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The lawns have been mowed and colourful leaves stand out against the neatness. Blue smoke creeps on the roof and falls slowly to the ground to trail in the orchard sniffing for rotting apples. The houses are freshly washed in the rain, and look with clean dull eyes into the river valley below. There the land is flat and vast under a wool grey sky. The lace trim of willows unfolds layer after layer into the far horizon. A single deer stands nervously in a field of winter wheat, licks green blades off its large glistening nose. A train passes.
She has the easy demeanour of someone used to moving through life with no friction. She looks through her eyes like they are a window onto events amusing and removed. Groomed and thin she does not even think people may do otherwise than step out of her way, or offer her help; that the world should fall into check before her is as natural as breathing. And yet, there is no generosity in the way she speaks, about herself only, betraying an underlying insecurity. The things she likes, the crazy ideas she has. Life, ah life. Such fun, such fun.
Before the day, I feel calm. The silence I have been cultivating within me is there, and is not shaken. I return to it constantly while I keep myself busy. I visit one of the witnesses in the dank gym I spent so much time in as a teenager, with my dad heaving and sweating on the level below as my quads burnt. The damp cold still permeates it. The coach is happy to see me; he had aged, his hair is white, and a small belly appeared. We sit in the island of light cast by his desk lamp.
He is pleased, and shows me the drawings he now uses to illustrate the exercise plans. He is proud. Funny the things people fall back onto, things they feel are valuable to share. We than talk of last year, of how my dad died. He tells me about dadís progress, of time he started coming there and was not even able to lift a small weight when lying on his belly. They had a competition, Kubacki, the tall guy and him; he was so weak. But he worked hard, I know, he had those funny lifts in the cellar.
When he reached a first milestone, my dad and the tall guy clad the gym without the coach knowing; all he good do is agree and say thank you. Dad gave the workers, the tall guy materials. At another milestone, dad had paid for a party, there at the gym; a friendly taxi driver brought a load of roast chickens, they drank. I remember often picking dad up from where they used to sit at the small table in front, having a beer after the workout. I am pleased to see the coach. He has always been a good man.
It is not as bad, being back in the city, as it was before. Perhaps because my sister is here, and gone as she is into her work she does offer comfort. I go through the day emptily. I gave myself tasks, such as buying new shoes, to fill the time before the event, and I progress through my mental list like an automaton. At the mall I am a puppet, propelled as if from outside. I catch the sight of my face, itís set in a withdrawn calm. I lose my parking ticket. I lose my own self.
Even at the pool, as I dive in the cool blue water, as I look at the athletic bodies of the male swimmers next to me, as I move myself and feel well and strong and calm, breathing, I feel empty and joyless. I wish K were with me, he gives me the lightness of being I donít seem to have by myself any more. Sharing things Ė all and any things, doing the shopping, swimming Ė does not divide them but multiplies them. Fills them with meaning. We speak on the phone, and understand one another so well. Miss him.
On the day, I feel calm, but it's costing me, it seems, costing me my focus. Itís not till twelve, so I go out to do some shopping, and forget my wallet at home. I stand at the chemist and stare stupidly. I drop some cake off at the office. By the time Iím back at the flat my sister had showered and is standing in the bathroom in underwear applying makeup. The brushes and powders are lined orderly in a professional kit bag, and she is focused as she picks up one, then the next, working methodically.
The day before we went for ice cream at the same old cafť. I laughed at some point Ė of all the things in our lives, that this should be the one that had not changed! The place I used to come with mum Ė here we are, at the very same table. Where we used to come every year on the last day of school, the whole gang from my year. Where I'd come with K***a. The same woman is still working behind the counter. The digital displays are new, but the menu is the same, as is the taste.
We order the usual sundaes with liqueur as eat them as we practice responding to the courtís questions. We are both concerned about our Polish. Need to sound fluent, need not to faff. Say little, she says. She is much more experienced than me in speaking under pressure. I'd thought I would do well, but when trying to say things out loud I fumble. We practice key words and phrases, and memorise the dates. I feel respect for her experience. We read the response to our response to the original document which started it all. It is so emotional.
On the day it rains, and we walk around deep puddles on our heels. It's only a few hundred metres on uneven pavements from the flat to the courthouse, big red building I had passed so often but had never been in. Our lawyer is seating outside the hall when we get there, all long thin limbs, smart understated suit. We sit next to him, and S appears. I say Ďgood dayí. I expect her to sit down away from us, but I do not expect what comes next. Iím prepared for it, but I donít expect it.
