Oct 072013

Howard Colyer

If I were here I would face so much. So much would be different from before. That is what I thought. So much that I feared I would confront. That is what I believed. So much would challenge me. That is what I hoped. And in my hopeful state I saw me rising above all the challenges that came my way. I would hurdle the challenges. A champion hurdler – that would be myself. In Deptford.

Yes. In Deptford.

Why in Deptford?

Because to my parents Deptford was hostile territory.

Slumming – my Mother said.

Slumming – my Father said.

They both talked to me about the slums of Deptford.

National Front and heroin addicts – they both said that. They talked to me separately. They used the same words – almost the same words. They had a script – or, that is how it seemed.

I returned from university on a Friday. I set off for Deptford on a Monday. I had an inheritance to thank for that. I had enough to pay off debts and make a start. They thought the money had driven me mad.

Reckless – my Mother said.

Squanderer – my Father said.

They condemned me separately but in union. Left and right, night and morning. From midday on the Friday to midday on the Monday. They even offered me money – which was odd.

Go to Bombay – they said.

But why go to Bombay when you can go to Deptford? – that is what I asked.

They didn’t answer. They just made the same offer over and over. They were willing to pay for me to live in Bombay for six months. But still I went to Deptford. Neither my Mother nor my Father have been to Bombay. Nor have they visited me in Deptford. They have not visited me in Frankham House in Frankham Street.

In my rented room I live between Deptford Church Street and Deptford High Street. And I am not training to be a lawyer. Lawyer – is the only consoling word my parents have written since I arrived here. Thinking of the law consoles them. They think my room is convenient for the London School of Economics and yet another degree – in law. But I don’t want to be like my parents. Not at all. Which is a thought my parents cannot comprehend. Except under the labels of malice and madness.

Malice – my Mother.

Madness – my Father.

In letters written the same day. And between the lines there was a picture of vicious squalor. In their first letters, and all subsequent letters. They see me living in their imagination in Frankham House in Frankham Street in squalid and vicious conditions. The thought is plain even when left unsaid. And nothing I have written on Frankham House, or Frankham Street, has shifted their opinion. They have never been here – yet I am wrong and they are right. I see civility and tranquillity; they see drug crazed fascists – in their imaginations, which are altogether strange, and which cannot be amended at all.

I wanted something new. I wanted to face something new. I wanted to push my face into something new. Yet the reality of Frankham House in Frankham Street was not the new thing I had expected. Yet I had never expected the storm troopers with syringes that my parents see all about me in Deptford. And I rent a room, and this is an abomination. It’s an abomination for them.

Abominable – my Father wrote.

Abominable – my Mother wrote.

Renting is for the underclass ­– Father.

Renting means sleeping in someone else’s bed – Mother.

So I bought a flat. I invested some of my money. I invested in property. I invested on the Lee High Road. But I didn’t move. I kept my room in Frankham House in Frankham Street in Deptford. I followed my parents’ advice in a way they did not like. And my property on the Lee High Road came with a tenant. I didn’t advertise for a tenant. A tenant was already there. A regular tenant. A tenant with a long lease. Which made the property cheaper. And more attractive to me. And it wasn’t a whole house. Just a slice of a house. A once grand Victorian house – sliced up. And it was not a house like my parents’ house. And the Lee High Road was not a road like my parents’ road. I kept the distinction even as I became the landlord of the old man – my tenant.

A sitting tenant is a disaster – my Father wrote.

You must be mad – my Mother wrote.

They have never been to the Lee High Road. They know not what they have missed. They merely write from afar – accusations, misrepresentations, assertions. Their letters punctuate my life. Mostly they mark the end of a period. Sometimes they’re just semi-colons marking a transition within a period. Their letters always leave a mark.

And, as to the old man, they wanted to know more – to know the details; to know all. I told them little; I told them things little by little. But I never met the old man. The old man – that was how the estate agent described him. He didn’t give his name. He was just the old man and nameless. But I learned his name when I bought the property. Then I was given a copy of the tenancy – the contract. Thomas Kowal – that was the name of my old Polish man. A tenant regular and true. No trouble at all – the estate agent said. But I wanted to meet him, to reassure him, to tell him I was content in Frankham House in Frankham Street. I wanted to say that I was content for him to stay for evermore.

