When she died, he gave her a decent funeral. All her friends came, hideous old ladies in berets and winter coats with coypu-fur collars that smelled of mothballs, with their heads sticking out of them like large, pale growths. They started tactfully snivelling as the coffin went down, suspended on rain-soaked ropes; then, huddled into small groups, under the domes of their improbably-patterned folding umbrellas, they headed for their bus stops.
That very evening he opened the cabinet where she kept her documents and searched in there, without knowing what he was looking for. Money. Secret shares. Bonds for a quiet old age, always advertised on television with autumnal scenes full of falling leaves.
All he found were some old insurance booklets from the 1950s and 1960s, a Party membership card belonging to his father, who had died in 1980 in the unsullied belief that communism was a metaphysical, eternal order and also his own drawings from nursery school carefully kept in a cardboard folder tied with a rubber band. It was touching that she had kept his drawings – he never would have imagined it. There were also her notebooks full of recipes for pickles, chutneys and jams. Each one started on a separate page, and each one’s name was graced with shy flourishes – a culinary expression of the need for beauty. ‘Pickles with mustard’. ‘Marinated pumpkin à la Diana’. ‘Avignon salad’. ‘Boletus Creole style’. Sometimes there were minor eccentricities: ‘Apple peel jelly’, for instance, or ‘Sweet flag in sugar’.
This prompted him to think of going down to the cellar – he hadn’t been in it for years. But she had been glad to spend time down there; somehow he had never stopped to wonder about it. Whenever she thought he was watching the match too loud, whenever her feeble grumbling seemed in vain, he would hear keys rattling, then a door slamming, and she would disappear for a good long, blissful time. Meanwhile he would happily give himself over to his favourite occupation: emptying can after can of beer while following two groups of men in coloured shirts as they moved about from one half of a pitch to the other.
The cellar looked extremely tidy. Here lay a small, worn-out rug – oh yes, he remembered it from childhood, and here stood a plush armchair, with a neatly folded knitted blanket on it. There was also a night lamp and a few books that had been read to tatters. But what made one hell of an impression were the shelves filled with polished jars of preserves. Each one was supplied with a stick-on label, on which the names from the notebook reappeared. ‘Gherkins in Stasia’s marinade, 1999’, ‘Red pepper appetizer, 2003’, ‘Mrs Z’s dripping’. Some of the names sounded mysterious: ‘Appertized string beans’. He couldn’t for the life of him think what ‘appertized’ meant, but the sight of pale mushrooms or blood-red peppers crammed into a large jar, stirred his desire for life. He scanned the collection of preserves, but couldn’t find any files full of papers hidden behind them, or any rolled-up money. It looked as if she hadn’t left him anything.
He expanded his living space into her bedroom – now he threw his dirty clothes and stocked cartons of beer in there. From time to time he brought a box of preserves upstairs, opened a jar with a single twist of his hand and dug out the contents with a fork. Beer and nuts combined with marinated peppers or tiny gherkins as tender as infants tasted superb. He sat in front of the television contemplating his new situation in life, his new freedom, and felt as if he had just passed his final school exams and that the whole world stood open before him. As if a new, better life were starting. He was already a certain age – last year he had passed forty – but he felt young, like a high-school graduate. And although the money from his late mother’s last pension was gradually running out, he still had time to make the right decisions – meanwhile, he would slowly eat up what she had left him as a legacy. At most he would buy some bread and butter. And beer. Then maybe he really would look around for a job, something she’d been nagging him about for the past twenty years. He might go to the labour exchange – they’d be sure to find something for a forty-year-old high-school graduate like him. He might even dress up in the light suit she had ironed properly and hung in the wardrobe with a blue shirt to go with it, and head off to town. As long as there wasn’t a match on TV.
And yet he missed her slippers shuffling about, he had become used to that dull rustling noise, usually accompanied by her quiet voice saying: ‘Can’t you give it a rest with that television, can’t you go and see some people, can’t you meet a girl? Do you intend to spend the rest of your life like this? You should find a flat of your own – there isn’t enough room for the two of us here. People get married, have children, go on camping holidays and meet up for a barbecue. But as for you, aren’t you ashamed to be kept by a sickly old woman? First your father, and now you – I have to do all your laundry and ironing, and carry all the shopping home. That television’s always disturbing me, I can’t sleep, but you sit in front of it till dawn. What on earth are you watching all night long? How come you never get bored of it?’ She’d hammer on like that for hours on end, so he’d bought himself some earphones. That was a sort of solution – she couldn’t hear the TV, and he couldn’t hear her.
