An Elephant

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Chapter 7: Tadeusz

Chapter 7: Tadeusz

“Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured.”

- Indian Proverb

“I am controlling everything that’s happening from now on.” Tadeusz was speaking in his native Polish to his two companions, Pawel and Quiet Tony. “I don’t want any surprises. We’ll be at Place St George soon and we have an opportunity to make a great investment for the future.”

“How so, Uncle Teddy? I thought this was a simple question of authentication.”

“Have I told you the story about the two shoe salesman who went to Africa, Pawel?”

“No, Uncle.”

“Years ago, two shoe salesmen got the slow boat to Africa, to try and make their fortune. On arrival, they both went their separate ways inland. A few weeks later the shoe company got a phone call from the first one. He said ‘Book me on the next boat home, it’s all been a terrible mistake. I’ve been all over, met different tribes, some in the jungle, some in the desert, some up the mountains, even fishermen on the lakes and the ocean. It’s been a complete waste of time - nobody wears shoes here, I’m coming straight home.’ Guess what happened with the other one.”

“I don’t know, Uncle.”

“A few days passed until the second shoe salesman called home. He said ’I’ve been all over the place, met different people, in jungles, the savannah, mountain villages and busy townships. Nobody wears shoes here. It’s a dream come true! Send all the shoes you’ve got, send ships full of them! Everyone needs them, we can’t lose! We’re going to be rich!”

Tadeusz stared at Pawel’s baffled frown.

What is the matter with you, Pawel? I can understand it from a grunt like Quiet Tony, but you went to university, you have a Masters degree, you’re supposed to be intelligent. I’ve got more ambition in my little finger.

“Successful people expect obstacles, Pawel, with a successful, can-do attitude and the right resources, anything is possible.”

I don’t feel like I have any obstacles, Uncle Teddy.

“How do you ever expect to escape from that piece of land you live on if you can’t elevate your goals?”

“Escape? Why? I am happy on that land, Uncle. I love my wife, I have my beautiful son, and plenty of lovely home grown food to eat – the apples, the pears… our cherries are amazing, and so are the eggs that the chickens lay… and the dynie, they’re giant!”

“Back in Mikoszewo you have to tend and hand pick the vegetables on your land before you get a chance to eat them, and the food you eat isn’t exactly haute cuisine, is it?”

In many ways you’re not lacklustre at all, Pawel – you are loyal, and very hardworking. You just seem so misdirected in your toils, and aim too low. Maybe not surprising for the offspring of my sister-in-law.

“The food is all fresh though, and Anna makes the best bigos in Poland. We’re happy.”

“What about last night aboard Boss’s yacht Pawel?” Think about it, think about what you’re missing out on, instead of living on that sandy wasteland in the forest.

Back on the yacht we have all that comfort, and everything is done for you. We have all those beautiful women, champagne, Beluga… caviar is the only good thing to come out of the Russia for a thousand years.”

“I don’t like caviar and there’s no kielbasa. It’s a real shame that Boss Jerzy has gone so upmarket that he has gone off Polish food, I miss Anna’s barszcz, too.”

Yesterday you had a drunken supermodel asking if you would share a canapé and rub sun cream onto her, and today you’re pining for your plain average wife, Polish sausage and beetroot soup. God, motivation is a luxury.

“I’m a bit homesick, Uncle Teddy. I miss Anna and little Jozef, I’m just not into big business and a luxury lifestyle like you are.

Tadeusz couldn’t help but feel slightly sorry for Pawel. Deep down he was protective of his favourite nephew, and not just because he valued the work that he did for him. He respected him on some levels, but found him frustratingly insular – he could do so much better for himself if he took on more responsibility, or even if he just devoted more hours working for Tadeusz’s local business venture.

“For ten years I’ve been going to a different island in the Caribbean every Christmas” Tadeusz coaxed.

“You know how I can’t cope with hot weather. This trip is only the second time I’ve left Poland Uncle. Remember when I stayed in England as a kid for a month, when Andrzej’s ship was on a round trip? I stayed with Zosia’s cousin, Paulina. I was supposed to learn the language, but Paulina spoke Polish to me most of the time, so I only picked up a little. I understood almost nothing, it was summer but rained a lot, and the food was really strange to me – have you ever eaten Chinese food?”

