An extract from Eleanor Wasserberg’s new novel, The Light At The End Of The Day, published by 4th Estate on 6th August 2020.
The Oderfeldt apartment was the last building on the grand Ulica Bernardyńska, its final, corner jewel. One side looked out over the river, but it was the sight from the dining room the neighbours envied: a perfect view of Wawel Castle. The red brick walls of the Wawel jutted out into the street, as though reaching for their neighbour, and a turret sat exactly opposite the window of the main drawing room, as though they had been designed to mirror each other. Dining in that drawing room under the gaze of portrait faces in golden frames, many imagined they were at the Wawel itself, some state occasion, looking out over the terraces and turrets, the flash of green lawn. Adam Oderfeldt liked to smoke his pipe on the apartment terrace with his artist friends, and watch the sky darken over the green-tinged tower tops. On summer evenings the family threw open the windows and invited neighbours and friends for parties in the shadow of the heart of Poland.
Janina Kardas was navigating her way towards the Oderfeldt apartment, in the strangely cheerful sunshine of early afternoon. She wore her best clothes: a fur hat and a heavy winter coat, beautifully tailored with a matching ermine trim. The coat and hat were too warm for early September in the city, but she wished to display herself today, as a woman of obvious good breeding. She remembered snatches of German refugee tales, how people were stopped in the street. She imagined herself seized, accosted, jostled, until the attacker, in some kind of uniform, noticed her coat, her hat, and looked then into her delicately lined face, not young or pretty enough to be in danger, she comforted herself, but somehow authoritative. He would step back, uneasy, for surely she knew people, surely her husband was someone of importance? And Janina’s imaginary self sneered a little, tugged her clothing back into place, patted her hat back onto its perch, and strode away.
Janina passed the shuttered bakery. Two weeks ago the baker had been holding forth yet again, lectures that war was coming. It had been the same for weeks, pastries and doom, and she was irritated by it. The shelves and displays had all been empty that day, and upstairs, heavy footsteps had dragged heavier furniture.
‘It will happen soon,’ he’d said, chewing the thin lips on his lean face, so wrong for a baker, who really ought to be fat, adding, ‘I’m going to Lwów, I’m not sticking around.’
‘But my rolls and doughnuts,’ she had replied. The baker had rolled his thin lips in and out then leaned in so she could smell the ginger on his breath. ‘You are crazy,’ he whispered. ‘You should get out of Kraków. You and all your . . . set.’ He nodded slowly as though passing on a secret code.
‘What a lot of hysteria!’ she said. She lowered her voice. ‘I’m not some poor Jew in Germany. And so what about my pastries? Am I to starve because of your paranoia?’ The baker shrugged, dismissing her, and she swept out past a group of women who had caught the idea ‘war’ in the room and were worrying about it. Only a week or so later, Janina thought the word ‘war’ had become so familiar it had lost its sting, until the radio spoke it, and she could have folded in on herself like an earwig in terror.
Now she tried to ignore the crowd, who were muttering phrases that frightened her. A woman holding a boy’s hand, wearing an ugly green shawl, was saying to an old man, ‘But we have surrendered, haven’t we? The radio . . .’ and as she passed a couple pulling suitcases, the woman’s hair all in disarray, pins sticking out like a sewing cushion doll, Janina heard the man muttering, ‘They say the army is decimated, just utterly decimated.’ As she hurried down Bernardyńska, Janina yelped as people brushed against her, even jostled her without apology, crushing the fur on the edge of her coat. She heard snatches of conversations that made her head pound. They became a rhythm with her feet on the pavement: no, it is a matter of days, it is a matter of hours, it is now, we must leave, we must leave.
By the time she reached the Oderfeldt apartment, shameful sweat coated her lower back and her temples. Janina rang three times, holding the bell longer than was polite, before a servant finally came. It wasn’t one she remembered, but the girl did an awkward little bob, flustered, and said, ‘Oh, another one, are you come to see from the windows too? They are all upstairs—’ and then she ran off before Janina could reply.
She was left to walk up the stairs alone, and the strangeness of it made her feel shy: no servant to announce her, no invitation, but then nothing was as it should be these days. She was reassured by the gleam of the banister and the thickness of the rug she could feel through her boots. From the main drawing room came muffled sounds of voices, sounding quite relaxed; she determined to dismiss the servant’s alarm, and find comfort in her kind of sensible people.
Entering the room, Janina noticed first the elegant buttoned back of Anna Oderfeldt’s dress . She smoothed down her own coat, feeling dowdy as always in comparison to Anna. Along the windows, a row of backs: scarves obscuring hair and faces, hats on inside, people craning and on tiptoe. A drone of low, shaking voices. The Oderfeldt daughters were there, Alicia with her face pressed to the glass, her hands splayed out, smudging the pane. She always behaved like a baby, this one; she must be thirteen or so now, but indulged into endless infancy. Her older sister Karolina paced, wearing boots inside. She looked purposeful, grown up, as though she were to announce a plan soon. Perhaps they were about to leave. Janina tried to catch Karolina’s eye, but she was unseeing, moving her lips a little as though rehearsing a speech, or praying. Unsure what to do, Janina cleared her throat quietly, then loudly. Adam Oderfeldt turned and gave her a tight-lipped smile.
