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Running Away to Warsaw

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

Julia’s grandmothers sat rather stiffly over tea at the kitchen table, Discussing Matters; the visiting grandmother still with her hat on and the other wearing a high-necked blouse and a cairngorm brooch to show how serious the matters were. The white-scrubbed surface of the table was hidden beneath an embroidered linen cloth, but the cups and saucers were the ones they used every day, and not even the Second-Best Set. Grandma Gordon had been firm about that, earlier in the day: her cairngorm brooch and a nice tablecloth were as far as she was prepared to go. Too indignant to be careful of Julia’s presence, she’d said to Grandpa that he’d be asking her to get her Wedding China out, next. And just you be sure you’re not here when she comes, she said. You know Mrs. R. can’t stand the sight of you, she thinks you encouraged that marriage more than was right; and we’ll not be able to get anything settled with you hanging about. Grandpa, who had merely (but mischievously, Julia knew) wondered aloud if Mrs. Reeves would be served her tea in the front room, grand lady that she was and with her own maid to wait on her at home, folded his newspaper, got his bowler hat and his stick, and said he hadn’t the slightest intention of insulting his own eyesight either, it was far too valuable for that. There are prettier objects than Mrs. Reeves to rest it on, By Jingo.

I’ll lay, said Grandma, almost but not quite under her breath. I mean you, Georgie, said Grandpa, and tried to give her a peck on the cheek, but she wouldn’t let him; so he firmed his hat on his head with a little tap of his stick and skipped out, blowing his kiss to Julia instead, who giggled— but quietly, so as not to annoy Grandma, who’d been a bit fashed all morning. (Fashed was the word she used when she meant vexed. ) Grandpa stuck his head in the kitchen window a moment later. You’re not cross with me, are you Georgie? Don’t call me Georgie, said Grandma, and raised her hands to the top of the window. Her first name was Georgiana, she didn’t like to be teased. Well then, said Grandpa, with drawing his head hastily, I’ll be home later on. I may drop in at The Swan for a Quick One. Grandma brought the window down with a hard bang. That’s a good one, she muttered to no one in particular (certainly not Julia). I like that: I “may drop in,” indeed. There’s no may about it, him and his Quick Ones. Drat that man.

But she did bake a fresh spongecake, though Friday was baking day and today was only Wednesday with quite a lot left of a perfectly good loaf of raisin bread, and took a feather duster to the red paper Christmas bell hanging from the ceil ing, and that too showed it was serious. Julia ate her slice of cake by the fire—an unprecedented thing; Grandma nattered a lot about crumbs, in the usual way, and kept strict rules. Bedrooms were reserved for sleeping, you never played in them, just as you didn’t eat just anywhere. Tables were where you ate, but this time she’d sent Julia away to sit quietly and eat her cake and let the grownups talk. To show that she was interested—though she’d seen it before and really wasn’t— she now and then turned a page of the picture book on her lap, while trying to listen to the conversation, but without hearing much because there was so much whispering. Once, she turned to look at them, and saw they weren’t being so stiff now; their heads were close enough together that Grand mother Reeves’ hatbrim brushed against Grandma Gordon’s neat gray bun and set her little gold earrings swinging. Julia thought she heard her father’s name, and her mother’s, and the back of her neck prickled. It sounded like Criticism, and Talking About People Behind Their Backs. She wondered when her mother and Simon would come back and hoped it would be soon. Then this murmuring talk would stop, the two grandmothers would have to say good afternoon and how are you, another pot of tea would have to be made, and after a few minutes Grandmother Reeves would leave. She wondered suddenly if she would have to go with her, remembering with a sinking heart that Grandmother Reeves hadn’t had her Fair Share yet. On all her other visits to Leeds Julia had been di vided up between the grandmothers, staying first with her mother’s parents, and then bundled up and taken with her little suitcase—riding on the top of the tram, which was the only good thing about it—across the city, so Grandmother Reeves could have her Fair Share. And always with her fa ther, she couldn’t remember the last time her mother had come, too. But this time the days had gone—Julia didn’t know how many, but it was quite a long time and a great deal had happened; she had been knocked down but not run over by a car, just outside the Queens Hotel when her mother and Si mon were talking and not looking, and Simon had brought an enormous doll to her bed in the Leeds Infirmary where she spent the night under observation—the doll had real hair and eyes that opened and shut, but the eyes fell in later and not even Grandpa could fix them, so now the doll was in a hospi tal, too, a special one for dolls; there had been the huge box of chocolates with crisscrossed satin ribbons; the new pink frilly dress and a winter coat with a real fur collar. Her mother had bought a new dress and a real fur hat and a matching muff, and they had all gone to the zoo, Julia and Mother and Simon . . . . And her things were still in the dresser drawer upstairs in the room she shared with her mother, the very room she’d been born in, as she often had been told (and sometimes she looked at the big bed and wished she could remember what it had been like, to be born) and no one had mentioned her leav ing. Except to Warsaw, Poland, of course, which was where they were on their way to.

