Alicjia: Short Story for September/October 18

I never liked staying at Grandpa’s house. For one thing it was old and pokey and the spare bed was uncomfortable; for another, it was damp and the bedclothes and blankets were musty as the house overlooked the harbour at Newlyn; and, third, since Gran died there was always Alicjia hovering round. But I will return to Alijcia a bit later.

Stefan – Grandpa – Tadeusz Jezciewicz (now you know why we called him simply “Grandpa”) was born of an old seafaring family in Danzig, a location famed for its mariners, and like his father and grandfather, he had gone to sea as soon as he turned fifteen, sometime back around the turn of the last century, and risen quickly to become a merchant navy captain commanding vessels for a well-known freight company. His prejudices, as well as his tempers, were legendary – he distrusted anybody who wasn’t from England, Scandinavia, Holland or Portugal (“after all, they are England’s oldest ally; and they know the oceans,” he would say when asked about the Portuguese). He quite liked Germans, especially those from Hamburg, but hated Prussians (“my beloved homeland has had enough of their type. Why do you think my family are sailors? We go overseas.”).

And so, when the War broke out in 1914, Grandpa left for England and signed up for the Merchant Navy where he was put in command of a small freighter, expected to survive a year or so out in the Atlantic, but happily he survived the war. His secret, as he later confided chewing on his pipe with that knowing smile,

“Never follow orders! They tell me to follow certain routes to Portugal or wherever. But never I take notice and I work out my own route and I never see a Prussian battleship or those blasted submarines,” he used to declare famously, especially after a glass or two of his favourite wyobrova. He also used to carry an illicit pistol in case of crew mutiny or being taken by Prussians,

“Six shots in the barrel. Five for the Prussians, the last one for me.” He’d raise a glass. The pistol’s mine now, minus the ammunition, hidden at home where even my parents won’t find it (but mental note to self – remove it before they sell the house which they keep talking about).

Which brings the story round to me. Katarina, my mother, once told me her father had been in love with a girl from Danzig but had married my grandmother Suzanna in Liverpool in 1916. It appeared the love affair with the Polish girl ended for some reason which my mother never confided in me until after Grandpa died – if my mother ever understood the real reason. That used to spark my curiosity although up until Grandpa died I’d largely forgotten to think about it.

My grandmother, Suzanna, I remember as a kind rather buxom woman of relatively few words. She understood some Polish – her own grandparents were Polish – and she knew the good wife’s place. A dab hand at keeping the house in order, clean, food on the table, household budget in order, gratification for Grandpa. In my younger days at university and just after, until I got married, I admit I was a bit wild. My mother “tut-tutted” but Suzanna would give me extra helpings at the table “to keep the lad’s strength up” followed by a knowing wink and a smile.

But then Suzanna died quite suddenly a few years after she and Grandpa had moved to “Mariners” in Newlyn. The doctor was perplexed as to the cause. Poisoning from some unknown source was suggested, although to be brutally honest Grandpa was by then more likely to poison himself with the vodka. Open verdict, the Coroner recorded and – despite some unkind gossip from neighbours – there were no grounds to involve Grandpa. Indeed, by then, he was in his seventies and he and Gan had developed a mellow contented life.

That said, he did then start to go down to the harbour every day and spend hours talking to the local fishermen and sailors with whom he got on famously. So famously, it was a wonder he sometimes made it home from the pub after an evening of drinking and recounting nautical tales. On occasions when staying at his house, I would hear Grandpa coming up the road happily singing away in Polish not much caring who he disturbed. But once he was home, a different personality started to emerge.

Shortly after Gan’s death, Grandpa started to become withdrawn and bad tempered, seemingly lashing out at some imaginary figure cursing and muttering in incomprehensible Polish dialect. He would sit in his chair, reading the newspaper or smoking his pipe, and suddenly start muttering in Polish or swatting away some imaginary pest or being. At other times he would be working in his small garden when he’d straighten up and listen, then suddenly and angrily respond to some imagined voice coming from the house.

My mother and I became convinced that Grandpa must be hearing voices from some imaginary person or persons existing in his imagination for we could see nobody else. My mother mentioned the problem – discreetly, of course – to Margery the cleaner who came in three times a week.