Tadeusz snorted, and could tell Pawel regretted the question as soon as he asked it. Tadeusz was cosmopolitan enough to have tried anything Pawel might have heard of. He swerved past a local woman who hurried past carrying a basket full of baguettes.

“... I was homesick and hated it. Paulina was lovely, and often she used to send parcels back home when times were hard for us, but I couldn’t stand England. I still love Poland and my life there, despite all its problems and limitations… I live a good life.”

“What about all the charity work that I do Pawel, as a result of my success? There’s the orphanage I paid to be rebuilt in Orunia, and only last Christmas, when I was relaxing at Pigeon Point in Tobago, there was a group of thirty kids from my old school on an adventure holiday in Gran Canaria, paid for by me. There’s also the shelter for the elderly in Pieck, and the road from Aurek’s farm to your place that I had laid. You must aspire to such good deeds, also, no?”

Pawel shrugged. Tadeusz turned to Quiet Tony for some affirmation, but he seemed not to be paying attention and lumbered on beside them, red-faced and obviously struggling with the heat as much as Pawel; his face glowed red and his camouflaged vest was covered with damp patches of sweat.

“If it weren’t for Andrzej’s help from overseas, and my business skills and political interests,” Tadeusz continued “I wouldn’t be able to give to the community as I do. There is also the influence I have outside Poland - the lobbying and fundraising. I have connections with Oxfam in Africa, the World Health Organisation in South America, even the Red Crescent in Afghanistan.”

Pawel remained silent, still apparently unconvinced by Tadeusz’s good deeds, but Tadeusz was too frustrated not to continue:

“Your room here is bigger than your bedroom in that little wooden house back in Poland.”

“It’s the only house I’ve ever known, and we’re doing an extension. Yanusz is working with me, it’ll be ready in less than a month: It’ll have a bigger bedroom, even a spare room! We are trying for another child.”

You poor thing. You’re actually proud of yourself and your life in what is little more than a large hut.

“When I lived in that little wooden house as a kid there were icicles on the ceiling, right above where we slept” said Tadeusz. “It was minus twenty, we had to melt snow from the garden just to drink and wash, and we only had that stinking hole in the ground as a toilet.”

So many years later Tadeusz still remembered the hunger; the empty feeling, right to the pit of his stomach, and the constant worry about how his parents would put the next meal on the table.

“Ciocia Ala had six kids and had to go to the well for water for all of them, for washing, cooking and drinking,” he shuddered, “with those long, pink worms infesting the water in the summer.”

For a fleeting moment, Tadeusz could almost feel the effects of that physical hardship again, even the lice in his hair. He scratched his head, involuntarily. With no medicines available, Ciocia Ala had had to comb the lice out of all the children’s hair every day. He could still hear the popping sound as she squeezed them between her finger nails.

Tadeusz had chosen to move away from Mikoszewo to the not-so-bright lights of nearby Gdansk for a better life, but times were hard in sixties Poland. The cost of living had risen steeply for years but wages had lagged behind. A sudden announcement of a thirty percent rise in basic food on December the thirteenth 1970 - Tadeusz’s nineteenth birthday - led to militant unrest at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, where he worked as a pipe fitter.

He and his fellow workers went out on strike and then marched on the local Party Headquarters. Tadeusz was just as vocal as everyone else as he marched toward the building. He sang his heart out, buoyed by the collective indignation of all around him. The police guarding the headquarters panicked and fired shots, instantly killing a colleague of his who was walking right beside to him. He dropped suddenly, dead before he hit the floor, showering blood over Tadeusz’s ill-fitting boots. The shipyard mob refused to relent, and burned the building down, triggering the arrival of tanks, and the shooting of hundreds of shipyard workers. The bodies piled up, but not in vain - the increase in food prices was soon reversed.

Poles are known for standing up against tanks he had thought at the time. Many had ridden horses against the German tanks in 1939, doing their best to emulate the Husaria, but facing insurmountable odds and the tactical onslaught that became known as blitzkrieg. The German invasion of Poland in September of that year is common knowledge, but fewer are aware that Russia invaded Eastern Poland only sixteen days later, and in Tadeusz’s mind it was this attack that truly sealed Poland’s fate, leading to their surrender later that month. Such was the strength of spirit of his people, even then it took over a week until the last Polish troops surrendered, many later travelling overseas to fight alongside the allies.

