Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Portrait of Stephen as an Old Man

Like on many other sunny days, and sometimes even foggy and rainy ones, I had decided to make my way home from the soap shop walking. It’s just an hour an a half, and the bit through Regent’s Park always turns out to be particularly nice and refreshing, especially if it’s good weather like it was that day, and if you allow yourself to sit down for a moment in a nice shade thrown by the trees of the alley.

I sat on a bench and decided to finish the pasta that lingered in my backpack since the day before; but unlike yesterday it tasted of nothing, as if the airtight box had absorbed the flavour of every single ingredient. I put the box away and just sat there.

An elderly gentleman approached me.

‘Excuse me, are you Polish?’ he asked.

‘Sorry, I’m not.’

‘I’m Polish, and you look one hundred percent Polish to me. Can I sit here with you a little.’

Not being able to say ‘no’ remains one of my greatest weaknesses. He sat down at a polite distance, crossed his legs and put one arm on the back of the bench.

He was old. And grey. Eighty? Eighty five? His face was very tanned. Later, when he told me about the women he’d met in this alley, I realized he spent most of his free time (and most of his time apparently was free these days) here, in Regent’s Park.

I would also find out soon that his name was Stephen.

Stephen was wearing white tennis shoes, purple high waist trousers with a brown leather belt, and a blue shirt that was almost as blue as his eyes. I had never seen such blue eyes before.

‘I am from Poland, but I live here now. I came here sixty years ago. I went to Poland a couple of weeks ago. I go there a lot. Now I won’t be going for a while, I don’t have the money. But in a couple of years I will go again.’

‘One of my best friends is from Poland.’ I said.



Lodz is very industrial. There are a lot of factories in Lodz, manufacturers.’

‘I’ve never been to Lodz.’

‘No, neither have I. I go to Warsaw.’

‘I like Warsaw.’

‘You’ve been to Warsaw?’

I nodded. ‘I like the centre very much, ’ I said.

‘I like the centre too. That’s where I spent all my time as a child. I’m not interested in the suburbs. But we lived in the suburbs. My father was a very rich man. Director of a great company. But he was very stingy. He wanted us to live in the suburbs because it was cheaper. Director of a great company! Half an hour walk from the centre. Rich but very stingy. I spent all my time in the centre anyway, I just walked there. That is where I met my first girlfriend, centre of Warsaw.’

‘I was nineteen and I had never even spoken to a girl before. Like properly spoken to one. Nineteen years old! Twenty almost. When was I going to start? ‘Am I a coward?’ I asked myself. No, I couldn’t let that be. I was not a coward.’

‘I saw her in a street. She was very nice looking. I walked behind her for a good while until I finally got myself to speak to her. My heart was racing. ‘Can I walk with you a little?’ I said. She said yes, and she became my first girlfriend.’

Stephen submerged in a dreamy silence.

‘But she never gave me her love. We met twice a week and walked. Sometimes we were holding hands, but that was it. I would walk her home, and then she would say ‘It was nice to walk with you Stephen’ and leave me there, at the door. Twice a week! That was it. But she did make it clear from the very beginning that the twice-weekly meetings was all I should expect. She was in love with another man. I was in love with her. Immediately! As soon as I saw her. She was very nice looking.’

He passed his hand over his own face while picturing hers.

‘We only walked and talked, sometimes holding hands.’ A bittersweet smile crossed Stephen’s face.

‘But I wanted to kiss her, I wanted to hold her close to my heart.’

He crossed his arms in front of him, leaving enough space for the imaginary girl in his embrace, and then squeezed them close to his chest closing his eyes.

‘I wanted to kiss her. But no – ‘It was nice to walk with you Stephen.’’

He smirked sincerely.

He looked ahead for a while.

‘I went back to Warsaw a couple of weeks ago. I have been back several times, but this time I went back to this one specific place. And I just stood there and stared at this spot in the street. It was the spot where I got shot.’ he said with a mysterious smile. ‘In 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising. By the Germans. Warsaw Uprising. 1944.’

