‘Come in, dear,’ said Granny, taking me by the shoulder. ‘It’s about to begin.’
‘He must be inside,’ she said, her voice grave. I knew she was lying. She dragged me by the hand and I let her.
The church was cool and the organ started playing as Granny led me to Halina, a stolid girl with lacy gloves and thick braids, and we moved down the aisle hand in hand, a procession of couples, little boys and little girls in pairs, dressed all in white. Father Klaszewski stood at the front and spoke of our souls, our innocence and the beginning of a journey with God. The thick, heavy incense made my head turn. From the corner of my eye I saw the benches filled with families and spotted Granny and her sisters and Mother, looking at me with tense pride. Halina’s hand was hot and sweaty in mine, like a little animal. And still, no Beniek. Father Klaszewski opened the tabernacle and took out a silver bowl filled with wafers. The music became like thunder, the organ loud and plaintive, and one by one boy and girl stepped up to him and got on our knees as he placed the wafer into our mouths, on our tongues, and one by one we walked off and out of the church. The queue ahead of me diminished and diminished, and soon it was my turn. I knelt on the red carpet. His old fingers set the flake on to my tongue, dry meeting wet. I stood and walked out into the blinding sunlight, confused and afraid, swallowing the bitter mixture in my mouth.
The next day I went to Beniek’s house and knocked on his door with a trembling hand, my palms sweating beyond my control. A moment later I heard steps on the other side, then the door opened, revealing a woman I had never seen before.
‘What?’ she said roughly. She was large and her face was like grey creased paper. A cigarette dangled from her mouth.
I was taken aback, and asked, my voice aware of its own futility, whether Beniek was there. She took the cigarette out of her mouth.
‘Can’t you see the name on the door?’ She tapped on the little square by the doorbell. ‘KOWALSKI’, it said in capital letters. ‘Those Jews don’t live here any more. Understood?’ It sounded as if she were telling off a dog. ‘Now don’t ever bother us again, or else my husband will give you a beating you won’t forget.’ She shut the door in my face.
I stood there, dumbfounded. Then I ran up and down the stairs, looking for the Eisenszteins on the neighbouring doors, ringing the other bells, wondering whether I was in the wrong building.
‘They left,’ whispered a voice through a half-opened door. It was a lady I knew from church.
‘Where to?’ I asked, my despair suspended for an instant.
She looked around the landing as if to see whether someone was listening. ‘Israel.’ The word was a whisper and meant nothing to me, though its ominous rolled sound was still unsettling.
‘When are they coming back?’
Her hands were wrapped around the door, and she shook her head slowly. ‘You better find someone else to play with, little one.’ She nodded and closed the door.
I stood in the silent stairwell and felt terror travel from my navel, tying my throat, pinching my eyes. Tears started to slide down my cheeks like melted butter. For a long time I felt nothing but their heat.
Did you ever have someone like that, someone that you loved in vain when you were younger? Did you ever feel something like my shame? I always assumed that you must have, that you can’t possibly have gone through life as carelessly as you made out. But now I begin to think that not everyone suffers in the same way; that not everyone, in fact, suffers. Not from the same things, at any rate. And in a way this is what made us possible, you and me.
We were on that bus together. Warszawa, 1980. It was warm, the beginning of June, the summer after our final university exams. And although we’d been in the same year throughout our studies, we didn’t know each other. You’d never gone to lectures, never needed to. So we could have just as well never met.
The bus was waiting for more people to arrive. I sat by the window, the orange wool curtains drawn to block out the sun, rereading Quo Vadis. I cared less about the religious part than about the love story, the heroic turns, the bravery of opposition. This is how I lived back then – through books. I locked myself into their stories, dreamt of their characters at night, pretended to be them. They were my armour against the hard edges of reality. I carried them with me wherever I went, like a talisman in my pocket, thinking of them as almost more real than the people around me, who spoke and lived in denial, destined, I thought, to never do anything worth recounting.
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