"The past in a foreign country … "
— L. P. Hartley
It was past midnight and Ally had gone to bed. In the living room, Robert sat on the sofa. He leaned forward in the blue light of the television screen, concentrating, tired but not relaxed.
An old man was being murdered. As he fell, he clutched at his assassin who was a young man with dark glasses and the mannerisms of James Dean. They swayed for an instant together. A firework burst above them and was mirrored in a puddle at their feet.
Robert understood nothing of this. He didn't know why the old man was killed or the young man stalked him. He couldn't remember the title of the film though he'd stayed up on purpose to watch it. At that moment, he didn't even know what language the actors were speaking.
They were speaking Polish.
Just as at times a fragment of verse would run through Robert's mind, unbidden, out of context and unplaceable, so sometimes did memories. The image of (say) a room or a landscape would rise up in his head. The room might be furnished, even occupied; there might be figures in the landscape and it would have weathers and seasons. Usually Robert realized that these were memories of his own past, not of dreams or films, but he could never recognize them or understand what they meant.
This was happening now.
A long dark corridor in a big house, uncarpeted, shabby. Robert sits at one end, on the top step of a flight of stairs that goes down to—a landing? a hallway? The house is hot and airless so it may be summer. He is waiting for something.
Suddenly, at the far end of the corridor, a door opens, a little more light filters in but not much and out of the gloom steps—what? Here the memory becomes bizarre. Is it an Uhlan, a cavalry officer, a dragoon? He can see clearly the double‑breasted uniform, yellow and black, with its silver braid and tasselled epaulets. He can see the sabre hanging at the side and, in the crook of the arm, the tall cockaded hat. He can see things he couldn't possibly have seen down that long corridor: the insignia of the double-headed eagle on the shako repeated on the silver buttons, the silver piping on the high collar and the cuffs.
But he can't see the face.
At breakfast next morning Robert said to Ally:
"I had a strange dream last night."
He didn't know why he said it was a dream when he knew it wasn't, when the point of its strangeness lay in its reality, in the fact that it had actually happened, once, to him.
As he recounted it it seemed commonplace and banal and Ally was unimpressed, expecting more.
"Sex," she said at last. "Long dark corridors, uniforms, authority figures. It's obvious. Haven't you read Freud?"
Robert didn't answer. Ally, at twenty‑two, was fifteen years younger than he was. Early in their relationship she had made a decision not to defer to him in anything. Robert understood her reasons and approved of this—the situation of his own parents had been similar and his father had exploited it ruthlessly—but he was often struck by the irony that at times her self‑assertion made the gap between them seem greater than ever.
"You look tired." She made it a statement of fact, not an expression of sympathy. "Squinting at subtitles till one a.m.—I hope it was worth it."
He looked at her blankly.
"The film. The Czech thing. The one you resisted my charms for. I was up there in bed dying for you. God, I wanted you so much."
Robert didn't know what to say. He never did when she spoke like that, though it always pleased him. He said simply:
"It wasn't Czech. It was Polish."
And suddenly, again, flashing through his mind: the image of the soldier.
"I didn't really watch it. I must have dozed off." Why did he lie to her? "Anyway, I've seen it before, years ago."
And for the first time he wondered if the memory had come to him then too. Was there something in the film that triggered it? Ally was speaking:
"You mean you were snoozing on the sofa? What a waste!"
She got up from the table, rinsed her plate and put it on the draining‑board. Robert knew he'd have to wash it again after she left.
She said: "I shan't see you for a few days."
"Oh?" He tried to sound as unconcerned as she did.
"I've got a paper to write. I work better at home. Fewer distractions."
Robert lived alone in a house he had once shared with his wife and daughter. Ally, who was a medical student, rented a house across town with three other women, two of them lesbians. Robert joked about this, calling the house "the seraglio," but the women intimidated him (on purpose, he sometimes felt) and he seldom went there.
Ally kissed him on the mouth.
"I'll phone," she said. "Monday or Tuesday. Are you seeing your mother at the weekend?"
