‘They shot the blacks in those days.’
He fixed me with a rheumy-eyed stare, the whites of his eyes tinged the same nicotine yellow as his fingers. He waved his hand dismissively, reacting to the expression he saw.
‘Ach. I don’t say was good. But they did all the same, no?’
I tried to look encouraging but as he shuffled over to his grubby kitchenette, it became clear that my response was unimportant so I shifted my notepad and took hold of my pen in an example of what I judged to be journalistic professionalism. That’s what journalists do, isn’t it? Work the human interest angle of a story. With the turn of the millennium, there was a fashionable interest in old war stories, or so I’d read. Old war stories? Yes, you could call them that.
The flat smelt of the old – a staleness reminiscent of the odour of decay tinged with a medicinal edge. Age is ugly. Watching the crumbling remnants of a man moving around his mausoleum, I felt sickened. I began to sweat, a sheen coating my skin, my blouse adhering to the edges of me. I could taste the acrid odour alongside the underlying rot that perfused the room. Intimately aware of my own breath, which seemed to have a mass of its own, I retreated as if ageing was an infectious disease.
The shabby old man returned carrying two cups of tea. He handed me a tannin-stained mug. His own, an archaic glass set in an intricate metal holder, he placed on the low table that separated us. I noticed he’d left the bag in his.
‘I give you milk, OK?’
He offered me an open carton, splashing it into my cup as I nodded.
‘Bawarka?’ He gesticulated towards my cup. ‘I never did understand you English and milk in the tea. Bawarka is what we give our children.’
He chuckled to himself, his eyes coming alive. I was surprised. There was a kindness in his expression out of place with what I knew of the man.
‘Dobrze. Where I was?’
I shook myself and focused.
‘You were talking about America, in the early 1900s.’
‘Yes, yes. The blacks there, they shot them. And then these men, they say they can judge people for what happened in the war?’ He became animated, a fine spray of spittle leaving his mouth as he continued, ‘Ach! Is not their place to judge. What do they know?’
He put his delicate cup down violently enough to slop the tea onto the table surface. He seemed unconcerned. The table was scarred by repeated assaults.
‘You’re from Poland originally?’
I phrased it as a question, dipping my brows, hoping that I looked unsure.
‘Yes, Poland. From Lodz.’
His eyes drifted from me to a different place and time. His mouth turned upwards and his expression had a melancholy edge.
‘Tell me about it,’ I pressed.
‘My mother had a coffee shop, on Piotrkowska the main road in the city. Ah, it was the best coffee shop in the city. We had a coffee machine.’
I could hear the pride in his voice.
‘Only one in Poland. Not even Warszawa had such a machine. People came from all over city to taste that coffee. Even Jews came. Never haggled, either.’
‘That was before they closed the ghetto gates?’
His expression became guarded and I wondered if I had pushed too soon. He paused a moment, as if considering his answer and then nodded curtly. Reaching out a wrinkled hand, he grasped the crumpled packet of cigarettes that lay on the table. His hand trembled as he pulled one out, pressing it between his cracked lips and touching the end with a flame from a tarnished metal lighter he had taken from his shirt pocket. I remained silent as he inhaled. He closed his eyes briefly. Then, smiling again, he blew a cloud of smoke into the air and I felt he was mine once more.
‘They took the coffee machine.’
I was momentarily disconcerted by his reversal. Casting my eyes towards my notebook, I wrote the words ‘Coffee Machine?’, the imprint of my delaying device carrying over to the pages beneath like a memory.
I was curious despite myself.
‘We thought it was Germans,’ he replied. ‘Damned Nazis. Took everything they wanted. No-one said word. What could we say? They had guns, uniforms. We? We had coffee.’
He coughed, a wet rattle that began deep in his chest and shook its way out of his mouth, cutting off his reminiscences. His eyes teared up and he gasped for breath. As the eruption subsided, he ground out his cigarette with vehemence. The ashtray was close to overflowing. I cleared my throat and was about to ask if he was OK when he chuckled, more to himself than in response to any concern he’d seen in my expression.
‘They didn’t, you know?’
I must have looked confused because he addressed me with impatience.
‘The damned Nazis. They didn’t take our machine. No, it was neighbours, Polacy. Only time we blamed Nazis for something they didn’t do.’
He laughed. His face lightened and his shoulders shook.
‘How do you know it was your neighbours?’ I was being drawn in despite myself.
‘Ach. I told you. Only one in Poland. My son saw it, in Warszawa, after war. He asked man who owned the café. Told him he bought it from butcher from Lodz. Our kawiarnia was next to butcher’s shop.’ He snorted. ‘Ha! Always that man was looking at that machine. Finally got it.’
I was intrigued.
‘Did you get it back?’
He shook his head.
