Zygmunt Frankel


Chapter 4

The Young Painter

A lovely May, promising another beautiful summer. Breathing the fresh air and watching the chestnut trees in the park turn green again, it is sometimes difficult to remember everything that happened since last summer - or to care. Even the coffee and the cakes at the Roma taste as good as before the war, although in fact they are both worse and more expensive. Mimi and I meet there, usually late in the morning or around noon, when the German officers are busy elsewhere and Poles can meet there again without fraternization with the enemy. A young painter who sometimes sits at the Roma made a small pencil sketch of Mimi; quite a good likeness. He gave it to her and asked whether he could hope to try a portrait in oils of her, in his studio or, if more convenient, at her own home, giving all the possible purely artistic reasons: the interesting structure of her face, the colour composition of her complexion and hair, the challenge of the capture of the expression, everything but a hint that she might be a desirable young woman whom he would love to seduce. Mimi played the demure and virtuous married woman and said that she would have to think about it but was doubtful whether she would agree, without however extinguishing all hope. He is a reasonably handsome young man, with a little upturned moustache, narrow shoulders, and nice hands with long artistic fingers. His suit is beginning to show signs of wear, and he only orders coffee at the Roma, without any cake, and does not come every day. "Well, well, what do you say?" asked Mimi after he left, without making it clear whether she was commenting on the situation or asking my advice. I was a little irked that he asked her and not me, or at least both of us in turn. In her place, I said, I might agree, thinking to myself that it is not every day that a young woman is offered immortalization in oils by a competent painter, and God sees poor Mimi is as bored and frustrated as I am, and for similar reasons. Roll on, the end of the war, so that we can have our first babies in peace and quiet, like young women should; and, in the meantime, lead us not into temptation.

20th May 1940
Have I written that last sentence, about peace and quiet, only two weeks ago? Things have moved at long last on the Western Front, but in the wrong direction: the Germans are rolling across France. How can this be possible, with the Maginot Line and with France and England having had all that time to mobilize and position their forces and learn from what happened in Poland? Everyone hopes that this is only a temporary setback. The Germans had had their successes on that front in the Great War as well - some people are beginning to call this one the Second World War - and everyone knows how it ended. Let's hope history will repeat itself, without, however, taking four years over it.

2nd June 1940
Mimi has attended the first sitting for her portrait at the young painter's studio, without asking my advice but telling me all about it as soon as we met later that morning at the Roma. The painter was very correct and gentlemanly throughout, only touching her cheek lightly once, to turn it towards the light. The only compliment uttered during the sitting concerned me and not her, when he asked after her "beautiful friend." (If I am so beautiful, why is he painting her and not me?) The studio, Mimi says, is a small student's garret with a sloping roof and a skylight, with the bed decently covered, posing as a sofa during the day. The painter made coffee and they sat sipping it for a while, talking and getting better acquainted and looking at some of his pictures. During this first session he sketched her out on the canvas in charcoal, with some first indications of colour in thin turpentine wash. The next sitting is to be in a few days' time, when the wash has dried. Would I like to come? No, I said, perhaps I'd better not; he might be distracted from his work if another person was present. (I had to make it easy for her; that's what friends are for.) What's more, if the two of us took to visiting a young painter in his studio together, especially if another male friend of his happened to drop in, our husbands might start looking askance at the situation. This was the problem, she said; she hadn't told her husband about the sittings yet; it was all perfectly innocent of course, but he did act somewhat cool when she showed him the pencil sketch, so she hesitated about telling him about the more ambitious oil effort. Suppose she did keep it a secret for a while; she could time the sittings so that afterwards the two of us would meet at the Roma. By the time she went to the sittings her husband would be at work, and she could always say she left a little earlier to browse through the shops, alone or with me, or something of the sort. That would be best, I said, and of course she could fully rely on me. (And, I thought to myself, owe me an alibi if I ever needed one.) What about the finished portrait, Mimi wondered. To the best of our knowledge it would belong to the painter; but what if he would offer it to her as a present, or be prepared to sell it? God only knows how her husband would react to the existence of the portrait, and what might it not do to their marriage? Here I had an inspiration. Could the painter have made another sketch of her at the Roma, and painted the portrait in oils from that, in his studio, without her knowledge, springing the news on her when it was finished? She could then come to view it with her husband, and if he wanted to buy it - it couldn't be very expensive while the painter was still poor and unknown - then everything would be wrapped up and above suspicion. She was so happy that she kissed me there and then, almost spilling my coffee and leaving a smear of lipstick on my cheek. Before I had the time to do anything about it, the smartly dressed man who always plays chess - and, I think, conducts some business - at the Roma, got up and with a bow offered me the silk hankerchief from the breast pocket of his suit. I gracefully accepted and used the hankerchief, returning it to him, upon which he reverently folded it and put it in his inner breast pocket. Everyone smiled; without the German officers it was almost like the good old times at the Roma.