When he later became acquainted with Westerners, politics and recent history was always a major talking point. Tadeusz found the difference in perception from his own quite amazing. Many were unaware of Russia’s invasion of Poland so early on in WWII, and yet, thanks to Cold War propaganda, they believed Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Tadeusz knew that the Soviet army were in fact invited by the Marxist Afghan government, purely to help them fight a civil war against the Islamist Mudjahadin, who in turn were backed by the USA and other nations involved in the Cold War. Their initial endeavours failing, over the following months the Afghan government specifically requested army battalions, tanks, even air support from the Soviets. The further authority distances itself from the individual, the more flawed it becomes was a major mantra for Tadeusz. If state governments need to invite other countries’ methods and even armies to help them combat their own people, surely a victory for the people is the only way forward? A great many people in Poland, Afghanistan and elsewhere could attest to this, and he detested Russia and her politics as a result.

Diplomacy had always been a natural skill of Tadeusz, and politics was often the lens through which he viewed the world. To him the world existed as relationships; the interplay of influence, spoken and otherwise, was immensely important, both between people and states.

Social networking had been a natural skill since long before the shipyard strikes in Gdansk - he continually attended church, although this in itself was considered an act of political defiance. He wanted to open every door he could.

He also believed, however, that businessmen all over the world make more of a contribution to political stability than politicians - who seldom think further ahead than the next election. He could tell that Karl Marx’s communist legacy would not last forever, and in an environment of economic crisis and rationing, business - not politics - would be the best way he could help himself and those around him.

We’ll be there very soon he thought, as he paced down the baking Marseille pavement, eyeing the small, but obviously heavy shoulder bag that Quiet Tony carried over his left shoulder. The early afternoon sun beat down on all their faces as they approached Place St George from the north. Tadeusz was well-travelled and accustomed to such weather, but the frowning Quiet Tony was dripping with perspiration - his vest and combat trousers were sticking to him, and Pawel seemed to be suffering even more.

They are stressed he thought, that’s not so good. I feel only pressure. That’s different. I can thrive on pressure.

Authority can bring great pressure to many, and Tadeusz wanted, more than anything, to be the master of his own destiny. The man shot dead marching next to him in Gdansk on his birthday, brought home to him how, not only did he not have a voice in Poland, but more importantly that he was totally at the mercy of the state. It was a situation he planned on combating at every opportunity.

Petty trading of goods was rife in Poland in the 70s, everyone struggled to make ends meet and everyone was trading their vegetables for eggs, blankets for vodka, and clothes for toiletries, to replace the gaps in the availability of basic goods. With no private enterprise allowed, and a woefully inefficient state infrastructure, sometimes there would be months when there was no toilet paper in the shops. Sometimes there might be a lack of soap, or toothpaste, unless you had dollars to spend; the buying power of the Zloty was tiny by comparison. He wanted out, but what could a shipyard worker do?

Tadeusz’s brother Andrzej was a chief engineer in the merchant navy, and he eventually managed to get issued with a consulate passport. Able to travel freely, Andrzej sailed all over the world and on his travels, was able to legitimately supply Tadeusz with a variety of foreign goods: western clothes, razorblades, chocolate and such like; some he brought with him when on shore leave, the rest he sent in parcels from abroad.

Boxes and boxes of condoms, especially, proved to be a major asset and not strictly illegal, just very hard to come by in a country soon to have a countryman elected as the first non-Italian Pope since the sixteenth century.

The regular gift packages from abroad led to a huge improvement in Tadeusz’s standard of living, and that of those around him. It always disappointed him that no one else in the immediate family shared his ambition for more of the finer things in life, but even Pawel was well-fed and relatively privileged thanks to Andrzej’s parcels.

Whatever wasn’t used immediately, acted as hard currency in the flea market. Entrepreneurship enabled Tadeusz to buy the first ever fridge in Mikoszewo. Suddenly the whole family had the comparative luxury of chilled compote and fresh milk during the hot summers.

