The Polish Women Story
Gaylene Carbis (University of Melbourne, Australia)
I wake from disturbing dreams with Sunday blues. I dread facing the work I have to do. I dread facing tomorrow. My days are full, my sessional jobs and my studies in the city are all bunched up together, one after the other, and I feel I am always running from one thing to the next, with no breathing space between. And always somewhere at the back of my mind I am saying: this is not what I wanted.
I wanted an academic career.
I wanted a First, First Class Honours, but I floundered with my thesis. I didn’t get the First. For a long time, I felt as if my life was over.
Even now, when what I’m doing overwhelms me, I’m still saying: this isn’t the life I wanted.
And then I don’t want to face the day. I have many days like this.
The thought of the fiction I have to write today for my novel class tomorrow makes me pull the doona back over my head. Then I think of St Kilda, which always offers solace. When it’s sunny, people throng St Kilda: couples, children, old people, young, roller-bladers, cyclists, walkers, joggers, lovers, loners, families, friends. I like to be alone, amongst the throng. There is something lonely and lovely in being alone.
The tram from Carnegie takes me straight to St Kilda. But today, I hop on my bike, for this way, I can put off my work even longer. Besides, riding my bike might help shake the blues before they become that black dog of depression.
At the end of St Kilda Pier is a restaurant. It’s crowded and chaotic when I arrive and a lone person at a table is not really welcome. But I am used to writing, here or anywhere.
I sit at one of the white plastic garden chairs at one of the plastic round tables. I order foccaccia. A coffee will not do, not on a Sunday when business is booming.
As I slowly make my way through the foccaccia, I am doing my work but the movement is turgid. It is slow and arduous, my limbs are lazy, my mind is numb and tired, and, worst of all, the little finger of my right, writing hand is tingling with pins and needles. My arm aches at the elbow like the women in my mother’s family who spent too many years washing and wringing out clothes, or my father who pushed wheelbarrows and hauled buckets of cement for too many decades as a solid plasterer.
I am frightened to write as I am petrified of exacerbating this condition of my arm, which has appeared out of nowhere in the midst of postgraduate work in writing. I am supposed to be writing a novel, and short stories, and even poetry. Most of the time I am asking myself: am I really a writer?
I push on, push against the currents, against the blocked flow of blood at my elbow.
I place the sugar bowl on top of my books, and my bottle of water, and go back to check on my bike, parked against the other side of the patio where the pier walkway extends. I have lost the key to the chain of my bike.
Yes, the bike’s still there.
And in the white basket over the handlebars is my blue bag brimming with books, they are practically falling out from the bag—books of poetry and prose, and books in which to write. If they fell, they would fall into the sea.
I wonder if I would go after them.
But when I go back to my spot in the shade, the round plastic table is no longer there. Two tables have been joined together, and a man and a woman and three noisy children are eating at the table.
I go up to the table.
“Where are my books?” I demand of the man, who is just about to take a huge bite of his sandwich.
He stops mid-way, holding the suspended sandwich half-way to his mouth, his mouth still open, and after a moment says, “I’m sorry?”
“My books. They were here, at this table. I left them here.”
“We don’t know where they are. A young boy joined these tables together. We don’t know anything about your books.”
I make a clicking sound with my tongue, and turn away. I go the counter where people collect their orders.
“I had my books on a table,” I say to the woman, “and I went to the toilet and someone has moved them. A young boy.”
“Which young boy?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” I say. She raises her eyebrows at me and I say then, “He works for you.”
The woman wearily turns to another woman. “This woman reckons someone moved her things.” She turns back to me. “What kind of books?”
“Writing books. Exercise books with my writing in them.”
She raises her eyebrows again and I can tell she is thinking if they were so precious, why did you leave them?
“Where were you sitting?” she says.
“At the very back. The short stroke of the L-shape.”
“Yeah?” she says sarcastically.
“Around there,” I say, gesticulating wildly.
It is the second day I have lost my books.
I left my writing book in a friend’s car the night before, and have just come from her place, where I picked up the book. Another reason for the bike. I could ride via her place. She lives near the beach and says all writers should live by the sea or at least have a room with a view. I don’t even have a room of my own, I share a study with my lover, whom I live with, and I head for the sea when I know he is going to be around and I need to write.
The woman behind the counter calls out to a woman at the front counter where they take the orders, “You know anything about some books left on a table?” She says books as if she can’t imagine anything less important.
“Oh, they’re yours, are they?” says another woman at the front counter.
“Yes. I was sitting at a table. I left it for a moment.”
“Go around there and I’ll give them to you.”
