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The Bronski House

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 1997-06-01
  • Publisher: Arcade Pub
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More than half a century after fleeing the Russians and Nazis, the poet Zofia Ilinska, nee Bronski, went back to the little village of her birth, which was then in Poland but now is part of Belarus. Accompanied by her friend, the travel writer and author Philip Morsden, she was looking for her home, though hoping to find much more -- a key to her childhood, and to her family. Marsden narrates the story of Zofia's return movingly but without sentimentality. And when she gives him her mother's diary, and letters, he begins to peel away the layers of Bronski history. From Zofia's journey we move back in time to the beautiful, courageous Helena, Zofia's mother, whose own family had had to uproot itself during the catastrophic events of 1914. From this chronicle of lost times and displaced souls emerges a passionate, magnificent epic of mother and daughter, a stirring elegy for the worlds that our century has left behind, and an unforgettable testament to love's power to reconstruct and forgive.

Table of Contents

PART I Zofia 1(54)
PART II Helena 55(94)
PART III Mantuski 149(85)

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There was a house I knew as a child, gray-fronted, steep-lawned, with a bird's-eye view of a Cornish harbour. The house was set apart from the village, in its own ring of elm trees. From the lawn, you looked down the slope and over the treetops to a granite quay. The quay curled around the fishing tenders which bobbed about inside it. Beyond them, the bay widened towards a pair of headlands fringed with pine trees, a kind of gateway to the plains of the open sea.

In front of the house was a monkey-puzzle. It was tall and very straight with no branches until right at the top where a Medusa's-head of bracts burst out from the trunk. The tree had been planted by a sea-captain, one hundred and fifty years earlier. His last mission had been to take a member of the Portuguese royal family into exile in South America. For this he had been rewarded with a casket of gold and a bag of araucaria seeds. The gold he used to build the house. The seeds he planted in front of it. He called the house: Braganza.

For a few weeks every year we went to a cottage in the village below Braganza. It was August. The bay was hazy. White sails drifted across it. The chorus of the gulls was relentless. The lawn at Braganza, where we went to tea on Sundays, was as dry as a desert.

For years, Cornwall was the only abroad I knew. Crossing the Tamar, on an old stone bridge the colour of elephant skin, I closed my eyes and imagined it took two days; when I opened them again I felt sure we would be on some strange and far-off island. But it never worked. If Cornwall wasn't quite England, it wasn't quite abroad either.

I already knew what abroad would be like; it would be like Braganza. There everything was different -- the noises, the food, the smells. The voices you heard from the landing, from behind half-open doors, were foreign ones. Extraordinary things hung on the walls -- wolfskins, bearskins, cutlasses, velvet-stocked muskets and icons. There were hand-tinted cartoons on the stairs, eerie wood-cuts of cobblers cobbling and reapers reaping, and perched on high marble plinths, looking somewhat like cockerels, was a vast array of silver samovars.

Braganza was a big house and there were parts of it I never saw. But I knew that some profound sadness lived in its more remote corners. Not an English sadness -- a hushed thing, a `don't-go-too-close-dear' sadness; this was a sadness without shame, something noble, a sadness that could face its own depths, a sadness rooted in truth -- a sadness that was also the springboard for joy.

I did not know its name. But I sensed it had something to do with the framed photographs on a cabinet in the drawing room: the stern-gazed women, the tousle-haired sons with their rakish moustaches, the family groups picnicking in the forest. It probably had something to do with the painting of a long, low-fronted house and the larch tree which stood in front of it. But most of all it had to do with the woman who lived there.

Zofia was Polish. She spoke English in a spongy accent which she never lost. She called me `Pheelip' and delivered her speech in such honeyed tones that sometimes listening to it, I would forget what she was saying and simply sit there watching her, letting the words fall over me like a balm. I loved her stories and her faraway looks, her pale translucent eyes. I loved the aura that surrounded her. I loved her sadness.

The year I was born Zofia had her fortieth birthday. Her husband owned the two harbourside hotels below the house. He staffed them with waiters from southern Italy who started fights and gave babies to the local girls. When I was five, Zofia bent down to me and whispered, `Pheelip, will you be my friend, my special friend?'

`Yes, please!'

`I have four boyfriends already,' she confessed. `My husband, my son and my two dogs. But you, Pheelip, you must be one too. Would you like that?'

After that not a Christmas went by without some surprise gift arriving in the post -- an onyx egg, an old postcard of a place called Wilno, a Polish bank note, a pen. The pen was a magic one, she said -- it will write magic things for you. She herself wrote magic things: witty, lyrical poems about amorous unicorns, talking lobsters and the strange gentlemen who stayed in her hotels.