She pulls photographs out of her bag, one of me and her granddaughters on the day dad died, and another of her with my sisterís elder. She throws them in our faces, and starts to scream about morality, and decency, ethics. We sit tight, and look her in the eye, and say not a word. Not a word. And all the time she raves, and pulls out the most hurtful, disgusting, personal things. At one point she mentions my mother, and without thinking I get up and walk away, down the corridor, to the other end, not a word.
There I stop and stand, and look out of the window. I feel calm, but my legs are shaking. I can see my sister, and I feel bad I'd left her, and I know she'll continue to sit there and take it to show strength. But I feel good. For the first time in my life, I could just walk away. I am free to walk away. After a while I see our lawyer walk towards me, and I start back. Sís lawyer is here, he explains, itís all calmed down. He sits behind a pillar from S.
I tell Olga why I'd walked, and she laughs loudly. S and her lawyer do not talk or look at one another. It is a few minutes before we are called into the small room. We sit down on opposite sides; the judge is a youngish, slim woman. Throughout the proceedings she strikes me as no nonsense. I remember Sís lawyer standing up with his arms outstretched like some bad caricature of Jesus, a photo in each hand; I remember him shushing S with a sharp slap on the thigh. In hindsight it was comic, but felt so sad.
Once we are out of the woods, the emotions creep in, and I feel sad, deeply sad. I prod at it like hurting tooth, and finally I know. I have distance pain, as the Germans have it, but for a place and a world that does not exist, and never existed. On my way to renew my ID the day before I passed by our neighbourhood, the house I grew up just a few hundred metres that way. I had not seen it, had not been in there, for years now. It had all shrunk, the forest, and the fields.
And I felt a pang, and at the junction a shadow of mine split off and turned while I drove on. It climbed up the road with its potholes, and up, and into the driveway. It did not look at the houses and the views, it knew them all well. It took a suitcase out of the boot, and walked through the door, but mum was there to grab her, and embrace her, and kiss her wetly on the cheek as she struggled to get her arms out of the coat. The house was warm and light, normal, the usual.
And the shadow dumped her bag in her room and went down to the kitchen to make tea and chat, and the radio hummed in the background, and chicken soup was boiling, and mum was smiling and busy and tiny, and she laughed. And there was a murmur of an engine from the cellar, and a door banged, and dad was home. He threw a paper on the chair, and the stairs creaked heavily as he climbed up. And he was in the kitchen, and I kissed him on the stubbly cheek, and he sat down. And that was life.
And that was life, that never was. That pain I felt after was for all that could have been, that warm place of light and normality and support and peace, and maybe happiness. A place to come home to. And it was not, for mum got sick, and S came, and dad left, and all went a different way. And now we are in court, and my father is cold in the ground, in a coffin above my mum, who is even colder. And S is slinging mud and cursing us and our children for the love of more money.
And so my dadís friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, are all being dragged through the sewer because of it. And in the process even that little that was good in that hard time between my mumís illness and my dadís death is being sullied. It becomes hard to hold on to the good moments for through her aggressiveness from a presence easily ignored she grows in the land of memory and dominates, and so my mind flees, and my dad is left alone with her again. At night I lay thinking of him, sitting hunched at the laptopÖ
Ö in his study, an exile in his own home, an island resisting the tide of pettiness and ugliness and mean-spiritedness this woman breathes. In a trap of his own making, from which the escape was a glass, and another. M******a agreed he had grown sad after mumís death, and started cleaning up, in the business, and in his personal affairs. Perhaps, she said, he had made a reckoning, and the balance was not positive. And so they poisoned one another, a vicious cycle of dependency and hatred. I am so sorry for him, and sorry for her.
In the evening I call various people to ask them to act as witnesses. The key one is pani H, she is erudite and would speak well, but I know she is afraid of the tax man. When I call she is cold to me, and I tell her I understand. But a few minutes after the phone rings; she had called a mutual friend trying to reach me, she had changed her mind. I feel a catch in my throat. I call, and she says: you are like daughters to me, how could I abandon you. I nearly cry.
