Wojtek’s Apprentice

Jozefa opened her eyes. It wasn’t morning that woke her; it was the night, hard and too close. Weak light squished in through the one window. Above her head a low ceiling chopped at the wide curve of the galvanized steel roof. She could see everything. Her three-year-old sister slept on, curled and soft beside her.

She slid off the bed. Her feet slapped onto the linoleum-covered floor. She waited for the scrape of a chair, an admonition, a motherly moan at the noises of her child stirring. Jozefa was only five years old but already knew a lot about the world. She knew the sound of her waking and getting out of bed could be heard clearly in the other two rooms of the half Nissan hut that was her home. It probably could also be heard in the three rooms that was the home of the family who lived in the other half of the hut. But those other rooms were far away that night.

There was nothing. No response. No sound other than the soft puffy breaths of her baby sister. Jozefa knew, it sat outside with the too quiet night; her mother and father were not there. They were gone.

She whimpered and clung to the edge of the bed, burying her face in the hollow her body had left. The movement, the sound, perhaps the space where her sister had been, prodded the baby. She woke with flailing hands and began to cry. Jozefa cried too.

No mother, no father came to the crying babies. They wailed at the window and at the door. The little sister crawled to the edge of the bed and clung to her big sister. Jozefa felt around with her feet and put on her slippers. Still crying she sat the baby at the edge of the bed and put her slippers on too. They held hands as the smaller child slipped off the bed.

For a moment the sisters stood in front of the closed bedroom door and cried some more for it to open to familiar arms and grown-up clucking. Frightened to go out but too frightened to stay, Jozefa finally reached up for the door handle. This door, like the other doors of the three rooms the family occupied, opened to the outside of the hut. There were no interconnecting doors to their three rooms. The main living area, the parent’s bedroom and the children’s room, which was also the utility room, housing the family’s few, forbidden, cooking utensils, each opened to the outside of the hut. The only way to get from one room to another was to go outside and around the edge of the building to the next door.

No one ever thought to complain about such an arrangement. It was the way things were for every family.

Holding her little sister’s hand, Jozefa pulled the door open and, staying as close as she could to the half-circled galvanized steel exterior of the hut, led her sister around to the next door. She kept her eyes on the metal grooves, shining softly from a distant camp light. She did not look out at the night.

The next door easily opened but Jozefa knew her parents were not in their bedroom. She reached up to switch on the light but stopped, her little hand poised, heavy, above her head. The light cord swung slightly with her movements. She had been able to reach the cord for many months now and it usually made her feel good and grown when she pulled it and the light switched on or off. Not this time. Ambient light from the open door cast her shadow onto the empty bed and it sat there, large and distorted, waiting for her and her sister to enter. Jozefa closed the door quickly and sucked at her fist.

Hands held, they shuffled around the corner of the hut to the next door. It opened to a little wooden walled cocoon where Jozefa’s family lived their daily lives. No need, this time, to reach the cord; the light in this room was on and poking every corner. Father’s empty chair held only the open magazine he had been reading earlier that night. Mother’s cardigan hung neatly on the back of a chair at the small laminex table. The radiola offered its big cream dial.

There was no sink, no kitchen. All the family’s meals were served to them, along with the hundreds of other families living in the compound, in the communal dining room. It was also a Nissan hut, but larger, a hundred yards away from where the family lived. The family’s rooms had no attached toilet or bathroom. All of those daily needs were dealt with in the communal ablutions block, also a walk away. Mothers knew better, however, than to bathe their babies there and expose them to God Knows What Disease. The small tin bath that Jozefa’s mother used for her babies waited beside the door, dry and filled with dark.

Stories told by her father, Wojtek, punched into Jozefa’s mind; people being lost in screaming nights, guns and planes making fathers afraid, and mothers on trains from and to cold places full of snow that reached above their knees. These were grown-up stories told to grown-ups and never in a way she was meant to understand. But they came to her now, and not being able to quite grasp what they meant skittered over her and fell away into the night.

