PWG International Writing Competition 2016 highly commended Peter Newall
Leszek had been awake since before dawn. He didn’t want to be; he’d been out drinking last night with a few university classmates, and he’d rather have slept it off. But even before the grey wintry light came in through the window he was awake, lying with the covers drawn up to his chin, his head aching, looking at the ceiling.
The ceiling in his one-room flat was high, perhaps five metres high. He cursed it sometimes, because it meant that the place never really got warm, even when the radiator was working properly. In the middle of the ceiling was an ornate circular plaster rose. A long brown flex descended from its centre, bearing a single light bulb under a white porcelain shade.
At one time a chandelier would have hung from the rose, Leszek was sure. The building was in the style of a hundred years ago, and it was obvious from the clumsy internal walls that it had been divided up into these little flats much later. Once, its three storeys would have contained the spacious apartments of the well-to-do of the town.
Next to the rose was a patch of ceiling where the plaster had fallen away, showing the wooden laths underneath. During the day, if Leszek noticed it at all, the damaged part was just a brown, oval blotch. Sometimes at night, though, lying in bed without his glasses, he saw the blotch as a bear, standing on its hind legs, complete with upraised paws and stubby tail. Several times he’d dreamed about bears after falling asleep staring up at the ceiling above him.
Now, in the faint morning light he saw in the dark shape a different image; the head of an old man, bearded and wearing a tall hat. He squeezed his eyes shut until he saw stars, then opened them again; the old man was still there. Why he would see this image for the first time today he wasn’t sure; perhaps it was someone who had once lived here. Leszek did wonder occasionally about the people who had called this building their home before him, people who had eaten, drank, argued and loved here, who had brought up their families here, who had walked up and down the wooden staircase with its curved balustrade, seen the sunrise through the tall windows, perhaps even lain and stared up at the ceiling rose like him. Once he’d asked the garrulous old concierge if she remembered the place before the war; she looked at him oddly, then cleared her throat and said she had been too little then for her to remember anything at all about those days.
There was no point staying in bed any longer, Leszek decided; he wouldn’t go back to sleep now. He swung his legs from under the covers and felt for his slippers on the linoleum floor. He washed his face at the sink; the water was freezing cold. He fumbled for his glasses on the table, found the matches and lit the gas ring. Its hiss was comforting, and Leszek stood and watched the little blue crown of flame for a moment before putting the kettle on for tea. While he waited for the water to boil he pulled on his clothes, jeans, a woollen shirt and a heavy sweater. His feet felt chilled, and he found some thick socks and put them on too. He padded over to the window to see how the day looked outside.
The sky was thickly overcast, and the courtyard below him was full of snow. Snowflakes were drifting down slowly through the grey air; snow had covered the black billets of firewood piled against the brick wall and coated the steps and window-ledges like thick sugar icing. The smooth white quadrangle of the yard was marked only by the glassy scar of the path trodden from the back door to the street gate. It was certainly cold; there was a thin rime of ice inside the bottom edge of the windowpanes. The mottled black-and-brown dog that usually prowled around the yard or slept on a piece of sacking next to the gas tank must have found a warmer place, for he was nowhere to be seen.
But to Leszek’s surprise someone was out there. A young woman, wearing only a short yellow dress, was standing in the middle of the snowy yard. She stood out starkly, the only coloured object in a black and white landscape. As Leszek watched, she began to twirl around slowly, arms outstretched, lifting her face to the sky.
His first thought was that she was drunk, but as he stared through the window pane at her Leszek decided she could not be; her movements were too assured and graceful, her features too composed. But something had driven this woman to stand and spin around like a little girl playing ballerina, out there in the empty courtyard without a coat or a scarf or a hat in the falling snow, under the eyes of the neighbours.
Now she stopped turning, slowly lowered her arms and stood still, head bowed. Snowflakes fell onto her thick dark hair and remained there, resembling a bridal veil. The picture made Leszek uneasy. He wished the woman weren’t there, and he wished he hadn’t seen her. But now that he had, the scene was so strange, so unsettling, that he could not ignore it. He decided to go out and speak to her, offer help; even if there were nothing he could do, he might find some explanation for her behaviour and resolve his unease. He tugged on his boots, clattered down the worn wooden stairs and pushed open the door onto the snowy yard. His glasses fogged up as soon as he came outside, but even so he saw a curtain move behind a window on the first floor.
