SITTING at his usual table in the window of the Beaumont Streetcafe, the old man, a creatureof habit, was about to begin his Saturday morning routine: a treble-shot mug of blackcoffee with the crossword, and perhaps another to follow if the puzzle was pleasingly hard.
Glancing through the cafe window at the rain-washed pavement he saw the blurred imageof a man that it reflected. He was instantly still, the sugar in the teaspoon arrested in thesteam above the coffee.
He and his mother, without even the few zloties for the tram fare, had walked, braving theintermittent rain, from Praga on the other side of the Vistula, over the Poniatowski Bridgeon their way to the United Nations Relief Agency in Central Warsaw.
Worth a 1000 words: Summer Herald will each day publish a short story competition entry. The winner will be announced on January 30. Picture Simone De Peak
It was 1946, so their path led through kilometre after kilometre of rubble, even the United Nationsofficeswere housed in a partially derelict building in Jerozolimskie Street.
He was tired and verycold, but his mother urged him on – “not far now little one” – but finally she stopped and sathim down on a pile of rubble, and produced a thermos of hot chicken broth, it warmed hismittened hands before he drank it.
They sat, she holding his hand, looking towards the centre of theintersection. The traffic was sparse, but in the middle, on a slightly raised small platform,a militiaman directed traffic.
The voice when it came was slightly slurred, but clearenough: “You think that you’re something don’t you, you pathetic excuse for a humanbeing.”
At first the militiaman did not realise that the drunk was shouting at him. Thedrunk came closer to the boy and his mother, a light blue thin-necked bottle of vodka in hishand.
“What about you Mrs?” he said. “Hasn’t that bastard Stalin turned us into imitationRussians? I didn’t fight for this, did you?” His mother didn’t reply, but held the boy’s handtighter.
The man turned towards the militiaman to suggest that he take the baton hewas waving to direct the traffic and put it to another use.
The militiaman stepped off his platform, easing the Russian submachine gun that they allcarried slung across their chests and came towards them.
He felt his mother’s handtighten on his, and with her other hand she turned him to face her holding him against herchest. “Don’t look darling, just keep still and everything will be all right.”
Walking quiteslowly the militiaman approached the drunk. The mother of the little boy was unaware that herson was looking over her shoulder at a remnant of glass in the window of a ruined shop. That shardnow acted as a mirror that reflected the drunk, the militiaman and their shadows onthe damp pavement.
“Go home and sleep it off, you’re drunk.”The militiaman was trying to stop the problembefore it got difficult.
He might have succeeded if one of the black Citroens of the UB (OooBeh), the Polish version of the KGB, had not pulled up. It was then that the drunk jabbedthe militiaman in the chest with his finger. “My brother died in the Katyn forest massacre,you piece of dirt, and you’re supporting the bastards who did it.”
Moral courage is often more difficult than the physical kind, and the militiaman wasyoung, and the UB had a nasty way of dealing with people that they thought were lessthan ardent in their support of the party.
The militiamanunslung his weapon, and fired a short burstinto the drunk’s chest.
So quick was the whole thing, that the little boy heard the tinkle ofthe ejected cases as they hit the pavement.
The drunk, shimmering for a moment in thedual reflection, fell back,his arms out-flung, one hand still holding the vodka bottle, whichsmashed as it hit the road. For a moment all was still, then one of the UB men spoke to themilitiaman and the Citroen drove away.
The militiaman started to return to his traffic dutiesjust as another shower of rain began to fall. The blood mingled with the water as it randown the gutter.
Death was no surprise to any child of his age who had lived in Warsaw through the war. But his mother had told him months ago that the killing times were over, so this feltwas somehow out of time, unjust.
“Will the militiaman get into trouble?” he asked as theyresumed the long walk to the UN offices.
“I am sure that he won’t,” his mother replied. “That’s why I’m trying to arrange for us to go to a place where such things never happen.”With all his experience of war and violence, he found it hard to believe that any such placemight exist.
The woman who ran the UN offices was all smiles when they were taken to see her.
“Mrs Kovalska I have such very good news,” her Polish was fluent, but with a very Englishaccent.
“As you know you are not eligible for resettlement as a displaced person as youare still living in Poland, however your husband’s wartime work with the British SOE putsyou into a different category. He can’t return to Poland, the Russians might give him ahard time.
“Had this been known earlier we could have been of more help. In view of yourhusband’s exceptional service, the British have expedited his naturalisation, and there isa British passport waiting for you at their embassy. How soon can you be ready to travel?”
These then were the first small steps in their long journey to the other side of the world.The old man shook himself from his reverie, spooning the sugar into his coffee, and stirringit.
He wondered if the other customers realised how fortunate they were.
Seventy yearssuddenly seemed such a very short time.