- Published: 26 March 2024
- ISBN: 9781761049095
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $34.99
The Winter Palace
If only the hands on Anton's watch would cease to move.
If only he could make the watch’s cogs and wheels suspend their movement. If only he could stop time so that he might lie in bed a little longer.
But if time were stopped, wouldn’t this moment last forever: just before 6 am on the last day of August 1939? He would be like one of those creatures captured for eternity in a drop of glowing amber. Anton decided this was too confusing to think about so early in the day. He would forget the watch on his bedside table and stay in bed for a few minutes more to luxuriate in lying warm next to Elisabeth.
Irresistibly, though, Anton’s mind and body were waking up. He was becoming aware of the world beyond his skin. Elisabeth’s naked back and the curve of her breast beneath his hand. The gentle hills and valleys of the eiderdown gathered around them. Beyond the grounds of the house lay fields where placid cows were already grazing and vegetables grew in pleasing geometric rows. Here and there stood neat black-and-white farmhouses. In the distance spread forests where shy lakes hid. The trees stretched as far as you could see. Everything was as still as a watercolour in the dawn light. And beyond the forests on the western horizon lay the border of Poland with Germany, unmarked by mountains or sea, just a flimsy pole across the road, painted in stripes of red and white. Beyond that point, the Nazis ruled. He could stay in bed no longer.
Anton tiptoed gingerly across the cold wooden floor to fetch his dressing-gown. As he stepped onto the landing, the first beams of sunlight were shining through the stained-glass window above the broad oak staircase. The window showed a knight in Polish armour astride a horse. Holding a lance upright, the knight looked sternly ahead, ready to charge into battle when the order was given. A pennant flew from the lance, bearing Anton’s family name. The rising sun caught the crystals of the chandelier hanging over the staircase so they seemed lit from within, twinkling with colours captured from the window.
A cavalry officer’s uniform was hanging ready for Anton on the bathroom door, neatly pressed and placed there the previous evening. It was identical to the green-and-blue uniform his father had worn in 1914, when Poland had been part of the Russian Empire. His sabre drawn and pointing westwards, Anton’s father – Andrej Lewicki-Radziwiłł – had repeatedly charged the German lines on horseback and somehow survived through the entire war, only to die in the influenza pandemic of 1918. More than 50 million perished before it was over, more than were killed in the Great War itself. Only three years old at the time, Anton did not remember his father, but always imagined him as the knight in the stained-glass window, bravely defending his lands. Anton’s mother, Mela, meanwhile sought solace from her grief by travelling for most of the year in Italy, consoled by the distractions of sightseeing, shopping and the attention of rich Americans touring Europe. She found that there was nothing like a beautiful young widow to make someone fall in love. In time, she learnt to fell a man at a hundred paces simply by staring through a cafe window and giving a long sigh.
At unpredictable intervals Anton’s mother returned to Poland, visiting him at home, where he studied with a governess, or later at boarding school. There was often a man with her too. They were different each time, men who spoke no Polish but who tousled his hair and tried to make jokes in Italian or English. Anton didn’t like the familiar way their hands would linger on his mother’s back. After being sent to bed, he would hear whispers and giggles drifting down the corridor from his mother’s bedroom. He would pull the quilt up around his ears to muffle the sound and begin to count silently. ‘One, two, three, four . . .’ Sometimes he got close to a thousand before eventually drifting off to sleep. When his mother visited, it was like being enveloped in a cloud of perfume, furs and kisses, which vanished as abruptly as it had appeared.
These visits confused Anton at first, but he had inherited his father’s practical temperament. Instead of dwelling on the disconcerting arrivals and departures, he tried his best to ignore them. It was easier to focus on his studies instead, especially science and engineering. Nature, these subjects reassured him, was fundamentally orderly and predictable, bound by the laws of physics. The world could be brought under control, whether it was a stubborn internal combustion engine or an aeroplane lifting into the sky as if by magic. Confident, intelligent and bolstered by his cheerful nature, Anton fancied himself as a modern twentieth-century aristocrat, a fair and progressive landowner who was a skilled engineer, understanding the mechanics of a tractor or irrigation system better than any of his tenant-farmers.
As for his wayward mother, he came to regard her with the fond but distant indulgence you might grant an eccentric and unreliable aunt. For some years, Mela Lewicki-Radziwiłł had lived in Milan with the owner of a motor manufacturing company, sending occasional letters of extravagant affection to her son. They were written when she’d had nothing else to amuse her, Anton recognised, as he composed dutifully affectionate letters back. And then three years ago, in 1936, the family solicitor forwarded him a letter from the Milanese gentleman. It was written in English in a flowing script and told him that his mother had regrettably died after a chill caught during an unwise midnight swim in the Adriatic Sea. Anton was the sole heir of the entire family estate, including the village of Lewicki and all its lands.
