The car slowing down outside Safeway’s on Edgware Road was one of the new S-class Mercedes and that was probably the only reason McCraig gave it a second glance. He was coming out of the shop with a carrier bag containing a hot grilled chicken (only £2.79!), a heavy four-pack of cold half-litre cans of Kestrel in his hand and clutching a long crispy baguette under his arm. All he had in mind, for Christ’s sake, was to cover the few yards to his flat in Sussex Gardens as quickly as possible, get his feet up on the table and eat his lunch with eyes glued to the television screen. It was getting on for one o’clock in the afternoon and the British Grand Prix was just about to start.
Out of the rear door of the car, a girl tumbled onto the pavement. Immediately the driver’s door opened and a brawny young man jumped out, picked her up and stood her on her feet. She lurched in his arms but when he let go of her, she stayed upright though she was reeling like a drunken sailor. The boy got back into the car as fast as lightning and quickly, but without ostentation, the vehicle melted into the flowing stream of traffic. The registration number was personalised – TRII – and the tinted windows made it impossible to see inside.
The girl stood where she was, still swaying, and began to mumble something and flap her arms. McCraig had always admired Londoners for their complete lack of interest in their neighbours, even the very weirdest, but this time they surpassed themselves.
The girl was wearing school uniform – regulation shoes, white socks and short skirt, topped with a white blouse and dark blue blazer boasting a school crest. Aside from the fact that no teenager in England would be seen dead in public on a Sunday in school gear, the girl’s blouse was ripped open at the front showing the world a white bra covering youthful breasts. The buttons had been torn off leaving only dangling threads and her shirt tails were hanging out of the waistband of her skirt. The girl’s dishevelled fair hair hung across her face, but a red mark left by the blow of a hand could still be seen. Maybe she wasn’t legally underage, but for fuck’s sake she was still only a kid!
With her arms flailing and babbling loudly and inanely, she swayed around but seemed rooted to the spot as though fearful of lifting a foot from the ground. McCraig saw that she was sobbing too, a white drop had already formed at the tip of her nose. The people entering and leaving the shop walked round her, as if giving her to understand that if she was hoping to shock them, she would have to try much harder.
Before all this came about McCraig had tried his hand at several different things. In his youth he had been a taxi driver in Glasgow and a barman in London. He had also sailed around the world as a crew member on private yachts. It was on one of these that, when a drunken rock star attacked the boat’s owner with a broken vodka bottle, it came out that McCraig had, for ten years, been learning Aikido. It had never before occurred to him that he could make a living from it, but in one short night his salary was quadrupled and his duties changed from sailor’s chores to sitting around on the deck or in the salon. He agreed to this initially just until the end of the cruise, as he was not at all sure that his new profession suited him. But then the female passengers began spectating at his daily training sessions and from then on he rarely spent his nights alone.
He carried on with this new vocation for a couple of years until he began to feel that, although the women were undoubtedly palatable and pretty, life as a bodyguard meant you were just somebody’s shadow, or even, he could go as far as to say, their possession, like their shoes or walking stick. He packed his bags and for a year enjoyed himself squandering the money he had accrued while trotting around after his owner. In the end he came back to London with enough left to buy himself a small flat in Paddington, with the back-up of a twenty five year mortgage.
Those were Sussex Gardens’ best years: the nights were McCraig’s favourite time and nocturnal society was made up mainly of working girls who willingly befriended him. Through these friendships he quickly found himself working as a doorman in a private club from where he was soon promoted to security in a much higher class West End joint. The days he had to himself and who knows, he may have grown old being a brothel bouncer but came the time of an epidemic of car thefts. Starting from keeping an eye on the most tempting vehicles to recovering the odd one or two, he became a specialist in the fight against borrowers of other people’s Porches, Rolls and Mercs. On several occasions attempts were made on his life but luck was with him and he soon became famous. Without having to make deals with anyone, cars stopped disappearing on his patch.
More and more cases came his way and on a wave of enthusiasm he opened his own security business, taking twenty men on just for the start. Things were going okay but from behind his desk he looked at himself in suit and tie with growing alarm, and watched the briefcase full of papers becoming heavier than lead. And when one of his loves declared one morning that it was time they settled down, he fell upon the first offer made for his company as deliverance and bargained only for form’s sake.
He was thirty five years old and knew by now what he was good for and what he wasn’t. He didn’t have to read Max Weber to be aware that the Protestant ethic which had given birth to the spirit of capitalism was totally foreign to him. The promise of the salvation to be achieved by hard work didn’t convince him, neither was he persuaded by the sweat of the brow morality. Through a strange and tortuous way his spirit had been created by the ancient Greeks for whom work was an unequivocal denial of freedom. They too had believed that it was impossible to reconcile a man’s freedom and dignity with any kind of coercion. Though he had long grown out of any ideas of happiness, the concept of freedom was, for him, something tangible: he could carve it into slices and savour every mouthful.
