By Charlie Britten
It was on the day of the Holy Father’s visit to Krakow in September 1979 that the D word was first used against Anna. Having just attended open air Mass outside the Wawel Cathedral, she and several thousand others were walking back to ordinary life. Passing historic buildings blackened by soot from the local steelworks and clutching her tiny red and white Polish flag, Anna was not exuberant – because she was too old for such things – but she was content.
As she turned into the street where she had parked, she spotted a Westerner hovering beside her red Polski Fiat. “Bob Heine. South California Times, ma’am.” He held up a small card she was unable to read without her glasses.
“I cannot speak with you,” she said in English, a language she knew a little, like most of her countrymen. Pushing him aside, she shoved her car key into the door lock. As usual, it jammed and would, she knew, require several painful twists of her arthritic wrists.
“Let me-” It yielded to him at once.
“Thank you,” she said, climbing into the driving seat.
“Can I ask you, ma’am,” he asked, “how the Pope’s visit will affect morale amongst Polish dissidents, like yourself?”
“Dissident? No dissident.”
“But you’re the wife of Jerzy Krol.”
“Widow.” She stared ahead, at the marks left by flies on the windscreen. “He died. In prison. In 1968. Don’t you know anything?” The car started first time, for once, farting automotive disgust from its exhaust. “How dare he, Jerzy?” she cried, as she headed out of the city, towards the Tatra Mountains. “We’re radicals. Catholics. Poles.”
Twelve months later, Anna emerged from her home, sweeping the lane with her eyes, for an unmarked black car with one leather-jacketed man sitting inside. That evening, however, there was none. ‘Too busy running after Solidarnosc nowadays. Can’t waste time on an old woman like me,’ she said to herself, as she panted up the mountain and into the forest clearing, where she and her ‘group’ met weekly to rail at the government, and at each other, unseen and unheard.
On her way back, she was observed, by Roman, standing in front of the chalet, shielding his face against the reddening sun with his palm. “Mother?”
She raised her arms then let them drop against her sides. “Here I am. As you see.”
“All right?” He affected to adjust the sign on the fence advertising ‘All Polish Honey’.
“Yes.” She nodded at what he held in his hand. “Are you sure of that? Maybe our bees fly over the border into Czechoslovakia?”
He grinned. “They wouldn’t. They’re proud to be Polski.”
“Quite right. I’m going away for a few days, Roman. In the car.”
“I’m taking a holiday.”
Their blue grey eyes clashed like jousting swords.
“To the coast.”
“In September? Bit cold for swimming in the Baltic.”
She held her glare. “Before I go, could you carry that old typewriter to my car? It takes up too much space in my room. I’m going to dump it.”
He sneaked a sidelong glance towards his wife, Julia, lifting carrots from the vegetable patch. “To the coast? To Gdansk?”
Anna said nothing.
“Solidarnosc. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Father would’ve been there. With the strikers at the Gdansk Shipyard last month.”
“He would’ve been arrested, while Walesa hobnobbed with the government. I still can’t believe it all happened.” Roman shook his head. “You knew about those strikes beforehand?”
“No.” She would’ve loved to have answered Yes.
“Solidarnosc’s appealing for office equipment.”
Her eyes widened.
“Like everyone else, I listen to overseas radio stations, Mother. They require… printing presses, copiers… and typewriters, which they cannot buy without being registered with the government.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear from overseas radio, Roman, although… you’re correct in this instance.”
“Why aren’t the young men in your group doing this?”
“I volunteered.” She jerked her head towards the forest clearing. “They agreed, eventually.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You forget, Roman, that I’m your mother and you’re my son. Not the other way round. Move the typewriter into my car, please. I’m going inside now.”
Her bladder required frequent attention, having been weakened by giving birth to him thirty-seven years ago, in a dingy room in Krakow. She’d watched from her window, as the Nazis corralled the Jews along the street, poor women in headscarves, clattering pots and pans behind them, dark-eyed children clutching their mothers’ skirts. Assaulted by pain every few minutes, Anna wondered when they would come for her and other Poles who opposed the Nazis. Following her delivery, the city was silent, the only sounds her own restless movements against stale sheets.
After the war, Jerzy said, “Now we have peace, and a Socialist government, things’ll improve.”
“Really?” she replied.
They formed the group in 1949.
Three mornings later, Roman carried the typewriter down the steep chalet staircase, wedging it in the well between the front and back seats of Anna’s car. It amused her that he now wore a Solidarnosc badge on his jacket. He’d never involved himself in her and Jerzy’s activities; even as a child, he knew where not to look, what questions not to ask. Waiting only to wave him off to work, she set off, the Polski Fiat whining its protest as she drove it along steep mountain roads, past chalets with corrugated-iron roofs dipping to the ground, where one tethered cow grazed on the front verge. White posters of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, smiled from every window, alongside the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora. This was her Poland, Jerzy’s Poland.
“In the West, you could have a good job, Jerzy,” friends had said in the late 1940s, sometimes adding, “You too, Anna.”
“Who would care about Poland, if we all ran away?” he asked.
Arrested in August 1968, as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring – a movement with which he had no involvement – Jerzy succumbed to pneumonia in a freezing prison cell. Anna cared still.
Scrunched up into a tight foetal position and her head pressing against the door handle, Anna tried to sleep in her car. In the darkest hours before dawn, she dozed, dreaming of arriving at Solidarnosc’s headquarters to find typewriters on every desk… sometimes two or three. In the kinder light of morning, she drank more water, pleasantly chilled by the night air.