In addition to improving his lifestyle, the gifts from abroad also allowed Tadeusz to be charitable. He gave money and donated clothes to the local church, and at one point was even able to provide extra penicillin to the local hospital - sent by Andrzej from Mexico. He soon became well known in the community around Mikoszewo for his acts of philanthropy, especially rare given the poverty endured by everyone else.

His relative success also made him known in certain circles in Gdansk, where he donated money to supporters of the Committee for Social Self-Defense, founded by dissident intellectuals in Warsaw to provide aid to brutalized workers. What began as petty deals selling second-hand western clothes and toiletries in the local markets, opened many doors for him. Soon he was leading a life few of his hand-to-mouth family members had ever dreamt of.

An air of success often begins with basic physical appearance and this is never truer than in the poorer parts of the globe, and Tadeusz tried to look the part as best he could. Even a single, obviously-western, fashionable piece of clothing would be obvious to someone who saw him on the street, and Tadeusz stopped wearing locally-sourced clothes altogether. Slightly mis-matched and ill-fitting by Western standards, he looked positively flash to the locals, and the upwardly mobile impression he gave was only outshone by his thirst for more success.

Back in Gdansk, he was introduced to a Party member called Jerzy who had significant influence in the construction industry. Tadeusz’s obvious humanity, combined with his social and diplomatic intelligence, led to a partnership that held significant leverage with foreign importers of building materials. This led to further business opportunities with contacts on the other side of the iron curtain, and soon they were also importing medical and dentistry equipment. Later on they obtained access to luxury goods that were only available in the Pewex shops, where only dollars were accepted.

Things continued to go very well for Tadeusz during the mid-to-late 70s. Despite the best efforts of the Socialist regime to repress the people, in August 1980, a dismissed electrical fitter climbed back into his old shipyard to lead a strike over an illegal sacking. It was a strategic occupation. Out in the open, the demonstration would be no match for tanks, but from the confines of the shipyard, with the backing of the workers, he made demands for free trade unions, freedom of information, and civil rights. Watching the news on television, Tadeusz immediately recognised a former work colleague: Lech Walesa. Solidarity and other anti-communist reforms that began soon after were tolerated by the Soviet Union only because it had no choice. The Russian forces in Afghanistan had left them toothless and diplomatically isolated in the west.

As a former shipyard worker himself, Tadeusz was hugely proud that the Solidarity movement which began there was so pivotal in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. Poland was already under duress, stretched as a nation by being thrown into the Second World War from day one, then fighting it to the bitter end. Using the Potsdam Conference of 1943, the Soviets had eastern Poland annexed. The people were expelled and the land was used to make up part of the Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus.

And so it was, according to Tadeusz, that the people of Poland had suffered under the Russian-influenced socialist leadership for years: a thinly-veiled example of the Hammer and Sickle’s empire-building. It was less than a complete success, even Stalin had said: ‘Trying to make Poland communist was like trying to fit a saddle to a cow’, and yet the Soviets effectively tried to impose their ideology everywhere they could. The thing about communists is, they have nothing, but they want to share it with you he thought, and he refused to be broken like the framework of his country.

He conceded that the regime may on some naïve level have been wanting what was best for the Polish nation, but they got the practicalities totally wrong. He thought the people of Poland should have been left to make their own choices, based on the realities of their own day-to-day existence. A people need to be able to make their own decisions, and the farther removed the state is from the reality of the individual, the more the individual suffers. Tadeusz was far from immune from the grip of the socialist state and the dangers it posed, but he felt more in charge of his own reality, than almost anyone he knew. Freedom is a state of mind.

Thanks to the success of his import businesses, and his far-reaching links amongst the catholic intelligentsia and ultimately, the Party itself, it was not long before he no longer suffered the travel confinements of other Poles, and short term visas became available to him.

Frustratingly for Tadeusz in post-Solidarity Poland, in addition to his nation’s hardships, the new Russia that reappeared from the USSR was just as imperialistic as it had been in its earlier incarnation. With large scale corruption rife, the greed for natural resources and the means to supply them soon led to the reuptake of former Soviet states and conflicts with the likes of Chechnya and Georgia, despite many factions of their populations wishing to remain independent.