‘I had never held a weapon before. And I didn’t have one then. We were all given grenades, I had mine with me. I was standing in the middle of the street, and they said to us, they promised that they would keep the door of the factory building behind us open, they would never close it before we’d be safe. If the Germans were to approach, we had to throw our grenades at them and run, run back to the building and then they would close the door behind us. That was the plan.’

‘It never happened. I was looking ahead, waiting for the Germans to come. I couldn’t see anyone. Where were they? Suddenly I flew up in the air. About this high.’

Stephen held his hand more than a metre from the ground.

‘I didn’t understand what it was, what had happened. They came from the side. The bullet went into my side, and then went out through my back. In through here’, he pointed at the space under his ribs on the right hand side, ‘and then out through the back.’

‘I was lucky. If it had stayed in, I would have died. It would have been impossible to survive in those circumstances. I was a young boy then. Two weeks ago I went to that exact place again for the first time. After 60 years. I just stood there and thought ‘But how? Where? Where did he come from? I still can’t understand it.’

‘Does it still look the same there?’ I just had to say something as profound as that to feel like I’m contributing to this diamonologue.

‘Yes, exactly the same, and I still don’t know where he came from. Impossible! I was playing this game with myself you know?’

Another deeply relevant comment of mine followed a la reference to CSI crime scene investigation methods.

‘Yes, yes! That is exactly what I was doing! I tried to stand as I stood there that day, but it still makes no sense.’

Another long silence and searching gaze ahead indicated that Stephen was having another little trip in time and space.

‘Not far from here: three, maybe five minutes walk away, years ago, I met an American woman. Very nice looking, tall. She was walking, I walked behind her for a moment and then I asked if I could walk with her. She said I could. I asked for her name.

‘‘My name is Jacqueline, Stephen.’ Stephen is my name, I’m called Stephen.’

That was the first time he told me his name.

‘‘My name is Jacqueline, but everybody calls me Jackie.’ She told me she had run away from her husband who had stayed in Washington DC. She said he loved women a bit too much. I walked with her and listened, and I had this feeling that I’d met her before. I didn’t understand it that day, but the next morning I was reading a paper, and there she was! It was Jackie Kennedy!’

‘I saw that coming,’ I said like a triumphant quiz player trying to show that I didn’t even need those last couple of clues to make my perfect guess.

‘You did? You’re bright! It was Jackie Kennedy! She had run away from her husband. Of course he liked women too much. He was always with Marilyn Monroe and other film stars. She couldn’t take it any more, she came to London and stayed here with a Polish prince, Prince Radziwill, in his house not far from where the Queen lives, not far from Victoria. She went back to her husband two months later, back to the States where he got shot.’

Silence. A new story, Stephen?

‘Years later I read in a paper that she had died. But she told me all this. I was a stranger, I was a nobody to her, so she could tell me all these things.’

‘I met another woman here in this park. Very nice looking. We spoke and walked for half an hour, and she wouldn’t even tell me her name. Half an hour! And she wouldn’t take my hand either.’

Our conversation was certainly at least approaching the length of 30 minutes, which according to Stephen was the time necessary to make the right bond to be able to hold each other by hand. And although it may have not even crossed his mind, I was a bigger coward at my 27 that he had been at 19, and wasn’t quite ready to check whether the hand holding policy was expected of me there that day.

‘It was nice to talk to you, Stephen,’ I said. ‘But I’m afraid I have to get back to work.’

‘You work? And you gave me your time.’ he said in an infectiously moving way.

I got up from the bench and gave him my hand for a shake.

‘Nice to meet you, Stephen.’ And in order to comply with at least one of Stephen’s codes of social politeness, I did let him know my name.

‘I will see you again. One day. In this place’, he said, pointing at the empty space next to him on the bench where I had just been sitting. I walked away rather quickly at a pace that should say that I actually have to be somewhere, hoping he hadn’t seen me earlier coming from the centre, and now going ‘back’ in the opposite direction.

I looked at my watch, it was 3:10 pm. We had spoken for more than half an hour. He had spoken.

The sun was still very high in the sky which was almost as blue as Stephen’s eyes.

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