You’re Very Welcome
But that year only Kaja and Cyryl are with us. “Żuk”, meaning “Beetle”, which is what we call little Joasia, Jola’s belated child, is playing with Cyryl like a doll, and he’s letting her, because it allows him to remain at the centre of attention. So he agrees to be the object of her game, to being laid on the sofa and put to sleep, though he’s not asleep for an instant. Our labradors are bounding about the flat, having a brotherly tousle. Fredek never stops wanting to play, but Kajtuś quickly gets tired. We don’t yet know there’s a fatal illness developing in him that will take him from us soon. And no one talks about the person who’s absent. We’re just thinking about him – Kaja, Jola and I. Then I take Kaja and Cyryl home to my place. I check for messages on the answerphone. He hasn’t called. He hasn’t called once since the day he left the card. I’ve been looking for him for over three months now. I’m offering a big reward for any reliable contact. But everyone’s keeping quiet. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get a silent phone call? Maybe I’ll discover some secret sign, some letters on a door, or a small card shoved under my windscreen wiper? You can’t not get in touch at Christmas!
Though in fact there’s been a Christmas like this already, in 1994, before he went to prison for the first time. I remember the one-year-old Cyryl and Kaja’s entire family floundering in the uncontrollable, endless chaos of the cavernous flat on Stalowa Street, familiar to me for its close resemblance to the chaos of my mother’s flat in Legnica, constant traffic around the dinner table, exchanges of Christmas greetings, muddled good wishes and furtive glances at the empty plate “for the unexpected guest”. We had no idea that in Alicja’s very thin body a tiny bean was already sprouting, which in August of the following year would be given the name of Zosia.
Now however, during this particular Christmas, Zosia is sixteen months old already, and tomorrow Cyryl and I are going to see her – the children should know they’re siblings, and I’m going to make sure they grow up with a sense of family connection. But there’s still today, Christmas Eve isn’t over yet, and Kaja is arranging to meet up with Hańka for Midnight Mass. They’re going to sing Lullaby Little Jesus, they’re going to welcome the Lord. I put Cyryl to bed. Kajtuś very quietly snuggles down next to him, they’re lying side by side, child and puppy. From Kajtuś’ point of view they occupy the same place in the pack. I’m left amid the silence of night by the shining Christmas tree. Maybe he’ll call?
It could already have been after the visit to that dreadful woman in Anin to see if maybe she could establish some facts thanks to her gift of clairvoyance. She was reluctant to see me. Downing the last mouthfuls of her supper, she took out some greasy cards, and told me to cut them, exactly like Janka from the ground floor in a distant era when, wreathed in “Sport” cigarette smoke, she said: “Cut the cards, Anda, two times with your left hand from yourself, from your heart,” and told me about faraway journeys, adventures with a fair-haired man in the evening and things happening at the state-run Home. The woman from Anin didn’t tell me to cut the cards from my heart, nor did she talk about any adventures. She said nothing. Several times she shuffled the cards, laid them out again and asked for a photo. “I’ll have to think about it,” she declared. “There’s darkness all round this case, so please call in a few days’ time.” When I called, she brushed me off with a curt: “I can’t see an aura, he’s cold!” I felt hatred. How dare she use such words? And I renounced the whole conversation. Press the delete key! I never mentioned it to anyone. On the contrary, I took Alicja to some place in Płock, to the police station where, as a friend of Mateusz’s called Karol claimed, they had a lead.
They had found each other in the Warsaw community, first the children’s one, then the youth one, driven by the mysterious force that attracts one bad egg to another. First it was with the son of a dying poet. Then with the son of a film star. For a while the son of a well-known designer hovered around them, and finally Karol had latched on, the son of a general, born after his father’s death. They once had a competition to decide whose father was the worst. Karol won, by calmly announcing that his father was a murderer. Victory in this sort of contest raised Karol above the other, more ordinary generals’ children and made it possible for him to be partners with some unusual civilians. It was them Mateusz had in mind when he said his friends were building careers, but he had decided to go to waste. Indeed, all of them managed to cope with their fathers and with life. Except for Karol. Karol had kept Mateusz company in his drug taking, though he had broken off communications during his time in prison. One day he turned up at Dzika Street, thin as Piotrowin, with a sallow, aged face. “The methadone programme,” he explained. And that was when he told us about Płock: that Mateusz had a court case there, so he might have gone, and apparently he’d been found in the vicinity. He’s not so stupid, I thought, as to talk nonsense merely to get a reward. After all, he knows I’ll check first. Nor was he doing it out of friendship – drug addicts have no friends. I knew about the trial in Płock. And so I went there. The policewoman on duty explained that they weren’t holding anyone like him, but if they found him dead, they’d recognise him by his “dabs”. Such is their procedure. They had recently found an unknown man, compared his “dabs” – his fingerprints – to their files and he’d turned out to be someone else. I wonder why the people from the police station in Mokotów didn’t compare the prints with their files? Or perhaps they did, and it was someone else too?
So why after all this was I still waiting for a phone call? I wasn’t. Or rather it wasn’t that I was waiting. Waiting means not taking action. It’s the worst of all possible states. It means giving in to external factors, being dependent on someone else’s will. Waiting is contrary to my nature; I’m impatient. So it wasn’t waiting in the classic sense of the word. I wasn’t waiting in the textbook manner. I was living my life as if nothing had happened – a bit too busily, a bit too quickly. From one private view to the next, from one business trip to another, with breaks for crushing, joyless Easters, Christmases, and New Year’s Eves ticked off one by one. Only two years later did I decide to declare him formally missing. From that it appears that until then I had been hoping for something, that I believed in his return. I made an appeal on television for him to come forward. A very kind man from Itaka, the organisation that looks for missing persons, helped me to draw up a coded appeal, composed of a configuration of names that were familiar to him, so that only he would understand it, and so neither the police nor the City would be able to locate him. There was no news from the City either. The City was keeping mum. The City was sticking by the story that no one had seen him since December. Even if he has hidden somewhere very deep down, I thought, he’ll know how to decode the words we’re using to summon him. Such were my intentions. But no sign came to show he’d received the call.
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The excerpt was originally published on the Book Institute's website.
Anda Rottenberg, art historian, critic, curator of many exhibitions in Poland and abroad. Between 1993-2000, director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. She is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and the International Foundation Manifesta. Author of Sztuka w Polsce 1945-2005 (2005). In 2009, she published two new books: Draught. Notes on Polish Art of the 80s (Przeciąg. Teksty o sztuce polskiej lat 80.) and You’re Very Welcome (Proszę bardzo).
In her excellent, provocative book You’re Very Welcome (Proszę bardzo) Anda Rottenberg rejects the rules of the game the Polish symbolic establishment so far abided by READ MORE...