Robert's mother was in hospital just outside Birmingham, dying of emphysema.
Ally said: "I hope she's not too bad."
He had never seen anybody work so hard at anything. He had never imagined that any task could be at once so laborious and so intricate, requiring such physical effort and such exact, intense concentration.
He was watching his mother breathe.
"Your hyacinths are nice."
She agreed and told him who'd brought them. Her shoulders rose and fell as she sucked air into what remained of her lungs.
Paradoxically the emphysema made their conversations easier now. Whole areas were avoided: his divorce and his daughter, for instance. They had both learned, at a visit a few weeks before, the way emotion led directly to crisis, how a row, tame by their usual standards, could break the ragged rhythms his mother lived by and produce, in seconds, panic and shouting (he forgot the emergency bell by the side of the bed) and running nurses and oxygen masks. And later fear and guilt.
So he sat and told her what he'd been doing since his last visit, which wasn't very much. He omitted any unpleasantness and made comic incidents seem funnier than they were. He even appropriated the escapades of his friends and passed them off as his own because he thought they might please her. Never before had he wanted so much to please her.
His mother sat in a chair next to her bed, the only patient in the side‑ward. The bed was freshly made and there seemed to Robert to be something austere, almost religious about the starched white sheets, so that if he called out the door might be opened not by a nurse, but a nun.
She asked him about Ally.
The two women had met half a dozen times and to Robert's surprise they liked each other. He couldn't understand how such different women could seem so much in sympathy. It worried him.
After he told his mother, selectively and in the same light tone, about Ally's recent activities there seemed nothing else to say and it was still too early to leave. He knew this was the time when rows started, when old resentments rushed in to fill the dangerous vacuum. So he felt he had to offer something and, to his surprise, he heard himself saying, "I had a peculiar—" He almost said "dream."
"I had a peculiar memory the other night. Most odd, really. I've no idea what it is, perhaps you'd know."
And he told her, as carefully as he could, about sitting in the strange house at the end of the corridor and the heat and the gloom and the expectation.
And then the soldier.
When he'd finished there was a long silence, but he thought it was a safe silence because his mother seemed to be thinking, recollecting, preparing for the effort of speech.
Eventually she said: "You don't know?"
"No," he said. "Should I?"
"It was the Poles. The Szymanskis."
Robert was suddenly worried but he didn't know why. The Szymanskis were a Polish family who'd lived nearby when he was a kid. There were two children. He sometimes went to play in their large shabby house.
"Your soldier, that must have been Ted—Tadeusz. His father, Mr Szymanski—"
Her shoulders shuddered as if someone was standing behind her forcing them down.
"His father made him that uniform. Some old Polish regiment. Perfect detail. He wore it all the time. They were very patriotic."
Robert realized slowly that what was happening wasn't right: the way his mother was opening and closing her mouth, the way her hands were fluttering.
He took her hands into his own to keep them still and said, "Hey, it's okay, calm down," but already her fingernails were edged with blue.
His mother tried to say something, something about the past and understanding, but her eyes filled with panic and so, seconds behind her, did his own.
This time he remembered the emergency bell, but when it wasn't answered instantly, he threw open the door and shouted.
When the immediate crisis was over and his mother lay sedate and sedated, propped on pillows with an oxygen mask strapped to her face, the ward sister called Robert into her office. Her face was severe, her hands shook and he realized with admiration that her temper was only just under control.
"I would have thought," she began, "after the last time this happened ..."
He wanted to interrupt, to explain that there had been no row, only a memory, some unknown piece of the past.
But he was too tired, too drained by emotion, and anyway how could he explain what he didn't understand himself.
Robert's journey into the past was deliberate. Later, when he tried to explain it all to Ally, he under‑emphasized this. He made it seem casual: random memories carelessly pursued, odd moments of negligent reflection, loose connections falling fortuitously into place. It wasn't like that at all. It was like a campaign, an expedition into a dark continent with map‑making and staging posts and lines of communication. Methodical, purposeful, obsessive.
