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3 Smocza Street. David Spilman, an Israeli teenager, has memorized this address from the letters his ...
2019-12-24 09:00:00
short story

First Star of David

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
First Star of David
First Star of David

16-year-old David Spilman lives with his mum in Jaffa. One day, his grandma buys him a ticket to Warsaw. How will he fare in the city where his ancestors once lived?

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

A boy walking down a street, a boy who has never been in love.

His name is David Spilman. He is 16 years old, but he looks much older. He’s tall, with black hair and dark blue eyes. Sometimes women look at him, and when they do, he’s overcome by a feeling he can’t name and he looks away. Sometimes men glance at him over their shoulders. The anxiety he feels then is even more acute.

16-year-old David Spilman is going to collect a plane ticket. This is in Jaffa, on the Mediterranean.

David has known the owner of the travel agency since he was young. As a child, he went to Switzerland a few times with his grandma in winter, and they always bought their tickets here. He’d long been fascinated by the black freckles that formed constellations on her cheeks, in which he saw Ursa Major and Minor.

“How much do you need to pay? Nothing, your grandma paid. Back when she ordered the ticket, in the summer. She said it was a present for you. A surprise,” says the travel agent.

“My grandma?” asks David.

“I know she died. I’m sorry, I liked her. Your mum phoned yesterday and said you were coming to pick up the ticket. I thought she said something about Reykjavík, but she must have got it wrong. Maybe she was having a bad day. Or I didn’t hear right, that must have been it. Never mind, everything’s just as your grandma and I agreed. Shame she’s not around anymore. Say hi to your mum! And have a good trip!” says the woman, inserting the plane ticket into an envelope.

David walks down the street holding the blue envelope. He sits on the wall separating the beach from the street and looks at the sea. He opens the envelope. Inside is a ticket to Warsaw. But David was supposed to be flying to Reykjavík for a Björk concert, it was a birthday present from his mum. David looks at the pigeons walking along the rocky shore. One pigeon is white and blue, slender, with an aristocratic head. David doesn’t like pigeons, they disgust him, but this one is different. It’s beautiful.

David’s grandma died a few months ago.

In his jacket pocket, David still has the money he got from his mother for the ticket. Two and a half thousand shekels. That’s a lot of money. He imagines it’s a gift from his grandma for Hanukkah. Grandma, who didn’t live to see Hanukkah this year.

“Grandma had a heart attack. When I got home, she’d been dead for several hours. I didn’t want to call you and ruin your holiday.”

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

That’s what his mum had said when David returned from Eilat. But maybe Grandma hadn’t died at all? Maybe Mum had drunk too much that day, come home, seen a dead old woman and not even noticed that it wasn’t Grandma at all; and the ambulance crew certainly wouldn’t have looked carefully, all old people are the same to them. Maybe it was one of those old Russian women who came to Grandma to pour out their sorrows. She came and she died, and Grandma took the opportunity and decided to change her life completely.

Maybe that’s what happened, thinks David. Maybe.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

A boy who does not know his father, a boy raised by his grandma, because his mum is always at work, and after work she has to go to the bar and have a few drinks to de-stress. That’s why David speaks Polish so well. His grandma never learnt Hebrew properly and always spoke Polish at home. It’s different with Mum, she always speaks Hebrew. Unless she’s been arguing with her mother, David’s grandma. Like when they were going to Switzerland. Every time.

“Why do you want us to go to the Alps?” she asked Grandma.

“Because David has to go skiing. It’s a fantastic sport, you know that, you used to ski yourself,” replied Mum.

“I did, but in the Tatra Mountains. I’d rather we went to Zakopane.”

“To that country? David will never set foot in that country. Why go there? All they have there are crematoria and barracks!”

“We still have a few friends there, you must remember. David should get to know the country of his ancestors.”

“What ancestors?!” said Mum angrily. “The country of his ancestors is here. Where do you think Abraham was buried? In Powązki Cemetery?”

“Your father’s grave is in Powązki!”

“I know that. They killed him. In that country.”

“Your father died in a road accident, don’t pretend you don’t know.”

“They killed him, the police ran him over. It’s a country of anti-Semites. And the police are the worst of all.”

