There are some people in life who are very annoying, and my lover is one of them. Bloody infuriating, in fact. Not that I don’t love him, otherwise why would I use the word lover? I never use words lightly any more; my lover prohibited that. He’s a linguist, you see; he won’t allow me to use words lightly or meaninglessly. Take my advice: never fall in love with a linguist. Or if you do, then be prepared to relinquish all rights to statements such as I love you, seeing as he’ll challenge you on the non-meaning of the words. He’ll challenge you on all words, until you’ll begin to wonder if there’s any point in saying anything. Or writing anything, even if you happen to be an English teacher, as I am, who was always happily confident of my usage of words – right up to meeting my linguist lover. Or my linguist, who later became my lover. After all, he wasn’t my lover when I first met him, was he? He was a stranger then, as all lovers must necessarily be in the first instance.
See what I mean? You get to the stage where you can’t say anything without questioning and dissecting it. Sometimes I think that would be quite nice: not to bother saying anything, ever again. Just smile at people or frown; nod your head in assent, or shake it in dissent – not that I need to clarify the meaning of nodding or shaking one’s head in the context of our Western society. You have to be so careful when you have a linguist lover lurking out there somewhere, who might one day espy these pages and choose to read them. God forbid! He must never, ever, EVER read this! Not, at least, until a minimum of one year after my death, when I’m well and truly out of here, safely installed in the after-life or not.
So why am I writing this, do I hear someone asking? No? No one’s asking it? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. Let it be a kind of preparation for the possible Day of Judgement that might one day come to me, if my lover ever does happen to slice the cruel blue blades of his eyes into this quivering typescript.
Or perhaps I won’t tell you why I’m writing this – at least not immediately. Perhaps first I’ll ask some questions myself, such as: a) is it merely to get something out of my system? b) is it to have something to aid memory in my dotage? c) is it for sheer self-indulgence: to plunge into the oblivion of days gone by, nostalgia, resurrection, rebirth…?
Do I have something to say, most importantly of all? Not just to me – oh, yes, I have plenty to say to me – but to the world at large? To you, anonymous reader? I don’t think so, unless accidentally. And why should I care that I don’t? Does every writer have to be a teacher, thinker, philosopher, preacher, puker of ideas? (Yes, according to my lover; but he can mind his own business, because I’m not asking him.) Does every writer have to aspire to win awards, be recognised, be studied by A-level candidates, university undergraduates, have their oh so very fine thoughts jostled about, ping-ponged, expostulated, misunderstood, manhandled, operated on by the critic-surgeon, skinned alive till there’s nothing left but blood, sinews and tendons … the raw agony of the writer? Not that I mind pain from time to time. But more of pain later.
Actually, all that reviewing and dissecting stuff would indeed be quite nice. You see, I intend, at the very least, to be totally honest. Not that you can be any other kind of honest. I know, because I tried, and it didn’t work. But more of honesty – or lack of it – later.
I’d like to say I’m writing this for me, and for no one else: not for my lover, so I can try and explain why I did what I did and finally make him understand; not for my children, so that when they’re older they can forgive their mum for having been a bit wobbly at times; not even for my ex-husband, so I can simply say: remember? I’m not going to lie, you see. I’d like to say I’m not writing this for all those people I just mentioned, but I can’t say it, because they’re exactly who I am writing it for. Oh, I’ve tried lying, as well as being partially honest, and neither method works. I am not writing this just for myself. And if ever any pathetic, puritanical, pig-headed, putrid little writer tries to insist that he honest to God is writing just for himself, don’t you believe him. That is complete and utter bullshit. He is writing for a reader – consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously. And that is precisely what I am doing. In fact – yes, why not? – I dedicate this book to you, dear reader – above-mentioned or anonymous. So, whether you read it in print, scrawled handwriting, on disc, on crumpled paper rescued from the bin, or don’t read it at all – remember that it’s for you, for each and every one of you.
