What I fear most is winter
I fear winter. Do you know how the cold can paralyse you? How does it destroy the sense of life? During the night when the wind blows from the East the window trembles, as if it groans. Hoar-frost on the window panes, anything you touch is icy; man shrinks as if he wanted to seek some warmth inside. – Halina has lived in the old tenement house for 45 years. She is retired now. She worked in the budgetary sphere. She is one of those whose difficult daily life is barely known. ‘This house, this tenement house, was the pride of the city once. One of the most beautiful houses, representative, elegant. And now? Can you see how the damp creeps along the walls, how ringworm destroys them? Can you smell it in the staircase? Damp and sauerkraut… This house is dying before our eyes. For years the clerks have repeated that the tenement house needs a general overhaul. But nothing has been done for years. They repeat that investing is not profitable. Recently, when I asked for help I heard that I should be patient because the repairs would begin in some four years… Good God, how to survive four winters?! The ground floor consists of many shops, volunteers’ centre, ballet school and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The apartments are higher. Two dark and wet courtyards, wells. We are going to the fourth floor, in the side staircase. Narrow stairs, the lights are out of order, the walls are shabby, graffiti, and the plaster falls off in pieces. A black hole leads to the basement as if to the abyss of hell…
‘I do not know and I prefer not to speak what it going on down there. Vodka, drugs, whatever you wish…’, Halina says. Jan, her husband, opens the door. He has been unemployed for a few years. ‘Nobody wants to employ a 60 year old man of poor health’, he explains. Halina and Jan have no children. They have only themselves. ‘It is never too late to get in love. But it is always too early for loneliness’, they smile. The flat has got 38 square metres: a big room with a small hall and even a smaller kitchen. There is a piano in the room, between two folding sofas, two armchairs, a bookcase and television set…’Halinka sometimes plays the piano if you ask her nicely. She has a beautiful voice…’, Jan smiles. There is a small electric heater on the stool in front of the piano. There are replicas of classical paintings and a picture of their beloved saint Fr Pio on the wall. ‘Proven friend’, they call him. The flat can be heated with coal but the big white stove in the corner of the room has been out of order for years. It should be rebuilt. But what for? There are no complete doors in the basement. All doors were devastated. Some neighbours keep coal in their flats in special cases or use electrical heating. ‘At the moment the temperature outside is 0 degrees Celsius and it is 6 degrees in the flat’, Jan says. ‘Oh, don’t take off your coat. Wait until I switch on the heater. In a white I will make tea, but first let it get warmer a little. You see, I cannot switch on the kettle when the heater is on. The fuses go off, the electrical installation is old. And the same is with the washing machine. If I make laundry we cannot heat our flat and drink anything warm for some two hours. Then we sit under blankets, quilts, whatever we have at hand… ‘Do you want to see how many layers of clothing I am wearing? Three pullovers, two T-shirts. Two pairs of track pants and tights. Janek wears similar clothes. We go for long walks daily since when you move you are warm. People get warm in their houses but we cannot…’Will you go with me to make tea?’ In a small niche there is a brown cupboard and inside dishes, vessels, cutlery placed in ideal order. Over the cupboard there is a small Scottish tartan cover and behind it there are things for which there was no room in the cupboard. Next to the cupboard there is one burner electric cooker on the little table. ‘It takes some 45 minutes to boil water. And during that time you cannot use the washing machine and the heater. Something for something…’, Halinka jokes. ‘Making a meal on this must be like a miracle…’ Halina shrugs. ‘We cannot afford cooking every day. I take the mugs and you can see the damp in the cupboard. Damp jars, plates, glasses like in some fog. Dampness’, Janek says philosophically and points to the window. The window is some half a metre wide and half a metre long, sealed up with oakum and cardboard. You can feel the cold. ‘When frost appears, an icy little roll is made around the window frame. Then the window pane stops shivering with the wind. Do not touch it as it can fall off… and we have no money to repair it…’ ‘In winter during the day we switch on the heater only for a while, and then we switch it off. If we cannot bear the cold we switch it on again, then switch it off and so on, until the evening. Then we drink hot tea with lemon and we jump under the quits. We have the lights switched on as little as possible. The persistence of the television set is enough. We comfort each other, speak about summer, flowers, hot days and count the time till spring… You must put the tea bag into the mug quickly as it will not brew in a while. The water gets cold quickly’, Jan urges me. The bathroom. A narrow long room. You can hardly squeeze yourself between the bath and the washing machine. The toilet with a broken flush is in the depth of the bathroom. I stumble over some shelf. The upper light is out of order, i.e. at first the bulb flickers for a long time and then it goes out. You should shake it and it will go on. But every time you need a ladder to reach the bulb. It is easier to place a small lamp on the windowsill. It gives little light but you can see the things inside. Unfortunately, the bathroom has a window. ‘Don’t touch it’…I hear a warning. And of course, there is no heating in the bathroom.
There are two bowls in the clean bath. One is used for the toilet and the other one is used for washing. You cannot use the bath for one simple reason. The outlet does not work. The old pipes got clogged and water overflows. One day we called a plumber and he said that everything should be changed and repaired. The electrician repeated his words. But what if you cannot afford a general overhaul of the flat we only rent?’ I ask. ‘Then you have a problem’, Janek explains. ‘The rules are that repairs outside are made by the owner and the repairs inside should be made by the one who rents, i.e. by me and Halinka… Practically, we have a little chance for a better life. Zero hope… The method of washing in winter is like this. The water in the electrical boiler gets warm for several hours, so we take a bath once a week for financial reasons.
– Every day we wash in stages. First, we put the heater in the bathroom. After a quarter of an hour you begin taking off your clothes if you are brave. You must wash in two stages. Firstly, from your waist up and then from the waist down. In each stage you must be half dressed… Otherwise, you cannot bear the cold. The doctor told Halinka to eat good food, take pills and exercise regularly. Since Halinka has a cancer. She had her breast removed half a year ago. Daily rehabilitation is necessary to recover and be fit again. ’30 minutes of exercise day after day and I am dressed like a polar explorer. A difficult matter. I should do some exercises lying on the floor. Please touch the carpet. Can you feel the draught? My kidneys are aching and I stopped exercising. I stand or sit. And the pain is terrible. They asked me to massage the scars, muscles. But how can I take off the clothes in this cold? Good God, I never complained about my fate when I was healthy. Poorly but with honour, but now there is nothing we can do about it… At present Halinka is undergoing pharmacological treatment. The doctor keeps repeating that she should eat properly and lead a calm life without any stress. And she should not worry. Then the woman smiles. She says nothing. Halina and Jan have 1,100 zloty monthly. They pay 200 zloty rent for 38 sq m flat to the municipality. The quality of the flat outrages any standards. They put aside 200 zloty for the electricity bill, 50 zloty for the telephone bill. They have 450 zloty for medicines, food, cleaning means, clothes, shoes – 7.50 zloty per person per day. ‘Helplessness kills us. Wherever they go they hear ‘no’… Because we are too old and our low income is too big to get some help from the social care. A wall of unwillingness, impossibility. Sometimes we think there is no simply good will… We are bound to die. In Poland the social care is for those whose monthly income is 351 zloty. The light is switched off. This time in the whole staircase. Stumbling over uneven stairs I go out into the courtyard, straight into falling snowflakes. It is colder in the evening so the temperature in the room falls down. ‘What we fear most is winter…’, I can still hear Halina’s voice.