Each August she took my brother and me to lunch in one of the hotels. We had to wear ties, and tweed jackets which were too big one year and too small the next. Zofia called the Italian waiters by name (usually the wrong one) and ordered complicated things like prawns and oysters which we slipped into our pockets when she wasn't looking. But afterwards she would concede to our tastes and ask for rice pudding, which she pronounced `Rasputin'.

Then we went onto the terrace and she told stories -- fabulous stories, Polish stories. The tide lapped at the wall below us; boats cries-crossed the bay. But Zofia would lean forward, her voice softened to a whisper, and conjure up a much more compelling picture of a darkened forest thick with snow, of howling wolves and a howling wind, of a man all alone in the corner of a clapboard cabin, listening, listening: `Vooosh-vooosh! goes the wind ... Awooo, awooo! go the wolves ...'

Zofia made very convincing noises, and we were there in that clapboard cabin, there with that lonely man, with the whooshing wind, the awooing wolves -- listening, listening, listening ...

She would then thump the table and cry out and we would all laugh -- the two of us with shock, Zofia with mischief, while the starchy English guests at the next tables would raise their eyebrows at the unseemly way this woman -- this foreign woman, the hotel's proprietress -- behaved in public with her two little boys.

Zofia had a small boat called Memory with a 17 on the mainsail. Seventeen was the age she was when she escaped, and seventeen was the date: 17 September 1939.

She was the worst sailor I have ever known. Utterly unable to grasp the principle of the points of sail -- the tacking, the going-about, the gybing -- she reverted instead to techniques that she did understand: those for riding a horse. She treated the sheets like reins, the halyards like a throat-lash. Her dogs swam alongside and helped to convince her that sailing -- feeling the breeze in her hair, contemplating the big questions -- was really no different from a ride in the Polish forest.

The language of sailing baffled her too. Each time she rowed out to Memory, she first asked Jimmy Green in the boatyard for his advice: `Oh, Jeemy, what is the tide doing?'

`Comin' in, Mrs Mo,' he'd say, or, `Goin' out now.'

But by the time she'd reached Memory, she couldn't remember whether it was `coming in' or `coming out', or `going in' or `going out'. Nor was she quite sure why it mattered.

On occasions, after some near calamity, she would turn to old Charlie Ferris (`Whiskers' on account of his enormous white beard) and ask him, again, to try and teach her to sail. Whiskers would come aboard and point out the sheets and cleats, for'ard and aft, port and starboard, would show her how to find the wind and set the sails, and she'd pretend to understand. But one day she lost the main halyard up the mast and Whiskers, shinnying up to get it, forfeited a large chunk of his beard to a block. After that he wouldn't go near Memory again.

I was ten and a half when, one August evening, Zofia telephoned our cottage and asked for me.

`Pheelip,' she said, in a deep voice reserved for adventures, `I am taking Memory up the creek to see the swans. Will you come?

The oak trees came right down to the water. Seaweed hung like witches' hair from their boughs. Rounding the first bend, we found the ribs of an abandoned ship, but no swans. By the time we rounded the second bend, the evening had cast its spell on the deserted creek and Zofia purred, `Oh, isn't it beautiful!'

And so it was. But the briny scum on the water, the floating twigs and eel grass, had already begun to ebb. Unnoticed they slipped past Memory's hull, while what breeze there was nudged us upstream. Pretty soon there came a soft jolt and Memory was lodged firmly in the mud.

`Oh dear!' said Zofia.

There was no alternative but to drop the sails and wait for the flood. Zofia didn't mind a bit.

It became dark. The moon rose. The curlew cried from the mud flats. Zofia's dogs fell asleep on the bottom-boards. The night filled with little noises.

At first we were silent.

Then Zofia began to sing. She sang in a deep, modulated voice thick with Slavic irony. She sang a Belorussian song about a priest and his dead dog. She tried to teach it to me but I couldn't make the sounds. She then told a story about two lovers, a ferry on the river Niemen, and a murder; she asked me to decide who was to blame.

`The man?'

`Perhaps ...'

`The woman?'

`Perhaps ...'

`The ferryman?'

She laughed and her laughter echoed in the creek. Leaning back against the folds of the mainsail, she took each of the suspects in turn and explained how, in the real world, the grown-up world, everyone could be culpable -- or no one. Looking up at the stars, she then sighed and recited a poem of hers in which the poet envies a scarecrow: `I wish there was no thought in me / this head of thought exhausteth me.'