So what’s it going to be about, do I hear you asking? Or maybe a publisher would be more likely to enquire: what genre is it? Which section of the bookshop can it be slotted into? How much is it worth? My lover wouldn’t ask anything. He’d just peer at me from above his terrifying professor spectacles, after having read however much of it he could stomach, and slowly, excruciatingly, heart-stoppingly, raise his bushy Irish eyebrows. In silence.
But back to the genre. It most certainly is not any of the following: science fiction, adventure, thriller, crime (although crimes are committed, of a sort), war story, historical romance, family saga or strong femininist stuff. And as to what it’s about – suffice it to say that there’s plenty of passion, love (including posthumous), pain, emptiness, inadequacy, anger, hope, fear, joy, freedom, yearning and despair in it, hence the title.
Actually, I might as well stop being elusive and just admit it: this novel is basically a love story. You might have already guessed that in view of the frequent reference to my lover – or if you’re a gormless, head-in-the-clouds Aquarian like me, you might not have guessed. The reason I didn’t want to mention it at first, you see, is that many people might be put off if they knew they were about to read a love story. If you’re one of those people, then please bear with me, because believe me, it isn’t your average sort of love story. Besides, if you don’t like love stories then you should be asking yourself some serious questions, like: why not? I mean come on, are you scared of love? Mocking? Indifferent? Disbelieving? Or maybe you don’t know what the word means? My own lover claimed that he didn’t. (He features in this story rather a lot, incidentally; in fact, he’s one of the main characters.) But if, like him, you really don’t know the definition of love, then I’d better give it to you. According to the Collins English dictionary, love is an intense emotion or affection, warmth, fondness, and regard towards a person or thing. In the case of my lover, he was more of a thing. A monster-thing. But more of that later.
Lastly, a few words about the style, then I promise to get a move on. Expect some humour, some poignancy, some heart-wrenching stuff, some absurdity … doesn’t really matter, just expect it, then you can’t say you weren’t warned. Oh, and by the way, do not look for consistency in tone, mood, voice, tense or chronology. This is not, repeat, NOT, a text set for the vivisection table.
But before I begin, remember one thing: everything in this story actually happened, hence my need for obscurity with names. If you ever come to Kraków you might even bump into some of the people who are in it. If you do, please don’t tell them, because they might be embarrassed. I apologise in advance for any embarrassment I might cause, and I also apologise for having nothing to say. Only if that’s what you truly believe, then you’d better read it all again, because I’ve just remembered: I do have something to say. Oh, yes. I have a hell of a lot to say.
Right. So let’s get on with it. December, I think. Yes, that’s as good, and cold, and beautiful, and memorable (these kinds of adjectives will appear occasionally, so get used to them right now) a place as any to begin with. God, was it cold! -26C, if I remember correctly. But I was the one that chose to live in Poland, so I can’t complain. Kraków, to be exact – as those of you who were paying attention will already have noted: a small, historic city in southern Poland, near the Tatra mountains. It used to be the capital of Poland, before Warsaw grabbed the title in the fifteenth century – something that still causes a lot of bad feeling to this day.
Have you ever been to Kraków? Well, let me tell you, it’s one of the most delightful places on earth, full of mysticism, romance, charm … only I’ve no intention of getting all tourist-guideish, so don’t panic. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps a bit more of that later on, because Kraków is simply too exquisite to ignore verbally. Prague? Ha! Forget it. It’s finished. Kraków is where you want to be; and here, imaginative reader, is your chance! So plunge straight in with me, deep into memory, deep, deep into that silvery Slavonic ice that has paralysed my kitchen window, slammed my entire house into the surrounding deepfreeze, slammed it tight, so that even the crystal forest – looming, ever-watchful – daren’t breathe.
Do you know what -26C actually feels like?
Who can trace the path of those who know the right food of life
and, rejecting over-abundance, soar in the sky of liberation,
the infinite Void without Beginning.
