Statistics from Altmetric.com
The day was very cold. The empty platforms and the patch of steel grey sky, visible between the outline of the footbridge and the sheds beyond, only reinforced his feelings of melancholy and fear. He shuffled from foot to foot and pushed his hands deeply into the pockets of the heavy old fashioned serge overcoat, and tried to make them meet in front of him so that the rough material was pulled more closely to his body. It wasn’t effective though; the wind sliced down the platform from the East, and found its way easily between the folds and opening of the coat, to the vulnerable body beneath. He shivered and turned to face the priest from the day centre who had come to support him. The priest met his questioning gaze directly and smiled in encouragement, but said nothing. He placed his outstretched arm around the other’s shoulders, and squeezed gently pulling him momentarily towards him before releasing the pressure. The grey coated man continued to gaze at the priest but now there was a hint of relaxation around his eyes. His mouth worked for a second or two but no sound came and he looked away down the track.
They stood, not speaking for ten or so minutes more before a barely audible announcement crackled over the Tannoy, and their anxiously scanning eyes picked up the first hint of movement many hundreds of yards away in the distance down the dully glistening tracks. The train snaked its way towards the station growing larger by the second and eventually pulled into the platform in front of them, as they moved restlessly a few yards to the left, and then again to the right, peering tentatively through the slowing windows of the train. The grey coated man fought to control the panic rising inside him. He was too late to call the whole thing off now; too late to run away; too late to continue the anonymous unencumbered life. Would he recognise her? Would she recognise him? Would he find any familiar hint of that dark girl he had once loved, or had the last thirty years of separation and solitary living erased all trace of their previous connection. Just then he couldn’t remember her smell; he couldn’t remember the touch of her skin, could not recall her smile, or how her mouth altered when she laughed; it was a void which might never be filled. They had exchanged photographs of course, but there was no suggestion of any smile in those, in fact there was no clue to any of her thoughts or feelings from them.
The doors opened with a snap and a dozen or so passengers, non- familiar, climbed down from the tall carriages, looked around them and hurried off towards the exit sign at the top of the steps. With a sense of relief he realised she wasn’t on the train, she wasn’t coming after all, and turned, shaking, towards the priest. He, however, did not meet the grey coated man’s glance but was looking steadfastly towards the front end of the train, where a small stooped figure, dressed almost completely in black, was dismounting from the leading carriage, evidently with some difficulty. The priest pointed to the woman with his black gloved hand and said softly, “There”, and putting his arms around the shoulders of the man in grey, pulled him gently forwards as he set off, steadily, towards the woman at the other end of the shining platform.
His head was swimming and he still wasn’t sure if it was her, but as they approached she was joined on the platform by a squat, bespectacled nun who was wrestling with two large suitcases, and he now knew that she was indeed the woman. The nun said a few words to the woman in black and she became aware of their emphatic footsteps and turned towards them. As she did so, the man in grey looked directly into her sombre, shadowed eyes and whispered, in an unsteady voice, “Yana?” “Husband?” she breathed in her own language, and grasping his arms with her own small hands she sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
“What did you say?” he asked in his thick, almost unintelligible accent.
I said, “I bet you have many memories flooding back at this particular time; you were miles away then weren’t you?”
“I thought that is what you said; yes many memories—none very happy though. VE Day means nothing to me. I don’t think I’ve been happy since I was twenty. I told you didn’t I—I was a prisoner for two years and I never thought that I’d live—no one else much did. After I was released I walked all the way from Russia right through the Middle East and I didn’t see my wife for thirty years. She thought I was dead for fifteen of them. In the end she came over to England in 1968, it had taken fifteen years to get them to agree to her coming. I could have gone back to live in Poland but I was frightened. I thought they might put me back in prison or even kill me. It was never the same when she came. She never got over those desolate years. I don’t think she ever really forgave me for not getting back to her. She loved me, but she never forgave me, bitter with me really, bitter with the whole world and I am sorry that I was never able to love her again. I don’t know why, I wanted to but it had gone, burnt out by those thirty empty years. My life has been terrible; I wish I’d never been born, but I do believe in God and he must have had a reason for me being here. Anyway I’m going now, and Doctor, don’t let’s talk of this again please! Goodbye”.
He was a very old Polish man who was a frequent attender and who never seemed to get better or any happier no matter what efforts I made for him. He was a devout catholic and I could not understand why someone with such a faith was so concerned with their health and mortality—in fact his hypochondriacal attitude irritated me. I never seemed to really reach his inner self and in an effort to engage him I took the opportunity of the VE day anniversary to try and connect as I knew he had come to this country as a result of the second world war. I was astounded by what he told me and his attitude to life and his health was suddenly explicable. I was never able to make him any happier but I was never irritated by him again. Not long afterwards his wife died and his priest arranged for him to go into a home for aged Polish expatriates in Wales, so I didn’t know his end but I like to think he found some solace amongst his compatriots.
Opening the word hoard is edited by Gillie Bolton. Items should be sent to her at the address at the end of her editorial.
If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.