A cloud of steam rose gently from the bath where Anton reclined. It curled around his cavalry uniform where it hung behind the door, so that the jacket seemed to float in a romantic, patriotic frame. His ancestors had worn a gallery of military costumes over the centuries as Poland had been occupied in turn by half the countries of Europe. Charging west then east by turn, the armies of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, France and even Spain had taken turns to dispute the lands he could see now through the open bathroom window. Such was the history of Poland. Somehow the Lewicki-Radziwiłł family had held on to their estate despite all these convulsions, through a mixture of luck, judicious marriages and alliances with whichever power was currently in charge.
The manor house at Lewicki was a monument to this long history. At one end stood a square tower cloaked in ivy, with arrow slits in the walls and a slim turret at the top. Battlements extended around the eaves of the house. Stone steps led up to a front door of thick oak which looked as though it could resist a battering ram.
A house had stood on this site since the Middle Ages, but this was no ancient building. In a fit of modernity, Anton’s grandfather had demolished the medieval manor in the 1860s. In its place he built a new house in the fashionable Gothic Revival style. It was a nineteenth-century fantasy, a romantic dream of an imaginary past. The ivy-covered tower, the battlements, the walls with arrow slits: all were less than eighty years old, a gentleman’s folly. Anton’s grandfather had modestly named it ‘the Winter Palace’.
Bathed, shaved and dressed in his uniform, Anton admired himself briefly in the mirror then went downstairs to eat something before saying goodbye to Elisabeth. She was there in the kitchen when he arrived. Wearing a thin dressing-gown with a cardigan pulled over her shoulders, she’d put coffee on to brew and laid out cheese and cold meats to go with their bread. There was no sign of their cook, Mrs Dudek, who had usually walked up from the village by this time to prepare breakfast. She had worked for Anton’s family since the Great War and was as much a part of the Winter Palace as the great oak front door. Perhaps she was ill, he decided.
Mrs Dudek had known Anton since he was a little boy. She doted on him. It was rare for a day to go by without her remarking ‘Just like your father!’ when he pushed his hair back or scratched an ear. As for Anton, he simply accepted her as an extension of the family. He had decided as a boy that the main thing of interest about the cook was a birthmark on her arm, from which a tuft of dark hair sprouted. It was like some alien plant that had taken root there. He yearned to touch it, while being equally horrified at the thought of doing so.
Elisabeth almost felt that Mrs Dudek was jealous when she married Anton. Soon after they returned from their honeymoon, the cook had given her a long explanation of how Anton liked his eggs, whether boiled, scrambled, fried or in an omelette. Elisabeth got the message that this was a task best left to someone who knew him best. Sometime later, when Anton had idly scratched his ear one day while thinking, Elisabeth pointed and said solemnly, ‘Just like your father,’ then began to giggle. At that very moment, Mrs Dudek came into the room and Elisabeth’s giggles turned to a coughing fit, pretended at first and then genuine. She had to run from the room to fetch a glass of water. Nothing was said, but Elisabeth always suspected that the cook had realised she was being made fun of.
‘I was going to bring you breakfast in bed,’ Anton said as he entered the kitchen, hugging Elisabeth before they sat down. How delicate she felt against his thick uniform. ‘Aren’t you cold?’
She shook her head, made an effort to smile, then poured the coffee. Sitting on his knee to drink hers, she placed an arm around his shoulder.
‘Women are tougher than men, has nobody told you?’ Elisabeth said. ‘We don’t feel the cold like you brave tin soldiers, with all your coats and woollens.’
They were silent for a while as they ate, neither quite knowing what to say. Anton felt her hand slowly stroking his back, moving her fingertips back and forth across the fabric of his uniform. He wanted to be gone and yet also never to leave.
They had been married for almost three years. Elisabeth was barely twenty-one, yet had known since she was sixteen that they would be together. The two had met by one of the slender, silvery lakes that hid in the woodlands nearby. Anton was carrying a fishing rod, enjoying his last summer before going away to university. Elisabeth was staying in Lewicki with her aunt at their holiday cottage. She was idly skimming stones across the water from a rickety jetty. As Anton cast his fishing rod, there was a splash of water, a teasing look and a long afternoon’s conversation which became more serious as the hours wore on. Later they agreed: their future had been decided on that day.
‘When will the Germans come?’ she said now, standing in the kitchen to pour them more coffee.
Anton loved the contrasts in Elisabeth. One moment she was curled warm and soft on his lap, and the next she stood before him with the stern expression of a field marshal, inquiring about a war.