He sat in the kitchen with a glass of whiskey and a pad and pencil. He thought about the Poles: the Szymanskis.
Father, mother, son and daughter—Tadeusz and Rosa. Wait—no. The mother had died before he knew them. Robert wrote on his pad: Mr. S bringing up the two kids alone. He couldn't remember how Mrs. S had died. A concentration camp? A refugee camp in Britain? No, no, impossible. The children were certainly born after the war. Fiction was creeping in, and irrelevancy. To clear his mind, he wrote: When and how did we first meet the Szymanskis?
And as he wrote, he remembered.
Robert, aged eight or nine, stood outside the study door and listened to his father's dry precise voice, a voice that seemed even older than his father himself. The voice was parsing verbs or quoting Shakespeare (always from memory); sometimes it was raised in anger; sometimes, worse and more often, it was filled with cold humiliating scorn.
Robert's father was a teacher. For several years he'd given home tuition on the evenings. Robert had met the Szymanskis when his father had coached the son, Tadeusz, through the eleven-plus.
Tadeusz. Only Robert's father, correct in everything, called him that. To everyone else he was Ted. He'd have been ten when they first met, Rosa a couple of years younger, the same age as Robert.
Robert noted all this down.
Memories of the two children came back to him, the first time he'd thought of them in over twenty years. The clever dark face of the boy, the pale face of the girl that always seemed tearful. Ted, he remembered suddenly, tormented Rosa, teased her and frightened her. At first Robert had joined in, but had stopped abruptly, as scared as the girl, when he saw Ted's endless malice, his cruelty, his total destructiveness.
Then Robert remembered the uniform. He saw again the figure in that hot corridor: Tadeusz. It was just as his mother was telling him before emphysema snatched away her words: "Some old Polish regiment, they were very patriotic." The tunic, the shako, the sabre (cunningly fashioned from a piece of pressed piping): perfect, correct in all details. Mr Szymanski must have spent hours making them for his son.
Now, for the first time, Robert realized what this meant—not personally to him, but to Mr Szymanski.
He saw the ten-year-old Pole who had never seen Poland standing in that large decaying house in Smethwick, dressed in the replica uniform of an obsolete regiment from an almost vanished nation. What an expression of loss that seemed, of exile and unfulfillable longing!
There were, too, all the other trappings of that hopeless nostalgia: the miniature flags of Poland brightening the drab walls, the framed old maps (surely the borders had changed half a dozen times since then) and, perhaps part of this, the paraphernalia of their Catholicism: lurid plaster Madonnas, comic‑book Christs with flaming hearts (he remembered one on the wall of Rosa's bedroom), tiny shrines made of luminous plastic.
The image of Tadeusz stayed with him (now he favoured that name, perhaps his father had been right after all, not pedantic but sympathetic). In the house Tadeusz had worn the uniform all the time, a symbol of authority over his sister and their friends; but with the tunic he had always worn his gray school flannels, baggy at the knees, and his scuffed black shoes.
Robert drank the whiskey. Outside the window it was dark now, but he didn't draw the blinds. The darkness seemed to be inhabited by the figures of the past. Already the past was taking over, becoming more real than the present, so that he could imagine Tadeusz or Rosa entering the kitchen, but scarcely Ally. He could hear his mother's voice singing in another room (his father must be out, she never sang when his father was in the house) or calling to him, but not her voice as it was now, a broken whisper limping from breath to breath.
Robert had only a single memory of his mother at the Szymanskis. This was odd because he was sure she'd gone there often. He recalled echoes of an argument between his parents, his father bitter and aggrieved, employing the clichés that so often seem the currency of emotion: You go there too often. People talk. I have a position to maintain, a reputation.
The words of his mother's reply were lost to him, but the tone remained, uncharacteristically uncompromising and defiant.
Robert's single memory was of his mother in the Szymanski's kitchen, which was larger than the one he sat in now and a great deal shabbier. He had entered the kitchen looking for Rosa.