But now it seemed too quiet. Her once neat and tidy room full of doilies and glass cabinets cowered under piles of cardboard boxes, then began to be filled with a strange smell – of mouldering sheets, plaster licked by tongues of fungus, and an enclosed space, which with no through-draught starts to go off and ferment. One day, as he was looking for clean towels, he found another whole battery of jars at the bottom of the wardrobe; they were hidden away under piles of bedding, or nestled among skeins of wool, like partisans, the fifth column of the jar world. He took a careful look at them – they differed from the ones in the cellar by age. The inscriptions on the labels were a bit faded, and the years 1991 and 1992 often recurred, but there were some isolated specimens that were even older – 1983, and one from 1978. That was the cause of the bad smell. The metal screw top had rusted and let air inside. Whatever once used to be in the jar had now changed into a brown lump. He threw it away in disgust. Similar inscriptions appeared on the labels: ‘Pumpkin in currant puree’ or ‘Currants in pumpkin puree’. There were also some gherkins that had gone completely white. But there were lots of others whose contents he wouldn’t have been able to recognize, if not for the polite, obliging labels. The pickled mushrooms had become an inscrutable, murky jelly, the jams a black coagulate. The pâtés had solidified into small, shrivelled fists. He found more jars in the shoe cupboard and in a cubbyhole behind the bath. It was an astounding collection. Had she been hiding food from him? Had she made those supplies for herself, thinking that one day her son would move out? Or perhaps she had actually left them for him, imagining that she would go first – after all, mothers die before their sons, so maybe she wanted to provide for his future with all these jars. He examined the preserves with a mixture of affection and disgust, until he came upon one under the kitchen sink labelled ‘Shoestrings in vinegar, 2004’, and that should have alarmed him. He looked at the brown strings rolled into a ball and floating in brine, with black pellets of allspice in among them. He felt uncomfortable, that was all.
Whenever he pulled off the earphones and went to the bathroom she’d be lying in wait for him; she’d come shuffling out of the kitchen and block his path. ‘All chicks leave the nest – that’s the natural order, the parents deserve a rest. That law applies to the whole of nature. So why are you still pestering me? You should have moved out long ago and got yourself a life of your own,’ she moaned. Then, as he gently tried to get past her, she would grab him by the sleeve, and her voice would get higher-pitched, even shriller: ‘I deserve a quiet old age. Leave me alone, I want to rest.’ But he was already in the bathroom; he’d turn the key and abandon himself to his own thoughts. She would try to intercept him again on his way back, but with less conviction now. Then she would float off and vanish into her bedroom, and all trace of her would be gone until next morning, when she’d deliberately make a clatter with pots and pans so he couldn’t sleep.
But as everyone knows, mothers love their own children, and that’s what mothers are for – to be loving and forgiving. So he wasn’t at all worried about the shoestrings, or the sponge in tomato sauce that he found in the cellar. Anyway, it was loyally captioned ‘Sponge in tomato sauce, 2001’. He opened it, checked that the label wasn’t wrong and threw it in the bin. But he was also finding some real delicacies. One of the last jars on the upper shelf in the cellar contained some delicious pork knuckle. Or the hot and spicy baby beets he found behind the curtain in her room. In two days he had eaten several jarfuls. For dessert he scooped out some quince jam with a finger.
For the Poland-England match he lugged a whole box of preserves up from the cellar and surrounded them with a battery of beer cans. He reached into the box at random, gobbling up the preserves without looking at what he was eating. He did take notice of one small jar, because she’d made a funny mistake: ‘Pickled mushdooms, 2005’. He used a fork to extract the soft white caps, which slipped down his throat as if alive. Some goals were scored, so he didn’t even notice when he’d eaten the lot. When he had to go to the bathroom in the night, he thought she was standing there, moaning in that unbearably shrill voice of hers, but then he remembered that she had in fact died. He went on vomiting until morning, but it didn’t help much. At the hospital they wanted to give him a liver transplant, but no donor could be found, so without regaining consciousness, a few days later he died.
Some problems ensued, because there was no one to collect the body from the morgue or to arrange the funeral. Finally his mother’s friends came forward to claim it, those hideous old ladies in berets; with their absurdly patterned umbrellas open above the grave, they performed their pitiful funeral rites for him.
Photograph by Un Bolshakov