Following is Chapter 55 from the book “Czcij Ojca Swego” (“Honour your father“) by Ela Sidi. The book is in Polish only and can be purchased here:
From the description on empik.com:
“Honor your father” is a bitter and moving story of a wounded childhood and youth, which always hopes for a better tomorrow. On the pages of her novel Ela Sidi draws emotionally evocative landscapes, whose background is the reality of PRL – though seen from a child’s perspective, but without infantilism and sentimental idealization. Brave style of the author is intriguing with insight and intensity of feelings.
Life of Ania takes place in the harsh Polish conditions at the turn of the 70s and 80s of the twentieth century, while being brought up by an alcoholic father. The girl is experiencing cruelty on the part of the closest person, but child’s wisdom and sensitivity helps her to build her own world on the foundation of love. The story is painful, but not without optimism, because although she has suffered and hates for the experienced injustice, she feels unconditional love and learns how to forgive.
“Honour your father” is a novel of that kind that is so true and strong that it could only be written by life. And although it confronts readers with the dark side of human nature, it also reminds that the card of human fate can always be reversed.”
The chapter is describing how seven years old Ania (Anka) is doing her often recurring duty to stand in queues to buy food, something that was a part of life in socialistic Poland. Jadwiga is her stepmother, Adam is her older brother. Here is my translation:
It’s my turn to stand in queues. I put on the sweater made of sheep’s wool, waterproof jacket and double socks on the feet. I take two big bags, umbrella, and leave the home, trying not to awaken sleeping family.
It is still dark outside. There is no one there except the milkmen delivering the bottles with milk. In about two hours Poland will get up to the breakfast oatmeal. It’s raining. First next to the store I notice people, they are coming from different directions. They look like they are rushing to a morning service at the Church.
Despite the early hour there is already a long queue at the front of the store. I have no idea if I manage to get anything today, but I have to try. Adam was queuing at the same place yesterday. Three hours. There was a note put up “Today there are no deliveries.” but who would believe in it? The delivery, of course was, but Adam anyway did not buy anything. He did not even reach the shop counter when the items were sold out. Fortunately, on the way back he saw a queue before the kiosk and he managed to buy three cubes of soap. Jadwiga in the shop next to their school queued long time and got two cubes of butter, and my father brought red delicious apples and honey from a friend living in the country side. Still, there was nothing to cook dinner with.
I stand in a pyramid-shaped queue tapered in my direction. I am the last one but only for a moment, for right away someone new comes and joins the queue. Despite the cold people have good humour. It is thanks to the tall man with a moustache, wearing red and black scarf, that is standing a dozen people ahead of me. He tells jokes and entertains them all.
– “Gierek passes next to the endless queue for the meat” – he says in a raised voice so that as many people can hear him as possible – “gets out of the car. Looks at the tired people”. “You really helped me, so I’ll help you too.” In half an hour they bring chairs and place them in front of the shop.
Without waiting until the laughter quiets down, moustachioed asks:
– You know what Polish pigs dream about?
– That at least their hearts stay “with” the country. – respond many voices. **
Even I know that joke. People around me are laughing. I don’t feel however entertained. As time goes on the queue is growing more and more and I feel more worried. Will there be any items in the store today? Will the items that they deliver be in sufficient quantities for both the store staff, friends of the staff, the privileged and the people in the queue, including me? And if in the end they will deliver, then what it will be? Will there be just the bones for the soup, kaszanka *** and liver-sausage, or maybe something more?
Some boy, just a little older than me, took the courage and loudly asks:
– What is it? a long, twisted and mainly nourishes itself with white cheese?
– Queue for the meat – answer him a chorus of voices.
– Old joke! – Someone in the crowd throws out a comment.
– Then you tell a younger one! – proposes a lady in a fur coat made of nutria.
– Here it is! The client in a store takes off the coat and puts it on the counter. “What are you doing?” asks the surprised sales lady. “This is the butcher’s shop”. “I am very sorry” replies the client. “I thought it was a cloakroom room”.
This time I laugh with the others. It reminds me of the scene from an American film that we watched with Adam at the cinema. One of the characters came to the giant building where miles of shelves were filled with goods, and in the queue at the cashier there were only two people. At the time, when the camera showed an abundance of hams, gammon and roasted chickens, the whole room gasped, then there was a deafening laughter, though on the screen there was nothing to laugh at. Each of us exactly knew why we were laughing. I felt then, as if we were one big family. I wonder if there are really such places in the world where you can buy what you want. Probably it is so only in the movies.
I button the shirt at the neck. Putting the hood over my head. A cold wind is blowing. I’m not sheltered here where I stand. The queue is constantly moving forward, although the store is still closed. Could it be that the miracle happened? No. It’s just a sign that it’s soon eighth o’clock. People in the queue are arguing, they shout and jostle each other.
In a moment the shop will open. Jadwiga is still not here. I’m nervous. If I enter the store before she comes the queue guards will not allow her to join me. Then I will have to buy things myself, and I do not know what to buy – I think worried. We agreed that she will take my place in the queue.
After a short time I come to the conclusion that, after all, I simply buy what will be available, because it is the shop’s personnel in white caps on the head that determine how much of each meat they will sell. I feel little bit more at ease, although I would have like her to be here. I feel more and more cold. My legs are hurting. I’m soaked and hungry. In the morning before going out I had no time to eat anything. I dream of a time when they open the door and I will be able to warm up inside, and maybe even, with luck, sit on the window sill.
To the satisfaction of the people in the queue, after almost three hours the store manager takes the standard daily sign “There will be no delivery today” and begins to unpack the goods. At this point the whole queue moves forward. Most of the shouting, swearing and crying of small children you can hear just at the door. There an additional queue is being formed. Much shorter than ours, for the privileged. All are fighting for space. I also push with full force, pushing into a woman in grey coat standing in front of me.
– Phew, it’s good – I sigh happy. I was able to stay in line and not let them to push me out. In front of me are lot of strangers, which have benefited from the confusion and pushed themselves into the queue without scruples. People, targeted them with sharp words, but the “pushers” do not care. They stand in the seized places and do not respond to the provocations. Jokes, stories about troubles, friendly gossip, everything ended with the first batch of those who managed to get inside. All in the queue are more alert now.
The first lucky person, exiting the store like a movie star, attracts the glances full of admiration. With a pride of a prize winner and the skill of a television commentator he tells you:
Delivery is quite small. They give half a kilo of meat from each type and a kilo of sausage, five cans of “Tourist” luncheon meat, and five “Tyrolean”.
When he leaves followed with envious glances, my stepmother puts her hand on my shoulder. I greet her especially loudly to let everyone understand that we are from the same family and in principle I’ve standing behind her. This by no means happens without protests of the people standing behind us. We are pretending that it does not apply to us. Ten more people and we’ll get inside. When we are already there, I feel like I won the lottery.
Still some forty minutes – I estimate, counting the people in front of me – and I’ll leave with a delicious sausage and meat. Adam will be very pleased. They delivered his favourite chicken livers without the need of food stamps.
Although the shop is crammed with people and it got stuffy, I’m happy. Delightful warmth is spreading throughout my body. I breathe in the smell of fresh cold cuts, swallowing excess saliva that collects in my throat. I’m standing right next to the window. I avoid looking through the glass. I’m afraid the bad glances of people. I focus attention on information, which shows that the queue police broke into the back of the shop and brought from there a concealed box full of meats. The shop manager is crying. Someone want to even call the militia (polis). After some time, there is probably an agreement, because the additional box is being unpacked in the store. Men from the guard discretely exit the shop through the rear entrance. No one has any doubts that they have full bags.
All of a sudden there is confusion in the shop. In the nearby shop they delivered sugar. Jadwiga wants to go there and buy it. I ask her not to leave, but she’s not listening.
– Anka, since it is an opportunity, I will go for the sugar.
– Do not go, please, soon we’ll get to the counter!
– Sugar sells out quickly. It will not take long, in a quarter of an hour I should be back. Don’t let anyone to push you out from the queue.
Jadwiga leaves the store despite my protests. Half an hour passes and she is still has back. The supply of the meat begins to end. People are tired and nervous. No one wants to go out of the store empty-handed. Other people in the queue still in the outside are trying to break inside every few minutes. Those who are already there, repel attacks with elbows and vulgar curses. I’m trying to defend my place, but with my height and strength of a child growth it is not easy.
The whole crowd is united in hatred for the queue of the favoured ones, which grows minute by minute. No one knows when so many of those who in accordance with the rules of the shop can buy without queue showed up. People generously offer those curses that do not exclude mothers with small children on their hands, babies in baby carriages or old men with sticks.
– It’s probably speculators – you can hear voices coming from the different places.
– The woman in the blue coat is not pregnant at all! -screams a lady with a plastic shopping basket.
– She definitely stuffed up her belly with a pillow! – adds someone at the back.