They both knew what she meant. It was not a matter of if the Germans would invade Poland. It was a matter of when.
‘Almost certainly next month. Maybe October, but I doubt that. The weather will be too uncertain. We’ve prepared for a September invasion, anyway.’
Anton explained to Elisabeth how Poland’s defence against the German invasion would unfold, demonstrating with knives, forks and the salt and pepper pots on the kitchen table. It was a relief to have something to talk about to fill the time before he left.
‘The Germans will be caught in a trap of their own making,’ said Anton.
He liked explaining things to Elisabeth. Politics. History. How things worked. He enjoyed choosing the wine in a restaurant and educating her on the differences between wine regions. Only as time went by did Anton realise, with deep embarrassment, how often she found these well-intended little lectures to be simply amusing.
‘Claret comes from the Bordeaux area in the south-west of France. It’s a fuller-bodied wine,’ Anton had explained in a restaurant, with a serious expression on his face. ‘However, this evening we’re drinking a Burgundy, from Saint-Julien,’ he said. ‘It’s also red, but Burgundy is a finer wine, more delicate – more “aristocratic”, if you will.’
Looking up from the wine label, Anton saw that Elisabeth had a hand over her mouth and was trying not to giggle. He blushed and felt like a fool. Was he being pompous? He didn’t dare to ask her, in case the answer was yes. Thankfully the waiter had arrived at that moment with their soup.
‘Hitler will make a big mistake if he invades Poland,’ said Anton to Elisabeth now as they sat in the Winter Palace kitchen. ‘With our allies behind him in the west, the German army will be trapped fighting on two fronts.’
The grand strategy of the war was one thing. Leaving Elisabeth to join his regiment at the Poznań barracks was another. Once again, Anton wished he could stop the clock, so they could live forever in this paused moment, hidden in a fold of time. Anton felt as if he couldn’t move his body from the kitchen chair; that once he stood up, it would start a cascade of events taking him further and further away from her, into a dark, unknowable future.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Or you’ll miss your train to Poznań. I’ll finish packing my trunk today and be settled in Warsaw by the weekend. We’ll see each other there at Aunt Katerina’s when you go on leave.’
Elisabeth was trying to keep their parting lighthearted, he could tell. But at least she would be safe in Warsaw with the aunt who had raised her. Katerina’s apartment was high up in an old building near the Botanic Garden. The street was quiet, the windows shaded by plane trees. Hardly any traffic went by. Elisabeth could live there in peace until he joined her. Once she left the Winter Palace, the house would be shuttered, ready for their return next year, when the war would surely be over.
At the front door, Anton hugged Elisabeth so tightly that she gasped. The world around them seemed to slow for a moment, during which he took in everything around him as though seeing it for the last time. The silvery sheen of dew on the lawn before the house. The apples in the orchard beyond, heavy and ripe for the picking. The familiar melancholy call of a woodpigeon: three notes of lamentation, then two for solace. Anton steeled himself to leave. He whispered a few words in Elisabeth’s ear, they fumbled a kiss and he climbed on his steed – an old bicycle they used for the short ride to the station in the village of Lewicki. He always hated goodbyes. The idea of waiting on a station platform making small talk until a train pulled away was torture to Anton. He always insisted on parting at the house so he could make a quick getaway. It wasn’t that he was unemotional but the exact opposite. He found those moments too upsetting, as when his mother would leave after her brief summer visits when he was a child, so he learnt to simply avoid them if he could.
As Anton sat on the bicycle, Elisabeth’s arms were still around him, a hand stroking his back. Anton gently disentangled himself from her embrace. Balancing a kitbag on the handlebars, he set off down the drive, legs pumping slowly like the pistons of a steam engine. Should he turn his head to give her one last smile? No, he was a stern-faced soldier going off to war, as his father and grandfather had been before him. Resisting the impulse to look back, he only held up an arm in a gesture of farewell before disappearing between the stone pillars at the bottom of the drive.
Elisabeth went back inside, closing the heavy door behind her. The empty hours ahead seemed an appalling prospect. She would do one thing, then another, then another, until at last the long wait would be over and they were together again.
Grunting, sullen, in spumes of leaden smoke, the black Daimler with diplomatic number plate noses onto Via Diciannove, beads of sleet fizzling on its hood.
One violet twilight, I sat motionless on the grassy edge of a small neighboring meadow.
This was a hard summer but people were getting used to corpses by the road and along ditches and did their best not to step on them.
If every man is guilty of all the good he did not do, as Voltaire suggested, then I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that I am innocent of all the bad.
Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun and measured and cut the thread of life.
Cristabel picks up the stick. It fits well in her hand. She is in the garden, waiting with the rest of the household for her father to return with her new mother.