Perhaps it was because her father wasn’t there to insist on it. He was a great insister, particularly about Grandmother Reeves having her Fair Share. Whatever it was, it was a great relief. Julia didn’t like that other house, even though it was practically in the country, a long walk from the end of the tramline. Although it was now a part of Leeds, it had once been a little village all by itself (said Grandmother Reeves). There were cows and horses on the other sides of hedges and ducks on a pond. Her father had been a little boy in Grand mother Reeves’ house, and they had had more land then, so he had a pony and used to ride to Ilkley and over the moors and to places where there were all houses now. When Julia stayed in that house, she always slept in the room that had been her father’s, and where he kept his cricket colors and racing med als and things like that which were hung on the wall, mostly in frames, as if they were paintings. But it was all so quiet, and the house carpeted all over right into the corners, with dark shiny furniture with names. Even the fireplace had a name—it was Adams. The chairs were Chippendale, a whole family of them, eight at least, and the long sideboard was Sheraton. There had once been a Grandfather Reeves, and all those things were his and had been in the family; but Grand mother Reeves had tried to cheer things up, you could tell. There was a row of ornaments on the mantel, some quite in teresting, particularly a china boy with a fly on his nose, and a china girl spilling china milk out of a china bucket. There was a parlormaid, Emma, who turned down the bed and once said Julia’s underclothes were so worn they ought to be given to the ragman, which was certainly Criticism, but since it wasn’t Behind Her Back Julia didn’t know what to say. There was a garden, but it was long, narrow, and sad, since the family had Lost Their Land, rather like Grandmother Reeves herself, who was always sighing about how the orchard had been ne glected these last few years. Grandfather Reeves used to make cherry brandy, but now the birds got all the fruit. There was nothing to do, and the food wasn’t very nice either, as Julia had heard her mother say. Grandmother Reeves did no bak ing, so there were no good cooking smells. (Julia’s mother said even worse things during one of those Little Disagreements grownups sometimes have—which they’d been having a good deal lately. Worms in the apple pie, warmed-over meat that had practically gone off, dried egg on the edges of plates.) Julia hadn’t actually seen any worms, though she was on the lookout for them, but her appetite was so small that Grand mother Reeves fussed about it and got fretful and worried about Julia’s legs being far too thin, and said she didn’t like to see a child not tackling her food with gusto. She’d had a daughter who would have been an aunt of Julia’s if she had grown up, but she Died of a Decline, and no one knew what it was like to lose a child—not even having Julia’s father, Wil liam, had ever quite made up for it. And then, tearily, Grand mother Reeves asked Emma to give Julia extra portions, which Julia left on her plate.

It was much nicer here at Grandma Gordon’s, where there was a Grandpa as well as a Grandma; who, when he wasn’t reading the newspapers and grumbling to himself, or out by himself On Business and having the Quick Ones that upset Grandma, often took Julia for rapid walks through the city, taking short cuts that seemed almost secret passages through cobblestoned back streets and alleyways where people hung their washing out of the windows and the sun shone down in strange smoky stripes between the buildings. Grandpa’s er rands were mysterious. He knew a lot of people in those streets and talked in a funny foreign language to old gentle men with beards and strange black hats, Often he darted into little shops, dragging Julia along—she flew behind him will ingly, like a rag doll—and he mentioned peculiar names; Young Warrior, Fair Lady, Pretty Pink, and planked money down on counters and got little green tickets in exchange.

But most of the time was spent in the kitchen, where Julia was allowed to help with the cooking (and made to help with the washing up) and was learning to sew, and not in the front room. Which was a good thing; it was more closed-in even than Grandmother Reeves’ drawing room, and had sad pictures of men who had been killed in the Great War—two of whom would have been Julia’s uncles if they hadn’t Died For Their Country. (Which sort of cancelled out the would-be Reeves aunt, who had only Died of a Decline.) Grandma Gordon never mentioned them, and certainly never cried about them, but every week she went into the front room just once to put a fresh flower in front of the photographs.

