Look at my Father’s hands. Flat, fleshy spades, golden bands slid over swelling knuckles. I cannot imagine my Mother ever wanting those hands on her body, but the loneliness of women is chilling. Many will do anything, no matter how grotesque, to end it.
Look at my Father’s eyes. They are still sharp, and they drift and settle, drift and settle, like snow. They carry about as much warmth. He watches the door to see who enters and who leaves, lazily assesses people walking past the window, but when he looks into your face his concentration is absolute. He is scanning your words and expression for a chink into which he might slip the blade. He is less menacing these days. The backs of his hands are crinkling with age and his eyebrows are turning grey, but an old wolf is still a wolf. Blunt teeth can still puncture and tear. He grins, showing me those teeth.
‘You wanted to talk about the family history?’
I sit up straighter in my chair, my spine fairly gasps with relief. ‘You know I said I was going to do some digging? I found quite a few records with the name, mostly up near the Russian border. Some Holocaust survivors.’
He idly stirs the spoon in his coffee, it is strong and bitter brown. I think it must hurt to drink it.
‘And nothing, really. They’re in the Jewish census, too. A couple of Polish POW records.’
‘Hmm.’ He stares into the near-black liquid. I wonder if he can see his face in it.
‘Well, keep it down.’
‘The prisoners of war?’
‘No, the Jews.’ His eyes flick back to my face. They are a milky, clouded blue, as though cataracts might be blooming underneath the colour. I might think that were the case if they hadn’t always been this way. His nose is bulbous and red from drink. Once, on one of his rare visits since his infamous abandonment of me in Manchester city centre, he was so drunk he relieved himself in my bedroom sink.
‘There was talk of an rather infamous French Jewess, and of course your great-great-grandmother, but she converted to Catholicism, you know.’
I did know. My Grandfather’s memoirs tell of ‘That high, dark lady with the veil who was so in love she converted to our faith.’
‘What about cousin Jakub? And Dawid?’
He shrugs, grimaces. He was not, so far as I knew, an anti-semite, but then it was years before it was disclosed to me that he was a clinical sociopath, too. An ex gun-runner. A man with skeletons in the hold. Scorched earth spinning around a dead sun. ‘A lot of these sprawling Polish families have Jewish and Catholic branches.’
‘Same tree, though.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
I concede the point. ‘The First World War records are interesting. It’s there, too. Lots of Bavarian soldiers.’
‘German soldiers? Really?’
I nod. He bursts out laughing, drawing the curious gazes of other diners. He has what I believe is known as an infectious laugh, warm and expansive. People turn towards it like sunflowers to our star, unable to repress the sympathetic curling of their own mouth. It is utterly at odds with the rest of him, and I wonder how such a precise machine came by such a human attribute.
‘Oh! Oh, that’s wonderful! Oh, he’d have been heartbroken!’
He is speaking of his own Father. Tortured in the G.U.L.A.G. Suffused with painful honour and corrosive hatred. A hundred nails scratching against the inside of a jar.
Zdzisław is still rocking with laughter. ‘A bunch of Kraut bayonet-bashers and Jews, all mixed up with his noble Polish blood and his precious Catholic sentiment, oh, he’d have been furious!’
I am staring at the backs of my own hands. They feel the cold easily, it is winter now and they feel stiff, swollen and raw. They look old today, the skin is too thin. Sluggish blood beneath.
He breathes deeply, becomes serious. ‘You know he used to walk miles everyday to go to school. His brothers couldn’t even read, but he traded everything he had for books. He used to read them in the attic when they were all farming potatoes.’
‘Yes, I know.’ I have a picture of him somewhere, this complicated, displaced man. Skin the colour of strong tea. Serious eyes. Thin little spectacles. I wonder at the boy he must have been, walking until he dropped for the printed word’s particular magic. I imagine him squinting as his eyesight failed him young. I imagine the ridicule from his stolid, dirt-stained, practical brothers.
My Father is rolling one of his disgusting, liquorice-papered cigarettes. He taps it thoughtfully against his lips. ‘Fourteen miles every day! And for what? Books!’ He shakes his head, chuckling. ‘What a Pole! What a Yid.’