THE DAY THE RICHEST POLE DIED
by Ewa Mazierska
The Rs. lived in the last house on our road, in central, yet rural and god-forsaken Poland. One hundred metres north from them was a statue of the Holy Mary, which marked the end of our village. Furthermore there were fields for two or three kilometres, then a railway line and then another village began. During communist times there was always competition between ours and the other village, because the other village had a railway station, while we had a church. When I was a child, the statue marked for me the end of a familiar, safe world. Beyond there were ‘the others’: people whom I knew nothing of and who felt like a threat. I saw the Rs. as the guardians of our small world and they adopted such a role, informing the neighbours about the developments on the other side. But they were never gossipy or malicious, perhaps because they were the poorest in the neighbourhood and all their energies were invested in surviving the daily hardship.
The old R., whose Christian name I did not know had a small plot of land behind his house, three hectares or so, and worked as a bricklayer in a construction firm in Włocławek, the closest large town. He thus belonged to the category of peasant-workers, who had low status because for the peasants they were not sufficiently rural, and for the workers they were not working class. But most likely he did not care about his status; maybe he was not even fully aware of it. His wife, Franka, as long as I remember, was working the fields; their own plot of land and those of more affluent farmers. She was known for being very good in this work, particularly harvesting potatoes and onions. She was two to three times faster than an average worker, therefore in summer her service was in high demand. The Rs. lived first in a wooden house, which previously belonged to Franka’s parents until R. built a small house from a more durable material, which looked like pieces of concrete blocks, used in the 1970s for building high-rise estates. I guess he lifted them from the construction sites on which he was employed. The house seemed to be unfinished, with more windows planned than built, yet was also covered with scars and had aged prematurely, with walls falling apart before they were fully erected. This was despite the fact that the R. (not unlike another builder on our street, the father of my best friend) was spending every weekend on improving his house. After R.’s death the house became surrounded by extensions. They grew like cancer on, by comparison, a healthy body of the main house, being made of poorer materials, with few, very small, windows. For a reason unknown to me the extended parts were dangerously close to the road, although the owners had plenty of space on the other side. Maybe because of having too few windows or to avoid falling into the ditch, the Rs. kept the doors always open, which allowed the passers-by to (over)hear their conversations. Such a habit was acceptable then, when the right to privacy was curtailed by the state, but after the fall of the old system, when people’s class position could be easily guessed from the height of their gates and the length of their fences, people like the Rs. started to be seen as a ‘problem’ waiting to be solved.
By the time R. had finished the first version of his house, the Rs. had one daughter, Maria, and twin sons, Marek and Maciek. R. died when Franka was pregnant with their fourth child, Basia, who was born about fifteen years after their first child. At primary school I was in the same class as Maria. With her dark-blue, velvety eyes and dark hair, common among Mediterranean women, but exceptionally rare in central Poland, she was the prettiest girl in our year. However, she was a very poor pupil. Barely able to read, write and count, she was always on the verge of being sent off to the class for children with learning disabilities. She has repeated some years and finished her education after primary school. Before she reached twenty, she was married to the son of a local peasant, who was also the most unpleasant character in our class. After her wedding Maria disappeared from my radar and indeed she was no longer seen on our road. When I asked Franka what happened to her daughter she replied that she gave birth to a disabled child who was bed-ridden. Consequently, Maria was also, more or less, bed-ridden, taking full responsibility for caring for her offspring. Franka did not hide the fact that Maria’s husband mistreated her daughter, accusing her of producing a substandard child. Franka shed a tear when she mentioned it. It was around this time that Franka started to drink, to calm her heart. What she drank she labelled ‘little cherry’ (wisienka). It was the common name for cheap, fruity wine, regarded by heavier drinkers as extremely unhealthy, although probably much less so than vodka.
Franka’s twin sons disappeared from our village soon after they reached adulthood. One joined the army; the other went to work in a coalmine in the South of Poland. The professional soldier fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, got medals for bravery and eventually settled in the South of Poland. He broke ties with his family, apparently on the request of his wife. For his mother, he was a traitor. The miner returned, although initially he did not move back to the village, only brought his daughter, Vanessa, to be looked after temporarily by her grandma, when he was going through a divorce. The girl stayed with the Rs. for two years. As with her aunt, she was an exceptional beauty, with dark eyes, dark hair, large soft lips and glasses which afforded her an intellectual look. She was also gentle, intelligent and discreet. One could talk with her for hours, but do not learn anything about her family or housing situation. Later I noticed that she was friends with the girls from the best houses, without searching for their favours. Eventually Vanessa moved with her father to a nearby town and I stopped seeing her. Franka said that she went to university. Apparently she occasionally visited her grandma and kept in touch with her old friends.