The thought that Wojtek, with his stern, handsome face and well combed, blond hair, could now be in his own bad story, and taking her very own lovely mother with him, terrified her. It stopped her leading her baby sister back to their room and climbing into the still warm spaces in their bed. It made Jozefa cry even more loudly in the motherless and fatherless room of her home. Her baby sister clung to her and howled along with her.

Thinking came easily to Jozefa. She was, in fact, already a fierce thinker. It was an accomplishment that would pierce its way ahead of her throughout her life. She would use her thinking in ways no one who knew her back then could ever have imagined. She would win positions of leadership yet to be created, within organisations, yet to be developed, because of her thinking. And she would use these positions to challenge people around her, and make them grow in their own thinking as she forged her way in the world.

Back then, as a five year old she cried and held her sister’s hand too tightly, but her thinking was clear. Her mother and father were gone. She had to go out into the night and find them.

She turned away from the half hut, her home, and pulling her sister with her stepped into the night. That step took her out into a vast complex of hundreds of huts, housing thousands of people, many with much worse stories than those Wojtek ever told. Some had secrets they would never tell and had seen such awful things that two little girls, wandering past in their white flannelette pajamas, dotted with little pink rabbits, and stepping lightly in their pink baby slippers, could well be yet another hardly-there apparition, among the many that visited them.

There were lights in huts all around, but the little girls didn’t go to any of them. Like their own motherless and fatherless rooms, the huts were all strangely quiet.

Jozefa knew where old uncle lived and that was the place she wanted to be. Old uncle would help her. They crossed the dirt road that was the main road through the compound. It led down to the school bus stop near the outside road. There were no huts down there, no lights. If someone, or something, waited for the bus that night, they waited in the dark. Jozefa knew little about the bus stop and easily turned away from it.

It would be very different in eighteen month’s time; a hundred or so mamas and tatas would come running to the screams of children from the bus stop. Jozefa would know the bus stop very well by then.

That night, however, the bus stop was just another dark place in a night full of dark places. The two children walked on through the camp, sobbing softly together as they went. No one stepped out of any hut to shoosh them, no one glanced out of any window to see them pass.

Instead they heard, above their own noises, the mewling of a cat. It was a third baby cry in the night, terror tinged and hurt. The new sound added to the little girls’ fright. Smaller shadows than their own broke corners too close behind them. They cried louder.

Old uncle’s hut loomed lovely in the night. A light lit the window to its main room. There was no little girl knock at the door, no calling out. Jozefa pushed the door fully open, her face howling with expectation, her sister tight behind her. But the chairs in old uncle’s room were empty. Blue knitting, neatly ended at a row, sat on a table near a large container of Saxa salt. The children did not enter the room. They sobbed into it together. The world was empty.

There was another uncle, a younger, further away uncle, with a family and children Jozefa knew. His name was Genek and he sang a lot, sometimes in English, as he played his accordion. He would laugh when he sang those English words. Other men would sing with him. Jozefa once asked her father what the English words meant, but he only shook his head. The question did not lead to the usual impromptu exploration of English words they constantly shared, the two-minds-and-two-mouths times she always enjoyed. Some English words were never meant to be said by little Polish girls. It was a Wojtek rule that sat with Jozefa for years, a dare eventually to be taken.

The pull of going on to Uncle Genek’s hut was stronger than the snap-back of going home. Home was deserted, useless to alone children. Back there would be more crying and the same chairs, still empty. The shadow on the motherless and fatherless bed waited back there.

Jozefa gripped her little sister’s hand and turned into the night again. The second corner, a third corner, too many corners were turned. Cats showed their faces and crept away on sharp claws. Jozefa knew where she wanted to go. Little sister trailed behind, both crying still.

Then above the children’s wet faces came the sound of people shouting, people talking, loud and raucous. The door to young uncle’s hut was open. Men stood in the doorway. They were laughing. They all leaned into the hut, so full of people no more could fit. An accordion wheezed into a perfect chord. Singing and dancing had already begun when Jozefa and her little sister cried their way out of the night.