Their course is as hard to follow as that of the birds in the air. *
* Dhammapada v. 89
-26C degrees centigrade. That’s what it says on the thermometer outside my kitchen window, so that’s what it must be. Five years in Poland now, and this is the lowest daytime temperature I’ve ever recorded. Never felt so cold in my entire life. If it weren’t for the white, white, deep, gleaming white picture postcard view from every window in my fridge-house, and the happiness of my two children – my darling Polar cubs – sledging out there on the slope at the end of the road, and this palpable sense of freedom coupled with memories … sex, the snipping loose of emotion, blanking out, hardening – but not the hardness of cruelty, just a Thank you, that was lovely, see you on Sunday hardness … if it weren’t for the enchantment of the Void without Beginning, I would quite simply go on strike. As it is, all I do is bury myself in bed with books, cherry vodka, tea and cigarettes, refusing to get up even upon the outraged wailing of my Polar cubs.
Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. As if I’d ever abandon my cubs! Freedom doesn’t expand quite that wide, and neither am I quite that bad a mother. If they really started wailing, then obviously I’d get up, see to them as quickly as possible, then dive straight back into bed. I’d also get up in order to to feed all three of us – toast or something, nothing too ambitious – and drag the same cozy three of us down to the local shop at the bottom of the hill – me in my thermally lined coat, boots, gloves, hat, scarf; my Polar cubs canoe-style in their sledge, laughing and skidding and screeching upon iced snow, amazed that shopping can be fun!
And later in the afternoon, when it gets dark, we might even risk the hypothermal wait at the bus stop to go to the Christmas market in the town centre, glowing in the luxury of roasted chestnuts, sausages grilled on open fires, shiny candy sticks, sweet black tea and mulled wine. (No, this is not a scene from Charles Dickens; it’s the Rynek Główny – or main market square – in Kraków, Southern Poland.) Our toes and fingertips will go numb with cold, despite our thick gloves and boots; our noses will go bright red, our cheeks will crinkle in the Jack Frost conditions, and I’ll worry about how many lines this indiscriminating weather is going to add to my still-attractive, 36-year-old face. But the worry won’t dent my newfound freedom, my hardened joy. I know that I needn’t panic about bumping into any snarling mothers or moaning teachers from my school, know that I needn’t dread coming home to my difficult lover – or dread the even greater likelihood of his not being there anyway, because they’ve all – parents, teachers, lover, the whole bloody lot of them – gone to England and various other countries for the Christmas holidays. So I’ll just admire the architectural splendour of all those turrets and domes and spires that paint a silhoutted masterpiece against the deepening Krakovian skyline as we push our way through the crowds of the open-air market, and I’ll rejoice in thinking about nothing at all.
We might also nip into an alluring cafe to warm ourselves up a bit – pushing aside the heavy velvet curtains by the main doors as we step inside, stamping the snow off our feet and handing in our coats, hats, scarves and gloves to the cloakroom attendant, who will unsmilingly give us a number tag in exchange for our winter gear. And when we go to the toilet before leaving (this weather makes you pee a lot more), I’ll hand over 50 groszy to the equally unsmiling toilet attendant – an old, whizzened lady who’s never quite managed to come to terms with all this new democracy, these new hordes of loud tourists; possibly dreaming about the good old communist days behind that immutable, impenetrable face of hers. She won’t even smile at my gorgeous four-year-old son as he grins up at her with his huge brown eyes, or reply to my nine-year-old daughter as she tries to show off her Polish, and a spark of pity will infiltrate my hardened freedom for the flakiest of moments.
Then I suppose we’ll grit our teeth and make our way back to our Fridge with a View on the outskirts of town, next to the white-washed forest, the gleaming, barely breathing forest that practically touches the edge of our house. I mean fridge. Never in my life have I lived in such an inadequately insulated house!
Actually, all those things I just mentioned – you know, the sledging and shopping and Christmas market, etc. – well, that’s what we are in fact doing every day, so the previous few paragraphs have been in the wrong tense. They should in fact have been in the simple present, like this:
Every day I wake up and feel fleetingly warm in the false aftermath of sleep. I stare out of the frosted window beside my bed and blink at the fairy tale Winter Wonderland scene, with those pristine-white, diamonte trees almost eating me alive. I venture a step out of bed in my woolly tight-clad feet, then I blink at the statues my breath paints upon the air and remember about it being -26 and all that. I go to the toilet, shivering as I perch with raised nightdress and lowered woolly tights. My shivering increases as I descend the icy stone stairs towards the kitchen. (No such luxuries as fitted carpets anywhere in Poland.) I switch on the kettle and reach for the bottle of cherry vodka. At this point I feel it necessary to clarify a small point: I am not an alcohol-dependent mother who needs a cherry vodka rather than a cup of tea first thing in the morning. I need both – that is, whenever the temperatures are lower than -15. I do believe that’s why vodka is so popular here in these Slavonic regions: it’s like switching on the gas fire back in England, but not in your sitting room, in your veins.
So, I pour myself out a generous cherry vodka and glance at the thermometer outside the iced-up window: -26 degrees centigrade. And now I’m back to where I started at the beginning of this chapter.
The kettle boils, I make myself a tea, put the vodka, tea, cigarettes and tin of biscuits onto a tray, and shiver my way back up the stone stairs, back to my bedroom fridge. But then I stop. Something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. Where’s all the noise, the bickering, the shouting, the explosive intrusion from those endless Disney nasties? Where are my Polar cubs?
I put the tray on the deep window ledge, and turn the key in the balcony door that leads off from my bedroom. It’s stiff with ice, so I have to wrench hard. At last it gives, and I crunch out onto the thick snow, temporarily unaware of the pain because my cubs’ whereabouts are more important. I lean on the balcony railing and peer out into the distance, breath now spewing from my purple lips like a high-speed steam engine.
There they are, as I had suspected, the little darlings. Funny that I only think of them as little darlings when they’re not within close proximity of me. One of my many lifetime’s ambitions, once upon a golden time, was to be a perfect, full-time mother. Six weeks’ maternity leave soon put me right on that score. Never been so glad to return to teaching in all my life!
Yes, there they are, my precious little cubs – their tiny, distance-dwarfed bodies bounding up and down the white slope, up and down, up and down, just like the pace of my heartbeat these past few months, totally dependent upon the rhythm of the telephone. Will he phone, won’t he? Will he be late, won’t he? Will he come round tonight, won’t he?
‘Are you coming round tonight?’
Pause. ‘Don’t know.’ Translation: probably not.
‘So if you do, what time will you get here?’
Pause. ‘Don’t know. It might be difficult.’ Translation: I’m not coming.
‘So when will I next see you?’
Pause. ‘In a couple of days, maybe.’ Translation: next week.
Will he stay with me, won’t he? Does he desire me, doesn’t he? Does he love me,
‘Love? What’s that?’ he scorns, defames.
‘I only asked.’
His sexy moustache twitches, and one of those dreaded Zen moments ignites his scary blue eyes.
‘Why don’t you think before asking?’ he spews forth. ‘Why don’t you just think, full stop? – instead of coming out with such mindless banalities as do you love me? What the fuck does that mean? Have you ever thought about how over-used the word is? Has it ever occurred to you that it no longer has any meaning whatsoever, thanks to people like you? Does any profound thought ever occur to you, ever?’
‘Okay, okay, I promise never to ask you again!’ I say, laughing nervously, wilting like a fermenting rose.