But he died. He did not keep our appointment. But he did not stand me up. He sent a message. Hospital – it said. I have got to go to the hospital that day – it was no more precise than that. But I understood. I assumed that day was the appointed day, and he wouldn’t be there, at the appointed place – the flat.

Instead I met the police. They came here to my room in Frankham House in Frankham Street. They surprised me. My landlord let them in. The owner of the flat where I have my room – he let them in. There was a knock on my door.

Come in – I said.

They came in; they stood here; they remained on their feet; they delivered their bad news. I’m afraid, miss, that Thomas Kowal is dead – and so they surprised me again. Their visit was a surprise, and their words were a surprise.

Why have they come to me? – I asked myself.

We understand that you’re his next of kin – the second policeman said. And I was surprised a third time. The police said, that the hospital said, that Thomas Kowal said, that I was related to him.

And they left. The police left with all due words of condolence. And my landlord reassured me. He had overheard the words of the police. And my landlord, by his own account, was a psychiatrist and a herbalist.

I understand loss – he said – my son committed suicide.

But his attempts at sympathy I found confusing.

I never met Thomas Kowal – I explained.

And my landlord gave me a sympathetic look. The look of my landlord suggested I was in denial. And my landlord looked as if he understood my self-deception – for he was a herbalist and a psychiatrist. But I resisted his psychology, his psychiatry and his herbal tea.

And my parents wrote: they wrote many letters.

Disaster – my Father wrote in his letter.

You brought this on yourself – my Mother wrote in hers.

And both letters were strange – even stranger than their normal standards of strangeness. They excelled.

And I went to the flat. I was hoping to find some evidence of a friend. Somebody to accept the belongings of Thomas Kowal. Somebody to notify of his death. Somebody to invite to the funeral. But there was nothing to suggest he knew a living soul. Except for one sentence – Jan, you take the 321, Thomas. And that was on the first page of a notebook. A blue notebook with hard covers – 6 inches tall, 4 inches wide. But there was nothing on the second page, and so on, until the last page. And there I found three sentences, written by the same hand as the note to Jan, and with the same pen.

I don’t believe in water turned to wine. I don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins. I don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

That was what he wrote. And that was all I found in the notebook. And all in English; nothing in Polish. And it left me curious. It left me wondering, and I asked a neighbour about Thomas Kowal and his friend, Jan. I knocked on the other door on the landing on the Lee High Road. I introduced myself. I said – Thomas Kowal is dead – and I asked my questions.

But the neighbour knew nothing – nothing except that he was old, Polish, liked to smoke, and drank in The Dirty South. And so I went to the pub. And in The Dirty South I asked about Thomas Kowal – an elderly Polish man who liked to smoke. And they recognised the man from my words. And they agreed that he was elderly, Polish, and he smoked. And they said that he drank Guinness – by himself. He arrived alone, drank alone – two or three pints – and left alone. No trouble; no words. No words except – A pint of Guinness, please. Polite and almost silent.

Lunatic – my Father wrote.

Dirty old man – my Mother wrote.

But Thomas Kowal was neither lunatic nor dirty. But the news of his lonely life on the Lee High Road had the power to unhinge my parents.

And I went to the funeral. There were just the three of us – and one was dead. And the priest was glad to see me.

The hospital had arranged for a Catholic cremation in Birkbeck Crematorium. As Thomas Kowal was Polish they had done that without a thought. And I did not mention the things in which Thomas Kowal did not believe. But the ink was faint. Perhaps with the years his opinions had changed. I couldn’t say. So I said nothing to the priest. And there was no sign of Jan – of the Jan who was instructed to take the 321 bus. Jan? A Polish man? An English woman? But again the words were faint in Thomas Kowal’s notebook. It seemed likely that Jan had gone ahead of us to the crematorium. And there was no evidence at all in Thomas Kowal’s flat of anybody in his life who might still be alive.

His wife was dead. Ivy Kowal – once Ivy David – had died seven years before. Her death certificate was in a folder with a bundle of photographs – 33 photographs of Ivy, and of Ivy and Thomas. Mostly taken in Wales. In North Wales – in Conway, Carnarvon, Anglesey and Betws-y-Coed. There was a large photograph of Thomas and Ivy Kowal and a green car – a Morris Oxford – and an old church – and Betws-y-Coed was written on the back. The couple are drinking tea from plastic cups – one red, one white – and it was the only large photograph I found. I imagine Thomas Kowal spent many hours studying that picture in his seven solitary years. In the solitary remnant of his life. In his solitude on the Lee High Road.

