The sub-title of A Window Onto the Crossroads speaks for itself and tells us what is in this book. It is a set of short stories set just before or during the Christmas holidays. The seven independent stories are linked by the figure of the Christmas Eve Angel, who appears to people who are at a turning point in their lives and declares that their wishes will be fulfilled. The main characters usually want to escape from whatever trouble they are in, but the Angel does not always help them directly or in quite the way they would have hoped. You have to work hard for a miracle, which usually means considering your actions carefully, facing up to reality, and then looking for ways to resolve your problems.
There is plenty of magic here, as there should be in Christmas stories, but Joanna Rudniańska wants to show that the real magic is what a person has inside him – the ability to give, forgive and be self-sacrificing. And love, of course. Rudniańska wraps her moral message in some curious tales, such as a story called Atelier Rotwand about a young married couple, Agnieszka and Krzysztof. Their problem is that they cannot have children. To dull the pain, they throw themselves into their professional passions – she does academic work and earns a living at a photography studio inherited from her adoptive mother, and he is a doctor. One day Agnieszka finds out that her husband is cheating on her and has a small son. When she encounters the Angel, she asks him for a happy family for the child, as she wants to divorce her cheating husband. Meanwhile on Christmas Eve Krzysztof comes home with the child, because his mother has gone abroad with another man. And so a miracle occurs, based on the one Agnieszka herself experienced years before when she lost her own mother.
A Window Onto the Crossroads is designed to stir the emotions. It is full of warmth and sympathy, but free of excessive sentimentality or pathos, thanks to the author’s way of softening her protagonists’ tragic experiences with a large dose of humour. Thus as he goes about selecting who to help, the heavenly visitor appears in the off-putting guise of a tramp. Only those who are not disgusted by him or afraid of him are worthy of a miracle. One of the heroines, Ewa, who is battling a terminal illness with dignity and despite her son’s wishes gives up the gift of life to someone more needy, would not have been friendly to the Angel “if he had been some well dressed guy”.
This is not just a very successful product for a special time of year, but ready material for a television series.
- Marta Mizuro
Joanna Rudniańska (born 1948), a mathematician by training, started by writing science fiction stories for children, and has won the international Janusz Korczak prize.
Just at that moment the sleet began to fall on Warsaw. Regina left the new Toyota showroom feeling terribly disappointed. She had wanted to buy herself a Corolla before New Year’s Eve, so she could drive her new car in the New Year. But she’d been told she’d have to wait two months. She hadn’t expected that. She was to get the money for the painting on the twenty-ninth of December, and she had thought she’d drive her new, shiny blue Corolla out of the smart, glazed showroom that very day and be off into the stream of cars on the highway along the River Vistula. But meanwhile she’d have to drive about in this wreck, the grey Tsarina as old as the hills. On top of that she had forgotten where she parked it, and in the twilight she was as blind as a bat. Instead of driving into the Toyota parking lot, for some strange reason she had left it in the street, and now in this blizzard she couldn’t see it. But she was thinking that if it all went well, soon she’d be driving a Prius, blue as a computer screen, the vehicle of the stars. Just then she slipped on the wet tarmac and fell over. She felt a pain in her elbow, but the main thing she felt was extreme embarrassment at finding herself lying in the street like one of those frail old ladies who often break an arm or a leg. Luckily there was no one about – but no, there was someone, who took her gently by the arm and picked her up.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
He would have looked like a tramp, if not for the long, snow-white scarf wound around his neck. The scarf reminded her of Adam – he always used to wear that sort of scarf too. She took a close look at the man – he was a tramp after all.
“I’m fine,” she said sharply and pulled her arm free, but her elbow hurt so much that she cried out in pain.
“You see,” said the tramp. “It’s your elbow. I don’t think you should drive.”
“But I’m going to,” said Regina. “As soon as I find my car.”
“It’s here. Right in front of us,” said the tramp.
And indeed, the Tsarina was standing by the kerb five yards away.
Regina quickly walked up to the car and opened her handbag to get out the keys. She couldn’t find them, so she started searching her pockets. She was upset, and didn’t like the fact that she was standing in the street with a tramp. She wanted to get away as fast as possible.
“What would you like for Christmas?” asked the tramp in the tone of a journalist doing an interview. “What would you like most of all?”
“I want my plan to succeed, I want Henrietta to seduce Adam and…” she started saying, and fell silent, because her fingers had found her keys at the bottom of her coat pocket. She was slightly surprised by what she’d said. It was true, she was thinking about it non-stop, but why had she told it to this stranger, a tramp she’d met in the street?
She got into the car. She didn’t look at the tramp, but just cast him a glance at the very last moment as she was driving away.
But it wasn’t a tramp. It was someone else. A man so handsome that Regina would have given anything to have him.
Adam drank two glasses in a row, then sat in silence, smoking a cigarette. The tramp was holding his glass in both hands, smiling benignly, as if he had suddenly found himself in heaven.
“Do you have any dreams?” he asked Adam.
“Of course I do. Just like everyone else – I’d like to be rich and famous,” said Adam.
“Is that all?”
“Well, I could do with a woman too. Young and beautiful. And not too thin. And for her to stay with me until I die. That’s all.”
“What about power?” said the tramp.
“I’ve never tried it. But I’ve never tried cocaine either. Just alcohol,” said Adam and laughed.
“So what about power then?” asked the tramp.
“No, I don’t think so. I’ll stop at alcohol.” said Adam.
That night Adam dreamed about the tramp. He had the wings of an angel. He was standing on the stair rail on the fifth floor, illuminated by rays of sunlight falling from above. He spread the wings and began to glide down in circles, all the way to a rosette pattern shining like a diamond in the depths of the cellar. And then he folded his hands above his head, flew up like a rocket and dissolved into the light.
“Mum, please don’t smoke so much. I can’t breathe,” said Henrietta.
“Then go out onto the balcony. But first listen,” said Regina.
“I won’t hear any more of that. I can’t go to a strange guy and pretend I’m his fiancée from forty years ago. It’s like some stupid play. What on earth can I say to him? And what will I do if he throws he out?”
“You won’t have to say anything, Henrietta. You look almost the same as I did… then, right then, though, well, you know, you’re not quite as pretty… it hardly makes a big difference, as they say nowadays. Mainly you’re fatter than I was. But to get back to the point, you look almost the same as me and he has to think it’s me – he’s old and alcoholic, so if he’s drunk at the time, all the better…”
“God, and what if he does something to me?”
“Adam? No, he wouldn’t be capable. When I kissed my cousin Marcin right in front of him he pretended he hadn’t noticed. What an idiot – I know perfectly well he had. He didn’t even slap me. No, he won’t do anything to you. It’s a brilliant plan. Let me go over it one more time. You’ll go and see him tomorrow, on Christmas Eve…”
“Mum, why don’t you go and see him? It was you he loved, after all.”
“Henrietta, my dear girl. He won’t give me anything, I hurt him when I went off with your father. We must go back to the time when I was still with him. I know him, he’s impossibly sentimental. I am the love of his life. He’s still single and I’m sure he thinks about me every day. But I have to be the me from years ago, because he doesn’t know me as I am now, a mature woman.”
“Mum, please don’t have any more to drink. What you’re saying makes no sense at all. If you hurt him, then even if he mistakes me for you, he’s not going to give me anything. And you want me to con him out of all his pictures. But how do you know he’s got any? You haven’t seen him for a hundred years!”
“Don’t exaggerate, Henrietta, not a hundred, just about forty, thirty-eight to be precise. I know all about him. When that picture of his that he once gave me went to auction I investigated him a bit. And I found out about him. I did an excellent job. He lives on his own, buys a lot of paints and orders a large canvas three times a year. And he only sells views of Warsaw, ugly little things painted on wood. Anyway, I can’t really go and see him. I’ll tell you a secret. I had a chat with him at the Paragraph bar. For half an hour. And he didn’t recognise me.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones