Conrad Borscz gazed emptily at the freshly turned soil. He took a handkerchief out of his dark suit pocket and wiped it across his almost hairless head. The iron-grey horseshoe of hair that circled it shone with moisture. The heat was overpowering. Twice he had wanted to pass out as the vicar had droned incoherently away over his wife's hidden body.
He felt a hand fall upon his shoulder and turned. It moved down his arm and sneaked into his palm. Its grip was dry and firm, not soft with sympathy as anyone might have expected on such a day. His own hand fought limply back, too listless to give anything in return.
Conrad smiled weakly, his eyes half-closed against the sun that hovered above the man's head and turned him into a faceless shadow. 'Thanks for coming,' he sighed. 'It's very kind of you.'
The man, who continued his vice-like handshake, moved round, a step towards the wrought-iron gates, seemingly reluctant to stop for too long in the cemetery. He grinned broadly; a gold tooth winked at Conrad as it caught the sun. 'Absolute pleasure,' thundered the man, almost buoyantly. 'Glad to be here.' He received a jab in the ribs from the woman who stood to his left.
'So sorry, Con.' The woman's soprano voice emerged from behind a rigid smile. 'Absolute disaster! Pretty little thing like that. So many good years ahead of her. You must feel absolutely rotten.' Conrad nodded. The woman looked at the skies and wrinkled her eyes at the bright blueness. There were no clouds, no hope of relief. 'Hot bugger of a day too,' she puffed, her flushed cheeks full with a gasp.
Conrad wiped the handkerchief across his head again. 'Yes. You and Charles, will you come back? For a drink?'
'Love to Con, but so sorry darling. Off to the Mackeson's place. Bit of a party later. Said we'd pop in and give them a hand.'
'Oh, right, that's fine. I understand.'
'Jolly good. Pop along later, if you feel like it. Charles and I will be next to the bar as usual.' The woman snorted a laugh.
'Absolutely,' chortled Charles. 'Need a stiffy after a morning like this. Come on Muriel. Best be off before we melt.' He gave Conrad a pat on the arm and tugged his wife away. 'Chin up, old boy,' he called after him.
Conrad lifted a hand and waved. 'Thanks again.'
Others had started to leave, glad to have used Charles and Muriel as a shield against any emotional crossfire, service sheets alive in their faces as they tried to beat away the heat like so many mosquitoes. Some waved or tipped their heads at Conrad, some swiftly shook his hand, mumbled, pointed at the sun, their cars, and drove away.
Conrad watched as the last car disappeared from sight, their dust filtering slowly back down to the dry road, as if they had been no more than dust-devils, nowhere to stop, nowhere to go. He felt relief at the sudden isolation. He had never been one for crowds, for the flotsam of accompanying problems that inevitably dragged him into their wake. He and Mary had never sought company outside of each other, had never needed to.
He turned back to the grave, to the piles of sun-dried soil that littered the sides, that occasionally gave way and threw tiny balls of dirt into the hole, that in their turn fell hollowly onto his wife's final home.
Only the nameplate on the coffin shone up from the blackness, the only confirmation to Conrad that there was anyone in there at all. It was all too unreal, too big to understand. He had seen her, touched her, kissed her, held her cold hand until his warmth had seeped from him to her, given her false life in his whirlwind mind, but nothing had come, nothing would come, and he had left her, alone, for the first time. The nurses had waited patiently outside the cubicle, moved in as soon as he stepped out of the door, clean sheets and towels and sticky tape piled high upon the trolley, there to clean up the debris of his life.
And now, as the unkind and oppressive sun beat down upon his pounding head, as he heard childish screams a hundred miles away, as he felt too alive to feel good, he prepared to leave her alone again, for the last time.
'Scuse me guv. You finished?'
Conrad turned quickly, alarmed at the crack in the silence. 'I'm sorry?'
'You finished?' The bare-chested and heavily tanned workman looked blankly at Conrad. Behind him was a mechanical digger, his vested workmate at the controls, ready to fill the grave. He withdrew a cigarette from between his lips and stamped it into the dirt at the graveside. 'Lunchtime, mate. We don't hurry up, we go into overtime, and we got too much to do after. See? It's a matter of timing.'
Conrad looked at his wife's grave and then back at the workman. The connection clicked and he started, electrified by what the man had said. He took a step back. 'I'm sorry...I didn't realise...'
The workman's heavy paw stained his shoulder. 'That's alright, mate. It's a bit rough. We understand.' With a wave of his arm, the digger advanced, bit into the earth and started to shovel the soil home.
The workman nodded towards the grave. 'Wife was it?' He had to shout above the noise of the digger.
'Yes it...she was. My wife.' Conrad wanted to tear his eyes away from the work of the digger, to deny the scene before him, but he was trapped by the need to see it through, by his fearful and overwhelming desire to avoid the guilt of desertion.
'Right.' The workman lit another cigarette that he pulled magically from behind his ear. 'Well, you go and get yourself a couple of pints. In fact, get yourself well rat-arsed. You'll feel better for it, take my word.'
'I don't drink,' said Conrad, too low for the man to hear.
The man cupped his ear. 'You what?'
'Nothing. Nothing at all.' Conrad gestured to his car with his thumb. 'I'll be off then.'
'Righty-ho, guv. Go and get a bit of this weather. Probably be it 'til next year.'
Conrad nodded and walked away. He heard the earth fall solidly above the noise of the digger and tried to shut his mind off, to say that it wasn't falling upon his wife, that it was just an empty box, that tomorrow he would kiss her goodbye before he left for work.
As he got into a waiting taxi (he had left his own car in the garage, could not face driving today) he took out the handkerchief and wiped it across his head again. Then he wiped his eyes, quickly and just once, before the noise of the diesel engine crashed into the still air and he was driven away.
When Conrad reached his house he saw two cars parked outside. Relief swept over him as he realised that someone would be inside. His desire to be alone had become tempered by the fear of loneliness on the short journey home. He paid off the driver and walked quickly to the door.
In the lounge sat three people. Two of them, unrecognisable to Conrad, watched the news. The third stood and came across to Conrad, his arms wide.
'Victor!' sighed Conrad with relief.
'Hello, my friend. How are you? I hope it wasn't so bad.'
The two friends embraced. Victor kissed Conrad on the cheek and pulled him close. Conrad felt the boniness of age, the unshaven chin that never seemed to become a beard, and smelt the garlic of which Victor Kivlenieks was so fond.
The two men parted and Conrad looked at his friend. 'You're thin, Victor. Are you neglecting yourself?'
A smile crossed Victor's pale, narrow lips and lit his skeletal face. 'I am as thin as I always was. I was not born to be fat. I am a cheetah, not a fat old lion.'
Victors Polish accent filled Conrad's ears and flooded him with warmth. It was true, Victor had always looked like walking death, but he had always possessed the strength of ten men. His sparrow face hid an eagle's fire that could be seen in his eyes, and his thin wiry frame belied the steel within.
Victor placed his hands on Conrad's shoulders. His face changed from joy to sadness in an instant. 'I am so sorry I missed the funeral. The train was cut. Those bastards at British Rail, or whatever they call themselves now, stink like a long dead rat. I really wanted to be there. You know I loved her.'
'Oh Lord, Victor, I know. And Mary, she loved you too. She spoke of you often before she died.'
Conrad pulled Victor to him again and held him tightly. 'I missed you,' he said softly.
'And I you. If only the end had not been so fast in coming. I wanted so badly to be there. For your sake if not for hers.'
'It's alright,' reassured Conrad. 'It was enough to know that you existed.'
Conrad guided Victor to the sofa and sat him down. Victor dragged an ashtray across a glass-topped coffee table and lit a cigarette.
'Would you like a drink, Victor? I have just about everything, I think.'
Victor inhaled deeply and spat out the smoke like a tired volcano. 'I would like something soft. The doctor has said that I must not indulge myself anymore. No more Vodka! Ha! Cut off my balls, I said, and throw me into an orgy! It would be easier. He wants me to give up my heritage so that I can stay alive. Bastard! What does he know? I had my first drink at the age of two, my first cigarette at eight, and he wants me to stop, now that I am eighty-one. But I agreed, or at least I have compromised. And maybe lied a little. I smoke these shitty filtered things now. I have to smoke twice as many, but it is a compromise. So I compromise further. I don't drink Vodka anymore. I drink whisky instead. As soft a drink as you can get without sucking a wet pillow.'
Conrad smiled. 'That is what I would expect of you. Whisky it is then.'
Conrad went to a long covered table full of drinks and snacks and poured a whisky for Victor and a lemonade for himself. He sat down on the sofa next to his old friend and gave him his drink.
Victor held up the glass and examined the contents with disdain. 'I have to drink twice as much of this shit just to get the fur off my tongue.' Victor took a sip and let it roll around his mouth while he contemplated. 'When I was young and first started drinking vodka, back when I was in Poland and not the refugee I now am. We used to drink the vodka cold, freezing, and the fumes that used to come off it were so strong that we used to drop grains of black pepper onto the surface of the drink,' he rubbed his index finger and thumb together, 'to stop our eyes burning.' He held up the glass of whisky and tapped it gently against Conrad's glass of lemonade. 'To Mary,' he said sadly. His large brown eyes seemed to moisten. 'Who we loved.'
'To Mary,' echoed Conrad.
Victor drained the contents of the glass with a single vicious drag and handed it back to Conrad. 'Another one. For Mary, one is not enough.'
Conrad got up and handed Victor the bottle. 'Finish it, my friend. It's no good to me.'
'I'll do my best.' Victor poured himself another large drink and swallowed it. 'What now? What are your plans?'
'Well, I'm back to work tomorrow. They could only give me four days off. Compassionate leave. It's all been a bit hectic I must say, but I think that the sooner I go back, the better.'
'Are you ready?'
'As I'll ever be. It all feels a bit like a broken jigsaw at the moment. But I'm sure it'll all come back together.'
''The worst is not so long as we can say this is the worst'. Is that it?'
Conrad grinned at his companion. 'I'm impressed. Polish Shakespeare.'
'English Shakespeare.' Victor tapped at his chest with pride. 'Polish man. When I first came here I made a point of learning his plays. It seemed the thing to do. What could be more English? It wasn't until I started talking to people like that that I realised something was wrong. All the same, Conrad Borscz, it helped.'
'I'm sure it did.' Conrad put a hand on Victor's knee and smiled warmly.
'Your mother would have been proud of you, you know,' said the old Pole. 'You have done so well over the years. Civil service, house, the way you handled this unpleasant affair. You are as English as any Englishman.'
'I am an Englishman, Victor. I'm second generation. I've no memory of Poland. I have no inclination to see Poland. I've never heard anything good about it. All it ever seemed to be was heartache and silent revolution.'
Victor let out a small ironic laugh. 'A truly English view. I can remember the warmth in winter, even when we had no fuel for the fire. I can remember the love, even in the middle of all the hate, and I can still feel the revolution that burned like acid in our hearts. The Polish are people of passion and hope. Things have changed now, for sure, but even then it was perfect, in our hearts and in our minds, if not on the brutal streets. Your mother never really got used to English life. She could never get the language...'
'She never tried...' remembered Conrad, not without fondness.
'Oh, I think she did. She was scared, that's all. We were all scared. To come from the warmth of the Polish to the cold of the English was a shock. It was like diving into a cold sea after the comfort of the fire. If she had not left because of those bastard Nazis...well, I don't know. I think she would have been happier to stay in poverty and simplicity than play the complicated games of privilege that the English so love to play.'
'All I can remember is that she didn't really want to integrate. I can remember coming home from school one day and one of her Polish friends was here, Mrs Falkowski, do you remember her?'
Victor nodded. 'Remember her? I fucked her! She was an athlete, I tell you!'
Conrad reeled with surprise. 'You and Mrs Falkowski? No!'
'Her husband was an idle bum! She needed a man. I could not turn her down.'
Conrad laughed quietly. 'You never fail to astound me, Victor.' Victor shrugged as if he was being commended for an act of courage and had simply done what was necessary for his country. 'Anyway, as I was saying, they were in the kitchen, huddled around the table, teapot in the middle with a cosy on, thick cigarette smoke in the air, and I came in, home from school. I remember that day well, because the kids at school had been calling me a Nazi, because I was a foreigner. I came through the back door, trying to hide my hurt, thinking that I must make the effort to smile for her, and she grabbed me and gave me a hug as big as her heart and said to her friend, 'Ah, tu jest mój Conrad. Here is my Conrad. Isn't he beautiful? Such a bright boy. He speaks English more now than he speaks Polish. He is more English than Polish. He has lost his heritage'. Of course I had! On the one hand I was a Nazi and on the other I was Polish. What was I to do? I tried to reply in Polish, but couldn't remember the correct words, became tongue-tied and made even more of a fool of myself.'
'It was difficult, I know.' Victor gave Conrad a conciliatory slap on the back. 'But it was bad for them. Your father was a good man. He found a job and tried to fit in. "Be grateful", he used to say. "They saved us from certain death and gave us a home. We must do our best to give what we can in return". And he did do his best.'
'But he never learned English, Victor. Not very well.'
'He did his best, Conrad Borscz. No man can ask for more. No country can ask for more. No child can ask for more from his father. He loved you very much. I know he didn't show it so much, but he was devoted to you. He doted upon you.'
'I know. I loved him too. I loved them both. I just wish...'
'I don't know.' Conrad sighed deeply and met Victor's eyes. 'There was something missing from them.'
Victor laughed out loud. 'Of course there was. It was their hearts. They had had everything they had ever known torn away from them by strangers, whose ferocity we cannot begin to describe or imagine.'
Conrad tutted and made a gesture that he had had enough. It was too grim, especially today.
The two men who had been watching the news walked by. 'Thank you,' said the taller one as they weaved their way past the tables and chairs and out of the still open front door.
Conrad watched as the two men left, then whispered to Victor: 'I thought they were with you.'
Victor shook his head. 'I thought you knew them. They were here when I came in. The front door was open.'
Conrad went to the window and looked for the two men, but they and the cars had gone. He shrugged at a quizzical Victor. Victor filled his glass again and swallowed the contents without a pause.
'I'm going to get changed.' Conrad pointed at the ceiling to say that he was going upstairs. 'Help yourself. I won't be long. I must get out of this suit.'
Victor nodded and shooed Conrad out of the room.
A moment later Conrad came down the stairs at a pace, his feet heavy and uncontrolled on the thin carpet that covered them. Victor's face frowned as he moved to get up and go to the stairs, his first thought that perhaps Conrad had fainted with the heat and the stress and fallen headlong down them.
'Those two men...' Conrad waved his open hand at the door as he tried to catch his breath.
Victor rushed to him and held him under an arm. 'What is it, Conrad? What happened?'
'They've stolen Mary's jewellery! It's gone! Every last piece! The bedroom's such a mess, Victor! Oh, my God!'
'Shall I go after them?'
'No. No. They'll have gone by now. Oh, my God! That was all I had left of her. She had told me to take all her clothes to the charity shop.' Conrad turned to his friend in panic. 'Victor, I have nothing else. What shall I do?'
Victor pulled his friend over to the sofa, sat him down and held him close as Conrad began to cry. 'They had to come, my friend, these tears. They had to come. Maybe they have been kind to you, these pigs. Wash your grief in tears. Drown the pain.'
Conrad held Victor tight, his fingers white against his jacket as they strained at the cloth.
'She is gone,' whispered Victor. 'She is gone.'
Victor had called the police and guided a stunned Conrad through the barrage of questions that followed.
The policeman they had talked to had shown the sensitivity of a window-bound brick and left Conrad with the thought that the jewellery would probably never be found and that his house was as secure as Swiss cheese.
Victor had lost his temper at the implication, as he saw it, that it may have been Conrad's fault. Conrad, he said in rapid broken English, further dislocated by his intense fury, did not expect this kind of thing. He was a trusting man. He thought that to close the door was enough. The policeman had laughed snidely. Victor had accidentally spilt a tumbler of whisky into the questioner's crotch.
Conrad pondered all this as he stood on the platform of Bracken Hill railway station awaiting the 7.50 to Waterloo. Despite the events of the day before, he felt happy at the thought that he could at last get back to work, to familiarity, to the comfort of distraction.
He looked the length of the platform and smiled within. The smell of the station; the electricity, the ghost of coal that forever pervaded every crack and crevice of the railways, coffee, a thousand different after-shaves, filled his nostrils and welcomed him back.
Before him was a sea of black. Black suits, black hats, black umbrellas, black watch straps. They soaked in the early morning sun, already warm, and came to life, as if black had been white and the Devil's dull machine was God's own code to a life fulfilled. Conrad swam, his head high. The stream would carry him safe, like fluid in the womb.
The 7.50 became the 7.59 and the agitated crowd, upon seeing the train come round the distant bend, surged forward, as if magnetised by the rail and their need to be skidding upon it to another world.
As it screeched and creaked to a halt, it's brakes dry in the arid summer, hands reached for doors like beggars for food, tugged them open and pulled their bodies in, some seized by the dark tide, others drawn to battle for the seats inside that promised comfort for an hour.
Conrad found a seat, carried on by the swell of bodies behind him, and settled in for the ride.
Papers came up and wrapped faces like Saturday fish. Silence fell but for the rustle of turning pages as finance became theatre and theatre became sport and sport became the headlines once again.
Conrad didn't have a paper today. He had turned his head away from the Guardian on the way through the ticket office. He had promised himself that he would do this on his first day back. He wanted to watch his unknown friends in their routine, smell the print and see the brief countryside eclipse the grey and heartless town.
Opposite him sat a man with whom he had travelled for eight years. The man had a severe face that never cracked into a smile, that rarely moved from the set-in-concrete frown that was as much a part of his uniform as his suit and briefcase and brushed bowler hat.
The black eye was fading now and there was no longer a plaster on his nose. There was still a cut, quite deep too, but it was now moulded to his nose by a scab, old and brown, ready to fall with the next shower.
Apparently, so Conrad had heard him tell someone in hushed tones a couple of weeks ago, he had been mugged in the Bracken Hill railway station subway, only a matter of fifty feet from one end to the other. Whoever had done the deed had taken his wallet and one of his teeth and left him with a broken nose and the blackest of eyes.
The black eye had now become brown and made him look more tired than mugged. The nose had a small crook at the bridge, as well as the scab, and his tongue still felt for the gap that had once been filled by the missing tooth. He had stopped gazing out of the window in such a nervous way whenever the train pulled to a stop, but the arrogant confidence that had been almost a trademark two weeks ago had retreated, stolen by one who had never even known that it existed.
Conrad felt deeply for the man. To be invaded by one or a hundred was still an invasion, and the pain was still the same, if not without, then certainly within. He would heal on the outside with time, but his soul was cracked, Conrad could see that.
The man brought the paper down for a second. He saw Conrad's eyes upon him and smiled. Conrad was taken aback, but returned the smile, thrilled that they had communicated at last. Then he thought that maybe he wished that they had not touched each others' lives. The price for civility had been just that bit too high.
The smile had come from fear.
Conrad gave up his seat to a woman who got on at Reading and stood the rest of the way. He was happy to do it. He was free again, back in the flow, back in the salmon rush.