– Open your coat, lady! – says the broad-shouldered man in a thick sweater and denim jacket with white teddy bear fodder. He pushed himself into the store. He is now standing before the woman so close that she can feel his smell. With trembling hands she unbuttons the buttons. Under the coat she is dressed in a tight, synthetic skirt and the unbuttoned jacket spreads on the belly.
– Pregnant, pregnant-nods standing by her side a lady with mahogany hair.
– You are sure? – The bruiser does not give up.
– Or maybe you want to put your hand on my stomach? – The pregnant gets upset.
The man does not respond. He turns his back to her.
The store manager brings the container with the meat. At this point Jadwiga is pushing herself toward me through the crowd.
– Ladies and gentlemen, the delivered goods are almost finished. There won’t be anything left for those at the end of the queue! – The sales lady announces decisively.
– No, but we’ll probably get some? – Jadwiga wonders aloud. Standing next to me with a transparent shopping bag, in which there are two kilos of sugar in paper bags. The corpulence of Jadwiga strikes the eye. In the lean years of the crisis it looks suspicious.
The crowd pushes on the counter. Suddenly I feel a strong blow with the elbow immediately followed by a sharp push. Someone’s bag sticks into my side. One man’s foot in the military shoe tramples my wet boots. The pain is too strong to keep the position in the queue. I move to the side. My place is taken by a tall man in the jacket. I haven’t seen him here before, and yet I am in the queue since three hours. I’m trying to say something, turn the attention of the people to the intruder when someone pulls my hand – that’s Jadwiga.
– Move – she hisses through the teeth. – give me the place!
Even if I wanted to, I could not shrink more.
– That man was not standing before me – I’m informing Jadwiga.
– And you allowed him to push himself in front of you? – Stepmother is yelling at me, pulling me by the sleeve.
The crowd behind us is purring with indignation. Everybody’s anger turns against Jadwiga – against her grip on my elbow and her excess weight, that is felt as a slap to all in the queue.
– Do not let her buy! – People are screaming. Abusing a child!
– Interesting, how did she got so fat?
Jadwiga does not respond to the provocations. Disregarding the harsh comments, insulting jokes and vituperations. She is trying not to get provoked, even though she is close to burst into tears. You can see that she regrets what has happened. I don’t get angry with her. Her grip did not hurt me so much, besides that I can understand her. I’m mad at myself, that in the last moment I allowed myself to be pushed out from the queue. What will happen if they do not allow us to come to the counter? The thought that I could go away empty-handed it makes me feel weak. I feel nauseous. I move to the open windows and deeply breathe in the air.
Jadwiga cannot withstand. She is quarrelling with the people in the store, trying to push herself back into the queue and stand on our old place. Someone pushes her out with all his strength. Jadwiga loses balance. She falls on the floor. The bag with sugar breaks up. From her pocket in the coat two apples are rolling out towards the standing people.
– Good for her, fat lady, she should not push! It is better if she went on a diet! – I hear a male voice behind me. People respond with a laughter.
– People, for God’s sake, after all, you have seen this girl! She was standing with us in the rain even long before the opening of the store. It’s her mom! No one is moved by the remarks of the old lady standing close to us. This time there is no response. No one gives us a place in the queue.
Jadwiga with difficulty sits down on the floor, entangled in the throng of human legs. She covers her face with her hands. Judging after the twitching of the back you can guess she is crying. There is no one who would help her to get up. I approach her. I put into the shopping bag what is left of the sugar. I help her to get up. A couple of people move aside to give us a place in the queue.
* Gierek – Edward Gierek was a Polish communist politician. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Gierek
** It was known that Poland has been exporting the pig meat but it was available only in very small quantities in the domestic market.
*** Kaszanka – it’s a traditional blood sausage in east and central European cuisine. It is made of a mixture of pig’s blood, pork offal (commonly liver, lungs, skin, and fat), and buckwheat (sometimes barley or rice) kasza stuffed in a pig intestine. It is usually flavored with onion, black pepper, and marjoram.
This post was “inspired” by recently standing in queue for 3 hours at the bank in Uttarkashi (India) to get some money… Indian government cancelled the current 1000 Rs and 500 Rs banknotes and issued new ones in order to curb the black money market, big number of fake notes circulating, and funding the terrorists. Read more about it here: https://www.thequint.com/section/currency-ban
Makes you realise how lucky we are even now in the UK, Looking at the empty supermarket shelves in COVID-19 Scotland, I realise there is no comparison with Poland back then.