Running away never solved anything, she heard Grand mother Reeves say, and took a quick look over her shoulder, for of course they were running away, they were going to Warsaw, they would be there for Christmas, her mother and Simon had said so. The heads of the two old ladies, so snugly and cosily together only a moment ago, were drawn apart now, their voices grown more distinct because they were both growing a little cross. They’ve forgotten me, thought Julia.

While she’s under my roof, Mrs. Reeves, I don’t think it can be called running away, said Grandma Gordon. She fingered her brooch. It was very old, she had had it from her own grandmother, and Julia was to have it When The Time Came.

But she’s planning to . . . . You’ve mentioned it yourself, Mrs. Gordon, you said so. This foreign person she is so friendly with . . . . This Mr. Simon . . . . Grandma Gordon smiled a little, and said Simon was his first name. I can’t pro nounce his last name, she said. But he is a gentleman, I will say that.

A gentleman, how can he be a gentleman when he’s foreign and you can’t even pronounce his last name, said Grandmother Reeves. There are no foreign gentlemen. And besides, he looks distinctly . . . . Don’t you agree that he looks . . . . That he’s probably . . .?

He has behaved extremely well, said Grandma Gordon. He has taken a room at The Queens. They meet only in public.

Poor William, said Grandmother Reeves, and got out a handkerchief. Grandma Gordon said she sympathized, in an unsympathetic voice. As you know, I don’t like to Criticize, she said (which Julia knew quite well she dearly loved to do, whatever she might say about other people doing it), but she’s had a lot to put up with. She’s my own daughter, but if I do say so myself she’s a treasure, she might have married any body, she might have married a Duke! And instead, there she is, Buried Down There In The Country and William not very kind, you can’t deny that. Naturally, I don’t like to see her go so far away—Warsaw, it’s the end of the world—but William hasn’t treated her at all well. And besides: there was Mrs. S. Grandma Gordon spoke in her most awful voice, quiet but definite. Julia was used to hearing her elders referring to other people as Mrs. A and Mr. B. and Miss C. When she asked, she was always told they were nobody you know, dear; so won dered only briefly who Mrs. S. might be. Grandmother Reeves said it can only have been a passing fancy, you know what men are like, I’m sure he’s quite given up Mrs. S.

That’s as may be, said Grandma Gordon. I don’t pry. But it may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. In my opinion, yes, Warsaw it will be.

She must be mad, said Grandmother Reeves.

Oh, hurrah, thought Julia, who had worried. She turned back to the fire, enjoying the warmth on her cheeks, enjoying what Grandma Gordon had said. Warsaw it will be. Of course it would! She had such pictures of it in her mind, had had them ever since Simon had first come to their house, a busi ness friend of her father’s; and the pictures grew and grew as Simon began to come more often, as her mother’s friend and hers. All frost and snow, Warsaw was, and Polish castles and palaces, sleighs in the wintertime, carriage rides in summer. Flowers bloomed across miles of meadowland as far as the eye could see; there were deep still forests full of bears and wolves, wild pigs and deer. There were broad bright sparkling rivers, huge fish, the kind that were served to Kings and when they were opened up the Queen’s lost ring was there in their stomachs.

Simon spoke a different English from anyone else and had taught Julia to dance the Polonaise by Chopin, holding her hand and gravely advancing and retreating the whole length of the big room at home, while her mother played the piano, turning her head and laughing and then clapping her hands when it was over because she was so happy. Things had been rather sad at home for a long time, but they always cheered up when Simon came. It wasn’t just the dancing; he brought flowers and chocolates and Fancy Biscuits from Fortnum and Mason; he liked to help Mother in the kitchen, he borrowed her apron, he carried the tray himself and bowed before any one sat down, even Julia. When her father came in, Simon stood up very stiffly and gave a sort of salute, like a soldier, and usually left quite soon afterwards. When he’d gone, her father said once it was quite plain what he was after. Of course, her mother said and sent Julia out of the room. As she closed the door behind her, she heard her mother say, he’s af ter me. Just a few days later they were both on the train to Leeds and Grandma Gordon’s house, and Simon met them at the station.