His mother sat opposite Mr. Szymanski, her head close to his above the small table. They were playing chess. This seemed strange to Robert. His mother couldn't play chess, surely. He knew his father could but he'd never seen his parents playing together and he was certain he'd seen his father offering to teach his mother and his mother saying: No, no, you just want one more thing to beat me in. Besides, I'd never understand, it's far too difficult.
He had withdrawn a couple of paces and watched them.
Mr. Szymanski leaned back in his chair and said something. His mother laughed. She reached out her hand and moved a pawn. Then Robert had heard Rosa calling and he'd gone to find her.
His mother and Mr. Szymanski had not touched. No endearments had passed between them.
Now, in his own kitchen, Robert picked up the pencil and wrote, slowly and carefully because his hand was shaking: My mother and Mr. Szymanski were lovers.
Perhaps it was the act of writing this sentence that released the other memory, the one he'd buried for so long. He didn't write any more: he didn't need to. He sat with his hands flat on the table, leaning forward, rigid with tension.
The end of a summer's day. The house holds the heat like an indrawn breath. Robert shouldn't be there at this hour, he should be at home, but his father is working and his mother is careless about such things. Robert is waiting for Rosa. He has been waiting a long time but he doesn't care, he is happy just sitting, he could sit forever. Rosa doesn't come but Tadeusz comes instead. Come with me, Tadeusz says, I've got something to show you. Immediately Robert knows he doesn't want to see it, whatever it is; he's seen it before: a flyblown cat, a trapped starling beating itself to death against a windowpane, and Tadeusz's eyes watching his own.
But he follows Tadeusz anyway up narrow stairs to the third floor where they rarely go. The old‑fashioned tunic, grubby and worn, moves ahead of him, the yellow clear, the black dissolving into the gathering dark. They walk down a bare corridor and Tadeusz stops outside a slightly open door, steps back, and pulls Robert forward gently by the arm.
Opposite them, beyond the door, a dressing table and in its mirror the room reflected. This is something Robert hasn't seen before. Mr. Szymanski lies in bed with the sheets drawn to his throat. Robert's mother takes off her stockings, rolling them down her legs and letting them fall. She straightens up. Her naked body, catching the last of the light, is like a pale flame. She moves towards the bed. Robert knows that shame and horror show plainly in his face. He wants only to get away.
But there is more. There is more.
Tadeusz, quite deliberately, touches the open door with his foot. It moves a few inches.
By this stage the memory was hard to bear. Gripping the table's edge Robert rocked back and forth, silently sobbing. He felt all the pain of that moment not in retrospect, not diminished by time, but now, as if it was all happening now. The hermetic seals of pride and adolescent dignity and misplaced manliness instilled in him by his father were finally broken.
His mother starts, then crosses the bedroom and comes to him. Tadeusz has vanished. The sight of his mother's body hurts Robert's eyes, physically, as if it really is a flame. The emotions in his face are mirrored in hers but her eyes, unlike his own, are wet.
Go home, she says softly, Go home. And closes the door.
He didn't know what he felt. He didn't feel anything. Except tired. He went to bed but woke in the night. There was something more.
Wasn't that enough?
No. There was something more.
Next morning it was all in the past tense. Time had asserted itself: the moment had become a memory. It was painful, vivid, intense, but it had happened then, it was not happening now. He could bear to contemplate it, perhaps even to analyse and understand.
But when he tried to think of his mother there was nothing there. No blame or enmity or sense of betrayal but no love or forgiveness either. Just a space waiting to be filled.
As he lay in bed all the memories of the Poles, that whole constellation, dark in his mind for so long, blazed. The memories were mostly happy, he realized. The happiest times of his childhood had been spent in that comfortless house. Only there, where it was all so foreign, in that sad scrap of Poland adrift in the world, only there had he ever felt at home.
And that was true for his mother too. He'd never known that before. He let this new revelation sink into his mind.
Then he remembered there was something more, some other thing he had to discover.
He got up. He didn't eat breakfast, he didn't go to work. Instead, he took the train for Birmingham New Street and changed for Smethwick. He hadn't been back for fifteen years.
