‘Oh, that table!’ my mother would shriek, ‘I just can’t stand it a moment longer! Other people have decent furniture.’ She’d point at the round table where we ate our dinner every day. ‘Do you really call that a table?’ she’d ask.
My father would never rise to her goading; he’d withdraw into himself, and the room would fill with a heavy silence. Actually, the table wasn’t all that bad. Its short leg was propped up with a wedge, and the gnarled surface could be covered with a tablecloth. My father had acquired the table in 1946 from Mr Polaske of Zaspa, when Mr Polaske packed his bags and took the last train west to Germany. In exchange, my father gave Mr Polaske a pair of army boots he’d got from a Soviet sergeant, who’d done a swap with him for a second-hand watch, but since the boots were not in mint condition, my father threw in some butter as well. Moved by this gesture, Mr Polaske gave my father a photograph from his family album. It showed two elegant men in suits, standing on what was then called Lange Brücke. I liked to look at this photograph, not out of interest in Mr Polaske and his brother, of whom I knew very little, but because in the background stretched a view that I’d sought in vain to rediscover on our own ‘Long Harbour’. Dozens of fishing boats were moored at the Fish Market quay, the jetty was crowded with people buying and selling, and barges and steamships were sailing by on the Mot?awa River, their funnels as tall as masts. The place was full of bustle and life. Lange Brücke looked like a real port, and although the signs above hotels, bars and tradesmen’s counting houses were all in German, it was an attractive scene. It bore no resemblance to our own Long Harbour, rebuilt after the bombardment, the main features of which were a wasteland of administrative offices with red banners hanging on the walls, and the green thread of the Mot?awa, constantly patrolled by a militia motorboat.
‘It’s a German table,’ my mother would say adamantly. ‘You should have hacked it to bits years ago. When I stop to think,’ she’d go on, a little calmer now, ‘that a Gestapo man used to sit at it and eat his eels after work, it makes me feel quite sick.’