“You were born there!” Grandma shouted. “David will go there anyway on the school trip to Auschwitz. Unless you don’t let him, that is.”

“Of course I won’t let him. Even if he were there for a whole year, in Auschwitz, what good would it do? They burned them once and for all, nothing can help them now. They didn’t burn Jews in Switzerland.”

“They robbed them instead. It’s our money that made them that rich.”

“You didn’t have any money anyway. What does it matter? They have mountains and snow, and all snow’s the same.”

“Not true. The snow in Zakopane is a completely different colour. And it smells like En Gedi water.”

“Stop, Mum! Next you’ll be telling me your Zakopane snow is as sweet as manna.”

“It’s true. It is like manna. You won’t find snow like it anywhere else,” concluded Grandma.

The same thing happened every time.

The date on the ticket is 24th December. The ticket to Warsaw, not to Reykjavík, where the Björk concert is happening and where David has a hostel booked. David doesn’t like Björk. His mum likes her. Sometimes she puts on her albums at night, so loud that the neighbours bang on the walls. And she listens to Björk and cries.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

This’ll be a real adventure, like running away from home. David will tell his mum not to accompany him to the airport, and she’ll be happy not to, she’ll call a taxi and wave him off from the window. She won’t find out where David’s flying to. He doesn’t have a hostel booked in Warsaw, because there were no vacancies. All the better. He has two-and-a-half thousand shekels and he looks grown-up. He’ll be fine. Besides, he knows an address in Warsaw, an address he’s memorized from the letters that sometimes arrived for Grandma. 3 Smocza Street. When he was young, he liked getting the letters from the mailbox.

“It’s a letter from Smoke Street!” he’d call to Grandma. Once, Grandma told him about a family who lived there – a man, his son, his grandchildren – but it wasn’t interesting and David had forgotten everything.

“When we go to Warsaw, you’ll meet them,” Grandma had said.

3 Smocza Street. A small street, a tenement house with a courtyard in the middle, which you enter via the steps, under a high gate, by the Kanton Chinese restaurant. David gets a bird’s eye view of this street, a satellite view, from his computer screen. Leafless trees cast sharp, spiky shadows, the roofs of neatly parked cars glisten in the sun.

At night, when the flat is quiet and filled with light from the streetlamps, David wakes up and goes to Grandma’s room. The room is deserted, stripped of everything.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

The most painful thing is the lack of pictures, which have left behind light rectangles on the walls. The doors of the empty wardrobe are open and wobbling slightly, as if someone has just touched them. On the metal bed lies a striped, stained mattress. Only the yellow skis in the corner indicate who lived here.

When David got back from Eilat and Mum had told him about Grandma’s death, she added: “I’ve already cleaned up in there. If you want, you can move into Grandma’s room, you’ll have more space there than in your little cubbyhole.”

David goes to the window and looks at the empty street, the pools of shadow and pools of light. Then he lies down on the white and grey striped mattress and falls asleep. In his dream, he sees his grandma in a sapphire blue ski suit, schussing down a white slope. From a distance, Grandma looks like a young girl, but David knows that it’s her.

In Warsaw, in a tenement apartment at 3 Smocza Street, four people are sitting down to dinner in a square kitchen: mother, father and two teenage children. Their faces are lit by a lamp covered with yellow cardboard. Outside the window, tangled branches and the contour of the church tower stand out against the dark sky with its big-city gilt. The father, Mirek Rotwand, is a short, plump man with grey hair tied in a little ponytail; his wife, Krystyna Rotwand, has a sharp gaze and makes nervous movements. The boy – 18 years old, thin and bespectacled with a mop of fair hair – is eating quickly and carelessly, resting his head on his hand. His name is Adam. The girl, Ania, is younger. She’s a 14-year-old beauty with narrow, green eyes and straight, black hair, combed back and falling down her shoulders. She has a pale complexion and pink cheeks, as if she’s just come in from the cold. She’s not eating anything, just drinking tea from a large glass, amber tea with a yellow slice of lemon.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“I wanted to tell you something,” says Krystyna.

“What is it this time?” asks her daughter impatiently.

“I’ve invited Amnat and the family for Christmas Eve supper.”

