The Vodka Cure

Deep green, dark shade, a rich profusion of growth along the river. It brought Liz to a halt.She had never experienced the beauty of a northern European river in summer before. The rushes as thick as those in a Rousseau painting, archetypal,the tree trunks smoother, more velvety than she hadever known; like a dream, a child’s book illustration. From the walker’s bridge, she saw below her, in the rushes, human legs, drunks lolling, cradled by the gloom. Uncle was wrong for once. Yurek couldn’t possibly be among them. These men had descended too far into alcoholism.
She leaned again over the wooden parapet, pretending to be sightseeing. Not that these people were in any state to notice her. They were scarcely human; they spoiled the idyllic scene. It must be they who had flattened the reeds on either side of the river. One was on his knees, leaning into the rushes, peeing. Someone knocked him over in mid-flow. A rumpus of crumpled arms and legs began. It filled the dark shining air with drunken Polish voices.
After a very short time it subsided. They were too far gone for a good scrimmage.
One voice, that of the peeing man, began with the sad song Yurek had been singing near the castle, the secret song about thousands of Poles lying dead at the bottom of the Baikal Lake, Siberia’s enormous southern stretch of water. His voice was deep too, like Yurek’s. It was probably a song sung by many drunken Polish men. After all, the Russian border loomed very near. Other thinner, less melodious voices joined in. She heard the song differently now,after having been in those cellars. Who was she to criticise these men?She understood at last why the Poles tolerated their drunks.
The singer pulled aside the rushes and stood up. It was Yurek. In his good jacket and trousers – which looked to be in even worse shape now.
He certainly hadn’t taken long to put himself in a state of total collapse.
She scarcely knew she had moved before she was down beside him, holding him. He clutched her back, his bodyout of control, almost pulling her to the ground. She drew up, away from him. His eyes gleamed with drunken emotion, stared unseeingly at her.
‘My poor country,’ he whispered, laughed in despair,‘poor Poland.’
So! Yurek was not as matter of fact about The King’s cellars as he had seemed to be. He had taken it all very personally. Of course he had. It was one of the first things he had come upon on his return journeys to his homeland after 1990; the horror of those cellars. Before that, in the communist years, such knowledge had been dampened down, hidden.
He was still in a kind of post-glasnost shock.
Now he came out in a rush with the unexpected. Said it as if he were confessing something terrible.
‘I met my father’s sister. Aunty. She hugged me. She lofs me. Lofs me.’ So that’s where his half-brother had taken him, to his father’s sister’s home. It was love, even more than the cellars, which had shaken him.
‘That’s great Yurek, isn’t it?’
He looked at her blearily.
‘It was wonderful. Wonderrrful. She said she held me in her arms when I was little baby. She loves me. All warm. Lovely. I couldn’t take it. Too rrrich for me.’He shivered as if his aunt had tried to assault him, not love him. ‘I ran away. Down here.’
Liz understood. Living with a mother like his; damaged, her life twisted withNazi and Stalin haunted fears, he couldn’t take even a little of such warmth. And getting it from the newly found sister of his birth father, the father he had longed for all his life and never known? It was too much! He’d had to anaesthetise himself.
Now though, thanks to selfish, ruthless Uncle, she, Liz, was going to have to pull him out of the anaesthetic.
Uncle’s minder stood behind her with the thermos.
‘Yurek,’ she whispered, ‘we’re in a bad situation darling. I know you don’t want me anymore but I need your help, I’m in danger. Danger, Yurek. Do you understand?’
He propped one eye open,trying to concentrate. ‘Danger,’ he managed to say, but it hadn’t got through to his brain. She held out the cup of coffee the minder had handed her. ‘Drink this Yurek, for the love of God.’ He shook his head violently, looked hard at her.
‘What, Yurek?’ She was frantic. ‘What?’
He almost yelled then. ‘Not for the love of any damned God!’
Liz glanced nervously around at his companions, hoping desperately none of them understood English. They might not besober but they were Poles. Their God, their Catholicism gave them the will to survive.An atheist in their midst? Never! Such knowledge would kill them.
‘Yurek, drink this, it’s me, Lizzie, I’m scared, Uncle’s going to do something awful to me if you don’t sober up and help me.’
She didn’t believe that about Uncle, not really, in spite of all his suspicious Warsaw dealings. She was just afraid the bleary-eyed Yurek didn’t care enough about her to pull himself together.
He looked at her, long and hard. Then, finally, kept his head steady and allowed her to feed him the coffee. Perhaps the idiocy of the drinking was over. Perhaps she had Yurek back. But for how long? She ignored the whispering inside her that the knight gallant in him, what was left of it, belonged to someone else now.