Eventually, the train pulled joltily into Waterloo and hissed to a halt. Conrad waited while the passengers around him filtered through the door and onto the platform. He paused to let Black Eye through in front of him, still secretly overjoyed with their contact, despite the underlying reasons behind it, and then howled as Black Eyes feet tangoed with his own treacherous umbrella and he was sent flying from the train down onto the platform.
Black Eye's face hit the ground first and Conrad's stomach heaved as he heard the crack of bone upon the concrete. Black Eye lay motionless, unconscious. People swerved to avoid him, some treading on his hand as it strayed from Black Eye's flaccid body, the fingers reddening and becoming more raw as each new foot brought its own peculiar trauma to the vulnerable hand.
Conrad tip-toed gingerly from the train and knelt next to poor Black Eye. He pulled the hand in and tucked it beneath one of the unconscious man's hips.
A pool of blood flowed from somewhere on his head and Conrad felt the warm moisture as he realised that he had knelt in it. He raised a hand to stop someone but, seeing that he was there, they averted their eyes and carried on, happy that Black Eye was not their problem, that they had no involvement, their only connection the yellow-faced metal bee that had carried them here.
A porter came across and stooped over the two men. 'What happened, man?'
Conrad looked up, barely able to understand the thick Jamaican accent. 'He's hurt. Please, can you help me?'
The porter frowned non-commitally. 'Don't know if I can. Might be against the rules, man. Don't want to end up getting fired for doing the wrong thing now. I'll see if I can get some help. Stay with him.'
The porter disappeared into the throng and came back a few minutes later with another porter. 'What do you think?' asked the Jamaican.
The skinny white porter ran his eyes over the men on the ground before him. He looked into Conrad's eyes. 'I think it'll be alright, brother. Pop along to the office and ring for an ambulance.'
The Jamaican strolled off and his colleague knelt down next to Conrad. 'You do this?'
'No! Of course not! He tripped over his umbrella!'
'You sure? I'll get the Old Bill if you're bloody lying!'
Conrad felt his face flush. 'I'm not lying! I assure you.'
The porter sneered and stared intently into Conrad's eyes. 'Alright, I believe you. But if it happens again and you're around...well, just watch it is all I can say!'
Conrad was astounded. The porter can have been no more than half his fifty-six years, and yet he saw not a man in a suit on his way to a respectable job in an air-conditioned government building, surely the best of British, but a potential threat. The porter's words were probably no more than a bluster of self-defence and alarm, but to Conrad they were an attack on an innocent man out to help another innocent man.
'Alright,' relented Conrad, desperate to keep the situation within mental arm's length. 'I'll be careful.'
The Jamaican came back, sweat beading from his forehead, his lungs short of breath. 'Ambulance on its way.'
'Thank you, brother.' The white porter stood and nudged Black Eye gently with his foot. 'Out cold. Best leave him where he is. Don't want to break his neck or anything.' He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. 'Happened to a mate of mine. Can't get a hard-on now 'cause some wanker moved him when they shouldn't have done.'
Conrad stood up next to the porter. He found it difficult to pull his eyes away from the slowly spreading pool of blood. 'Shall I go?'
'You what?' The porter shot an aggressive glance at Conrad. 'Not yet you don't! Got forms to fill out yet, mate. Need your name and address and a statement. You can't just bugger off and leave me with this mess! Supposing it goes to court?'
'Oh, I can't see that...'
'Oh, can't you now? Shows how much you bloody know, doesn't it, mate! No, you come to the office. We'll get this sorted properly. Once and for all.'
The porter gestured that his Jamaican colleague should stay with Black Eye and grabbed Conrad's arm. He pulled him off to a scruffy green door and Conrad willingly followed.
In the office the porter pointed to a chair and Conrad sat down upon it. The porter pointed at a kettle. 'Coffee?'
'No, thank you.'
'Might be a while. Couple of forms to fill. Takes a time.'
Conrad refused again and started to fill the form that the porter threw before him on the desk.
The porter made him a coffee anyway. Conrad drank it.