The hours slid past and she settled into a long lilting monologue, punctuated by the cries of the night birds, of the old life in Eastern Poland -- the villages and wolf hunts, the larger-than-life people. Scene by scene fell on our marooned boat like the miraculous crystals of dew: funeral carriages in the snow, dead bodies in the river, the sad ghost who sat on her bed complaining, the dragoon who galloped along the river bank, naked but for his leather top-boots.

Then there was the escape itself -- Russian tanks approaching through the forest, a hurried flight on farm-carts, the poison her mother carried in a small glass bottle, the final drama at the Lithuanian frontier with bullets screeching around their ears.

But of all the things that she told me that evening, it was the story of the silver that lodged most firmly in my boyish mind. Real treasure, not just the imagined treasure of a vanished world; real treasure, taken into the forest in mushroom baskets before the escape, buried deep in a new plantation, abandoned to hope, while the two most destructive armies the world had ever seen rumbled towards each other through the trees.

`Is it still there, Zosia?'


`Why don't you go and see?'

`They will not allow me.'

`But one day they will let you, won't they, Zosia?'



The years passed and we no longer went to Cornwall. I broke free of a protracted education, moved to London, and Zofia and Poland slipped into that burgeoning slush-fund of half-forgotten places and half-forgotten people. I still received word from her -- a meditation from Spain on the theme of `hot sun and accidie', telephone calls in which she would demand to know if I was `in lerff', and sprigs of thrift and sea-rocket in the post, lest she and Cornwall should ever slip too far from my thoughts.

Then came a call announcing a six-month trip to Australia: would I come and see her off?

`Of course,' I said.

`I leave on Sunday week. At noon.'

`From Heathrow?'

`No! From Tilbury.'

She had taken a berth on a Polish cargo ship. I carried her two suitcases up the gangplank. In one were her clothes (jerseys for the Bay of Biscay, cotton dresses for the tropics), in the other, books. She pushed open her cabin door and sat down on the bunk. Down the companionway came the shouts of the crew, Polish shouts, and Zofia looked at me sadly and smiled: it reminded her of home.

I left her on board. I watched the grey hull slide off down the Thames. I pictured her unpacking her books in the cabin and thought, for the first time, of what her exile really meant -- that perpetual rootlessness, the ceaseless sense of unbelonging, the warding off of bitter thoughts. Over the coming months a series of fat envelopes fell through my door -- postmarked Genoa, Alexandria, Dubai, and filled with Zofia's `Poems of the Sea'. These confirmed it, helping to convince me that exile, long sea voyages, all that gradual dissipation of place, held in them some secret capacity for revelation.

The following year I wrote to Zofia saying I was leaving London. I was coming to live in Cornwall.

A letter came back by return. `So,' she wrote, `I'm afraid the Furies have finally got to you!' But she was delighted.

I arrived back in the village at dusk on a slow January day. It was blowing a gale. The seas were rising in sudden bomb-bursts above the quay wall, to flop down over the road and douse the boarded-up buildings. I unlocked the cottage, dumped my things, then went up the hill to see Zofia.

Braganza was unchanged -- the photographs, the bearskins, the samovars. The monkey-puzzle stood unmoving in the gale. But a certain calm had settled on the house. The rooms echoed with absence. Where were the pasty-skinned men and their old-world suits, the Finnish cook, the summer hordes of French children? The old Polish cavalry officer and the painter from Cracow, the mysterious poet from Poznan?

Zofia was alone. She sat reading in a high-backed chair. She put down her book as I entered, and slipped off her glasses. `Pheelip, how lovely to see you.'

She was now widowed. Her daughter was living in France, her son had been killed in a car crash. Memory had been sold to a judge. Several generations of dogs had come and gone. The ring of elm trees outside had gone too, gnawed to death by arboreal beetles. On her mantelpiece was a plywood banner reading: `SOLIDARNOSC'; it was the time of martial law in Poland.

Yet none of these things had dented Zofia's spirit. She seemed unembittered, perennial, robust. Her speech retained those honeyed tones, her presence remained magnetic. Over the coming months, I found her still mischievous, still writing, still surrounded by that Slavic aura -- and by her dogs, three of them, which slept like angels at her feet. If anything she seemed happier.

`Oh goodness, yes! It's much better to be seventy than your age.'

`Why?' I asked.

She leaned towards me. `None of that confusion of sex!'

