother Basia was gone, as was the footballer-alcoholic, who had died at the age of sixty-two. Ania was living in a state-owned care home in Toruń. She said that she could stay there until the end of her life because she received her father’s pension, plus a private one set up by her American aunt Helusia, who by this point was also living in a care home following a stroke. Ania seemed to be in good spirits. She said that she liked her room, which was small, but arranged according to her needs. I noticed that it was full of objects, but none of the treasures that I remembered from her family’s apartment. The only painting was a hideous portrait of Ania’s paternal grandmother done by some amateur painter. On the wall, a mat was decorated with small holy pictures that priests give to children during house visits, and some postcards that I had sent Ania over the years from my foreign trips. She explained that since Grandma Basia was keen to get rid of the apartment’s bounty as quickly as possible, she allowed neighbours and even strangers to take whatever they wanted. Only a handful of the most precious paintings, including the Mehoffers, were given to the museum in Krakow.
Because it finally didn’t matter, I thought this was a good moment to confess that I broke the Medusa goblet. Ania responded that I didn’t break it — it was Aunt Helusia, who had visited some years previously. However, as it was Ania’s mother’s favourite ornament, she had put it back together so it appeared intact, until people knocked it. Grandma Maria did it most often. ‘Who took it?’ I asked, feeling that after all these years of suffering for a crime I didn’t commit, I should be compensated with its object. But Ania didn’t know, as she wasn’t in charge of disposing of her family’s possessions. Moreover, she didn’t care.
We went for a meal in a restaurant and then to the cemetery, to visit the graves of her family. With her injured leg, Ania walked slowly and leaned on me, like an old woman. It was autumn and the leaves were again engaged in their decadent dance. Looking at the tablet carved with the names of her parents, I couldn’t stop thinking about the rapid demise of Ania’s family and their estate. Maybe she was thinking the same as she placed her hand under my arm and sung the old song by Cohen:
Green sleeves, you’re all alone
The leaves have fallen, the men have gone
Green sleeves, there’s no one home
Not even the Lady Green Sleeves
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories and creative nonfiction in her spare time. She published over forty of them in ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘ ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’, ‘Shark Reef’, ‘Toasted Cheese’, ‘Queen Mob’s Teahouse’, ‘Verity La’ and ‘Mystery Tribune’, among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, ‘Neighbours and Tourists’ (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.