30th June 1940
Seventy-two kilos. If I can't take this weight of mine by the throat and drag it down to below seventy this summer, I'll never be able to. How I envy Mimi who weighs twelve kilos less than me and can eat all the cakes in the world without adding an ounce to her fashionable figure, and gets invited to sit for portraits in artists' studios. Of course my husband loves me as I am, and says in bed at night that I am his warm refuge from the cold and cruel world outside which is very nice and I don't mind being a warm refuge now and then but not all the time. That thing between our legs was meant by nature to receive the hot stiff prick of a panting lover and to guide babies out into the world, not to serve as an air-raid shelter.
Nothing but bad news from abroad. The fall of Paris shook Poland almost as badly as it must have shaken France. We have always considered ourself their cultural partners, with Paris and Warsaw the two poles of civilized Europe, and now both capitals are gone. The capitulation of the bigger and stronger France did, however, bring some slight easing of guilt about our own defeat; if they couldn't withstand the Germans, how could we, with Russia stabbing us in the back as well? The men have already decided that it is only a question of time before England follows suit; they have measured the width of the English Channel on the map - something like twenty kilometers at its narrowest - and what with parachute troops and the shipping the Germans have at their disposal it shouldn't offer more of a barrier than the vaunted Maginot Line, leaving Germans in full control of Europe. Perhaps I shall be able to have my baby then, at long last. There is some growing anger and impatience within me - with Poland, Germany, Russia, Finland, France, and England - or rather with the men who run things everywhere - the politicians, the officers, and, in the background, the civilians who endlessly discuss the situation as if they were omniscient and valued consultants - who seem to have started wars and established all sorts of united fronts, not so much against each other as against us women, delaying our first babies and driving us towards adultery.
Because it is not only Paris that has fallen, it's Mimi as well, during the fourth sitting for her portrait which had been progressing slowly and will, I suppose, progress even slower now. Mimi has been keeping me informed all along: how the young painter gently held her by her half-bare shoulders during the second sitting to turn her towards the light and seemed to be reluctant to let go; how they kissed while parting after the third sitting; and how cold and drafty it was in the studio during that fateful fourth sitting when she shivered and he interrupted his work to put the blanket from the bed over her shoulders while he brewed some hot coffee, and as he was also shivering slightly they sat side by side on the bed sharing the blanket while they sipped the coffee, and then, what with the shared warmth and the uncovered bed, things took their course. Mimi asked me to swear eternal secrecy and of course I did. Risky as this love affair of hers is, I am a little envious of it. It has occured to me that for a man it takes only two people to run a love affair - him and his mistress - while for a woman it's three: she, her lover, and a good friend whom she can tell all about it. I think fewer women would have affairs without such a friend; sharing seems to be half the fun, or almost.

15th August 1940
Another marvellous summer with my family on the farm. My husband will get a fortnight's vacation in a few days' time and join us; in the meantime he's been here every weekend, enjoying it enormously. It is a break from his grim factory routine where they are working full speed on those orders for conserve tins. If the orders really are for the German army, they probably need them for the invasion of England which can't be far off. There are heavy air battles going on over there - obviously, our men say, with the Germans establishing air superiority, perhaps destroying the British airforce altogether, before crossing the Channel. The English seem to be fighting bravely - so did we - but the men have decided that it won't help them any more than it helped us. My father says that even if the British airforce is destroyed they'll still have their navy, not to mention their army, but, although the younger men show him all due respect, he is considered old-fashioned and is not taken seriously. The defeat and occupation of England by the end of this year is taken for granted.
We bathe in the river again. Our boat is still there, and my father somehow managed to get hold of two extra horses after the requisition, so we can go riding again as well. Some of the farm produce is being requisitioned by the Germans, on ridiculous terms, but they can't check everything and we manage quite well on what's left, in addition to selling some on the black market, where the prices are rising all the time. Some of the peasants who can sell even a little butter, grain, or potatoes in town have never had it so good, and are bringing back all sorts of bourgeois luxuries like clocks and cutlery which they couldn't dream of affording before the war.
Have climbed to seventy-two kilos at first, but managed to bring it back to seventy one, and then seventy. It's a healthy life, what with the swimming and the riding, and if you don't overdo the butter and the bacon and the bread, it's not too difficult. My husband loves his weekends with us and can't say enough about how lonely he is in town and how he looks forward to our weekends together and to his forthcoming vacation, but remembering what happened once in the bushes by the river, I am not quite easy in my mind about that cook of ours. I mean she's way below his station, and is pushing thirty, and is not beautiful - though not particularly repulsive either, in her own way - and is quite religious, and there is some young carpenter courting her, and my husband is reasonable enough to foresee that if he started anything in my absence he might have problems when I came back and it might cost him more than it is worth, but the thought of the two of them under the same roof night after night still disturbs me a lot, especially since there is no means of revenge here in the village. My family still looks after me as if I were a young girl whose virtue must be preserved at all costs, and even if they didn't there's no one around here except some young peasant, and that would be both primitive and risky.