“What Amnat? How do you know him?” asks Mirek.

“Dad, how could you forget? Amnat’s our cleaner. And she irons your shirts,” says Adam.

“What, doesn’t she have her own Christmas Eve supper?”

“She doesn’t have Christmas Eve, because she believes in Allah. Don’t act like you don’t know, Mirek. She’s from Chechnya,” says Krystyna.

“She looks like a highlander from Kościelisko,” says Mirek.

“Mum, I don’t want them to come,” says Ania. “Her children are awful. Do you remember when she came here with Ibram because their class had gone to church and they’d sent him home? Do you know what he did? He took my nail varnish and painted his toy car.”

“And do you remember what you did to my things when you were little?” asks Adam.

“Hang on, hang on, the whole class went to church, and they sent the Jews and Muslims home, right? And this is supposed to be a public school?” exclaims Mirek.

“Stop, Mirek. You’re always going on about Jews. Maybe there weren’t any Jews in the class, huh?”

“All right, but how do you envisage this? Muslims at Christmas Eve supper? They’ll be fine with the food, we won’t be serving pork chops after all, but the rest? Will they share the Christmas wafer with us? How’s it going to be, Krysia?”

“Mum, I don’t want to!” repeats Ania. “Everyone has to kiss when we share the wafer, and I’m not going to kiss Chechens. I can’t stand kissing Grandpa Lolek either, and he’s my grandpa.”

“Racist!” shouts Adam.

“Calm down!” says Krystyna in a raised voice. “I was just about to tell you! We won’t be sharing the wafer this year.”

“What? Christmas Eve with no wafer? I’m a Jew and an atheist, it makes no difference to me, but you, Krysia? Two hundred years of tradition, and suddenly no wafer?” says Mirek mockingly.

“Fine by me, no kissing at last,” says Ania.

“Grandpa Lolek will definitely be offended,” says Adam.

“But Grandpa’s Jewish as well, isn’t he?” asks Ania.

“But he’s also a Catholic. Big time!” replies Adam.

“Yes, Lolek is a practising Catholic, but he’s an enlightened man and he’ll understand why we’re not sharing the wafer this year. We’ll share the wafer symbolically, in our hearts,” says Krystyna.

“In our hearts. Nicely done, Krysia,” says her husband.

“And we’ll go to church with your father for midnight mass to make it up to him,” adds Krystyna.

“We go to midnight mass with my father every year. It makes no difference to me, I can go to church. I actually quite like it when everyone falls to their knees and only the priest and I are standing. But I’m warning you: I won’t be fasting for Ramadan to show solidarity with your Amnat,” says Mirek.

It’s cold on the plane. David zips his red hoody up tight and pulls the hood over his head. He looks as if he’s fallen asleep – but no, he’s not asleep, he’s alert and tense, as if something unforeseen could happen at any moment. He has a window seat, and next to him sits a young woman with red hair, downing drink after drink. When she finishes one, she immediately calls the stewardess and demands another one in bad English. When David briefly opens his eyes, the woman looks at him and smiles.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“Do you fancy a drink? I can get you one, if you’re too young.”

David shakes his head and closes his eyes again. Halfway through the flight, the woman begins to talk. She speaks in Polish. She talks about her father, who lives in Netanya and who married a young housekeeper from Ukraine. This boring and lengthy tale continues until the plane begins its descent in preparation for landing.

“It was nice talking to you,” says the woman, fastening her seatbelt.

It’s getting dark outside. David looks at the lights, blurred by the rain, reflecting in the wet tarmac of the airport. As if they’d landed on the surface of a lake. In the distance is a low, long building.

Suitcases and bags pass by on the conveyor belt. David is looking out for his backpack. One by one, people take their luggage; eventually there are no more suitcases. David looks up and surveys the brightly lit room. He’s all alone with the empty conveyor, a creaking circle around a section of the grey floor. After 10 minutes, a blue backpack emerges from the tunnel. David puts it over his shoulder and heads in the direction of the arrows.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

A man in uniform opens David’s passport and bangs his stamp down on it like a hammer.

“Good evening, sir,” says David in Polish.

The man smiles broadly.

“Happy holidays, kid. All the best.”

“What holidays?”

“Today’s Christmas Eve, when we watch for the first star. Have you heard about the first star?”

“Ah, the first star. I know. Happy holidays to you too,” says David.

When he was little, Grandma told him about the first star. She told him a fairy tale, a very sad one, about a girl who froze to death.

The large hall behind the mirrored doors is grey and quiet, there’s no one here. The escalator is ascending without any passengers. David strides on ahead and goes out into the street. There’s a car park on the other side. It’s drizzling. David looks around for a taxi or bus, but it’s completely empty. So he heads off down the street, following the direction of the signpost saying ‘Centre’. He passes a Marriott hotel on his left. He’s walking quickly. The backpack is heavy and David gets hot; he unbuttons his jacket and removes his hood. After a while, he fastens the jacket onto his backpack. Rain is running down his face. David is thinking about snow. “It always snows on Christmas Eve,” Grandma used to say.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

He stops under a gloomy viaduct, takes off his backpack and puts it on the ground. Suddenly he’s surrounded by young men, they seem drunk.

“Arab! Haji! Go back to your own country, towelhead!”

“I’m not an Arab! I’m Jewish!”

“Great! He’s a Jew! Bloody Jew! Let’s teach the Jew a lesson!”

The men run at David, he falls over, gets kicked in the stomach; the sounds of screeching tyres, clattering footsteps, braking. Silence.

“It’s okay, kid. Are you alright?”

Above him, David sees the beautiful and gentle face of a woman who looks like Kate Winslet. The woman holds out her hand and David gets up. A man is standing next to her. They’re both wearing black uniforms; a Municipal Police car is parked nearby.

“How are you feeling? Okay?”

“Yes. Okay.”

David looks around and sees that his backpack has disappeared.

“They got away. It’s Christmas Eve, we were on our way home. We’ll give you a lift and then we’ll be on our way, okay?”

“Yes. Okay.”

“Where do you live?”

“3 Smocza Street.”

David is driving through a foreign city in the back seat of a Municipal Police car. It’s still raining. The streets are deserted, the restaurants they pass are dark and closed. Like in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Little colourful lights are flashing in some of the windows; on an empty roundabout stands a tree with glowing, colourful balls. The woman with the face like Kate Winslet turns to him and tries to make conversation. David replies in monosyllables. He won’t say that he’s just arrived in Warsaw, that he’s 16 years old, that he has no accommodation, that his mother doesn’t know he’s there. He won’t even say that his backpack and jacket were stolen, along with his passport, money and phone. And above all, he won’t say that he’s Jewish. He learnt his lesson just moments ago. And he remembered his mother’s words: “It’s a country of anti-Semites. And the police are the worst.”

“Happy holidays! Take care, kid! And I hope you get something good for Christmas!”

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

David gets out of the car. He’s outside the house he knows from the satellite photos. A tall house on the corner. On the door of the dark shop the address is visible: 3 Smocza Street. Next to it, there are two windows displaying old chairs, the inscription ‘Upholstery’ on one window and ‘French polish’ on the other. David doesn’t know these words. There’s no entrance to the tenement house from here. David walks further, he can see the neon of the Kanton restaurant; up the wide steps, under the high arch of the gate, he enters a long, narrow yard. The windows on the ground floor are barred and dirty, and there are rubbish bags outside the back door of the restaurant. He goes further, passing several doors labelled ‘Smocza 1’. Fortunately, ‘Smocza 3’ only appears on one door – a metal door, specked with graffiti, right in the corner. But it’s closed; there’s an intercom panel to the side. David doesn’t know the apartment number, he doesn’t remember the name of the sender on the letters his Grandma received. He looks up at the illuminated windows. It’s cold.

He hears footsteps and quite conversation; two adults with two children are approaching the door. The woman, in a black jacket with a fur collar, says something into the intercom. David follows them inside and goes up the stairs behind the strangers, who are speaking to each other in a foreign language. There is no light in the stairwell; the bluish glow of the streetlamps comes in through the high windows on the landing. On the second floor, someone is standing at the open door and inviting people in.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Here is David Spilman in a foreign city, in a foreign apartment. He’s standing in a narrow hallway among strangers who are greeting each other, taking off their coats, saying things. David doesn’t pay them any attention. He looks over their heads towards the wide-open door, into a large, bright room with a ceremoniously laid table in the centre. A girl is standing by the window, next to a decorated Christmas tree; bent over the table, she’s laying out napkins. David looks at her white profile framed with ebony hair. The girl raises her head and her eyes meet David’s. She smiles. David turns and frantically pulls off his hoody, which is too wet and too red. He rolls it up and slides it onto a shelf under the hanging coats. Now he’s wearing a blue, open neck shirt.