Gdansk was bigger than she anticipated, a city of towering, dun-coloured apartment blocks, every window-pane displaying a red and white Solidarnosc sticker, every lamppost, every road sign. “Look, Jerzy,” she cried. “Oh Jerzy, just look.”
“Solidarnosc’s on the road to Sopot,” said the group member who knew somebody who knew somebody who’d taken part in the Shipyard Strikes. “You can’t miss it.” She could.
So much traffic, worse than Krakow. Drivers honked their horns when she slowed to consult road signs, to northern towns she’d never heard of. So many people. Whenever she stopped at traffic lights, they walked behind… in front… beside the car, and the typewriter between the seats. Was it still covered up by her rug? She daren’t turn her head back to check, for fear of drawing attention to it.
The traffic moved off again, pressing down upon her. Anna glimpsed the Shipyard crane on the skyline, its jib bent like a bird’s broken wing, but, as when encountering someone famous in the street, she knew she mustn’t stare. Round and round she went, past the same shops and the woman in a flowery housecoat, smoking in front of a hairdresser. On being asked directions eventually, hairdresser woman waved her cigarette towards the seafront, even before Anna formed her question. Had this woman been one of those who had stood outside the Shipyard, hour after hour, day after day, supporting her husband or son? Anna drove on, down strange roads, leading to more roads… and another road. Now the traffic was slowing again, and drivers leaning out of their open windows to gawp. Was it at the cars in the showroom? No. A dingy sign over the adjacent doorway whispered ‘Hotel Morski’.
“I’ve found it, Jerzy.” Overhead, the handwritten banner, strung across several casements, screamed ‘SOLIDARNOSC’.
Demonstrators blocked the right-hand carriageway. Another group – steelworkers according to their banners – milled about a speaker whose voice boomed distorted words through a loud-hailer. Long-haired teenagers, who should be in school, stuck flyers everywhere, including Anna’s windscreen. She stretched her arm out of her window to remove the flapping piece of paper, but couldn’t quite reach. The boy who’d put it there waved and grinned.
With difficulty, she manoeuvred herself into a parking space across the road. The silence when she switched off her engine was deafening; that sound – her sound – had sustained her for a day and a half. Out of habit, Anna cowered behind her steering wheel, seeking out uniformed police and their – more dangerous – plain clothes colleagues.
A ginger-haired girl wearing a Solidarnosc t-shirt spoke, very fast and in English, at a gaggle of western journalists holding fur-covered microphones. “Press conference. One hour.” She held up her flat palm. “No questions now.”
“And you are…?” they asked.
“Marya Wieclawski, Solidarnosc spokeswoman.”
‘Don’t give out your full name, you stupid girl.’ Anna didn’t even know the group members’ surnames.
The reporters dispersed, brushing past her car, one of them knocking her wing-mirror. “Sorry,” he said. As he walked away, Anna recognised him, but Bob Heine wasn’t pestering her now the big players were out.
The teenagers stuck another flyer under her windscreen and the demonstrators were coming towards her in a wave, chanting “Solidarnosc, Solidarnosc…” Anna drew in her breath and held it. Her lungs filled to bursting point. There was not enough air in her small car. What little there was, she had used up over two days. She had to get out. Anywhere. Anyhow. She didn’t care about the typewriter anymore.
Grabbing her handbag, she dragged her stiff legs out on to the pavement, but then she had to press herself against the side of her Polski Fiat as the protesters brushed past her, the coldness of its red metal penetrating through her thin skirt. Once again, she struggled to lock the door. Tears welled up in her eyes on seeing Roman’s sweater on the back seat. No, no, she mustn’t do that here.
Swallowing hard, she crossed the street. Where could she go in this strange city? Then she stopped. She swivelled on her heels. Yes, she did care about the typewriter. Very much.
The Solidarnosc spokeswoman headed back towards the Hotel Morski doorway. Quickening her pace, Anna called, “Stop. Stop.”
Anna’s voice dissipated into the general hubbub, Solidarnosc noise, not hers. The girl quickened her pace.
She walked still.
“Marya.” Anna didn’t like calling strangers by their first names, even though this young woman appeared little older than her granddaughter.
Marya stopped. She turned, although her eyes remained on her clipboard. “Yes?”
“I’ve got a typewriter. For Solidarnosc,” Anna whispered, even though everyone else shouted.
“Thank you,” Marya replied, without looking up.
“If Solidarnosc still wants typewriters.”
“It’s in my car. You… I mean… Solidarnosc’ll… have to get it out. It’s too heavy for me.”
Then Marya did look at her, through pale grey eyes fringed with ginger eyebrows. “Oh… oh. Are you all right… madam?” Before Anna had a chance to reply, she added, “I’ll get one of the blokes. Can you wait here?”
“Thank you. I’ll stand by my car.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, dear. Perfectly.” Anna raised her eyebrows. “Are you going to fetch one of your… blokes?”
Anna returned to her Polski Fiat. Now she had time to see everything, every slogan, every chant, every banner. And to drink it all in. This was what she had come for. As a dissident.
Charlie Britten has had pieces published in Radgepacket, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, Every Day Fiction, Long, Short Story. She also enjoys writing her blog, ‘Write On’, at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com. In real life she is an IT tutor at a college of further education and lives in eastern England with her husband and cat.