From his window he’d taken her to be very young, but as Leszek came close he saw that she was at least thirty. She was looking down, her head turned away, and did not look up even when he was standing next to her. Her jaw, fine-boned, was sharply angled above a long neck. Her eyebrows were dark and strongly marked. She was thin, her skin pale, almost translucent. Her legs below the yellow summerweight dress were bare, with lace-up heeled shoes half disappearing into the crusty snow.
‘Excuse me, Miss,’ he said, ‘are you all right?’ Sensing that was rude, he tried again: ‘Do you need any help?’
She looked at him, unfocussed, as if she’d only then become aware he was standing beside her. ‘No,’ she said slowly, ‘not now. It’s too late now.’ Her voice sounded flat and muffled in the snow. She looked away toward the corner of the courtyard. Leszek looked there too, but could see nothing, only snow falling softly in front of the brick wall. Spreading her arms out once more, the woman began to sing, not loudly, but with great sureness: ‘My darling, how about dropping in to Tomaszów for a day?’ Her voice was pitched unusually low, almost husky. It sounded strange coming from such a slight, delicate frame. ‘Maybe there’s still that golden dusk there, that same September silence,’ she sang.
Leszek didn’t know this song about his town, Tomaszów, but it seemed to be about lost love. That would explain it, of course; there had been an affair, her lover someone in this building, and she has just found out it has gone wrong. Distraught, she’s run out into the snow just as she was. There was no mystery, no need for concern. In a while she would recover herself and leave, or else the boyfriend would come out and ask her back inside. She didn’t look upset, true, but you couldn’t always tell, and nobody stands spinning round in falling snow unless they have been knocked off balance somehow.
Still Leszek hesitated. Yes, but who wears a short summer dress, even inside the house, in the middle of January? And those old-fashioned shoes? Something wasn’t right, something he couldn’t quite identify, but there was nothing he could do. He shrugged and turned away.
‘Did you know this was the main house in the ghetto?’ The woman had spoken to him. Leszek stared back at her over his shoulder. His eyes met hers for the first time; they were large, dark brown or even black, set wide apart in her narrow face. At first they struck Leszek as simply expressionless, but as he stared into them, they seemed to be not just without expression, but blank, empty. Although the woman’s face was turned directly to him, Leszek felt that her eyes were not looking into his at all. ‘It was from here they took everyone,’ she said, ‘from this yard they took everyone away. Nobody helped then, and now it’s too late.’
He realised she must be speaking of what happened during the war, fifty years before he was born. He knew a bit about it; everyone did, even though it hadn’t been mentioned in the history classes at school. But he had never heard it happened here in Tomaszów. He didn’t even know there had been a ghetto here. He shivered and folded his arms, jamming his chilled wet hands into his armpits; his sweater was wet now from the still-falling snow, and the damp cold was getting in under his shirt. But the dark-haired woman stood stock still among the drifting snowflakes, showing no sign of being cold. He looked hard at her; she was so pale that she seemed almost transparent. It struck him that her hair was in an old-fashioned style, too, rolled at the front above her forehead. She was looking past him again with those blank eyes, scanning the windows of the apartments, and humming softly to herself. Leszek felt afraid, of what precisely he wasn’t sure, but afraid. He turned and hurried back across the yard towards his flat. His feet seemed to drag in the snow.
‘In this room, where they’ve put other people’s furniture…’ he heard her sing as he dragged open the heavy ground floor door. He felt something like panic grabbing at him. He threw himself through the doorway, skidding, almost falling on the worn black-and-white marble tiles in the hallway, and banged the door shut behind him. Recovering his balance, he ran up the stairs to his flat.
Back inside, he strode across to the window without even taking off his wet boots. Pulling the curtain aside, he looked down into the yard. It was empty. He stared, bewildered, but the woman was not there. There was nobody there. The rusty metal gate to the street was shut. He saw the marks of his boots in the soft snow, a track going out to the middle of the quadrangle and back in a shape like a hairpin, but he couldn’t see any other footprints. Leszek peered hard through the drifting snowflakes. There were no other footprints. Of course, if she’d kept entirely to the hard, icy path leading to the street, she might not have left any.
Includes a few words from the song ‘Tomaszów’ by Julian Tuwim, translated from the Polish by the author.