It’s New Year’s Eve in Kraków, 1992. Club-footed photocopyist Leo has allowed his homeless friend Ania to share the evening with him in the warmth of his post-communist bachelor pad. But what he longs to do, once Ania finally goes, is to continue reading the diary of the mysterious Tamara, who left her book in his shop the previous day.
THE DIARY KEEPER
By the time I’d finished my vodka, it was five to midnight. A handful of preparatory fireworks were spluttering across the frosted sky. I was beginning to feel celebratory. By the sounds of things, so was the rest of Nowa Huta.
Leaning forward, I looked across at Ania and said, “Right, come on then.”
She threw me a despairing look. “You’re not going to chuck me out now, are you? It’s almost midnight!”
“Precisely. And you’ve got some sparklers we’re supposed to be letting off, haven’t you? So come on then, up you get. Almost time to toast the New Year in.”
“So I’m expected to toast it with an empty tea mug, am I? Terrific.”
I heaved in exasperation. “Oh, all right then. You can have a small drink.” One of Ania’s great mysteries is how she always, insidiously, manages to get her own way. She’s not even all that attractive. Apart from her big brown eyes, perhaps.
As soon as I’d said the words her grimace metamorphosed into a huge grin. I didn’t return it. Instead, I dragged myself off into the kitchen, poured a stingy amount of vodka into a tea glass, topped it up with lots of fizzing tonic, and returned to the living room.
Ania was nowhere to be seen. For a moment I caught my breath. The fleeting image of aliens snatching her away came to mind, as did that of an escaped convict holding her at ransom behind the sofa, huge grubby hand held over terrified feminine mouth … But no, there was an easy explanation. The icy wafts of night air that marauded my living room clearly indicated where my teenage ruffian had disappeared. She’d opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside.
I turned up the volume on the television in preparation for the countdown. Then I followed her outside. Joining her by the frozen railing, I waited in silence. We both did. The seconds were ticking away … ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one …
It was the New Year! 1993! A detonation of sirens, booms and whip-like cracks filled the air. Before I knew what had hit me, Ania’s skinny arms wrapped themselves round my neck and she kissed me on both cheeks – three times in all, as the Slavonic custom goes.
“Happy New Year, Mr Leo!”
Carefully freeing myself from her grasp, I replied, “Happy New Year, Ania.” I hoped that my smile was warm enough to please her, but not too warm so as to be misleading.
Together we lit our humble offering of sparklers and watched as dazzling trails of stars flashed across the snow-filled sky, illuminating our world in colour and florescence. I turned my eyes down to the revellers seven storeys below. Their miniature bodies circled outwards like an army of scattered ants. Even from this height I could hear the popping of champagne bottles and the crying out of New Year’s greetings. I could see children waving their sparklers at the cosmos, and for a few painful moments I longed to have my own child to share such simple joys with. But I didn’t have my own child, and knew that I never would. I had Ania by my side. Oh, joy.
The cold came to my rescue. When my nose and fingertips could stand the pain of sixteen degrees of frost no longer, I insisted that we went back inside.
“Right then, young lady, home for you.”
“What bloody home?” she retaliated, plonking herself onto the sofa.
“The Shelter, obviously. Come on, now. Don’t go getting yourself all comfortable again.”
“The Shelter? You call that a home?”
I looked at her as sternly as I was capable of doing after two large vodka and tonics. “Well, you could always go to your real home, couldn’t you? No one ever forced you to leave in the first place. What’s to stop you at least visiting your parents?”
“Oh, yeah, like they’d be overjoyed to see me. Any other bright ideas, Mr God?”
“Look, Ania, it’s late, I’m tired, and I want to go to bed. Now come on. I’ll walk you to the taxi rank.” I checked through the loose bank notes in my pocket.
She dragged herself off the sofa with much juvenile flourish – huffing and whining and scowling and all the rest. But her delinquent efforts were utterly wasted on me.
Five minutes later we were both zipped and buttoned up, fit for the Antarctic. I couldn’t wait to get her safely stashed into a taxi and hurry back to my flat. Well, all right. I couldn’t wait to get back to Tamara’s diary, to be more specific. I know I shouldn’t have taken it back home with me, but I only wanted to have a tiny glimpse, that’s all. Just a tiny glimpse.
No more than that.
* * *
The above extract is taken from my novel, The Diary Keeper.