He was a man of few possessions. He had a radio, but no television. He had two pairs of shoes – black – two pairs of trousers, seven shirts – white shirts – a jacket, a raincoat, an overcoat, and socks and underwear – the same make, the same colour. And on his bookshelf there was one map, two books and three football programmes. Thomas Kowal ended his life in Spartan solitude.

And there were x-rays of his lungs showing black marks. The black marks that released him from the prison of his days.

Suicide – my Father wrote.

And my Mother wrote the same – Suicide by cigarette.

They both wrote about his desire to die, and were glad, as if Thomas Kowal had been their enemy. But he wasn’t mine; and he wasn’t theirs – they didn’t know him. And I tried to picture his life from the clues he left behind. He seemed to have perfected the art of minimal living. But as to the depth of his feelings, I do not know. But I believe he felt things deeply. But there was something in his severity which disturbed people. Even my own landlord, in Frankham House in Frankham Street, found his solitude disturbing.

Mad monk – he said in judgement of Thomas Kowal, and this despite my landlord’s claims of psychiatric training and herbalism. A mad monk, mad, truly mad – he said over a cup of herbal tea.

But still I persevered with my late tenant. I felt I had a duty. And I studied his map. His one map was of Italy, and it was marked with series of crosses, that began in Palermo, went along the north coast of Sicily, crossed to the mainland, continued by the sea to Naples, and then went diagonally across the country to end in Verona at the foot of the Alps. And one of his books was the War in Italy 1943 – 1945, by Field Marshall Lord Carver. It had been read many times. It was held together by two rubber bands. And every reference to Polish forces had been underlined – and Lieutenant-General Anders and Major-General Rakowski had been underlined more than anybody or anything else. As if perhaps he knew them. As if perhaps he’d been there.

And the other book was a collection of three plays by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. Three violent, absurd plays of unpredictable plot written in Poland in the 1920s. And in the first play, The Madman and the Nun, two sentences leapt at me – Imagine a long row of machines in a huge factory without any engineer in charge. All the pointers in the dials have already gone beyond the red arrow, and everything rushes madly on. These sentences leapt at me because that is how it feels inside my head whenever I receive a letter from my Father, or my Mother; and particularly when I receive a letter from them both on the same day.

And my parents denounced Thomas Kowal.

War Criminal – Father.

Mass Murderer – Mother.

Why didn’t he go home?­ – both Father and Mother.

They both asked the same question; and made, more or less, the same accusation. But I believe his home was obliterated in 1939. That was when Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz committed suicide – or so I learned in the introduction to his three plays. That was the clue. That was my vital clue. Poland was invaded by both Germany and Russia. And in his desk Witkiewicz left behind a play called The End of the World – it was a contemporary play. His desk was destroyed. His home was destroyed. His city was destroyed. Poland was divided in two, and much was obliterated, and many Poles were taken prisoner by the Russians. But then released to serve in the British Eighth Army.

In 1941 Germany invaded Russia and Thomas Kowal started his journey to Italy via Iran and Egypt. Or, so I believe. The clues I have suggest that this is true. And then from Italy he went to Wales and married Ivy David. And they moved to Lewisham – or, so I believe. For together with the map and the books I found three football programmes. The first for Good Friday, April 18th, 1955 – Millwall v Coventry. The second for Saturday, January 19th, 1957 – Millwall v Crystal Palace. The third for Saturday, December 9th, 1967 – Millwall v Preston North End.

Why? I ask myself.

I do not know. These programmes, the pictures of his wife, and the x-rays of his lungs are the evidence that I have for his life in Britain. Yet, in addition, there are his clothes, his bare flat, and the brief testimony of him by the estate agent, his neighbour, and the barman at the Dirty South. But I seem to be the only one to care for these details. Thomas Kowal matters to me. I do not want him to slip into oblivion.

He sat in his room; I sit in mine. I fill notebook after notebook with thoughts and impressions; and his notebook was almost empty. Yet I feel linked to the man. Only in my mind is he still alive. Now he is dead he has nobody else. In my thoughts he is preserved. I alone protect him from oblivion. I struggle against the deep and everlasting silence. As long as I can I will preserve Thomas Kowal from the final death of indifference. And for this my parents will hate me.
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