Grandmother Reeves stayed and stayed until it was dark outside, but she was finally asking for her coat when the door burst open and Julia’s mother came in with Simon. Grandpa came in behind them—he was not skipping now, but stum bled a bit over the doormat. They were all rosy from the win ter air, and Grandpa said he’d give Julia three guesses about what was happening outside. It’s snowing, that’s what it’s doing, he said, not giving her time for any guesses, and she gave a little shriek of joy. Grandma bent a stern eye on Grandpa but said nothing. He took off his hat and went to his usual chair.

Put on the new dress, said Julia’s mother, and gave her a hug.

The frilly pink dress, said Julia, hardly believing it. She hadn’t expected to wear it until they got to Warsaw, where she supposed she would wear it all the time or other dresses just like it. Her mother said yes, the frilly pink dress and your new coat. Simon has tickets for the pantomime. Run upstairs and get ready—Oh, I’ll help you, I must change too. Mother, give Simon some tea, we’ve been all the way to Scarborough and back, just for the train ride!

And a little walk along the shore, said Simon.

Waste, said Grandma Gordon, shaking her head, but she went to put the kettle on. Simon gave her a kiss on the cheek as she passed him, and she looked quite pleased. Then he turned to Grandmother Reeves to give her a kiss too, though Julia was sure he didn’t really want to, it was just another case of Fair Shares. Grandmother Reeves, half into her coat, drew back. It’s very late for Julia, she said. Don’t you think a mati nee would have been a more suitable idea?

Suitable, said Simon. He smoothed his glossy dark hair which was already as smooth as could be. But there is nothing suitable about a matinee. Matinees are dull. And children should know the excitement of late hours occasionally, do you not agree? In Poland . . . Grandmother Reeves said, Ah well. In Poland, perhaps. But she did not finish saying what Julia thought she had been going to say: that in Poland children were probably allowed to stay up all night and Goodness Knows What Else. Simon said he had a taxi waiting, and Grandmother Reeves should take it home and tell the driver to hurry back to Grandma Gordon’s.

A taxi? Waiting? said both grandmothers at once, as though it were a quite extraordinary thing, and Grandmother Reeves said she could perfectly well catch a tram; but Simon insisted and off she went.

Upstairs, Julia’s mother helped her into the special lace petticoat and the pink dress, and then changed into her own pretty new dress before kneeling down to button Julia into her coat. She sighed once or twice. If your father had written, she said, at the third button. It’s all been tremendous fun, hasn’t it, but. . . . If I only knew what to do, she said at the fourth button. There were only two more buttons to go.

Run away to Warsaw, of course, said Julia, just as Simon said we should. We’re looking forward to it, don’t you re member, all the way on the train to Leeds? We’re going where there are wolves in the forest, it’s our own fairy story place. We can live in a castle with a witchtop tower, and never have to worry about ordinary things again. Her mother laughed and finished the buttoning. She sat back on her heels. Did I really say all that, she asked, and patted Julia’s cheek. Why, what ordinary things do you worry about, you funny little thing?

Oh, I don’t, said Julia, but you do. I mean, like being Buried Alive In The Country and Being Neglected and Mrs. S. Her mother stared at her very hard; she had stopped smiling, and got up to tidy her hair at the dressing table mirror. She said she didn’t know where Julia had got hold of such ideas, but she must forget them and never talk like that again. But of course you’re right, she suddenly added, swinging around again. It would be very different in Warsaw, so exciting, how can we not go? And Simon wants you so much too, he’s so looking forward to having a little daughter, a little foreign daughter, to show everything to. Julia thought she and Simon couldn’t very well both be foreign; and she wasn’t exactly his little daughter, she was more like his little princess, but she said nothing. So, off we go to the pantomime, isn’t that lovely, so kind of Simon, her mother said. It’s Dick Whittington, the boy who went to London to seek his fortune and took his cat with him, do you remember? And they ran downstairs to gether, where Grandpa said they were both so got up he hardly recognized them, they looked like sisters; and you the sillier, he added, looking at Julia’s mother. Don’t spoil things, said Grandma, You’re Only Young Once.

Julia had never had such a sparkling evening. It wasn’t just the pink dress, which had spangles on the bodice, glittering in the dark of the taxi where she sat snugly warm between her mother and Simon and unbuttoned her coat a little to look pridefully down at herself; nor the taxi—a vehicle so large it seemed a whole party might have been given in it. It wasn’t even the performance, with people dancing and singing and the big black cat being helpful and wise, nor all the jokes and funny tricks. It was everything—the lights in the shop win dows, the decorations strung across the streets, the traffic, and all the people with snowflakes falling on them. Leeds was an enchanted city; she thought everyone must love it and be very happy living there—although of course it was not Warsaw, which must be far more beautiful. She was half-asleep when they got out of the taxi, back at Grandma’s house.