12th September 1940
The town again, and I am as happy to be back as I was to leave for the country two months ago, and my first coffee with Mimi at the Roma was something of a celebration. I only had a single thin slice of cake because in spite of all the swimming and riding I came back weighing seventy-one kilos, and this can't go on.
"And how is your young painter?"
Mimi sighed and rolled her eyes, though with a rather happy expression. It transpires that the young artist has properly and badly fallen in love with her, and is now talking about Mimi leaving her husband and coming to live with him in his garret unless she wants him to commit suicide. Poor Mimi who only wanted a discreet and satisfying love affair got more than she had bargained for, but relies on the young painter not to commit suicide or do anything indiscrete so long as she keeps visiting him. Mimi's husband is quite capable of challenging someone like that to a duel, German occupation or no German occupation, or at least of kicking Mimi out of the house. The portrait is at long last finished. It did not come out quite the way she expected, with some cubist experimentation instead of soft romanticism. The painter offered it to her as a present but rather half-heartedly; he had often said that it kept her before his eyes while she wasn't there. For reasons of secrecy she could not accept it for the time being, and a staged meeting between her husband and the painter, of the kind I suggested earlier this summer, might not be such a good idea after all. Men might have less intuition than women but a look or a tone of voice might give something away, and she didn't want to risk it. What's more, she didn't know how much a portrait in oils, even by an unknown young painter, might be worth, and money was rather tight at the moment, what with rations getting shorter and the black market prices rising.
While on the subject of sixth sense, looks, and intonations of voice, I didn't like some of those I noticed between my husband and the cook since my return. There is no hard evidence of any sort; she is still as respectful as before, works as hard, and cooks as well. When I shared my suspicions with Mimi, she tried to reassure me, but also added that if a man and a woman slept under the same roof alone night after night and did nothing about it there might be something wrong with at least one of them. She is right of course, but shouldn't have said it; friends are not for telling you the truth but for making you feel good. It put me in such lousy mood for the next few days that I lost a full kilogram without even trying.

15th November 1940
That cook will have to go. For a forthnight after my return there was nothing that would qualify as real evidence; if there had been anything between them while I was away, they have been behaving faultlessly ever since. Then, one night, we had Mimi and Marta with their husbands to dinner, a more modest one than before the war. We did, however, have quite a lot to drink, and after they left my husband suggested, untypically, that we finish off the half-full bottle of wine that was left, and poured me two full glasses one after another. It is believed that men can take alcohol better than women, so in case he was trying to put me to sleep for any reason I poured the second glass down the drain while he was having a pee, and also gulped down a lukewarm cup of strong black coffee. We did not make love after going to bed because I was having my period. I complained that I was very tired and pretended to fall asleep. He waited for a while, listened to my breathing, and then quietly crept out of bed and into the corridor, and was away for forty minutes by the dial of our luminous alarm clock. Then I heard the lavatory flush and my husband came back. The flush of the lavatory was quite clever; if interrogated, he could always blame an upset stomach or constipation, but I pretended to be fast asleep. The next day I took a good look at the door hinges in the flat. The kitchen one had creaked a little before I left for the country. Now all of them, including and the ones of the cook's little cubbyhole, most of it occupied by her bed, were freshly oiled. Trust a man, especially a mechanical engineer, to think of everything. No, I am not going to catch them in flagrante and throw a cheap scandal; we both come from too good families for that, where things are being settled more discretely: a servant dismissed with a sum of money when pregnant by the young master; an abortion clinic under the guise of a sanatorium for a young daughter; even money to a peasant family for raising an illegitimate child as their own. I started mentioning to my husband that times were getting difficult, with food scarce in spite of what my family was sending us and the black market prices rising, and now the winter at the door. I also complained that I was bored out of my mind with nothing to do, and would particularly like to try my hand at cooking, especially if there were only the two of us in the house. Finally we dismissed the cook, gently, with a fortnight's notice and a generous severance pay, and my husband seemed to heave a sigh of relief almost as deep as mine. We now have a charwoman coming in twice a week to do the floors, the washing, and the ironing. She comes when my husband is at work, and is old and ugly anyway.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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