Michael Harding: The small calamities of our mediocre existence

One night in Warsaw I was lying in bed when an old man knocked on the door. He looked distraught

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

In Warsaw there was snow in January and a full moon at night. On the streets women wore squeaky white anoraks and elaborate fur hats and stared out from behind scarves that masked their faces, and protected their lungs from cold air. All I could think of was Tolstoy.

My father always advised me to keep the chest warm. It was a rare fragment of intimacy from an otherwise aloof patriarch. I don’t think there was a day in Warsaw that I didn’t wear my long johns. And I kept a scarf across my mouth, even on the bus and in the church on Nowy Swiat, one of the main thoroughfares.

I even went for a coffee across the road from the church for a warm drink of winter tea before heading to pray, and one day I forgot I had the scarf still across my mouth as I raised the cup to drink.

I slobbered all over myself and cursed out loud. The young students shifted uneasily in their seats all around me. It’s not that I actually prayed in the church but the sound of the choir was delicious.

When it came to protecting the chest, neither the scarf, the long johns nor divine protection worked.

I got a chest infection and ended up on antibiotics, lying in a little pull-out bed in an apartment just off Bankovy Place, and wishing for home.

The nibbled bulbs

When I got back to Leitrim I discovered that something or someone had been nibbling the tips of my hyacinths.

I got the bulbs in November and put them in pots in December, hoping they would come up all white and pink in the early spring.

And I don’t know what little animal likes to nibble the tips of hyacinths, but just as they were bursting up from the clay in their pots, like dolphins pushing through the surface of the ocean, the nibbling began.

I was so angry that I wanted to stay up all night at the window, just to see who the culprit might be. It was hardly a mouse. And I know the badgers’ preference is for worms on the grassy hill. So that just leaves the cat.

After all, cats probably enjoy some greens between dinners. I have seen them nibble grass in summertime, and this was definitely the work of a nibbler.

But I didn’t stay up all night, obviously, because of the chest infection.

I had been confined to bed in Warsaw for a full week, sucking lemons, munching antibiotics, drinking vitamin C and watching the lights come on in the apartment block opposite me.

Watching the lights was comforting. It reminded me of the old days in Glangevlin when I would sometimes stand at the door and admire the glowing windows in other houses scattered across the mountain and know that I was not alone.

The lights in Warsaw

The apartments in Warsaw had the same effect. Their lights came on in twos and threes, randomly, as folks returned home for the evening. I thought of each apartment in the block like a cottage and each block like a small village.

In my block there was an old man who had a mat outside his door for wiping his feet and beside it a little blanket for his cat. The cat would wait on the street outside until someone was emerging from the hall door and then he would slip in and up the concrete stairwell to the door, where he waited patiently on the blanket for the old man to return home.

The old man was stooped, and whenever we met he was always carrying a small plastic shopping bag with milk, packets of instant soup and loaves of bread from the supermarket across the road on Bielanska Street.

One night I was lying in bed sucking lemons and feeling sorry for myself when there was a knock on the door. It was the old man. He looked distraught, and I suspected he was saying something about the cat, but I couldn’t understand and he had no English.

I kept saying, “Sorry, sorry, I no speak Polish. Sorry.”

Eventually this dawned on him and he turned his stooped body towards the stairwell and walked away, down into the darkness.

Now I lie in my own bed at home, thinking about him, and though I know there is no God to intervene in the small calamities of our mediocre existence and make all things well, I am such an irrational animal that I do sometimes wake in the night and pray that no harm has come to his cat.

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