Untitled – a novella by Jan Woolf Part 7

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Mateusz  Grabowski – 1970
Stanislaw Frenkiel.
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Synopsis    

The story spans a day in November 2010, as the final preparations of a major retrospective of an aging painter are underway at Tate Modern. The private view; a jamboree of press, critics, celebrities and sponsors (even Tony Blair, a friend of the sponsor, is expected) takes place that evening, and the painter, Mateus Stefko, whose life has been blighted by war, secretly plans to make a citizen’s arrest.  He becomes attached to a young art handler, Jerome, unaware of Jerome’s past in the care system, and who was helped into art school by Martha, a charismatic art therapist who had strong unconscious feelings for him.   As Stefko and Jerome check the final hang, the paintings trigger Stefko’s memories:- pre-war Krakow,  POW in the Soviet Union, cosmopolitan Beirut and eventual arrival in the UK.  When they reach Untitled, a portrait of a partly dressed, masked woman, Stefko reflects on the intense relationship he had with its subject – Martha –  whose hour by hour agonizing about whether to accept Stefko’s invitation to the opening is spliced into the unfolding story at Tate Modern.  She hasn’t seen him for thirty years.  Jerome’s story meanwhile is told in flashback, with the mysterious Martha at the heart of it. Neither Stefko nor Jerome know of her existence for the other until the denouement that evening in front of Untitled.  This private drama is offset by a very public one, as Stefko waits and watches for his prey.

The novella is about how making art can deliver emotional salvation, as well as the relationships between the main characters, and how war has affected their lives. Dedicated to Stanislaw Frenkiel –  1918 – 2002  www.frenkielart.com.   This is a fictionalised account of his life but the paintings described in the text and reproduced here are real.
The tale will unfold week by week, through Stefko, Jerome, Martha and the paintings.

 

 

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November 10th 2003

 

Noon

Tate Modern

 

‘Sorry to walk at a snail’s piss but my feet hurt.’

‘No worries,’ says Jerome, feeling the dead weight of the Great Artist on his arm.  They enter a room full of caterers and people wandering around with clipboards.  ‘How are you Mr Stefko?’ asks one of them.

‘Very well thank you, er’…’

‘Jonathan, PR,’ supplies Jerome in a severe whisper.  Stefko dips his head royally, before de-coupling from Jerome and walking on.

‘Here he is,’ says Stefko, stopping in front of a painting of a man sitting in a red, winged armchair. He bows as low as he can. ‘Good day Anton.’

Small black eyes glitter in response, beneath eyebrows flicked upwards in permanent surprise. That broad, creamy brow, dark hair smoothed back like an otter’s, the thin mouth withholding a joke or obscenity. His long legs are crossed, hands folded in his lap; he seems entirely at rest. His grey suit looks good against the warm colours of the chair. The painting contains a discreet self-portrait.  There, in the mirror behind the subject’s head, are the artist’s hand and a slab of face.  Stefko looks intensely at his friend, as if looking hard enough could tempt him out of the frame and into the room. ‘Friendship is nature’s masterpiece Jerome,’ says Stefko, taking a white oil stick from his trouser pocket.  He rubs it on a dark patch under an eye.

‘Don’t think you should touch it on the day of an opening,’ says Jerome anxiously.

‘Why not?’ says Stefko, dabbing underneath the other eye, ‘he’s mine.’  He stands back.  ‘There, we can’t have you looking tired for tonight, there will be lots of pretty girls.’

Jerome looks over his shoulder.

‘It is all right, Jerome, I won’t inform on you. I will say I did it when you weren’t looking.’

‘Promise?’ says Jerome, only half joking.

Stefko looks lovingly at the portrait.  ‘I did not inform on you either, Anton Malinowsky.’

‘What do you mean?’ says Jerome, admiring the portrait’s emotional directness, the fantastic colour balance, doubting he could take a better photograph of this man.

‘We were in a camp together, Camp 42, near Lvov.’

‘A concentration camp?’

‘No my boy, not a race camp, we were political prisoners of the Soviets.’

‘How come?’

‘I couldn’t produce my papers for a shitty little officer standing outside the Lvov post office – an Uzbek.’

‘A what?’

‘Never mind.’

‘You got put in a camp for having no ID?’ persists Jerome.

‘It was 1942. There were plenty of Nazi collaborators in the Ukraine and they weren’t taking chances with a Polish degenerate.’

‘Degenerate?’

‘An artist who could not produce ID.’

‘Oh, right, but…’

‘Anton was already there – incarcerated. As an educated Pole, they gave him work in the telegraph office where he would find me pencils and scraps of paper.  During work brigade, my balls freezing, sawing at another bloody tree, I’d look into a guard’s face and start sketching. A caricature that I’d make more flattering, something they could take home to their wives, sweethearts or mothers. Sometimes they brought me into the warm with Anton to finish the drawing. It helped me survive two winters.’

‘Survival art,’ says Jerome, nodding.

‘All serious art is about survival young man,’ says Stefko – tetchy.

That was my point – Jerome doesn’t have the courage to say, thinking back to some of his experiences in the childrens’ home, and how they might feel the same. For all he knew he felt worse there than Stefko did in the camp. For all he knew, his doodling with Martha helped him as much as Stefko’s caricatures. For all he knew….

