In The Widows’ and Widowers’ Ball Marian Pankowski develops a theme that first appeared in Towards Love (2001), a book mainly devoted to describing the experience of love at an advanced time of life, when it is threatened by widowhood. Pankowski is just as afraid of widowhood as of old age, which probably explains why he tries to disarm this fear. This short novel is a bit like a fictional reflection on the nature of the “widow(er)’s state”, listing all the splendours and miseries of life after the death of your “other half”. The main character tries to break the mould of the widower’s life; on the one hand he doesn’t want to take on the role of the jolly old senior citizen, like those who take part in the annual Widows’ and Widowers’ Ball held in Ostend, or be a “cultural hedonist” who squeezes the maximum pleasure out of the final years of his life, but on the other hand he has no intention of living a lonely life, cherishing his memories in his own private museum of remembrance. So he seeks the one thing that will fill his life with joy and meaning, which is a close relationship with another person, a warm friendship and love, which will change the orchestrated “spontaneity” of the Widows’ and Widowers’ Ballinto the real thing. What Pankowski has actually written is a novel about the need for love, which never dies even at an advanced age, but which has to be nurtured to prevent the empty rituals of widowhood from stifling it.
- Robert Ostaszewski
And I look at her, pretending to be a thirteen-year-old boy, whose mama has caught him in the woodshed in a beechwood chair, furiously occupied by his own topically rebellious body.
But Gabrysia gives me a strange look, leans across her cup and kisses me on the lips. I call the waiter, and to Gabrysia I say: “In Sopliców… the ladies and gentlemen also held their cups in two fingers, like in Petersburg… but after a lavish meal… You’re a local… help me to find a nice restaurant I can invite you to.”
“Samson’s,”… yeees, it’s a Jewish restaurant, but the menu doesn’t exclude goyim… the food is fresh and… not expensive.
So we go on foot. The fine weather is a joy to the eyes and lungs, which consciously imbibe the freshness of melting hoarfrost at this hour of the afternoon.
We haven’t reserved a table. We wait by the cloakroom… for ten minutes. There is one. We sit down, and at once a brisk young waiter with the look and manner of a dynamic French interior minister, takes our order. Soon we are admiring lily-white cod at the foot of a botanical Kościuszko Mound with sides made of carrot, leek and cabbage. We each have one, then a second glass of strange white wine…
Over a fork bristling with coleslaw like an agitated may-bug, Gabrysia’s words and mine pass to and fro. We’re both smiling, because time has flown by so fast…
“Can’t you manage a better lie?” she replies.
Time for pudding, so I try to summon the waiter.
“Coffee and dessert, that’s me!” calls Gabrysia, tapping herself on the breastbone. Amused by our way of splitting a nut in two, the young waiter looks at us with undisguised sympathy.
“Did you enjoy your meal?” he asks as he takes our payment.
We cheerfully confirm that we did, pleased that he has correctly, though not subtly, interpreted our “hail-fellow-well-met”…. from years ago! Got it in one!
As he puts away the wallet I see him staring at the floor, as if the river Jordan were about to send him a rippling white wave any moment… at the foot of my Carpathians, where comely Nadyezhdas, Lidas, Ariadnes and Ołesias… with earrings the colour of ice on our river San…
We take a taxi. As befits a widow, Gabrysia lives alone. I recognise the hallway… But now it has been salonified with photographs from journeys and namedays… The doings of a laughing married couple… with the number one culprit in Gabrysia’s widowhood, Marek…
“Do you like strawberries?” she asks, as if she could feel the pressure of the figures in the photographs glaring at the widowed Don Juan.
“Very much,” I merrily drool over the final consonant. “Did you pick them yourself?”
Gabrysia gives me a look.
“What have they done to you to make you sound like a nice old codger talking to a five-year-old girl?! Instead of looking at me… you know how! As if you’ve had your fill of that food… and here’s another pud-ding! You’ve had your fill of me! But at the same time you’re holding your hand out towards me… like a paradise apple…”
I reach out my hand, but Gabrysia stands up as if she hasn’t noticed me do it at all.
“I’ll just get them…” And she comes back with a tray, bearing a crystal bowl, in which some small, almost spherical strawberries are exhaling aroma.
She dishes them up and we eat. We enjoy this dessertifying in a widow’s flat, but it also unsettles us. We rinse our fingers… and that also means the moment is approaching… I can feel my hands hurrying to wipe themselves. They show me they’re dry and have nothing more to do with the banal act of raising strawberries to my mouth.
Now my fingers are straightening out so much I can feel the joints! I know this reaction – they’ve received an e-mail from behind my forehead with urgent information about the presence of Gabrysia’s body! As if for no reason, without my knowledge, they suddenly bend, showing off their flexibility… Gabrysia turns her back as she goes into the kitchen… giving me to understand I am to remain by the window, as if I’m the pensive type… but of course she’ll come up and stand next to me, on my right… and then… because we’re in the employ of the body… we will start… with a compliment…
Gabrysia has returned…. I stand up, and we both start to move oddly… Gabrysia adjusts the curtains so they’ll hang better, and I more and more blatantly pretend I can’t see all the footage from happy family life, all those advertisements for love and harmony the flat is wallpapered in. I’ve got it! I stretch out my hands and whisper warmly: “I’ve had my fill of pudding and I’ve had my fill of Gabrysia!”
And she smiles, and it isn’t a widow’s smile at all… Gradually she’s coming towards my expectation… We embrace, so cautiously that somehow it’s as if our old “hail-fellow-well-met” were no longer so hale and hearty… Her head is next to mine, but in profile, because her gaze is on the wall… mine follows it… and there are the family in full force… only the boyfriend I know so well is missing! They’re laughing! And at this point my hands let me know they’ve found a waist… and the oval shape of a woman… and that in that area… the silver beaver is lying in wait… just a bit more and the poacher will start to act without me!
Noooo! Because the people in the photographs are clenching their fists, shaking them at me and threatening me… they’re afraid I want to deprive their charge of her immaculate widowhood…
And our embrace relaxes completely…
“Don’t be angry,” whispers Gabrysia.
I can’t find the right word, I just purse my lips and just move my head to say… there’s no question of being angry… With a calm step I walk towards my coat. Gabrysia sees me to the door… Our smile is on and off…
“Goodnight,” I say. “Do you think it’ll snow in the night?”
“I doubt it… Goodnight!”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones