She’s back again. Back in Borth. As my grandma and I walked the bog walk yesterday, the stories came out of her. With each step came a new person, new moment, a jigsaw piece putting the picture together.
Wanda likes to start with the end of the war. Her mother died – of tuberculosis after giving birth to her fourth child. The baby died soon after. My grandma, the oldest of the four, was away on her first job when her mum died. She’d gone to the nearby town to work at a party political office. She got the job she says, because she spent time at a practical-based high school during the war – szkoła handlowa – and knew how to type. She slept on the sofa in the office, owned one outfit and her boss was an old-school, handle-bar moustached, end-of-an-era kind of a person.
After her poor mum died, Wanda was sent back home to look after the baby. Her sister. The sister didn’t make it. She flits over the details here – like name and exact type of illness, but I don’t press her. They struggled even to bury the mother – my great-grandma in a dress, they were so poor.
She presses on. To her great friend, Halina. Halina sorted out Wanda for her next job, working at the officer’s air force academy in nearby Dęblin. Wanda moved in with her.
‘She used to make me laugh so much I thought I would burst,’ Wanda says of Halina. They shared a bed and Halina was particularly generous with, well everything. Clothes, food, contacts. Meanwhile, Wanda’s boss was another handle-barred moustache. He’d like to take a little bit of vodka at lunch, retiring to a nearby bar. They’d wait for him to go and then Halina would make herself comfortable on his sofa with a blanket. They had an hour at least to have a nap. Except Wanda recounted, once he returned early. They’d been caught red-handed.
‘You knew how cultured he was when he came in as if he hadn’t noticed us, except for saying, “Don’t mind me ladies.” Wanda giggles like she was still there.
Halina had a partner who’d been taken to Russia, up to Siberia. Halina didn’t know if he was alive. Wanda had had a boyfriend too who’d disappeared. He was a pilot. She’d spent her late teens, she said, ‘Kissing him. Just kissing.’ He was gone for a long time. Then she heard he was alive and seeing someone else.
Not long after, Wanda met Adam. Adam was a pilot and engineer who’d suddenly vacated his home town, Lwów, when the Soviets came in. He’d made his way up to the air force academy and began the post-war work of putting Polish aircraft back together. Scrapping and starting anew. Dęblin bordered two rivers, so Adam built a little sailing boat from airplane parts to sail the rivers, helped Wanda said, ‘by the amazing glue they had at the academy. It stuck everything together.’ He came one day into Wanda’s office and asked if she wanted to sail with him. ‘I couldn’t even swim,’ she recounts.
‘What did you do?’