CHRISTMAS EVE 1992
That’s what I said to the woman as the chimes by the front door announced her entrance. I didn’t even bother preceding it with a ‘sorry’. It was quarter to two on Christmas Eve and I was just about to lock up shop and go home. Who can blame me for feeling irritated?
“Oh,” the woman said, raising a gloved hand to her temple.
Her voice was thin and fragile. She herself was rather thin and fragile, for that matter. And pale. Ghostly pale, with her long creamy coat flapping about her ankles in the December draught and golden wisps of snow-flecked hair framing her face like a halo. But ghosts don’t have halos, do they?
Must have been hallucinating. It was minus fifteen degrees out there and she hadn’t yet closed the door behind her. Thanks to her negligence, a rush of icy air and snow spray now ventilated the room with ridiculous ferocity. Those kinds of temperatures can do funny things to the brain. Any person who is familiar with the Slavonic winter will tell you as much.
“Would you mind shutting the door?” I almost snapped, shivering as a particularly vicious blast of wind swept down the steps by the entrance and whipped across the basement room where my photocopying shop is located. Xero with Leo, it’s called. I’m the Leo bit.
“Oh – yes, of course.”
She closed the door behind her, setting off the chimes once again. And then she just stood there. Staring. Hovering. No longer ghostly. A mere mortal, with a miserable expression to boot. I wasn’t even sure what she was staring at. My handsome face? The Renaissance stone walls? Thin air? What did the bloody woman want, for Christ’s sake?
The reason I was feeling more irritated than usual is because it was quarter of an hour before closing time and I’d decided to call it a day. To hell with those last fifteen minutes, I’d thought to myself just before she appeared. It wasn’t as if the throngs were queueing up by the entrance to my shop. Who’d want to, on Christmas Eve? Who’d want to waste their final minutes of the working day at a pathetic little xerox place when instead they could be retreating to the glowing hearths of their homes, in time to prepare for the evening’s holy feast?
Didn’t this woman have a glowing hearth to return to? Everyone knew that shops closed early on Christmas Eve. Even cafes and restaurants closed early. It’s a fact which continues to astound the dim-witted tourists who’ve been trickling into Krakow these past three years, since the dawning of the New World. Surely anyone who had the least bit of common sense or general knowledge knew that it wasn’t worth venturing out after approximately 1.00 pm on Christmas Eve?
Apparently she didn’t.
“As I said, we’re closed,” I repeated, willing myself not to shout the words. The stern tone of my voice appeared to snap her out of her trance-like state. She widened her eyes at me.
“But it’s not even quarter to two yet.”
I felt like replying, ‘What, you can tell the time?’ but restrained myself. Too often in my life had I got in trouble for that sort of thing. Right since childhood, in fact. Snappy tongue, the teachers used to say. They were always ticking me off for it, as was my mother, amongst countless other sins I was apparently endowed with. What no one ever seemed to realise was the fact that it was all just in self-defence. Well, sod the teachers and sod my mother, God rest her soul.
Duly restraining my tongue I said, “Madam, surely the fact that it’s Christmas Eve can’t have slipped your attention?”
“You’re supposed to close at two o’clock.”
Hadn’t she heard me? He-llo? Anyone out there? “No, we’re supposed to be closed by two o’clock, not at two o’clock.”
She faltered. When she next spoke there was a new brittleness in her voice.
“Then the notice on your door should state quarter to two as your closing time.”
“Why are you being so pedantic about a matter of fifteen minutes? Haven’t you got a home to go to?”
She continued to stare at me without blinking. Long, pale blue eyes that were impossible to fathom. And at last she said, “So are you or aren’t you going to serve me?”
At this point we came to a mutual standstill. Or rather, I didn’t answer her question immediately, which gave me time to reflect on three things: a) she had a strange accent, b) she wasn’t bad looking – in a tense, distracted sort of way, and c) I might as well comply with her request rather than run the risk of her spreading words around town about the bad service she’d received at Xero with Leo.
I sighed with great panache and folded my arms. “All right, what have you got for me?”
She took a step forward and I stared in alarm. The soles of her boots were caked in snow. I couldn’t bear to look at the five steps she was about to descend. I’d just finished polishing them before her untimely entrance. But descend them she did, leaving a series of wet, inky prints on the parquet floor.
“There is a mat available,” I called out to her, indicating my head towards the straw thing.
There were two, in fact – one at the top of the steps and one at the bottom. It was amazing how inconsiderate clients could be. What I didn’t bother explaining to her was that the reason I was so protective of my parquet floor was because it had cost the earth. More to the point, it was borrowed money. Even more to the point, it was money I was losing hope of ever being able to pay back. I also didn’t bother explaining to her what Daniel and his grisly cronies were likely to do to me if I didn’t pay it back.