When they shake hands, the girl says her name is Ania, and David also gives his name. There’s a little confusion as they sit down at the table. Without looking at the girl, David can hear her conversation with her brother.

“Who’s the boy? Did he come with them?” asks Ania quietly.

“What do you think? He’s a Chechen, can’t you see?” says Adam.

“I thought they were just bringing the kids. They have two children, I know that.”

“So how did he end up here? Shall we ask him?”

“That’s rude. He must be their cousin. He’s visiting them from Chechnya for Christmas and they couldn’t leave him on his own.”

“Christmas? But they don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“So he’s visiting for some other reason. Good thing I set a place for a wanderer. He can be the wanderer.”

“And what about presents? We don’t have a present for a wanderer.”

“What did you get me?”

“A notebook. And not just any notebook. A spiral one with eco-friendly paper. So you’ll have somewhere to write your girly diary. And so I can read it.”

“You pig! That can be for him. His name is David, write it on the notebook.”

“David? I don’t think that’s a Chechen name.”

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“Why shouldn’t it be? It’s a name from the Old Testament. They read the Old Testament too.”

David says nothing, mechanically eating everything that’s put on his plate. He has known these dishes since childhood, Grandma used to cook them too: marsh fish in jelly; salty herring in oil; red, strange-smelling soup with dumplings; tasteless, soggy cabbage.

The white tablecloth, crystal candlestick with burning candles, glasses, serving plates, shiny cutlery, silver cake stand. At the head of the table, with Ania on his left and David on his right, sits an old, bald man in tinted glasses. Tall, almost David’s height, he has large, white hands with neatly trimmed nails. It’s Lolek Rotwand, Ania and Adam’s grandpa.

“What kind of Christmas Eve is this? This isn’t Christmas Eve! There’s no God in this house. I’ve always suspected it, there’s no God in this house!”

That’s what the old man is saying to himself, and then Ania takes his hand.

“Take it easy, Grandpa. It’s the same as always, there’s just no wafer. But we have wanderers instead.”

Ania’s parents are sitting opposite the people who David arrived with. They’re trying to engage them in conversation, but the couple are too shy and their Polish isn’t good, so they eat in silence.

Before dessert, Ania and her brother give out presents to everyone. Suddenly, the little boys, Ahmed and Ibram, start fighting, snatching a toy from each other’s hands; their father shouts at them, and their mother’s eyes fill with tears. Luckily, it turns out there’s another similar toy and the conflict is resolved. The boys are now playing nicely under the table, and the hosts and guests, as if the dam of distrust has burst, are discussing food and Christmas traditions.

The Chechen family is leaving. Everyone is standing in the hall. The woman, Amnat, approaches David and shakes his hand.

“Goodbye,” she says.

“What, didn’t you come with them?” asks Ania.

“He’s not ours,” says Amnat.

“Aren’t you Chechen?” asks Adam.

“No. I’m Jewish.”

“What’s your name?” asks Mirek sharply.

“David Spilman.”

“What? Spilman? Let’s see your ID.”

“They stole everything. My documents and money.”

“What did you say? David Spilman? How did you get here?” asks Lolek.

“I came by plane today from Israel.”

“Hang on. Keep an eye on him,” says Lolek in a commanding voice. “I’ll be right back. I’ll show you something,” he adds, going out of the apartment and closing the door behind him. Mirek and the Chechen man, without saying a word to each other, move closer to David and stand right next to him.

The old man returns after five minutes, holding an air mail envelope in his hand. He takes a colour photo from the envelope and hands it to his son, who looks at the photo and then at David.

“Yes, that’s him.”

Ania takes the photo from her father’s hands and looks at David. She bursts out laughing.