I lay awake thinking about her. She is so tender and gentle and strong, but by now bent nearly in two by her hump. Delicate hands, clear eyes behind the glasses, and a good, good heart. Of landed aristocracy before the Russians, then, for most of her life, a child minder. I have vague memories of her husband, a man tall and lined, from when I was a small child. We used to go to the allotments together, with my grandmother. I have a strong memory of the cool damp moss on the side of a well, flowering, sparkling, beautiful.
She told me on the phone she can hardly make ends meet, and I canít stop thinking about it, lying in bed. She said: I would ask you over but I have nothing at home but tea. The strength to tell me! I choked. I keep thinking about her, sitting alone in a cold flat. Waking up to this emptiness and taking it to bed. Too weak to have projects. Her fierce will to live being dampened by the body. I feel a hot tear work its way into my ear. Have to find a way to help her.
ĎPut them in nowí, he says. I hold on to the railing with one hand as I climb up the rickety metal staircase bolted on to the side of the building; with my other hand a squeeze and push in a foam earplug. I feel it expand, and the noise lessens. Weíre at the door now, and through it; for a moment I canít see anything. Than a large space opens in front and below me, we are on a high walkway, and there is a hum resonating in my chest, and a clattering further away and down.
Underneath and extending far into the distance are two rows of concrete sarcophagi. The floor between them is ashen and grey, and glittering. The cover rolls back and one opens, spilling light and heat. I flinch as a part of the ceiling suddenly jerks and moves swiftly closer. It's an overhead crane, as big as a house, and comes to a stop right in front of me, and I feel my knees go weak with the power of it. Effortlessly the huge weight hovers just above my head, and with one fluid movement lowers an arm into the yellow light.
It clenches, and pulls, rising a flame from which emerges a huge rod of metal orange with the heat. The arm drags it up, tilted, and spins it in the air as it starts to pull away and travel rapidly to the other end of the building. The metal walkway shudders. I watch the shrinking control booth, but I canít see inside for all the darkness and glow. We follow on, and stop again at the rolling mill. I see the rows of soaking pits more clearly now; another lid is opened, an ingot lifted, and brought before us.
The huge silvery cylinders turn, and propel the glowing metal inside and underneath the roller. There is water pouring all over and vaporising instantly as it rolls back out and inside again, the jaws of a hydraulic vice pushing it into position. Further on, we see the ingot had become a long shining rod; as it rolls quickly past us, just five metres away, the heat instantly brings out a sweat. It has the appearance of a huge stick of plasticine now; appropriately, the ends curl up in a pout as immense shears chop off the slack with a thud.
Alan gestures us, and we step off from the walkway into a side corridor, from the black and yellow of the floor into an office white. We close the door behind us, and open another onto a small room with a low ceiling and subdued lighting. The walls are lined with large monitors, and facing the walls are men sitting in soft looking reclined chairs. Their hands are on joysticks, their eyes on the monitors; their mates hang around looking over their shoulder. Thereís a blue fitted carpet, and a radio playing. Someone is making tea in the kitchen.
This room feels miles away from the noise and dirt of the mill floor; only the shuddering floor betrays its location. It could be the inside of a spaceship. I watch a billet travel across the screens with great speed, and hear the clicking of the controls. ĎItís a new systemí, Alan says. ĎWeíve had a bar bend and go right through one of the panels on the floor; took 12 seconds to catch fire. No injuries.í We leave, and continue our narrow path. Cooling rods, still glowing a deep red, clatter as they are deposited to cool.
Now I wish we had bought a house with a bigger garden. I'm sure it's the neighbour's influence, she's a landscape architect and her little yard is full of well loved plants. Inspired by her example I have been collecting masses of pots, which finally got filled over two weekends. I was so nervous I may kill the plants I nearly went into a panic when I realised I had no bone meal. Until a few minutes ago I did not even know such a thing existed, and now it's a major source of anxiety! Saved by the hardware store.
So I am now a proud owner of a spade and a fork, and am planning to bring on my own herb seedlings for the three tier planter under the kitchen window, and to plant lettuce in the front garden which is otherwise just a deposit of pebbles and nails... yes I caught the bug big time. Never happier then picking out juicy earthworms from the topsoil yesterday to deposit in my big pots, or when disentangling the circling roots of potbound plants, or when smelling the marjoram and thyme on my fingers. I have high hopes for the spring.
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