Anyway, he can’t love me, otherwise he wouldn’t treat me like this; otherwise my smooth, white arms wouldn’t be reddish-purple battlegrounds of scars and scabs – relics of passion’s desperation and despair. But more of passion, desperation and despair later. For now, just freedom please. The freedom of all those birds soaring out there in the infinite Void, soaring above my crystal forest – the one I can almost touch, the one that hardly dares breathe. Las Wolski, to call it by its Polish name. Can you see it? Oh, of course – you’re just reading this, I forgot. Pity. Words aren’t always enough, and don’t always come easily – so how can you be expected to know what it’s really like? But never mind, you’ll have to make do. No brain transplants intended.
So this is what my eyes consume as they struggle to focus in -26C: the tiny forms of my Polar cubs, partially submerged by sledge and snow; the distant, hazy tower blocks on the horizon that detonate into a plethora of neon stars every evening, and the quaint, white rooftops punctuating the lane leading up to my house. That’s all in front of me; directly behind lies the massive expanse of forest, interrupted only once by the fairytale turret of a nineteenth century Austrian hill fort peeking out above the trees. You see, Poland used to be partitioned by three great powers: Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Kraków was under the jurisdiction of the latter, only I’ve no intention of going all history teacherish on you, so don’t panic.
I’m free. Right now I can’t remember any pain, so it doesn’t exist. I’m as free as all those swirling crows and jackdaws or whatever they are. In fact, so free I might as well sprout wings. I’m a dark-haired, dark-eyed Anglo-Slavonic maiden (English mum and Polish dad for those of you who like things spelt out in black and white rather than wasting time on ambiguous, airy-fairy poetic language) – willingly stranded in my igloo-fortress, unwilling to acknowledge summer, unwilling to land, willing only to press down the eternal pause button and extinguish time.
But of course time recommences.
I retreat into the enclosure of my bedroom, a few degrees warmer than outside, and slam the balcony door shut. Bed. Best place to be, with or without the hot water bottle feet of a man. And now for a little detour into the future tense – not that such a tense exists, according to my lover, who happens to be the first-rate director of one of Kraków’s best, but by no means richest, schools of English for Adults.
‘What d’you mean, future tense?’ I once hear him challenging some poor unsuspecting teacher from a rival language school late one night, down in some smokey Krakovian tavern, of which there are several hundred incidentally.
‘Well, you know. As in the ‘will’ tense,’ Mr Unsuspecting replies innocuously.
Loverboy’s moustache twitches; a dreaded Zen moment ignites his scary blue eyes.
‘Will tense? Did I hear you say will tense?’
‘Well, you know – ’
‘You mean as in: “Give me a ring when you will get back home?” ’
‘So tell me. How many tenses are there in the English language? Mmm?’
Mr Unsuspecting takes a deep breath. So does everyone, me included. ‘Well …’ he blinks at his breath-bated audience. ‘Er … there’s the present simple, the present continuous, the present perfect, er …’
Loverboy is making a big show of ticking them off on his fingers while he listens in mock rapture.
‘Er … the past simple, past continuous, past perfect … and … the future tense. Er … seven altogether.’
‘Sure you haven’t forgotten any?’
‘No … I don’t thinks so.’ Panic is seeping from the pores of the poor guy’s face.
Loverboy starts rolling a cigarette. He glances at one of the teachers from his own language school, sitting on his left.
‘How many tenses?’
‘Two,’ the candidate proudly states.
Loverboy nods in triumph. He turns back to Mr Unsuspecting. ‘Where did you say you got your degree from? Wasn’t it the Pedagogical Institute of Standards in Semantics – better known as the PISS?’
No wonder the arrogant sod has a reputation twice as large as the ex-pat community in Kraków, and three times as fat as his skinny frame. One of these days he’s going to get assassinated, I keep telling him, only he thinks I’m joking.
But I digress – especially for those anonymous readers who are not linked to gods of grammar or linguist lovers. Hmmm, nice alliteration there.
