When the future is just a memory of what we remember, there is no room for surprise and the only method of survival left is self-deception. And this is exactly what my emigration was, even though it was supposed to be the solution to my problems. Fifteen years later, all I can say is, I’m not Walter Faber. It’s four in the morning and I can’t sleep. I can hear my neighbour upstairs. Did I wake him up? The floorboards in his apartment creak with his every step. At one point, I heard a buzzing noise which sounded more like a coffee grinder as it was too loud for a mechanical razor. Who kips the coffee grinder in the bedroom? I don’t like this place. It’s a very old building, possibly one of the oldest here, built of granite stone with walls at least a foot and a half thick, making the place more like a cold bunker than a cosy apartment. When I moved here a few months ago, almost nothing worked. I still can’t get used to the noise of the ventilator in the bathroom. It sounds like an aircraft taking off, especially at night, so I often turn on the hallway light and keep the bathroom door open when I need to use the loo.
It’s true, I’ve never lived my life. I don’t even know what that means. One might ask, how can I be so sure about the former without knowing the latter? Let’s see. I have buried myself in books since I was twelve. My every day was the same. The book was the first thing I took when I woke up. I was reading while eating breakfast. I read while walking to school (it’s amazing that I never got hit by a car). I read in class, keeping the book on my lap under the desk so the teacher wouldn’t see it. I read on the way home, at dinner, and for the rest of the day, and then in bed, and finally, when my mother turned off the light in my room, I read from behind a curtain with the help of street lamps. It was the same even during the summer holidays. I didn’t have to wait long for the results. Even my older brothers started to think of me as a moron, not to mention the other kids. So I watched them from behind the pages of the book without being too involved in their affairs, to the point where it’s become my nature to avoid any involvement. The question is, what was I running from? Because it was an escape, there is no doubt. My parents, perhaps?
My father was a short-tempered man, and, on top of that, he was an alcoholic. This is a particularly bad combination. I don’t have many memories of him from the time we lived together, and even those few are not good. He was a big, strong man who didn’t hesitate to use his wide leather military belt to execute punishment. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The most terrifying memory of him I hold is when one day he came home drunk, got into an argument with my mother and, at one point, he started screaming and throwing chairs around the living room. I and my siblings, all still very young, watched in horror as we stood in the hallway and cried. Years later, when I was a teenager, he knocked a hole in the door when I refused to shake his hand because he was drunk.
With my mother, it’s a different story. I know she suffered because of my father, but she was also an emotionally cold person with occasional outbursts of anger. There is just one memory of her that is engraved in my memory for life. I was five or so, and one summer day I had an accident at the playground. Embarrassed, I went back home to change. When she saw me in shorts full of excrement, she went berserk. She screamed at me if I didn’t know where the toilet was, and then she took my shorts off and put them in my mouth. What normal person does something like that to their child, or for that matter, to any child?
I left home at the age of fifteen to go to a boarding school. This was my real home. There I met some intelligent, nice people who were more parents to me than my own parents ever were. I never really came back home. I didn’t visit my parents often, even when I was still in Poland. After emigrating to the UK, I visited Poland only a few times, and one of those occasions was my mother’s funeral. Now, after all those years, I maintain a distanced, shallow relationship with my lonely father. I phone him once a week or less, and we have a small talk and that’s it. He once muttered that he regrets the past. Maybe. It doesn’t matter any more.
The neighbours called us ‘a week in hell’. To tell the truth, I’m not surprised at all. We gave them a hard time quite often. And, of course, our surname, Boruta, fit perfectly. What’s more, our parents did not lack a unique sense of humour when choosing our first names. So the oldest were the fake twins Lubomir and Dobromir (they were born in the same year, but one in January and the other in December). Next was me, Krzesimir, and after me was our only sister, Bogna, the actual twins, Ziemowit and Sobierad, and the youngest of us, Lech. It’s not difficult to imagine the amusement of the kids at school at the sound of our rarely heard old Slavic names. So the fists were used often, and we quickly earned our reputation as little thugs. We stuck together, or at least in the beginning. The fact that we fought each other for everything didn’t matter, because whenever someone from the outside interfered in our affairs, they regretted it, because in that case, we were like the proverbial musketeers – one for all, all for one.