The accordion slammed shut and voices soothed and tutted. Big arms lifted them, old uncle, young uncle, mama and tata. Mother’s eyes blinked and blinked as she held her babies tight. She kissed at tears and rubbed wet curls. The music did not start again until everyone had touched pale cheeks, cupped little faces and shook and nodded their heads at each other. Other mamas and tatas slipped into the night, frowns deep and eyes darting.

The party continued and little sister slept on her mother’s warm lap. Jozefa did not sleep. She sat by her father until soon he was so full of singing and talking there was no room for more. He carried her home. The moon was high and bright and shone on her flannelette pajamas. Each step her father took made the pink rabbits hop and jump about her.

Jozefa had learned a new word that night. It was wojna. It was the place where all the bad stories came from, not just Wojtek’s bad stories but also all of the mothers’ and fathers’ bad stories. Later she learned to say it in English, “war”. There was no war in Australia her father told her. The wojna was over now and anyway it had been back over there, back home, and the bastard Churchill gave Poland away. Jozefa was to hear war stories over and over. They were young men and women’s stories then, stark with horror and new witness, and loud with blame. But they withered into old people’s tales, dry husked and discarded by all but those few left drinking at the end of a night, who would clink their vodka shots and tell each other, “Na zdrowie. ”

That night, on their way back to their home in the half Nissan hut, Jozefa’s family passed the dark road to the bus stop. Soon Jozefa would run down that road every morning after breakfast, with many other camp children, to stand beside her neatly lined up Globite school case and wait for the bus to take her to school.

One morning, everything about the line up at the bus stop would change forever. Jozefa would be standing there, in her perfectly shined school shoes, and she would be screaming. All the children around her would be screaming too.

The screams would bring other girls and boys who had been dawdling over their breakfasts. Mammas, and the few tatas who had not left at dawn for their jobs with the Water Board or the railways, ran down too. “Co jest, do kurwy nędzy? The children are screaming,” they told each other as they ran.

The children were screaming in an almost perfect line, each standing over what was left of their school case. The thirty or so mostly identical brown Globite cases, lined up so carefully at the bus stop before breakfast, had been run over. Their secret delights had popped, along with identical white bread, butter and corned beef sandwiches, into the fine brown dirt at the edge of the road. Most cases and their contents lay squashed together, wet and flat.

The much-lauded Globite vulcanised fibre had been no protection from whatever heavy wheel had run over them. Only cases at the very beginning and very end of the line remained partly intact. It was either a terrible accident or a perfect swerve.

The range of possibilities, including the type of vehicle that might have done such damage, would be thoroughly interrogated in Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, German, Greek, and a spattering of other European languages, around the camp for months afterwards. Each vehicle and each driver would be guilty, if only for a few seconds.

Everyone eventually agreed, had the children been there, lined up with their cases, perhaps then, the driver might have kept his wheels on the road. Easy to run over school cases, not so easy to run over school children, even those from the migrant hostel camp.

Jozefa’s case, one that her mother said was ‘too much, la la too expensive’ had been near the beginning of the line. It was one of those placed there so early it could hardly be seen in a day hardly begun, before Jozefa’s mother began her daily shift in the kitchen. Its nearness to the beginning of the line meant a small part of it was still strangely intact. The lid had been cracked off and a play-lunch orange, still cool in its juiciness, had been squashed into the green covered exercise book Jozefa used for homework sums. Brown pieces of Globite all done, just like that, sat with the bits of orange. It was an unthinkable end to a precious thing.

Jozefa’s mother patted her child’s screams away then carefully picked through the mess of the case. She gathered all of the pieces of broken Globite. She knew enough of her husband by then to know he would want every one of them no matter how small or damaged.

That night Wojtek carefully and skillfully put the case back together, gluing and patching and strengthening with new bits of non-vulcanised cardboard. He sat Jozefa with him and, as he worked, had her pass him the things he needed, and used her little hands to hold things together for him. Their blond heads touched as they bent over their work on the small table in their family room.

Mamusia cooked a special treat of chicken soup on her primus gas ring that night. The gas rings were forbidden, as families were supposed to eat in the dining hall. But all the mothers had one hidden away. They would bring them out when the kitchen stodge got too much for their families or there was a special occasion that needed special food. Mama carefully served her special chicken soup to her family. She knew it would help her husband and eldest daughter through the tragic work they were doing. It would be many months before the family could afford a new school case.

Jozefa easily became Wojtek’s apprentice. It was the only easy part of their relationship. As Jozefa grew she became a child of the new world, an Australian. Like many children of Polish immigrants she called Poland ‘home’, and thought of it as such until she visited Poland as an adult. She also became educated and regularly tipped into passionate arguments with her father about things he would never change his mind about or never cared to understand. They shouted at each other about the war in Vietnam, women’s liberation, the Labor Party, communism and capitalism. Their raised voices pitched louder to cross the widening chasm between them, until in the end their words were lost to each other in the void.

All the time however, through all these growing and shouting years, through the years of building his family a brick veneer home and the birth of a third daughter, Wojtek carefully nurtured his apprentice. By the time Jozefa was a teenager she knew the names, in English and in Polish, of every tool Wojtek owned. He had many tools by then, housed in a special tool shed he had built in the back yard. Jozefa knew how to use every one of Wojtek’s tools and most importantly she knew, as her mother had always known, her father, now called Bert by his Australian friends, could fix or build anything in the world. Wojtek used his cleverness that way.

One day when Jozefa was folding up the night-n-day bed in the family living room, where she slept every night, Wojtek came to his apprentice with an idea. He had watched the bookcase he had carefully crafted for her, which she had helped him build, fill and spill its books onto the living room floor, just as he had watched her mind overflow with words and ideas from an education he could only wonder at. It was clear his apprentice would be studying well into her early adulthood.

This was his idea. It overflowed from him in the same way Jozefa’s books and ideas overflowed. It was the right idea, he knew. He would build his eldest daughter a room of her own.

The family had no money to add a third bedroom onto their modest two-bedroom house in Villawood. Jozefa’s two younger sisters slept in the second bedroom. There was only one room that could be made into Jozefa’s own room; it was Wojtek’s tool shed in the backyard. It had been built on a small concrete slab and electricity was connected. There was no running water connected to the meticulously organized tool shed but the main house with its kitchen, bathroom and toilet was only a few yards away, not thirty yards away as the ablution block had been during their years in the Villawood Migrant Hostel. The tools could move to the back of the garage at the side of the house.

When Wojtek gave his idea to his apprentice, she took it eagerly and made it into their great project. The shed would not just be lined; it would be lined with wonderful wood paneling on the walls and the ceiling. Jozefa had seen such paneling in a rich mountain house she had visited and now, if she were to have her own room, this is what she wanted.

Wojtek bought some beautiful cedar panels and he and his apprentice worked many hours sanding and oiling the wood, carefully fitting it together and then nailing it to the framing on the walls and ceiling of the shed. They talked about tools and measurements, oils, grades of sandpaper and types of putty. They filled hundreds of tiny nail head holes with putty and then stained the putty to match the wood.

It wasn’t just a room, a beloved toolshed converted, a gift; it was a graduation masterpiece.

Jozefa painted a huge female symbol on the outside of the door to her room and pinned a print of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon on the back of it.

It was her perfect room. She could lie in bed and look up at the wonderfully warm wood of the ceiling or sit at her desk under her one window and see the family vegetable garden, neat and aromatic, filling the back yard.

On the second night she slept in her room Wojtek stood on the back step of the house and watched her walk down the pathway towards it.

The moon was bright and new. Pink and red stripes on Jozefa’s flannelette pajamas shone into purple and lilac beams dancing together as she walked away. The light came on in her room and her door closed.

Wojtek stood there for a while. Then he sighed long and low, and went back inside.

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2 thoughts on “Wojtek’s Apprentice

  1. I have fond memories of good old Nissan Huts, Maralyn. I think you captured the feel of the migrant hostels SO well. Loved the characters and all the little historical details, too 🙂

    1. Glad you liked it Irene. Thank you. (I was fascinated by the detail.) Jozefa is a real person. She is a very impressive woman with many stories. I particularly wanted to show her as a child.

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