Either she hadn’t heard my recommendation or she deliberately chose to ignore it. Whatever the case, she continued her slushy trek across the parquet floor towards my end of the room. It was only when she was within about a metre of me that I noticed her eyes were slightly red-rimmed.
Placing a carrier bag on the work surface that divided the two of us, she drew out a large leather-bound book and said, “I’d like a copy of this.”
“All right then, but I won’t be able to do it till the middle of next week.”
This seemed to perplex her. Well, tough bloody shit. Why should she get preferential treatment on Christmas Eve? Who did she think she was? The Snow Queen?
“So – in that case, when can I collect it?”
“Not Christmas Day, that’s for sure.”
“No, obviously not”
Evidently she’d missed my irony. I opened the book and flicked through the pages. A4 size, small hand-writing that was faint in parts and so would require high-quality toner, words close to the inner and outer margins, which was a pain in the neck, as any professional photocopyist will tell you. At a rough guess I’d say there were three hundred pages. Guessing the correct numbers of pages in a given book down to the nearest ten is one of my most impressive talents. It wasn’t often that I had a large order like this. Three hundred pages would be a good earner. I just wished her timing had been better.
“Do you want it double-sided?”
She really was beginning to get on my nerves. It was Christmas Eve and I wanted to go home, not that there was anything remarkable to look forward to back in my seventh-floor flat in Nowa Huta. Just Lidka, awaiting my return with her usual loving patience. Lidka, whose soft eyes and warm caresses were the exact antithesis of this cheerless ice maiden with her hand-written, 300-page book.
Remembering Lidka, I glanced at the grandfather clock on the opposite wall. It was the only impressive piece of furniture my deceased mother had ever owned and the only thing that ever lit up her dull brown eyes with pride. After her funeral I’d immediately whisked it over to my shop, hoping that its grand old face and intricate carvings might impress some of my classier clients. Not one of them has commented on it thus far. The only comments I’ve received from any of the artless morons are about the chimes that hang by the entrance, and believe me when I say that I’ve considered getting rid of the blasted things on many an occasion! The chimes, I mean, not the clients, though I wouldn’t mind getting rid of one or two of them as well.
“Right,” I said. “I’ll try and have it ready for you by the 29th.”
“Yes, the 29th.”
“Is there a problem?”
Again she raised her hand to her temple. Her fingers were trembling ever so slightly. She looked so frail, I’m sure that if I had blown into her face she would have wafted away into oblivion. I felt very tempted to give it a try.
But of course I didn’t. I merely asked, “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” She returned her red-rimmed eyes to me. “Don’t you mean the 28th?”
“No, I mean the 29th.”
“But I thought that everywhere opened up again on the 28th.”
This time I actually winced. “Madam,” I said, attempting a smile but knowing it would come out as a smirk, “might I remind you that December 27th is a Sunday, which means that if Monday were a normal day, then hard-working businessmen like myself would only get Friday off for Christmas. I think we deserve at least two full days off, don’t you?”
She appeared to consider this for a moment, as though measuring the philosophical depth of my words. Then she lowered her eyes. When she raised them once again, the expression in them almost made me flinch. She looked as though she were in pain. Like a wounded animal.
Just as I was about to once again ask her if everything was all right, she cleared her throat and asked, “So what time can I pick it up?”
I breathed easier. “Any time after one. I close at six.”
“Then I’d better make sure not to arrive any later than quarter to.”
I decided not to grace her crass riposte with an answer. Instead, I scribbled a few words onto a sticky yellow notelet. Let me add that sticky yellow notelets are one of the frivolous commodities that have started appearing from the Wonderful West. I daresay they impress the customers far more than Mama’s grandfather clock.
Slapping the yellow thing onto the front cover of her manuscript, I walked over to the shelving unit behind the work counter, put it on a pile of other books and turned round to face my adversary once again.
Immediately I noticed that her eyes were on me. What’s more, the expression in them had changed. Yet again. But this time the change was predictable. She’d noticed. But why wouldn’t she notice? And why were there times I still hadn’t managed to accept the looks, the whispers, the sniggers – especially from insensitive children and gum-chewing teenagers – even after a whole lifetime of having to put up with such things?
“Monday after one then,” I repeated.
“Yes. Thank you.” She turned round and headed towards the steps that led up to the main door. But just before leaving, she glanced over her shoulder and looked at me.
I stared back at her, though probably glared is a better choice of word. The thank you she had said a moment earlier would have been all right in itself, I suppose. Might even have been quite nice to have heard a Happy Christmas, however banal that sounded. Instead she said, “By the way, I like your clock.”
It was the pity in her eyes that did it, destroying any pleasure I might have felt in that long-awaited compliment. I preferred her indifference by a long shot.
* * *
The above extract is from the first chapter of my novel, “The Diary Keeper”