“He’s definitely the boy from the photo, just older. And he’s got one eyebrow higher, just the same. What’s going on, Grandpa?” asks Ania.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“This is David, Maryla Kosowska’s grandson, Beatka’s son. I’ve known him since he was born, Maryla told me all about him in her letters. He fell ill when he was a week old. Severe pneumonia. But he didn’t die, thank God.”

Lolek goes over to David, embraces him and kisses him ceremoniously on both cheeks. David sees his face up close. The old man has tears in his eyes.

“Maryla and Romek, your grandmother and grandfather, lived right here in this apartment. Your mother, Beatka, was born here, because they couldn’t get to the hospital in time. Later, Maryla lived here, just her and Beatka. When they left, we made a deal. I bought this apartment from her for my boy. It wasn’t easy back then, but somehow it worked out. With that money, she bought herself a flat in Jaffa. It wasn’t a good deal for her, that apartment in Jaffa is a lot worse, right?” says Lolek.

They’re sitting round the table again, those who were there before, only the Chechen family has gone home. This time, David is the most important, everyone’s bombarding him with questions, regaling him, worrying over him.

“She didn’t reply to you because she died,” says David.

Only the silence that falls after this sentence makes David aware of the weight of the words he has just spoken. The old man sits with his face buried in his white hands. ‘What young hands he has,’ thinks the boy.

The silence is more and more excruciating. Finally, the old man takes his hands away from his face and stands up.

“Come on, David, we need to talk,” he says.

They go out into the stairwell. The old man gestures with his head to the stairs leading upwards.

“My apartment is one floor up,” he says.

But he starts off down the stairs and David follows him. They go further down, below the level of the courtyard. On a small, square landing, in almost complete darkness, the man pulls out a key and gropingly opens a small door. He presses a switch and icy fluorescent light floods the narrow, shabby corridor, so low that David’s head touches the pipes running beneath the ceiling. Lolek closes the door behind him. David feels that there’s no turning back and that he’d stand no chance against this great old man. He buries his head in his arms and looks at his feet, at the uneven concrete floor with small pools of dirty water.

“Don’t be scared. It’s just the basement. I want to show you something,” says Lolek.

They turn right and stop in front of a door made of wooden slats with a large padlock. Lolek opens the padlock and enters the cell, which has brown brick walls. Behind a bookcase crammed with packages of old newspapers, a shape is lurking beneath a jumble of dirty blankets.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“Look what we’ve got here, lad,” he says, brushing aside the blankets. “See? What do you think?”

David doesn’t reply. He stands and stares. From beneath the greyish rags looms the classic silhouette of a red motorcycle, glistening as if it had just come out of the factory.

“Do you know what this is, David?” asks Lolek.

“A motorbike.”

“A Harley-Davidson. 1946.”

“It’s so beautiful. Is it yours?”

“No. Yours,” says Lolek emphatically.

“Mine? What do you mean?”

“That’s your inheritance. From your grandpa.”

“Grandpa Roman?”

“He was such a big shot. The whole of Warsaw belonged to him when he was on that bike.”

“Big shot?”

“Well, he liked to show off. Your grandmother was going to marry me, but in the end, she chose him.”

“The police killed him. They ran over him with a car.”

“That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. He went out on the Harley drunk, fell off on a bend and landed right under the wheels of the Warsaw militia. And she ended up stuck in a heap of sand and was completely fine.”

“She? She who?”

“Harley. When Maryla left, she asked me to keep her. She couldn’t take her, and anyway, the little one hated motorcycles.”

“What little one?”

“Beatka. Your mother. Later, when you were born, Maryla wrote to me saying I should give her to you. Do you want her?”

“How would I take her home?”

“We’ll sort it out somehow. Maryla always wanted you to ride that bike, before you get called up.”

“Me? Who’s going to call me?”

“What I meant to say was, before you go into the army.”

“I don’t know if my mum will let me.”

“Of course, she won’t be happy. But it was the drink’s fault, not Harley’s. She’s yours, lad. If you ride her around Jaffa, no girl will be able to resist you.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s for Maryla. I could almost have been your grandpa.”

“It’s a shame you’re not my grandpa.”

