Michael Harding: At home with the devout squirrels of Warsaw
I am writing about the absence of God but I didn’t want to be too grim in the face of Mrs Squirrel’s renowned religiosity
“We were eating at a round table on which an image of the Polish pope was propped against a television set.” Photograph: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
I have friends in Warsaw who live on the top floor of an apartment block. It is impossible to see the walls because of all the paintings, books and African masks that clutter the four tiny rooms, and the gigantic plants that grow from tiny pots on the long window ledge.
I call them the Squirrels because they never throw anything out. The souvenirs of a lifetime are stacked up to the timber ceilings that slope towards large windows where they both sit and observe the lights coming on in the apartments of the block opposite them.
We were eating at a round table on which an image of the Polish pope and a few holy pictures were propped against a television set that was never turned off. Mrs Squirrel works in the library and is a devout Catholic.
Mr Squirrel told me he was delighted with the new government. He assured me it would get things done.
“They are putting many things in order,” he said. “It was long overdue.”
There was an uneasy pause as I made no comment.
Eventually he asked me what I was writing about in Poland.
“God,” I said.
Actually I am not writing about God. I am writing about the absence of God, or the lack of God, or the face of God that is no longer visible in my life as I endure the long existential wait before our complete annihilation. But I didn’t want to be too grim in the face of Mrs Squirrel’s renowned religiosity.
Trump’s strange head
Blurred images of the American primary in Iowa came through on the television screen and caught our attention.
“Who is Trump?” Mrs Squirrel asked as she gazed at his strange head.
“He wants to be president of America,” Mr Squirrel said, and she raised her eyebrows as if the very look of Donald Trump made that idea ridiculous.
But since we were on the subject of politics I mentioned the refugees in Europe. Mr Squirrel said it was certain that “these people will come in and either take our jobs or do no work and be dependent on the state. There is no good outcome if you allow strangers into your home.”
Then he bent over his wife and asked her would she like coffee, and she said yes as if he had never asked the question before.
While he was away she directed me to the little sofa a metre from the table.
“Shall we sit over here?” she asked as if I was Chopin and this was a palace long ago.
“Do you know Mr Putin?” she asked me, still gazing at the television screen.
“Not personally,” I said.
“He frightens me,” she whispered, and it felt like she was talking about someone who lived in the apartment below them.
From where we were sitting on the sofa I could see a street still festooned with Christmas lights and elaborate street decorations.
I told her I had been to the Church of the Three Crosses and it was lovely to see the Christmas trees on either side of the altar, with fairy lights in the branches and the crib at the side, still there at the end of January, full of wise men and sheep.
The Squirrels are in their 60s and their body language is slow and devout, reflecting the ease of a couple who have transcended the wounds of a life-long marriage. They stole little intimate glances at each other when they thought I was not looking.
Earlier they explained to me that in the old days, when they were growing up, they always looked to Russia. They spoke the language and were engaged with the politics. On several occasions they had taken a train to St Petersburg.
“But not any more,” Mrs Squirrel said, as she glanced at Pope John Paul II behind the television set.
“But I have many brochures for the ballet,” Mr Squirrel said. And he got up and began fingering through a pile of old LP record sleeves stacked in the corner.
“Now, I think we are forgetting something,” Mrs Squirrel said, as she stared at the empty cups and the tall pot of coffee on the table.
He abandoned his search for the brochures instantly.
“Ah the milk,” he said, laughing, and touching the top of her head affectionately as he passed.
“Yes, of course, I forgot the milk again.”
And the manner in which his fingers stroked her hair had in it all the devotion of a priest touching the sacrament.