Michal felt drained the morning after the funeral. It was Wednesday and he went through the motions at the office. He dealt with the post, brought his notebook up to date, spent time in the canteen with his fellow officers. They could see he was cut up by the events of the last two days; they knew he had lost a friend in that fire. But Michal was professional and he recognised the effects his depression caused and he battled to overcome that. He telephoned Kasia,
“Dzien dobry, darling. Would you like to meet me at the Pool this afternoon?”
“A family swim? That would be lovely. Shall we say five o’clock?”
“Ideal. See you then and please do not forget my swimming gear!”
“OK, darling,” Kasia rang off.
It was not far to the Pool from the Police Station, so Michal explained to Andrew that he did not need a lift that afternoon. It was a bright afternoon, but there was little warmth in the December sunshine. He recognised Kasia’s car in the car park and met up with her and Krystyna in the lobby.
“Where’s Tomasz?” he enquired.
“He’s at Jozef’s this afternoon, darling”.
Michal nodded, thinking Tomasz was spending his time wisely to support his friend.
“May I have the car keys, I want to stow my briefcase in the boot?”
That done, Kasia accepted the car keys and handed him his sports bag; the three of them dispersed to the changing rooms. Michal changed and then negotiated the shower unit before entering the pool. He chose the fast lane and began a power swim with front crawl and backstroke alternately. He quickly felt warm and invigorated. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Kasia and Krystyna swimming gracefully in the slow lane, and chatting away. It seemed they needed little effort to achieve this. Indeed, Michal notched up his thirty lengths in the half hour and waved to Kasia. He pointed towards the cafeteria, and she waved back in acknowledgement. Michal raced through the showers and towelled and dressed, ignoring the beautiful, the sleek or the gaunt bodies around him. He was the first of the trio to reach the cafeteria. He found a table by the window, and sat down reckoning on a while longer before the ‘ladies’ arrived. After five minutes, he ordered three hot chocolates. They were placed on a tray and he negotiated his way back to the table, just as Kasia and Krystyna made their entrance. He waved and the pair joined him.
“Hot chocolates OK?” he said.
“Ooh, thank you”, cooed Krystyna.
“They are our favourite!”
The frothy chocolate was topped with cream. Michal and Kasia stirred it in, but Krystyna spooned it to her lips to savour every mouthful.
“Tomasz would have enjoyed this”, she exclaimed.
“I’m sure he would, but he’s looking after his friend very well”, replied Michal trying to shape his hair to his brow.
“That looks a tad wild, Michale!” said Kasia.
“Yes”, Michal agreed, “I’m overdue for a haircut. I’ll see if I can get one at lunchtime tomorrow”.
The hot chocolate seemed to insulate them against the cold air outside that sometimes crept inside when the door was left ajar. Fresh air made inroads into the cafeteria. Unfortunately, it also stirred up the tobacco rings that offended Michal’s sensitive nostrils,
“Are we all ready? Let’s make a move”, he said, standing up to put on his coat.
His family wrapped up against the sharpness of the December afternoon and made their way to the car park. With Kasia driving, they travelled up Dalby Road and swung left into Warwick Road. As they parked at number 35, Tomasz appeared and tapped on the window,
“Dzien dobry, Mama”.
“Tomasz! Have you been waiting long? Where’s your key?”
Kasia got out of the car and folded Tomasz in her arms,
“You must be cold”,
“I’m fine, Mama, I’ve only just got here. I’ve been at Jozef’s”.
Michal and Krystyna got out and walked to the front door,
“Kasia, don’t forget to lock the car”, said Michal as he applied a key to the door. Kasia retrieved the swimming gear, locked the car with the remote and followed her family into the house,
“Kettle on, darling!” she called out.
Michal turned on the tap and noisily filled the kettle,
“Kettle’s on, darling!” he called. The children thought they had escaped to their rooms, but their mother was quick.
“Krystyna, please take this swimming stuff from me and throw it into the bath”.
Krystyna promptly did as she was asked, made no fuss about it, returned to her room without comment.
Kasia checked the stew she had put on at midday. Into the sizzling fasolka she sliced some of their favourite salami. After a couple of stirrings, she announced,
“Five minutes to dinner”.