“It really is. At least I’m alive, which is more than can be said for Romek. And don’t think that I was worse than him. I drove a pre-war Jeep, that was something back then. I like you, David. I like when a boy’s tall and strong. This bike will suit you. That’s a heavy bit of machinery, not for any old weakling. Maryla was right to ask me to hide the bike. She was so beautiful when she left, I’m telling you. Without her, Warsaw wasn’t Warsaw anymore.”

It’s nearly midnight. Snow is starting to fall, insect-like flakes are swirling around the streetlamps and slowly falling onto the dark lawns. People are pouring out into the empty streets: smartly dressed, festive, noisy groups, heading in the same direction. Smocza Street, sad and quiet, its cobbled pavement collapsing in places, is turning into a teeming promenade.

“What’s happened? Where are all the people coming from?” asks David.

“Everyone’s going to church for midnight mass,” says Lolek.

“Not everyone. I’m not going,” says Ania.

They’re now descending the wide concrete steps onto the street: all the Rotwands and he, David Spilman, dressed in a long, white sheepskin coat with a large shaggy collar. Lolek had brought it from his apartment, because the sleeves of his son’s and grandson’s jackets barely stretched to David’s elbows.

“I bought it in Zakopane. In 1966, I remember it clearly. It cost…”

“Must have cost a fortune,” Adam cut in.

“It’s like it’s made for you, David. My grandson would drown in it,” said Lolek.

David hadn’t wanted to put on the heavy sheepskin that smelled like an old wardrobe, but he didn’t dare refuse. However, when Ania was wrapping a long scarf knitted from multi-coloured yarn around his neck, he’d stood there as if enchanted. And once she’d studied him for a long time and said that he looked like someone out of an old film, there was nothing that could have made him take off that sheepskin coat.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

So they’re walking along Smocza Street among the cheerful people warmed with food and alcohol, men with bare heads, in unbuttoned overcoats and jackets, women with exposed necklines, wearing shiny necklaces, makeup and clouds of perfume. They pass the strange shop with old chairs in the windows, the signs reading ‘French polish’ and ‘Upholstery’, and they turn right, onto a street called Nowolipki. A shape is visible in the telephone booth behind the closed glass doors – a man in a grey coat and hat is kneeling with his head resting against the glass.

“He must have got drunk and fallen asleep,” says Mirek.

“He’ll be fine. It’s not cold. On our way back we’ll wake him up,” says Krystyna.

“And we’ll invite him home for a cup of tea, I suppose?” Mirek laughs.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

By the time they reach the church, the snow is falling in earnest; the streets and pavements are still black and shiny, but the lawns, roofs of parked cars and tree branches are coated in white. The people on the street are heading towards the church, entering through the two gates in the wrought iron fence, crossing the round square, going up the steps and disappearing into the church building.

“Stay safe. Adam, you’re to look after Ania,” says Krystyna.

“Stop, Mum. I’m not twelve years old,” says Ania in protest.

“Look at this church, David” says Lolek. “This is the church of Saint Augustine. When the Germans destroyed the ghetto, only the church remained, protruding from the monstrous debris…”

“Grandpa, it’s Christmas Eve, and you’re on about the war again,” Ania interrupts him.

“This is that church, I remember it,” says David.

“What do you mean, you remember?” asks Ania.

“That postcard was always on the desk at Grandma’s. A church in the desert and this strange, dark cloud in the sky, a black and white photo.”

“This is where we met, not far from here. It was the ghetto then. Maryla was fourteen, but she pretended to be older,” says Lolek, taking off his hat and walking towards the church. His son and daughter-in-law follow him, waving goodbye.

David, Adam and Ania continue along Nowolipki; next to the police station, they turn right and walk past a cinema displaying a big illuminated poster with a portrait of a black girl. They enter the metro. There are lots of young people on the platform. David is cowering, because he can see boys similar to the ones who took his backpack. The train is approaching.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“We’re going to Kabaty – come on, David!”

“See you, kiddos! Stay safe,” Adam calls and walks away.

The train is crowded and noisy, and Ania and David are sitting squashed between chatty, heavily-made-up girls.

“I thought we were supposed to stick with your brother,” says David.