“Tell truth,” Margery had recounted in her broad Cornish accent, “I often sees the problem with older widowed folk. But there do be something wrong with your father’s case. Sometimes I finds a window open upstairs when it was shut five minutes before and your father’s been in the garden Almost as though someone opened it to call to him. And it seems your father’s being pestered or bothered – I suppose I does it to my husband sometimes so I recognises the symptoms.”

Apparently Margery had found that funny. My mother said she had to laugh too. It also occurred to us that Grandpa used his visits to the harbour and the pub to escape the house and whatever was troubling him.

After another year or so, Grandpa’s health began to deteriorate and he spent a number of weeks in Truro Hospital. I went with my mother to see the consultant.

“Mrs. Wright,” Dr. Mason was brisk. “Frankly, your father drinks far too much, but given his age and cultural background, that’s not surprising. He has liver damage although that’s not likely to prove fatal within the next few years as physically your father is how shall I say made of “tough stuff”. It would be better if he abstained but I realise that’s not likely to be easy… perhaps a reduction. But there’s something else that bothers me.”

Dr Mason paused,

“I don’t know how to put this as it’s if something or somebody is “haunting” him – I apologise for using a non-medical term, but that’s the best way to describe the problem. I’ve asked a colleague in the psychiatry department to look at your father and she agrees that there is a deep psychological problem but we cannot determine the cause. We propose to discharge your father but to the Cottage Hospital in Penzance for further care and observation. We think it better he spends a week or two there rather than going straight home.”

And so Grandpa went to the Cottage Hospital and since I had a week or two to spare I volunteered to stay for a bit in Grandpa’s house, much though I disliked the thought, whilst my mother went home for a break and to see my sister.

The first night I awoke sensing something or somebody else was in the house and I went to investigate and I found the window in Grandpa’s bedroom open, despite the fact I was certain I’d closed all the windows and doors earlier; the second night I was sure I heard a female voice calling “Tadeusz, Tadeusz….” and footsteps, although listening I was sure that whoever or whatever it was had a limp due an evidently uneven footfall.

I went to see Grandpa that day and after feeding him chocolates – “We missed those in the War, my boy,” he’d said with pleasure – I mentioned the footsteps and the voice and his face froze with, to me, a sign of horror.

“She stalks me still. Can I never be rid? Shall I never be rid?” then he collapsed back on his bed.

Perplexed, I went back to his house, ate my takeaway washed down by a couple of beers, tried to read the newspaper, then went to bed. I fell asleep then around midnight, I heard the voice calling stronger than ever,

“Tadeusz, where are you? You’re gone. I miss you, I need you….”

I rushed out to the landing and there stood an apparition of a pretty young girl with blonde hair, dressed in what I took to be an old fashioned dress that swept the floor and holding a night light.

“Who are you?” I demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“But don’t you know? I am Alijcia, the love of Tadeusz’s life. He has gone and left me… But I will be with him again soon, I think.” And with that, she turned and walked off down the corridor and out through the wall. But as she walked, I noticed a limp and a wooden sounding “tump” as her left foot touched the floor.

My mother arrived the next afternoon as the cottage hospital reported a decline in Grandpa’s condition. After we had spent a few hours with Grandpa Mum and I went for some supper and I recounted the brief meeting with the strange figure.

“You say her name was Alijcia,” Mum looked strangely alarmed. “That was the name of the girl back in Danzig, the girl left behind. Your grandfather apparently once told her he would return to marry her.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“When he next went back, she’d had an accident…. Something to do with a runaway cart, apparently. Anyway she lost left leg – she had a wooden leg replace it. Dad panicked and decided he couldn’t marry her and left, never to return. Then he received a letter from an old friend who said Alijcia had died, unmarried, of rheumatic fever but on her deathbed she’d sworn to catch up with Dad one day – presumably in the after life – and that’s when it started. Dad having dreams, the fears of being haunted and, now, finally Alijcia has reappeared to try and claim him. Dad once said that when Alijcia’s ghost appears he wouldn’t have long to live.”

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