He came out of the station, promptly turned left towards the High Street and then faltered, at first thinking he'd got off at the wrong stop, then realizing with dismay that he hadn't: this was it. He saw that the map he'd been carrying in his head since childhood had become shockingly obsolete.
He walked on, less confidently now.
He believed he knew, a little, just a very little, something of the sadness Mr. Szymanski must have felt, cut off from the places he'd grown up in. As Robert looked around, a faint shadow of the Pole's loss and dislocation passed over him.
The High Street had become a dual‑carriageway along which cars passed without stopping. Not that there was much to stop for now—a handful of shops, all of them Asian, an Edwardian Bank and the old public library looking, Robert thought, even more lost than he did. He crossed the road and turned up a side‑street. He was faced with a new supermarket where there used to be—what? A church? A row of houses? No, he remembered, it had once been a street full of small factories; foundries, he thought. As a kid he often used it to cut through to the High Street. The foundries had large doors open to the street and they were always dark inside. Fire burned in pits in the ground and shadowy figures moved through the gloom. As you passed and looked in (he always looked in) the hot breath of these places came out to you, harsh and choking and edged with sweat.
And then Robert remembered suddenly that here, in one of these foundries, Mr. Szymanski had worked.
He recalled his mother saying, not to his father and surely not to him: That's what killed him finally. Not the war or his wife dying but working in that place, the hours, the conditions. His mother tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the grief in her voice, the irrecoverable loss. He was so tired, she said, so tired that he just lay down and never got up again. At the end he could hardly lift his head from the pillow.
Robert sat down on the low brick wall surrounding the supermarket car park.
Mr. Szymanski had died. Robert remembered that now—he'd have been twelve or thirteen then. Tadeusz and Rosa were taken away, he never saw them again. Their big old house was sold.
As Robert sat in the middle of his redeveloped childhood, that summer's evening came to him again, with a certainty that was almost reassuring. It passed through his mind differently now, less like a running film, more a succession of photographs placed down gently one after another, without inevitability or suspense. The hot corridor. The narrow stairs with the wasp‑coloured uniform. The open door. The mirror. The man's pale face denting the pillow, his large dark eyes.
He was dying then—of course! It had happened just days before his death.
Robert remembered a row with his father over Mr. Szymanski's funeral. Robert had refused to attend. His father was furious. He was our friend, he said. I thought you liked them. You were always round there.
No, no, I didn't like them, I didn't.
Robert was reduced to tears but behind the tears he was righteous and triumphant. You'd thank me if you knew why I was doing this. Because I love you and you've been betrayed. But he said nothing, and he didn't attend the funeral.
So what did his mother's actions mean to him now? Had it been lust or an act of great compassion? Was she blessing the dying man with her own sacred body? Offering him warmth, comfort, last rites in the only way she knew. Was she a whore—or some kind of saint?
He had a sudden image of his mother as a saint, her face like one of the Szymanski's cartoon Madonnas, a perfect oval of impossible piety. He laughed aloud. Then another image flashed in his mind: his mother's body as it had been that day. He saw it not as a pale flame but substantial, flesh and blood, and he saw what she had done as a complex and, above all, a human thing, the result of motives and emotions he could never fully know.
He got up and walked back towards the station. He'd been going to look at the houses, his own and the Szymanskis, but there seemed no point anymore. He crossed the dual‑carriageway. The sadness he felt had nothing to do with all that lay around him.
He was thinking again of his mother, of how she was now, the rise and fall of her shoulders, the poise that permitted her to continue breathing and what happened when that poise was shattered. Between them small‑talk and trivia were a matter of life and death so that he could share with her the small change of his life but never its real currency. Up till now that hadn't mattered. But he could never talk to her of any of this. There was a great deal he wanted to say and many questions he wanted to ask her. He wanted to apologize and tell her he understood, or was beginning to, but from now until her death he knew he'd sit beside her and sometimes take her hand and sometimes not and tell her that he was thinking of changing his car or that an old friend had asked after her or that rain was forecast later in the week which was a pity because he and Ally had thought of going to the coast.