This is a fine time, Grandma said. Look at that child, she’s Dead On Her Feet. Not exactly, said Simon, who was carrying Julia in his arms. Mother said, Oh, there were curtain calls and encores, you know what pantomimes are like. Julia had a splendid time, said Simon, she will never forget this night. He deposited her on the sofa, bowed over her mother’s hand, said his goodnights, and was gone. It’s a glass of warm milk and off to bed with you, Grandma said to Julia. She poured milk in a pan on the stove. To Julia’s mother she said, there’s a telegram from William. Oh dear, said Julia’s mother in an alarmed voice, where is it?

Don’t fash yourself, said Grandma in a dry way. There’s nothing to worry about. It was to us, not to you. He’s taking the next train. The telegram’s on the mantel if you want to read it.

Oh, how could he, said Julia’s mother and gave a little stamp of her foot. Easily, said Grandpa, who was sitting rather red and upright in his shirtsleeves, with a dark brown bottle and a glass in front of him on top of the evening paper. He’s your husband, William is. He’s coming to take you home, my girl.

Oh, be quiet, Father, said Julia’s mother.

Don’t talk to your father like that, said Grandma, who couldn’t abide a sharp tongue. And then there was a knock on the door, and there stood Julia’s father with an armful of par cels wrapped in what was unmistakeably Christmas paper, but all crooked and lumpy, not a bit like the lovely square boxes covered in ribbons she was getting used to Simon al ways bringing. But she was glad to see him, and she stumbled sleepily across the room to hug his knees, feeling sorry he wouldn’t be coming to Warsaw with them, hoping he would visit quite often. A new dress, said her father, how pretty you look! Both of you, both in new dresses! Strangely, her mother began to cry and ran out of the room. Grandma took the milk off the stove to let it cool off. Julia went back to the sofa, but before she fell asleep she heard Grandpa Gordon speaking quite plainly: in my opinion, William, she was about to make a bloody silly mistake. A great damn’ fool of herself, if you ask me.

Language, said Grandma, and nobody did ask you.

But you needn’t worry, said Grandpa. She’ll never go now. All it took was the sight of you. You’ve been a bit of a fool yourself, laddie; almost waited too long. I’d have come run ning a bit sooner, I can tell you, had it been Georgie.

Sentimental old fool, said Grandma, obviously supposing Julia to be by now fast asleep, really dead to the world. It was the newspaper articles, you said so yourself.

So she won’t go to Poland with him, questioned Julia’s father. Grandpa said testily, of course not, any idiot would know that. Doesn’t anyone read the papers but me? Doesn’t anyone realize what’s going on, what could happen in a place like that? You couldn’t live in Leeds all these years, William, as I have, and not know it’s going to happen again. Why, when I was a young fellow most of the old folk, the immi grants, could speak nothing but Yiddish, them in their shawls and their kerchiefs. Plenty of them do yet. They know.

So they never ran away to Warsaw at all but spent the usual Merry Christmas gathered together under the red paper bell hanging from the ceiling at Grandma Gordon’s house. Simon went back to Poland and vanished. None of it had really happened, Julia’s mother said, it was just another lovely fairy tale; however much you enjoyed it, you had to remember it wasn’t really true, and in Real Life the Happy Ending was not always what you expected.

But often Julia thought she saw Simon again—glossy-haired, elegant, just a little too plump (she began to realize) sitting at a table at an outdoor cafe near the Spanish Steps; walking jauntily with a prettily wrapped package under his arm in the Polanco district of Mexico City; stroking the hand of a young woman companion as he came down the steps of a hotel in Paris. The years went by, she grew older, the imagi nary Simon remained the same, so she knew it could not be he—even if he had, miraculously, Got Out In Time. Just once, she was almost certain she saw him in Lisbon, but not sure enough to stop and speak to him. An old, gray-haired man by then, stooped and limping but still distinguished, walking along one of those side streets of silver and gold where she now recognized the Piranesi quality of the light, the shafts of sunlight, baroque, fantastic, visionary, contrasted with dark shadows of tall buildings, sharply defining the narrow streets—the same vision she had had as a child, led by the hand of her grandfather through the alleyways of The City Of Leeds.


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