“Oh, Adam is going to see his girlfriend in Bielany,” replies Ania.

“What about your parents? They think you’re together.”

“Let them think that. They wouldn’t let me go on my own.”

“So where are we going?”

“What, don’t you know? A party!”

“What party?”

“You know, a soirée. Wine and joints.”

“Wine and joints? But my mum always says there are only crematoria and barracks here.”

“Mums! They’re all the same,” says Ania. She takes her phone out of her pocket, plugs in some earphones, puts one bud in her ear, and gives the other to David. She turns on the music and closes her eyes. David puts the bud in his ear as well.

I don’t even know / What I want out of life, what I’m chasin’ / Is it hard to see me go?

David looks at the girl. She’s so beautiful, wrapped in her black hair and a yellow mohair shawl. David has never seen such a pretty girl before. And this song that David listens to almost every day, those words: ‘I don’t even know what I want out of life, what I’m chasin’…’ David found this CD at a stall in Eilat, an album from some unknown Australian band called Cub Sport. How did it happen that both a girl from Warsaw and a boy from Jaffa listen to this music?

David is riding the red Harley through a charcoal grey, volcanic landscape, hurtling like the wind; little black stones like drops of tar are spraying against the sides from under the wheels. Ahead of him is a blood-red sky and a narrow strip of highway, a small round sun slipping above the horizon. Behind him sits a girl cuddled up to his back, her arms around his waist. It’s the same girl who was just sitting next to him on the metro, he can smell her, he senses her touch, he knows it’s her. But what’s this rumbling, this terrible sound coming from behind, getting closer and closer? David turns around and sees huge tin monsters, surreal vehicles from Mad Max, warriors armed with rusted war machines from the future…

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

“David, we’re getting off!”

David wakes up. The earphone has fallen out of his ear, his head is resting on the girl’s shoulder.

“You fell asleep,” says Ania. “You collapsed on me. But no worries. You must be tired, the journey and everything.”

It’s almost empty on the metro; the screen hanging across from them is showing festive, shiny decorations on the rainy streets. The speaker says that Kabaty station is the next stop and everyone should alight there.

Snow, bluish snow, smelling like mineral water! Snow everywhere, on the streets and pavements, snowy caps on cars and branches. Having left the metro, David is seeing a completely different city – white, spacious, neat, with rows of impersonally glowing windows in the large rectangular buildings.

David scoops up some of the white, powdery snow from a wall by the road and raises it to his mouth.

“It’s real snow,” he says.

“I like snow too,” says Ania.

David takes her hand and they walk through the city at night down the wide, white street.

A phone is ringing; Ania takes it out of her pocket and says something softly. After a moment, a wiry boy comes over from a tall building, wearing an oversized military parka, a guitar in a black case on his back. His face is covered by a large hood with a fur trim. Ania gives a shout of joy. They greet each other with a kiss.

“This is David, he arrived today from Israel. This is Biczu, he’s my guy – you know, my boyfriend. He’s the one who gave me that album we listened to on the metro. Cool, right, David?”

That’s what Ania says, and David nods and shakes the boy’s hand.

A boy walking down a snow-covered street.

His name is David Spilman. Dressed in a dirty white sheepskin coat with a large collar, he walks between the girl he loves and her sweetheart. They’re talking. They’re laughing. This is in Warsaw, on Christmas Eve.

What happens next, what will befall them?

Maybe, after all, the girl will choose him, David, riding through the desert on the red Harley?

Maybe they won’t see each other for 20 years, and then they’ll be together until the end of their lives?

Or maybe someday, David will find out that she’s died and he’ll bury his face in his hands?

 

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

This text was translated from Polish, thanks to which we can reach readers outside of Poland. If you enjoy what we do and would like to keep accessing journalism from Central and Eastern Europe, please support PRZEKRÓJ Foundation and help us develop the English version of our website.

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Joanna Rudniańska

is an author of short stories. Some of them are about things that are too unbelievable to happen until they actually happen: about the war, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb; the destruction of life on Earth by people. She was awarded the Janusz Korczak International Literary Prize. In 2007, her book “Kotka Brygidy” (Brygida's Kitten) received an honourable mention from the Polish section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). She bakes unrivalled bread.