‘Nie, nie. Already I had gone to England. My boy, he was running too. What use to us was that coffee machine?’
He looked wistful.
‘But oh, such coffee I have never tasted since.’
He shook out his cigarettes and lit another, waiting. I realised I held the conversation. Reminding myself that I hadn’t come here to talk about a coffee machine, I breathed deeply and steeled myself. This was harder than I had imagined it would be. I thought I was prepared for everything: the subterfuge, my duplicity, asking the ‘right’ questions. Truth to tell, I was well-prepared. Information was on my side. I’d researched this well. But there was one thing that I hadn’t prepared myself for that had crept up on me whilst I sat in the shabby, frayed armchair. I wasn’t prepared to like the man that sat before me.
‘So, do you remember when they closed the ghetto gates?’
He frowned. His eyes looked sad rather than angry.
‘I remember the day the Jews went in. A parade. That’s what it was like. We stood on the streets, looking, watching. They lined them up and marched them in. Suitcases and babies carried in arms. We were all thin. Rations and hard work don’t put fat on bones. But Jews looked fat.’
I tried not to look to eager. Maybe he would give me a clue to his motivation now. Was I about to see the real man underneath the cracked surface in front of me, history crawling upwards along the fissures that marked his face, refusing to remain confined?
‘They lived better than you?’
He shook his head, looking rueful.
‘Nie, nie. It was their clothes.’
My face must have asked an unspoken question because he waved his hand curtly and continued, slowly enunciating each word.
‘They were wearing everything. Less to carry.’
‘Did you know the people?’
He sighed and got up, limping slightly as he picked up my untouched mug of tea.
‘I warm this for you.’
I spoke to his back, his shoulders sagging.
‘I mean the Jews, did you know them?’
He looked pained and I had to strain to hear his answer above the sound of the microwave.
‘Yes, I knew them.’
I remained silent. If I’m honest, I was shocked. For all the years I had lived with an image of this man, not once had I imagined his face with a hint of remorse. Yet here he stood, offering a mug of tea, with an expression of acute sadness.
‘You want to know? Really? What these people were to me?’
I nodded my assent.
‘Do you have memories of when you were child?’
The question surprised me. I stumbled out an affirmation.
‘These people, they were my memories. Old Pan Szymon, he gave me cakes at Christmas. When I was seven, I fell. Stupid. Tripped up and cut my knee. How I cried! Pani Zosia, she picked me up and held me tight, washed the cut.’
He grasped the cigarette packet as if it had offended him, snatching a cigarette and drawing on it for solace. He didn’t sit down but paced the room. Looking through me, he continued.
‘You ask me if I remember? I remember well the look in Pan Szymon’s eyes as he passed me that day. Broken, he looked. And Pani Zosia, she couldn’t walk well. But her son, he carried her like a baby. A baby!’ He spat the last two words out as if they burnt. ‘She was woman and they made her child.’
I looked down at my pad to hide my disquiet. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. The sense of satisfaction I had imagined seemed a distant memory. My stomach felt like a roiling maelstrom as I sat there, looking for the demon I’d constructed but seeing instead a frail old man. I pressed my pen hard onto the pad, scoring the paper deeply, preparing to face the point of my visit head on. I steeled myself, remembering the faded black and white photograph in my bag, the faces that looked out from it as familiar as my own. Before I had the chance to voice the question that I had carried with me, the old man broke the silence that had muted us.
‘Go on girl, ask your question. It’s why you are here, no?’
As I reached into my bag to remove the photo, I realised my hands were shaking. My tongue was dry and rough like sandpaper. He watched me, a calm expression settling on his wizened features. It was as if he knew what was imprinted on the aged photographic paper. Before I could hand him the photograph, he spoke again.
‘You look just like her, you know?’
I looked up, unable to mask my surprise. I was preparing to deny it but he continued with a soft smile.
‘Always beautiful, even in rags.’
I handed him the image, an unspoken question accompanying its passage between us.
I nodded in response, unable to utter a reply.
‘It is easier for you to blame me, no? Damned Nazis burnt the camp! Bodies fell from the windows like rain. I never knew if she was one of them but I watched them fall all the same. It was my … how you say it? Cross to bear? She came to me and asked me to hide her. Begged me. But all I could see was the ring he had given her clutching her finger.’
His eyes filled with unshed tears as he spoke and I found myself swallowing down the lump that blocked my throat. He looked at me, a pleading expression on his face.
‘I didn’t know … couldn’t know … that that would happen. None of us imagined.’
He paused and looked me straight in the eye, his face composed once more.
‘I owe you this. What is it you want to know?’
I met his gaze and asked, not the question that I had prepared, but the real question.
‘Did you love her?’
A single tear escaped and meandered through the crevasses formed by the wrinkles on his weathered cheeks.
‘I love her still.’