‘Ah! Another neighbour come for the view. Come, Mrs Kardas. Janina. ‘
She smiled her approval. At least Adam was behaving like a gentleman, observing the formalities.
‘Would you like a drink?’ Adam offered. He gestured to the sideboard, where vodka and nalewki sat in shining decanters. Anna turned too, pale as milk, but her gaze slid to Karolina, still walking behind Janina, before she was drawn back to the window.
‘No, thank you, Mr Oderfeldt. I just wanted to . . . I wondered if . . .’
Others turned then, just for a moment. The same pale faces, pinched with confusion. She recognised acquaintances from her son’s school, lawyers and their wives who had come to dinner, doctors like her husband, Adam’s friend Stefan from the university, the Hartmanns, David Schultz and his ugly bride of only a year, or was it two? Janina and her husband Laurie had gone to the wedding, before he died, and given them a generous gift of Meissen china. Had they ever received a thank-you note? Janina didn’t think so, and returned the wife’s weak smile with a cold blankness.
‘Yes, come and see. There’s nothing clear, but come look at her if you like,’ Adam replied.
She joined the others, craning and peering. The castle looked empty and serene – immovable. It seemed to promise that everything would be all, all right. The red brick glowed in the early Autumn sunlight, cheerful against the bright blue sky. Janina remembered telling her son Aleks the story of a dragon who lived in a cave beneath the castle, fire-breathing and strong, its heart beating for the city. He’d listened and then solemnly lectured her that this was just a story, and that real dragons were called dinosaurs. That was when Laurie was still alive; she’d gone straight to tell him, that already their baby said no more stories, and she’d cried on his shoulder like a fool. It’s all right, he said to her. It’s all, all right.
For a stomach-dropping moment, Janina thought she saw a soldier on the lawns around the castle, a man running, but then he was gone; perhaps she’d imagined it. Below them, in the street, the pool of people she had waded through had become a flood.
‘Are you leaving?’ she murmured to Anna, at her side.
‘It seems so calm,’ Anna whispered.
‘You know the Friels already left? Two days ago. They’ve left everything behind. It’s all just sitting in their house,’ Janina said, unsure if she was soothed or alarmed by Anna’s show of nonchalance.
‘They’ve probably just gone to visit family,’ Anna replied, in the same low tone, but on quickening breath that told her irritation, or perhaps her fear.
Down the line of watchers, the same murmur rose, maybe we should leave too, just for a while . . .
‘Ben Friel wore a kippah every day, not just for special occasions,’ Anna added.
‘Yes, and they had a mezuzah on their doorframe,’ Janina readily added, before dropping her gaze to the street once more. She remembered her mother’s marble mezuzah, packed up in the attic along with all her things from the old house. She had meant to nail it outside their own apartment door, imagined the comfort in passing the old talisman as she came and went, a relic of childhood. Instead it had remained in its box all these years. It was the first time she had thought of it for so long. Would someone search the house, find it? She wanted to ask Anna, but was stalled by her neighbour’s slow movements, her cool sipping of the glass in her hands. It was childish to worry. It was vulgar to panic.
Janina caught sight of a group of Polish soldiers, heading away from the city, heads bowed, leaving their mothers behind. You should be ashamed, she thought. She wondered if her boy was safe.
‘Do you think if you did decide to leave, I could come with you?’ she murmured again to Anna, feeling a hot blush across her neck and chest.
But Anna had moved away, hadn’t heard her; she was kissing the cheeks of the Hartmanns, first the wife and then the husband. The wife, Miriam, had an old spat with Janina that went back to the girl wearing too much makeup, and walking out with Aleks when they were too young. Janina had called the girl a slut. The optician, Miriam’s father, had refused to treat Janina after that, and she had to travel across the city into the old district, back to her childhood doctor. Now, Miriam’s heavy mascara streamed down her cheeks, collected in ugly clumps in the creases of her eyes. Her eyes slipped over Janina, who wanted, suddenly, to apologise to her, to take her hand, but instead she stood mute. She turned back to the window to hide her awkwardness there.
‘There must have been another radio announcement,’ she said. ‘Look how many people there are out in the streets now.’
‘They can’t be in the Wawel already, you don’t think?’ Stefan Lis said, his voice muffled by glass as he pressed his face once more against the window.
‘No new flag there, as you see,’ Adam replied, pouring another vodka. His hand played a tune between decanter and glass. ‘It will be all right,’ he added.
It will all be all, all right. Janina caught herself in the windows, nodding as though to ritual prayer or radio music.
‘Look at them all leaving,’ Miriam said to her husband, and he raised his voice in return, breaking the hush of the room: ‘But where will they all go? Why make ourselves homeless, stateless, when we don’t even know—’
‘They’ll go to the border, Tomas, and then see from there,’ Miriam replied, her voice suddenly full of disdain. Everyone smiled and nodded goodbyes and good lucks at them even as Tomas continued to insist, ‘We’re not going to leave, at least not just yet . . . Adam, we’ll be here for dinner tomorrow . . . ’ and the discussion continued out of the room and down the stairs.
‘And Mrs Kardas, where are you going?’ Adam called.
‘Oh! Home. Such a lot of nonsense and hysteria.’