JQ Wingate Nominee: Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall
She buys shoelaces for a pair of men’s shoes – such a trivial purchase.
As she’s buying them, she still thinks she’s in love with Jurek Szwarcwald. Everybody thinks that, especially Jurek’s parents. Jurek isn’t ugly and he isn’t boring. He isn’t poor, either. Izolda is wearing his shoes because a bomb destroyed the house on Ogrodowa Street and now she can’t get into her apartment, let alone her wardrobe.
She stops at her friend Basia Maliniak’s. Just for a moment, to thread the new laces.
A young man is standing by the stove, warming his hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight, golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – nonchalantly, almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang there, helpless, and even more beautiful. She learns he has two first names, Yeshayahu Wolf, and that Basia calls him Shayek.
She takes her time lacing her shoes. After an hour Shayek says: You have the eyes of a rabbi’s daughter. An hour later he adds: A sceptical rabbi.
Basia sees her to the door and hisses: I could kill you right now.
He drops by a few days later, with bad news about Hala Borensztajn’s brother Adek. (Izolda shared a desk with Hala to the end of sixth form.) Adek’s dead. From typhus. She can’t believe it: typhus? People die of scarlet fever or pneumonia but not from typhus. Shayek says: Now they’ll be dying differently, we better get used to that.
They walk over to Hala’s. Adek’s friends have come as well. The apartment is cold. They drink tea. Basia Maliniak is knitting a colourful sweater from unravelled yarn and doesn’t say a word to either of them. The others talk about typhus. Supposedly it comes from lice. Not from people? No, just lice. Hala laughs at her father, who wants to build a shelter and hide from the lice and from the war. His daughter assures him that the war won’t last long, but he’s already stocking up on provisions.
The talk moves to love. Izolda says: You know what? I thought I was in love with Jurek Szwarcwald but I was wrong. Should I tell him or not? After some debate her friends conclude that would be too cruel. Get engaged to someone else, they advise, and Shayek tosses out: I’m available. After he leaves, Basia Maliniak puts down her knitting and says: He meant that – and she’s right.
The Zachęta Guest House
They take a local train. She opens the window and warm, spring-like air flows inside. The train passes Józefów. She points out the road the old peasant wagon used to take coming from town. You can see how it follows the tracks. Always around this time of year. That’s where it turned behind the trees. You can’t see the houses from the train. The one with the big porch belongs to the Szwarcwalds. The wagon would drive up and the servant girl would unload all the baskets packed with linens, summer clothes, pots, buckets, brushes. Then she’d fetch water from the well and scrub the floors. At the end of summer the same wagon would drive back in from town and the servant girl would load up all the baskets packed with linens, pots, brushes. There used to be a sandy glade in the woods, not far off, with an old oak tree. No, of course you can’t see the tree. It always had so many acorns.
She talks and talks, hoping the words will drown out her fear, as well as her embarrassment and curiosity. They get off at Otwock, the end of the line. A group of older boys scrambles out of the next carriage, all very serious and conspiratorial, probably scouts. Their leader issues a few quiet commands – fall in, compasses, north-east – and the column fades into the woods. A freckle-faced boy with a broad smile brings up the rear.
The Zachęta guest house smells of warm pine. Inside the room, Shayek clearly knows what to do with a woman who’s as eager as she is afraid, as curious as she is embarrassed. Later that afternoon they head back, stopping to rest under a tree. She lays her head on his lap. They hear a chorus of voices, not very loud, singing a scouting song: Hur-rah hur-rah, hoo-ray hoo-ray! As long as we can, let’s seize the day! – the boys from the next carriage are also returning to the station. The freckle-faced boy again brings up the rear, but he isn’t singing; maybe he doesn’t have the voice for it. The boy notices them. Hey, he shouts, take a look at this, the Yids are making love. The boy snickers, then turns around and catches up with his colleagues. Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell. He drapes her sweater around her shoulders. She hadn’t realized it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star.