‘There was a boy of seventeen there, he was from Warsaw,’ continues Stefko, ‘his family were in the ghetto. He just kept switching a light on and off, off and on, in a bare room, for hours.’

‘Yeah?’ says Jerome, thinking of the Afghan kid in the home who’d tap twenty times on the radiator, stop, and start again. Annoying at first, they’d soon got used to him.  They knew he’d arrived in a container – poor bastard.

‘He did this to feel his senses, to feel alive,’ continues Stefko. ‘Of course,’ he chuckles ‘he’d have won the Turner prize now for his efforts.’

So might the Afghan kid, thinks Jerome, wondering how he’s doing.

‘You English have never had to worry about the nightmare sound of mainland Europe have you?’

‘What’s that?’

‘The knock on the door?’

 Some did, thinks Jerome, wondering how the abused kids were getting on now.How long were you in the home Matt?  I mean – camp.’

‘Yes yes, we thought of home a lot,’ says Stefko, fiddling with his hearing aid.  ‘We learned to use our memories, bring them up like fishes from the deep. Those who could draw on good ones didn’t succumb to illness so quickly, so they looked less like victims, avoiding the rage of sadistic guards or other prisoners.’

Jerome looking down, remembers how Martha taught him to use his memories too, the good ones of his mother, summoning them at night in an alchemy of feeling and memory, making her real when he needed her.

‘And smells,’ adds Stefko, looking beatific, ‘sometimes; during early morning work brigade we found mushrooms in the woods. The aroma was marvelous, it reminded me of my childhood holidays in the Tatra Mountains.’ Stefko closes his eyes, lost in the past, his mother holding his hand as they walk along green, rocky pathways. ‘Did you have holidays as a boy Jerome?’

‘Yes,’ says Jerome, thinking of the ramshackle outings with the social workers in Southend, and that week on a Thames barge.

 

‘Anton was sent to Monte Casino,’ says Stefko abruptly.

‘On his holidays?’

‘No my boy, a terrible battle, 1944, part of the allied offensive in Italy.’

‘Oh. Yes. Right.’

‘Thousands of Poles were sent to fight after Stalin emptied his camps. We were called Anders’ Army,’ says Stefko proudly, managing his full height for a second. ‘You have heard about Colonel Anders?’

‘Yes,’ says Jerome, bluffing.

‘Good lord, no-one else in this country has.’

‘‘Erm’…go on, please.’

‘One morning the men in my hut were lined up to be put into regiments. Anton and I were together, I tripped up and he fell over me.  We made a tangled comedy like the Keystone Coppers…’

‘Who?’

‘Never mind. A furious guard split us up and shoved me further back in the line.  We went forwards again and an officer’s arm came down just in front of me.’ Stefko stoops to scratch his ankle, as if in homage to the memory.  ‘Everybody in front of that arm got sent to Monte Casino, ‘ he says, slowly,  ‘and those behind it, to the Middle East – under British command.’  Stefko turns and salutes the room. ‘Still am of course.’

‘OK,’ Jerome laughs.

‘They say the only men who survived Monte Casino were the wounded who dug themselves into fox holes,’ sighs Stefko. ‘Many were killed. I always felt guilty. That sort of guilt is terrible, eats you up from the insides.’

‘Did you talk to your families about it?’ asks Jerome kindly, thinking about his father.  Was his fathers’ colour TV war any different from the grainy black and white of World War Two?  Was the taste of blood and mud in the mouth the same in Italy in 1944 as the Falklands in 1982? 

‘No. We never wanted to pollute their minds with it, especially if you were making a fresh start in New Malden,’ says Stefko,  ‘There is a tendency for children to romanticise it all, you should hear young Stefan Malinowski bragging about his father, the war hero.’

‘Well, he was, wasn’t he?’

‘What is heroism Jerome?  Anton lay in a hole for two days in agony with a shattered leg, listening to men dying all around him; screaming and weeping for their mothers.’

Jerome looks at the floor. He knew about the bullets that took his father, one in the back another through his neck.

‘You should thank God you have never known a war Jerome.’

‘Sure.’ Did Dad lie weeping at Goose Green?  Or was he screaming.  They say he died instantly – did he?

‘We call for our God when there is hope, our mothers when there is none,’ says Stefko, now dabbing at Anton’s cheek with the cuff of his shirt, a tear making its slow journey around the crags of his own cheek. ‘Do you believe in God, Jerome?’

‘No.’

‘Neither do I. Being an atheist brought me nearer to God, and many of the believers I met in the camp were in league with the devil. Do you understand that?’ says Stefko, raising an eyebrow.

Jerome nods, thinking he’ll understand this one day, that he’ll never forget  who told him.   ‘Is Anton still alive?’

‘No,’ sighs Stefko theatrically, ‘sniffed it last year, the silly bastard, at the Polish embassy, over a plate of latkes.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Latkes, potato…’

‘No, I mean sniff…’

‘Ah, a heart attack.’

‘I’m very sorry.’

‘Not at all.  Falling flat on your face in potato cake is the perfect death for a renegade old Pole,’ says Stefko, shaking his head mournfully. ‘I should have such luck. Is Ship of Fools up yet?’

‘Yes, Room Five.’

‘Take me there. Please.’

‘I think you meant snuffed it,’ says Jerome, offering his arm again.

‘That is what I said – no?’

‘No.’ And off they go again.

 

Jan Woolf

 

 

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