Basia was described by the people in our village as the one who ‘did not know her father’. First I took it merely as a statement of the fact, resulting from his premature death. But then I realised there was something more to it: Basia did not know the Freudian ‘name of the father’: patriarchal authority. Maybe because of that, from an early age she was keen on boys, which inevitably led to gossip. I saw Basia as a transitory figure. In many ways she was a child of Eastern European communism. Although apparently smarter than her older sister, she neglected school and saw no value in education. As with Maria, it never occurred to her that she could do something with her life: get a job or a stall in a market. Unlike her older sister, however, who suffered in silence, she wanted something better from life and acquired some bourgeois habits. She changed the colour of her hair, from super-black to strawberry blond, which did not suit her, painted her toenails and confessed to me that she could not get out of bed without drinking two cups of strong coffee. Basia also did not like to get drunk on ‘cherry’, preferring vodka mixed with Coca-Cola. Moreover, unlike her mother or sister, Basia did not want just to get married. Her greatest dream was to marry the richest man in Poland. This angered her mother, who used to repeat that all rich men are arseholes: they get rich by taking from the poor.
In our village there was no match for Basia. People there did not have much money and for those better off than the Rs., despite her beauty, Basia had little value, which was further lowered by her being ‘easy’. To fulfil her dream, she had to look further afar. The man whom she found turned out to be a short, plump man with coarse features, but he exuded an aura of self-confidence, which some people took for charisma. When he stood at the Rs.’ courtyard with his legs spread and arms on his hips, he reminded me of Henry VIII from the famous portrait by Hans Holbein. One could assume that the whole estate was his. Therefore he did not want to work on it; he only requested various changes so that he would not be ashamed to settle there. It did not take Franka much time to figure out that he was a gangster. He turned out to be one of the lowest order. For some years he was robbing provincial shops before being promoted to managing a flock of Romanian prostitutes walking the road near the forest surrounding Włocławek. Whether Basia was aware of that before she tied the knot with him, nobody knew, but most likely it would have made no difference. What counted was that he brought her the luxuries she yearned for: a VHS player, a mobile phone and a car. Well, he did not give her the car, he merely took her for rides and then brought her home. Franka suspected that all these goods were stolen and warned Basia that if their origin was discovered she might get into trouble, but Basia only told her mother to shut up. For her a stolen TV was better than no TV.
Where Basia’s husband’s permanent address was or even what part of Poland he came from, nobody knew. When asked about his whereabouts, Basia replied that he travelled a lot for business. Later she mentioned that he was building for them a large house near Warsaw, but she was unable to name the suburb where this mansion was to be erected. For the time being, Basia was thus stuck in her old family adobe. Franka alleged that her son in law had a house, but he used it as a training ground for his foreign ‘whores’. This situation, in Franka’s view, was doubly demeaning for Basia, because she had no access to his house and was below his female employees, who knew more about his life than his family. Franka hated her son in law from the first time she saw him and her loathing grew the more she learnt about him. She never mentioned his name and called him ‘This Pimp’, ‘This Bastard’ or ‘This Motherfucker’, the last name because, as she put it, he was the type who would fuck his own mother if it would bring him profit. She also lost heart for her daughter for being greedy, naïve and a burden to her.
Soon after meeting her future husband, Basia became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, whom she called Bernard. Two years later Brad was born. Such foreign-sounding names, in her mind, testified to her elevated social status. For Franka they only showed that Basia did not know her place. She polonised them, calling one Benek, and the other Bronek. The older boy was like his father: short and plump and with blondish hair, and he adopted the posture of Henry VIII. The younger had Basia’s Mediterranean appearance and came across as soft and shy. The older used to call his mother ‘You stupid whore’; the younger cuddled to her and cried when his brother insulted her.