“Go around where?” I mutter furiously to myself.
I go around to the front counter and a woman hands me my books.
“Where’s my water? I had a bottle of water. On top of the books.”
The woman takes a deep breath and says, “Take one from there. Behind you.”
I walk outside, looking for another table.
I go back to the back of the restaurant and the little round table is now empty. I pull out the chair and a man comes running up to me. “We’re sitting there. We’re just going in to order. But we couldn’t decide how to keep the table and how to go and order. But that’s where we’re sitting.”
“It doesn’t look like it,” I say, turning away.
Another man gestures towards me, indicating that he and the people he is with will be leaving soon, or are about to do so.
I walk up to the table. A woman is holding the man’s hand and nodding. She holds his hand as if he is a good friend. I don’t think he is her husband. “Yes, very well. We shall meet you there,” she says in a foreign accent with that slightly formal tone of one for whom English is a second language.
She is an older woman, maybe in her sixties or even seventies. There is something in her face that makes you look twice. She is beautiful, even now. She is tall and slender and there are lines at her throat and they look so right there. She wears a canary yellow silk scarf at her neck tied in a flyaway knot. She turns to me and says there is now a spare seat and I am welcome to join them.
“Are you sure?” I say.
“Please,” she says. “It is my pleasure.” She is Polish and the woman sitting beside her is Polish too. I see they are sisters.
“I don’t want to disturb you,” I say, my hand on the back of the chair.
“You are welcome,” says the Polish woman smiling. She opens her arms wide like a banquet.
The other woman sits on, hands folded in her lap, silent but smiling. Her lipstick is bleared and runs round the edge of her mouth. It is bright red and animates the brownness of her skin.
They are both fair, but now, after fifty years of sun, their faces have grown into their brownness.
They look out across the sea and are silent. I write for what feels like a very long time. The women speak seldom, in monosyllables. In English.
I ask them please to continue their conversation; I will not disturb them.
“But you are so quiet!” says the tall Polish woman. Her sister smiles. Always smiling and nodding. The tall sister talks of nothing in particular and her sister smiles and nods and her sister nods in return.
They fall silent again.
Until the plump sister suddenly stirs and leans over towards her sister and whispers with urgency. I see her sister turn, to look behind her. The plump sister then leans towards me and says in a low voice: “You see that man there? I was just saying. He is good-looking, yes?”
I look past the tall sister’s head to the man sitting behind her. I shrug.
“You don’t admire men?” says the plump sister. She watches me, but not carefully.
“Oh… well,” I say, waving my pen in the air as if it has the answer and can speak for me. “Not in that way, really,” I say. “I admire women. The beauty of women.”
They listen and look back at me waiting. I feel nothing would surprise them.
I run men through my mind, faces they will know, searching for a man I admire in the way she means. I cannot come up with—
“There is one,” I say. “Ralph Fiennes.”
The women look back at me blankly.
“The cruel German soldier. In Schindler’s List. Very good-looking. A beautiful face.”
The women look at me, blank. An intimate, secret look passes between the sisters.
“The German soldier who was in love with the Jewish maid, though he treated her as if he hated her. Spielberg’s film. Do you know it?”
“Oh yes,” says the slender sister. I notice again the cool thinness of her throat.
The sisters look across at each other. I note again the fine blue line at the slender woman’s throat. “Yes, yes. We know it very well.”
The women exchange another glance. And the tall sister tells me they do not remember this man, the German soldier.
Her sister shakes her head. “We were there, you see.”
“Five years we spent there,” the tall sister says. “They shaved one half of my head, and pulled me by the other half and took the rest. I had a beautiful head of hair, didn’t I?” she looks at her sister for confirmation.
Her sister nods. Yes. “Oh yes,” she says in a fondly reminiscent tone. “Oh yes,” says the plump sister again and her sister laughs.
“So. We do not remember well this film. My sister and I were there. It is too close to the bone,” says the woman. The knot in her yellow scarf has loosened and she reties it. She lightly keeps touching the yellow scarf. It flaps at her neck like a small bird.
I nod in understanding, but the plump sister smiles and then stirs suddenly, and leans towards me with great urgency. She asks: “Do you know what my sister means? What she is talking about?”
When she asks me if I know what her sister is talking about, I am thrown and feel I don’t know what she means at all. Because she stirs so suddenly, and is so suddenly serious, I feel confused. For a moment I think they mean, what do you know of concentration camps? What have you read? What is your understanding? Your knowledge?