There was the sound of vigorous stirring, and the clinking of crockery. Then the doorbell sounded. Michal got up and strode over to open it. It was Babcia,
“Darling, how are you? It’s been a time since we last saw you, come in”.
“Thank you, Michale. I’m feeling fine. But how are you, after the dreadful events of the last few days?”
Michal took her coat to hang in the closet,
“We’re all fine, Babciu”.
After dinner, Babcia seated herself in her favourite armchair, and the grandchildren expectantly sat down opposite. Babcia began,
“You remember that young Tomasz and his parents had reached the pass, and that they had been told to move through quickly. The couple with their baby were quick, mostly because they were afraid of what may be following. They gave no thought to the dangers that lay ahead”.
Her voice was much stronger, so she was able to lay emphasis on ‘the dangers that lay ahead’,
“On the other side, they were met by four young men whose leader introduced himself as Stanislaw. These men were friendly and helpful. One of them, perhaps the youngest, offered to help carry the baby. Magda was very relieved and grateful for their assistance. They had no way of knowing at the time, but learned much later that thousands of young Poles were crossing illegally into Hungary. They didn’t meet many of them, as they were apparently concentrated around a lake in southern Hungary. Jozef and Magda and the baby were placed on a farm wagon that was pulled by a fearsome pony. Young men protected them on both sides, and others ran beside. They were taken on a route that skirted Budapest and then headed west towards France, taking refuge as needed in friendly farms. The whole situation was deteriorating very quickly. One farmer seemed to think that France was about to fall. So speed was critical. They reached the Riviera and were placed in a fishing smack. A few days later they landed on the south coast of England – a sheltered harbour at Lyme Regis, where they tied up at the Cobb. It was just in time, France fell the next day!”
Babcia accepted the proffered cup of tea gratefully, took a couple of sips and then continued,
“Jozef and Magda got a bus to Bristol, and then took train to Leicester, and a local train to Melton. They joined dozens of their compatriots at the camp of Nissen huts. After the privations of their journey, it was heavenly! They were safe, comfortable and amongst friends”, she laughed.
“How was the baby?” asked young Krystyna.
“Oh, he was well. In fact, he seemed to have thrived on the escapade. He had absolutely no recollection of it all. He learnt everything from his parents when he was older”.
Young Krystyna rose up and went over to hug her Babcia,
“Thank you, Babciu, it was a wonderful story and all of it true!”
Young Tomasz moved more slowly, a little embarrassed,
“We are studying this period in history this term. It’s a bit of a shock to think my own family got caught up in those events!”
Babcia took Tomasz’s hand and patted it,
“We have a lot to be thankful for, not least for a safe haven in England”.
Michal picked up his car keys and began to rattle them. His message was obvious to the children who both took their leave of Babcia and went upstairs. Michal found his coat and began to put it on as Babcia gathered herself together, struggling to rise from the sofa. Kasia had just entered the room, so she hurried forward to help her Mother-in-law. As Babcia finally got to her feet, the home telephone rang. Michal picked it up; it was the Duty Officer at the Police Station,
“Good evening, Inspector”.
“Good evening, what can I do for you?”
“We have a suspicious death in Timber Hill. Could you attend?”
“Has the pathologist been called in?”
“Yes, sir, the pathologist is already in attendance”.
“Just one moment, Sergeant”, he said as he put down the receiver. He went into the lounge, where Kasia had heard the conversation.
“It’s alright, Michale. I’ll walk Babcia home, it’s not far. I’ll just see if the children are still awake”.
Michal picked up the receiver and confirmed his attendance. Kasia crept up quietly. Tomasz was already breathing regularly and deeply, but young Krystyna’s light was on and she was still awake.
“I’m going to walk with Babcia, because Daddy has to go out on a job. You’ll be alright for a few minutes, won’t you? Tomasz is well away”.
Young Krystyna was confident and still bright, as she propped herself on an elbow to speak to her Mother,
“That’s fine, Momma. We’ll be alright”.
Michal drove off at ten as Kasia and Babcia began their walk.
“Thank goodness, it’s a dry night”, said Babcia.