The father brought his sons computer games and flashy clothes and took them for rides in his car, in the same way he did earlier with their mother. After performing this ritual he disappeared, to return after weeks or months in increasingly battered vehicles, with some flashy gadgets which, after some time, stopped impressing his sons, as their school mates pointed to their cheapness and obsolescence. The stream of gadgets stopped when he went to prison. Franka hoped that it would put an end to her daughter’s ungraceful liaison, but she was proved wrong. Basia remained loyal to her husband and kept visiting him every month or so, as often really as she could afford, given that he lived now over two hundred kilometres from her. She even occasionally engaged in remunerative activity, such as child minding or cleaning, to afford train tickets and presents for her man, so that she did not feel inferior to the wives of other prisoners. Basia got no support from her husband’s gangster pals, proving to Franka that not only was he scum, but the lowest sort, commanding no respect even from his own ilk. Franka got so exasperated by the situation that she started to smoke, which, by her own account, burned her lungs and made her weak. Still, despite now being in her seventies, she worked the fields as before because paying for the basics such as food and electricity, was more difficult than ever. As if the situation was not bad enough, during the year of heavy rains their house was flooded. Water destroyed the floors, the meagre furniture and most of the luxuries Basia got from her husband. A neighbour visiting them after this tragedy saw a Nintendo Playstation floating in a pool of dirty water, as if it was a ship. They got no insurance money as their house was, obviously, not insured. Moreover, the flooding revealed that the damaged extensions were built without permission. Franka got a letter asking her to demolish their remains and pay a hefty fine, but it was waived by the local council clerk, proving that people are not heartless or that Polish clerks still enjoy some autonomy. Thanks to the pressure from the neighbours they also got some financial help from the council to repair their house and one neighbour arranged a collection of money and other goods to give to Franka. Normally we would not do it, knowing that she would refuse any help, but this accumulation of misfortune stripped her of some of her pride and she accepted. It also stripped her of her faith in God. ‘God died with communism or he is as much of a motherfucker as my son in law,’ she said.
After the flooding social services got interested in the welfare of Basia’s sons, which added to Franka’s stress. Despite loathing her daughter and her son in law, she did not want to lose the boys. Around this time Basia got pregnant again. Her third child was conceived in prison, shortly after the authorities introduced conjugal visits. Nine months after such a visit Basia’s youngest son was born. For Franka it was a sign of hope. She loved the boy more than Bernard and Brad because ‘he did not know his father.’ She herself chose a name for him, Jan, which turned out to be the name of her late husband. However, the new child made things even more difficult than before. Almost every week now Franka and Basia received visits from high-heeled women, who smirked at their poverty and the alleged low standard of hygiene, and warned them that if they did not prove themselves worthy of their children, they would lose them. Franka recounted the visits with the highest indignation. If not for the children, she would have punched these women, who she perceived as getting money from the state which they should have been receiving. Basia was less worried about these visits, having other issues on her mind. These were to do with her husband. While before he kept his family away from his criminal operations, now, being constrained, he wanted her to act as his proxy. What exactly Basia did for him, nobody knew, but her activities upset some people. It was proven one night when two men with their faces covered entered their house and shot Jan. He died on the spot. Why the baby was targeted, rather than Basia or her older sons? The answers to these questions were sought by the neighbours in the months to come. The prevailing hypothesis was that his death had a symbolic value – it was a sign to Basia to stay away from the turf wars in which her husband was engaged.
The murder of Basia’s son took place the same day the richest Pole died, in a hospital in Vienna, where he was undergoing some revolutionary treatment, which, however, failed. Judging by its reporting in the news, a saint had passed away. His right to sainthood was ensured by his wealth and his philanthropy. The unspoken assumption of almost everybody publicly commemorating his life, including some high-ranking priests, was that the more wealth, the more charity. For some people in our village the death of the Polish tycoon was, on the other hand, some consolation – a proof that little Jan was somewhat equal to the wealthiest of the world. But others drew attention to their difference: one violent and committed in a household lacking basic amenities; the other in a comfortable and hygienic environment, in a foreign location, underlining the billionaire’s cosmopolitan outlook; one happening before conscious life properly started; the other when the man had achieved practically everything there was to achieve and had reached retirement age. For them it was a sign there was no justice in death as there was no justice in life. But the effect of the coincidence of these two deaths was that the demise of the rich man made the neighbours remember the day the boy died. After that whenever anyone asked when little Jan died, the answer was that ‘it was the day the richest Pole died.’
In the next three months or so the house of Rs. was emptied. Basia was taken to stand trial for abetting her husband’s crimes. Bernard and Brad were sent to foster families. Franka suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital, where she died without regaining consciousness. The house and the farm were put up for sale and several months later bought by the richest farmer in the neighbouring village. He demolished the Rs’ shack and built there a two-storey house for his daughter. Unlike the Rs.’ house, which was almost touching the road and revealed its guts to everybody who wanted to look at it, this one was built at a large distance from the road and was best protected of all the houses on our street, with a high fence and three dogs guarding it. Some neighbours showed the house to their visitors saying with bitterness: ‘this is our future.’
About the Author:
Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music, working at the University of Central Lancashire. She writes short stories in her spare time. Her stories were published in several literary magazines and shortlisted in competitions.