Able to travel freely, he considered leaving the grey of Poland for good at the time, but he always had to return. He was drawn to the bright lights of large, vibrant cities like London and New York, where the shop windows were full, the mouths were fed and the streets were well lit, but there was always his family and associates back home, plus his local church. These loyalties anchored him to Poland, as both had learned to rely on his generosity, and if ever it stopped, neither would have any leverage against the lack of support from the state. If ever he chose to breach the terms of his short term visas, he knew there would be serious consequences for those back home.

Although deeply buried, Tadeusz did retain some romanticism for his youth in a simpler, younger Poland. He remembered being a very young boy heading to church on a winter’s morning, eating a piece of rye bread with a sheepskin thrown over him in a sleigh driven by a man wearing the Polish national dress. He remembered feeling utterly secure as he was carried down a path carved through two metres of snow - a simple, wholesome experience that probably hadn’t changed at all for hundreds of years. None of this nostalgia was quite enough though, and some years later, still only a boy of ten, he began to develop aspirations. He dreamt of a large house, made of stone, not wood, with central heating to cope with the bitter winters, a telephone, rich food, and travel. Who would have thought that years later he would build up a small business empire just from receiving some regular parcels from abroad? If it weren’t for Andrzej, he would probably still be living a hand-to-mouth existence in a place little better than Pawel’s wooden shack in Mikoszewo, where he had lived as a child.

He looked at his nephew sliding along the sweltering cobbles, a study in careless naivety.

“I’m curious that you yearn for Poland and the old days back home Pawel. You would have struggled to eat without the regular parcels.

“I was luckier than most, Uncle Teddy. You have always been more than generous, really. You and Andrzej have always looked after me, but now I am happy there, I just… I don’t have your ambitions. I appreciate the simple life, close to the land, now we have the orchard and crops. I feel secure there. I am able to be myself.”

Secure? You need to keep dogs so the fruit from your precious trees doesn’t get stolen, along with the vegetables, chickens, and any machinery you’ve got lying around… And to think you have a Masters degree in biochemistry.

Tadeusz had once offered to set Pawel up abroad somewhere, but it was a fairly half-hearted suggestion. He knew Pawel would refuse, and anyway, he was more useful at home, during the few days a month that his wife would let him work in Tadeusz’s small factory on Aurek’s farm.

Tadeusz was still wondering whether to tell Jerzy about his plans for mass production, should the day go according to plan. It was typical of him to try to find a way to extract more, and capitalise on an already fortuitous situation, but overstepping loyalty to Boss Jerzy could be a dangerous move. He was sure Quiet Tony was too stupid to be paying attention.

“You know, we - and you - may be able to gain more from today than was initially planned with Jerzy” he said to Pawel.

“I thought my role was very straightforward, Uncle - to see if it appears that he has done what he says he has, and take it home.”

I can’t believe he still hasn’t figured out why we asked for the formula.

“That kind of thinking is why I’m wearing a tailored Canali jacket and these beautiful loafers…”

…and you’re wearing a shirt made of Uzbeki cotton that looks like your mother knitted it…Tadeusz scratched his cheek with nervous irritation for a moment even that moustache makes you look so… Slavic… Russian, even.

“…and you’re not, Pawel.”

There was an uneasy silence, broken by some football fans nearby singing something in English he couldn’t understand.

“You have to be ruthless sometimes though, Uncle, and that wouldn’t sit well with me.” Pawel gave his well-practiced look that reminded Tadeusz of a wounded puppy.

“On occasion,” began Tadeusz, “but I can be both reasonable and forgiving at times. Tony, remember Ewa’s husband. What was his name? Stanislaw.”

Tadeusz felt a satisfying sense of innocence, and breathed out deeply.

“I let him off, despite discovering that he tried to cut me out of the petroleum gas deal at the refinery didn’t I?”

Momentarily confused, Quiet Tony’s memory of those events was better than Tadeusz’s, and the honesty that followed were the only words that Quiet Tony said all afternoon:

“You’re thinking of his brother Lukasz, Boss. With Stanislaw… you made me chop both his feet off.”

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