THE ENGLISHWOMAN A family legend in three meetings and an annex (published in Polish in 2004)
In the night, the girl was awakened by a wail. She was scared. Since she had been with Emma Sonia hadn't heard her utter a single sound. She switched on the light. Emma was lying curled up, the fingers of both hands clutching her hair. Her face was deathly pale, her eyes blank and the noise was issuing from her wide-open mouth. When her breath ran out, she inhaled convulsively before giving vent to another long drawn out unearthly howl. Sonia scrambled across the bed and grabbed the hands which were tearing at the woman’s hair.
'Emma! What is it?'
Her fingers were so tightly clenched that Sonia couldn't loosen them. Emma threw her off, nearly hurling her onto the floor and the wailing grew louder and more and more inhuman. Her body twisted violently and her dry eyes suddenly rolled back into the depths of her skull. Sonia, overcome by horror, started to cry. She again tried to catch hold of Emma's hands but feeling how the woman was wrenching her hair out by the roots she recoiled in panic.
'Emma, stop it!' she screamed hysterically. 'I don't know what to do!'
Emma was howling so diabolically, jerking and thrashing, that the girl was seized with fear. Falling to her knees, she covered her ears and started to scream too. But the dreadful cry still penetrated into her brain. She crawled under the bed and lay there, sobbing wretchedly with horror and pity.
It’s surprising how far a human cry can carry in the still of the night. Emma's house stood in two acres of park surrounded by an ancient brick wall the height of a man. On the other side of the wall to the west, stretching for a quarter of a mile, were ploughed fields, which reached to the edge of the Bolimovsky Forest.
On the outskirts of the wood was a man on horseback, a neighbour of the late Lech Seipp whose name was Adalbert Poniatovsky. He and Lech had met several times but neither was in need of companionship. Poniatovsky had also recovered his family seat after the downfall of communism and had saved the three hundred acre estate and palace from total ruin. He lived here in Tokary when he wasn't gallivanting off to the other side of the world. When he was unable to sleep he spent his nights hacking around the lanes and woods.
Emma's cry carried across the night and the fields to where he was riding. He reined in his horse and listened, then slowly turned his mount in the direction of the Seipp house. He knew that Lech had died but had taken no interest in Zapole's successor. Reaching the old wall, he again reined in to listen.
He either had nerves of steel or was accustomed to the sound of human suffering because there was no urgency in his reaction to Emma's call. He rode slowly along the wall to the gates. They were open. Entering the park, he headed for the darkened manor. He felt no compassion and hardly even wondered what the cause of the woman's despair could be. He circled the house then stopped among the trees in front of the illuminated bedroom window.
Adalbert Poniatovsky didn't have a high opinion of the human race or the causes of its pain. His own, he believed, had given him the right to challenge God. He listened to the howls of this unknown woman and in spite of the uneasy sidling of his horse had no intention of reacting in any way. Maybe he didn't want her to stop. Not because it gave him any pleasure but because the sound somehow refuted his own infinite loneliness. It proved to him that he wasn't alone in the universe.
'Can I do anything for you? Help you...?' Poniatovsky, still standing, felt very remote from Emma. He sat down too. She stared at him.
'You can't help me. No one can help me. My baby is dead. My husband is dead. How do you want to help me? Buy me new ones?'
'My wife was killed in her ninth month of pregnancy' the words came out of their own accord and formed themselves into sentences. He had never expected to come to this. 'She was on fire. Her stomach ruptured and the child fell onto the road; it was still moving. I couldn't get to them.'
Emma listened, watching his crumbling face.
'You see? No one can help you either' she was wringing her fingers to a pulp. Poniatovsky could bear it no longer. He took her hands and pulled them apart. 'There is nothing anyone can do. Maybe in twenty years' time I'll be able to give parties too. Do you know, there were moments today when I wasn't thinking of her, of my little girl? Do you know what that means? How quickly we forget? But I don't want to forget. I wanted to die with her but I didn't. She died and I survived! My husband succeeded – he died, and I didn't and soon I'll have forgotten them completely. Whatever I do, in the end I'll forget. And I have to live with it. That I'll betray her and leave her behind. I'll laugh and joke again, maybe have another baby. That's the kind of mother I am and there's nothing I can do about it. If only I could have died with her – but I couldn't even do that. Look at me. Today I'm drinking champagne and listening to jokes. How can I live with it?'
Poniatovsky's heart hammered wildly. Emma was speaking a few inches away from his face; he could feel her smell and the damp warmth emanating from her mouth. She was so close it seemed to Poniatovsky impossible that she could isolate herself again. He wished he knew how to hold her so she would no longer have to speak. Because she didn't need to. No one but he would understand her. She must see that surely, after all, she was staring straight into his eyes. Why was she rejecting him? He wished he knew how to cry.
He came back to his senses, aware that he was crushing her wrists. He released her and they both looked down at her hands, which were pale, bloodless, with red streaks already turning purple. She was right. He knew there was nothing to be done. He got to his feet, poured two glasses of water and handed her one but she didn't take it. She was staring out of the window and rubbing the marks left from his grip.
'We must find Sonia' he put the glass on the table. A minute passed before Emma spoke.
'You haven't understood anything. My daughter is dead. I don't care about Sonia.'
He had understood, but only that the film was over.
KNIFE OF THE FATHER (in progress)
Holy Bible, Genesis 22
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Don't go chasing the devil – you may find him inside you