And into my mind creeps a children’s story I read to my six year old sister of my father’s second marriage, about Polish women in a camp in Krakow who believe the liberation is near and secretly begin making toys for their children from the clothes off their own backs, bits and pieces of wool and cloth from jumpers and skirts to make stuffed toys as surprise gifts to celebrate freedom.
“Why don’t they have toys?” my little sister asks.
“Because it is during the war. And men are fighting.”
“And do women fight too or do they camp?”
I say that in the time of the story in the book, only men used to be soldiers but now a woman could be a soldier if she wanted to. Because the world has changed.
I do not tell her about men keeping women in concentration camps.
I give her an answer because I feel I should. But now, looking at the Polish women in front of me, I think that there are no easy answers and I don’t know how to explain the world to my sister, let alone protect her from it. I shore her up with books, as if these will give her all she will ever need for life.
I think of the young women who are in my Writing for Children classes at the refuge for pregnant and parenting young women where I teach. Of how I take in this children’s story about women in concentration camps to these young women who often find books are irrelevant; that life is hard to cope with and it takes all their energy and efforts to just get though a day. But this book speaks to them.
One girl says it’s a fantastic story, the best story she’s ever heard in her life.
“Don’t you think it’s depressing?” I ask.
“No!” they say as one.
“It’s fucking fantastic,” says one, her voice louder than the others. “I didn’t know there were books like that.”
“Can you get any more?” they ask. And one of them even suggests that we go to the library one day, I could take them there and show them how to find books like that. Real stories.
I do not tell the Polish women I am thinking of a children’s book, that the pictures in the book are the images of concentration camps that have moved into my mind and have stayed there. That I am thinking of these young women and my sister and a children’s book.
I suddenly realize the women are simply asking if I know what they mean, too close to the bone. It is not about my knowledge of history, my understanding of the world as gleaned from books.
“You mean—it is too painfully close to your experience. To be able to remember,” I say and the women nod, their heads bobbing up and down like ducks.
“We don’t remember the man in the film, but there was a man there— ” says the tall sister. I know she has moved from the film and is somewhere else. “They tried to hold my head but I resisted. They had to pull me by the hair to hold me. They pulled me by one side of the head and shaved the other side.” She laughs again. “So, then I had half a head of beautiful hair. And then, in the middle of the night, a man came and he—well, he shaved the other side of my head.”
The sisters smile at each other and sit in a comfortable silence.
There is something I want to ask them that I feel I shouldn’t. I ask anyway. “Does it get … easier? With time?”
“No,” says the tall sister. “It is not true. It doesn’t get better with time. It just becomes different, that’s all.” She touches the scarf at her neck. “You are a writer, yes?”
“Well, I’m in a writing course. I’m a student.”
The plump sister beams at both of us. “My sister is an artist too.”
“What do you do?” I ask her.
“I paint. Landscapes mostly. It has taken me a long time to be able to paint people.”
I tell her that I am a writer in the sense that I am always writing. But, there are always the doubts. The difficulties.
“When you are young, you are so concerned with the opinion of the world. It does become easier. You grow calm. And then you can do anything,” says the artist.
“Well,” says the tall sister after a while.
Her sister nods and they prepare to leave.
“We shall go then,” says the tall one, “and leave you to your writing. I hope we didn’t disturb you.”
“No, no. Not at all.”
The women rise from their seats—the artistic one nimble, graceful and quick; her sister, slower, her limbs heavy and not so easy to move. They greet me goodbye. The artist touches my arm and says, “It will become easier.”
I watch them walk away, the artist, tall and sleek, and slightly leading; the shorter sister holds her sister’s arm as they stroll along the pier and make their way to the foreshore, where they will walk along the sand and into the sun, whereupon they will unfold the red umbrella that is now closed. The crimson rosellas and sulphur-crested parrots on the red umbrella have only been a glimpse of colour I caught as they walked away, but where, unfolded, the brilliant birds will seem to be leaping from their heads.
Gaylene Carbis is an award-winning playwright and poet whose work has been performed in Australia and overseas, including Athens, Edinburgh, Ireland, Oxford and Carbis Bay in Cornwall. Gaylene’s recent work includes co-writing a short film and a reading of her play, Audrey Hepburn and I Consider Our Assets, at Chapel off Chapel, which is being reworked as a musical. Gaylene specializes in monologues and has written and produced a number of very successful one-woman shows and shows performed at Santucci’s Café in Carnegie. Acclaimed Australian actress Kerry Armstrong has expressed interest in performing Gaylene’s monologues. Gaylene teaches at the Australian College of Applied Psychology and is doing her Masters in Creative Writing at Melbourne Uni.