One afternoon I went up to Braganza and discovered Zofia kneeling on the floor, flanked by notebooks and files. `My mother's papers,' she sighed, then started for the first time to tell me about her. She became animated; her Polish accent thickened. Her arms were raised at the dredging up of old grievances, dropped to her sides at the thought of what had been lost. She railed against the impossible demands her mother had made on occasions. `Yet she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known.'

`In what way?'

Zofia paused. `Almost every way. She could charm a hawk off a tree. Her conversation was brilliant. In her presence everything became uplifted, gayer. She was almost like a saint in some ways. But, my God, such things happened all around her!'

`What sort of things?'

Zofia turned towards me. She paused; the question was too big to answer. `Wars ... calamities ... always fleeing ...' Then she pushed the papers across the carpet. `But it's all here! It's all in here. Why not read them?'

I took the papers to my cottage, the notebooks and letters and diaries, even some short stories. Many were in English; others Zofia had translated. For four days, a week, I read and re-read those papers. The shadowy world of Zofia's pre-war past came to life. The scenes she had conjured up for me years earlier were re-shaped, fleshed out, in hundreds of pages of her mother's pale blue script.

A damp, woody smell rose from the notebooks as I read them; passions and betrayals rose with them. Old Europe had been caught like a fly and squashed between those yellowing pages. Zofia's mother took hold of me.

She was born on 17 July 1898, at a house called Platkow in the northern regions of Russian Poland. On the night of her birth a great storm swept through the forests, scattering the pines like matchsticks. For years afterwards, the trees lay where they had fallen and Zofia's mother assumed that devastation was the natural state of things.

They christened her Helena. On her mother's side she came from a traditional Polish land-owning family, with a traditional land-owning aversion to alien things. This was the world to which Helena was entitled, for which she was born, the one into which she should have settled quite comfortably but for two things. That world, as she always sensed, was coming to an end. And she had inherited a foreign name.

Her father was called O'Breifne. He was the direct descendant of Lochlainn, last king of East Breifne. Lochlainn had ruled lands just to the south of Ulster in the fifteenth century. But two hundred years later, with the kingdom gone, his heirs were forced to flee the English after the Battle of the Boyne and head for France.

From France the O'Breifnes went to Russia, three brothers invited by the Empress Elizabeth to train the Tartar wildness from her army officers. One of the brothers, Cornelius, the only one to have issue, settled there. Though his family remained in Russia, they were never naturalized. Cornelius's son became a famous general (his portrait hangs in St Petersburg's Gallery of Heroes). Tsar Alexander I was godfather to his children, but he could not bring himself to forfeit the one thing he retained from the old country: his faith.

`Never forget', his father had told him, `that you are a Catholic and an Irishman.'

Obliged to become Orthodox if he married a Russian, his only option was to marry a Pole. Three generations followed suit. The Irish blood was diluted. Yet in the stifling climate of Eastern Poland's landed families, Helena and the O'Breifnes were always outsiders. They read books, for one thing. Some of them had liberal Tolstoyan ideas. They discussed dangerous things like land reform. And there was always that name.

The O'Breifnes, as Helena was reminded, constantly, by the stage whispers of dusty dowagers, were `not really true Poles'.

Zofia too remembered the whispers. `All these grand Polish women used to pretend they couldn't pronounce it. "Orbrefna? Orbrefska? What sort of a name is that? There's dozens of them in Ireland ... Living in hovels all over the place ..."'

On one visit to Braganza Zofia handed me an envelope. Out of the envelope fell two photographs. They were the only ones to have survived the war.

The first picture was taken on the edge of a forest in 1936. Helena was bending down, with one hand on the back of a dog. She was looking up at the camera and her mouth was set in a half smile. There was a kind of sprung vitality about her.

`That was taken near the house at Mantuski, with Barraj, one of the Great Danes.'

The other picture was a studio portrait, taken in Warsaw in 1919. Helena was almost twenty. I looked at her white high-collared dress, the cocked head, the smile and her narrow eyes, the strange polished complexion of her face.

Zofia pointed a finger at it. `You see here the way she is toying with the necklace, below the neck? She used to say that that was the way to make a man fall in love with you.' Zofia hushed her voice. `You know, I believe it works! I have even tried it a few times ...'

I looked closely at the two pictures. I tried to tell myself it was something else. It was the diaries, the letters, her extraordinary story; it was the way that this woman, Helena O'Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated -- exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering -- lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena's was a bigger world, a crueller world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

But of course Zofia was right. My interest was also much more commonplace. It had just as much to do with the way Helena toyed with her necklace.

Copyright © 1995 Philip Marsden. All rights reserved.

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