For me, everything changed in one summer we all spent in the countryside. Our parents and grandparents worked in the field during the harvest, and we stayed on the farm. It was a hot day and I hid in the hay in a barn with a book (I was only twelve, but that was the time when I caught the reading bug). At one point, Lubek and Dobrek with Bogna entered the barn. They couldn’t see me and I wasn’t going to stop reading, so I lay in silence waiting for them to leave. I thought they just came to take something outside. How wrong I was! Lubek stood in front of Bogna, and Dobrek was behind her, a little to the side. Lubek demanded that she take off her panties and show her pussy. She refused and wanted to run away, but then they pounced on her and knocked her to the floor. Dobek sat on her chest and Lubek on her legs. She squirmed and screamed, but they were stronger. Lubek slid her panties down over her thighs and they both groped her crotch. I watched paralysed. Finally, satisfied, they released her and, threatening to kill her if she told anyone, left the barn. Weeping Bogna, still lying on the floor, pulled on her pants, got up and ran to the back of the barn. I couldn’t see her, but I heard the rear exit hinges screeching. Everything went silent.
I saw her again in the evening, in the hay cart with grandpa and grandma. It turned out that they met her sitting under one of the poplars along a bumpy dirt road leading to the meadows and took her back home. The parents were not with them. Grandpa said they drove the other cart to uncle Janusz and they were going to be back late. Throughout the evening, Bogna did not take a step away from grandma, assisting her with everything, and it was like that for the rest of the holidays. Grandma laughed that she would keep such a helpful girl forever. Lubek and Dobrek acted as if nothing had happened. Besides, I didn’t see them except in the mornings and evenings, because they usually disappeared somewhere for the rest of the day, and I didn’t look for their company, preferring to hide somewhere with a book if my friend wasn’t around. And it stayed that way even after our return to the city. Only the youngest three were still playing together.
I liked holiday trips to the countryside. The kids in the neighbourhood were almost grown up except for the youngest boy, Mateusz, who was my age and we were friends (my older brothers despised him and called him a country bumpkin). Each year, on our arrival, he was waiting for me on an old willow growing exactly in the middle of the fence between their and my grandparents’ farm. On the first day, we always walked around and he showed me what had changed from the previous summer. And then, as soon as he had finished helping with the farm, we would build a fort in the nearby forest or rummage through the attics of our neighbours’ houses, taking advantage of the fact that they were busy harvesting. And when we had enough adventures, we ran to the river to swim. He was a great swimmer and always showed a little bit in front of me by jumping into the water from an old broken dredge dumped in this part of the river. I admired his muscular, tanned figure sculpted by his work on the farm. I looked rickety next to him, bony and pale like a broomstick. He always swam naked, and that year I immediately noticed the hair on his pubic mound. I was ashamed to take off my swimming trunks, and not only because my crotch still had hardly any hair.
In spite of what my brothers said about him, Mateusz was not a rural idiot. On the contrary, he was one of the best students in his school and dreamed of studying forestry at the university to become a forester. In his room he had cases with insects attached using special long thin pins, a collection of deer antlers, and even a skull of a real wolf. His father said that if he learned well, he would give him the opportunity to study at university, because their farm was to be handed over to his older brother, and there were not many opportunities for other work in the countryside than on the farm. So he studied diligently, helped on the farm, spent every free moment in the forest, and on Sundays he served as an altar boy. In my brothers’ minds, that made him a stupid sucker. But they stayed away from him, because, despite the fact that he was a year younger, he was strong and fast, and Ludek ended up with a black eye when he fought him one day.
I liked Mateusz. He always showed me the weirdest insects and told me amazing stories about the forest, especially what his grandfather had told him about the war and the partisans. Because it was not only the Nazis who were the enemies. First, they were NKVD. Of course, his grandfather didn’t tell him the latter. It was forbidden knowledge and it was dangerous to talk about it. But Mateusz accidentally found his diary and made me swear not to tell anyone what his grandfather wrote there. I was the only one he told about it, and only because I was his best friend. When I mention it now, I think his grandfather wrote it all down because he felt he was dying and didn’t want that knowledge lost. He died in the fall of the same year. I have no idea what happened to his diary. But that’s because he wasn’t the only one who died that year, and after what happened that summer, I never went back to my grandparents again.