Anyway, I’ll probably stay here till midday or so, or whenever my Polar cubs jump on me and start complaining of lack of nutrition. We’ll then, all three of us, trudge and sledge our way down to the local shop, equipping ourselves with vodka, apple juice (the two combined make a delicious cocktail called a Tatanka, incidentally), chocolate, bread, milk, biscuits and cigarettes. We’ll then heave our way back up the hill, back to our snowy fortress, and have something to eat – whatever’s the easiest and they don’t complain about. And later in the afternoon, when it starts getting dark, I might treat them to a stroll round that Christmas market in the centre I mentioned earlier. Eventually we’ll be lured by the specious memory of our cozy little house out there by the forest on the outskirts of town, so we’ll catch the bus back home, trek up the hill, open our front door, and suddenly remember that we don’t live in a cozy little house by the forest. We live in a fucking fridge.
Later in the evening, while my Polar cubs are wrapped up in fifteen blankets and four pairs of mittens, still breathing statues into the living room air as they watch their Disney nasties, I’ll have a tinkle on the piano. That always warms me up. Did I tell you that was another of my many lifetime’s ambitions, once upon a golden time? – to be a concert pianist, I mean. So don’t ask me why I end up being the apologetic headmistress of some crackpot little British school out here in Kraków. Whoever said life’s predictable?
Anyway, later still I’ll transfer to the kitchen, check the temperature – it becomes an obsession after a while – light as many candles as I possess, both for the pretty glow and the illusory warmth they emanate, and I’ll think. Yes, I’ll think. If you don’t, the cold eventually catches up with you and carries your brain away to the Land of Perpetual Snow and Ice, leaving just your body behind. That’s when you reach the red alert stage.
Eventually my cubs will pester me for something else to munch at; then it’ll be bathtime, only I’ll let them off, seeing as they’d probably die of hypothermia if their delicate little bodies were exposed to the flaying temperatures of the bathroom. So I’ll put them straight to bed, read to them with chattering teeth, kiss them goodnight with chattering lips, and return to my candle-lit kitchen. Later in the evening I’ll bare my soul to to my diary – that is, my punchbag, but since entering the Void I haven’t felt the need to use it quite so violently. It’s become more like the script to a blue movie now. Come to think of it, better make sure I keep it under lock and key.
Anyway, I might also have another tinkle on the piano, a final glass of cherry vodka, and then bed.
That’s how it’s been for the past week or so – since school closed for the Christmas holidays – and that’s how it’s likely to continue until my absent lover makes himself present again. In three days’ time, to be exact.
There’s been the occasional variation, like my Polish friend from Wieliczka – a small town just outside Kraków – coming round to check that we hadn’t been completely deep-frozen yet, and brandishing the best Christmas gift ever: an old communist, mega-wattage fan heater. (She recommended, for health reasons, that I had a long break from my lover, but I’ll tell you about that later.)
Oh, and there was Hubby. Ex-Hubby, actually, although we’re not yet divorced. He was another variation on a theme, dutifully joining us from Christmas Eve till Boxing Day.
And oh again: how could I forget that other interruption – the Sunday before Christmas, when my home and body rose several dozen degrees in temperature due to the welcome invasion of four teachers from my lover’s language school – one of them a crazy American guy – who took pity on me being alone with my Polar cubs over the holidays, and came round to cook a delicious meal. Mmm, that was nice. Especially the crazy American. Trouble is, I doubt that my lover’s going to see it like that, if I end up having to tell him what we …
But I’d rather not think about that now, even though it was most delicious – the meal as well as other things. Watch out for the chapter titled SEX, won’t you? (Or maybe you can just have a peek in my blue diary.)
No, I mustn’t think about it.
Or if I must, then I’ll think about it in precisely three days’ time, when Loverboy comes back to Kraków.
Actually, it’s best not thinking about it at all.
Other than those sporadic variations, it’s just been me and my cubs in our fridge, with the snow, the forest, the birds and the sky. The infinite Void without Beginning.