, ,


Pawell Byk

After more tests it’s revealed that Ann’s dad has cancer of the lungs and is dying. A life-long smoker reaps the whirlwind, nevertheless it’s a shocking disclosure because no one really believes it will happen to them? Almost to prove the diagnosis he fades before our eyes and several months later is grey, frail, skin and bone. Once again death’s impending arrival denies any semblance of dignity… a body once full of vigour and strength misfunctions and resorts to an awkward, painful shuffle – unable even to rise from the toilet without help.

Ann’s mum and dad are both spiritualist healers who are well regarded amongst the Cheltenham and Gloucester spiritualist fraternity, and in this faith they both find some succour – friends from their church gather most days to give him their attention, which he rewards with a renewed thriving.

Back in hospital, we all visit him on Monday night – in the middle of a room on a mechanical bed contorted for his comfort and lying amidst heaped pillows like a small bird, his chest exposed to show a protruding ribcage rising and falling, lung(s) filling and emptying to a loud rattle in his throat. Eyes closed, gaunt, hair dishevelled and unusually long, mouth sunken by the absence of his false teeth – friends and family gather and stare… upset by such a spectacle, some watery eyed, others sobbing… just waiting. Instinctively breathing to cling to life, the rattle in his throat continues to fill the room, I look around, laughter and conversation comes in from the ward outside, life goes on as it ebbs from his body.

He died on Tuesday morning, 24 October 2006 and, according to Ann’s mum who, with some friends, stayed the night at his bedside – as she did not want him to die alone – it was a gradual slipping away. As you can imagine, Ann, who wears her heart on her sleeve, is very upset… as are all.

He was Ukrainian, born in Zawij in 1922 or 1926 (depending on which record you refer to), and as a young man was taken by the Nazis to work on a farm in Austria, eventually, through adventures never fully elaborated on, becoming a Free Polish soldier. At the end of WWII when maps in central Europe were redrawn and rumours of unsettled scores were rife – he took the safe route and stayed in Bishops Cleeve where he ended up living – being frustratingly caught between two cultures. Neither took him truly to their heart, he could not read or write but managed to survive in Britain for almost 60 years, probably missing all those nuances of the English language, the in-jokes, intellectual posturing over this or that and, possibly… just belonging. Polish and Ukranian clubs were places, with a shared language, where a kind of belonging could have flourished, but were soon exposed as refuges of right-wing nationalists living in the past.

For many years he lived in a house dominated by his mother-inlaw, excluded by a kitchen where only Welsh was spoken and used by a large extended family as a handyman obliged, for the sake of a quiet life, to neither ask for, nor accept, payment for his not inconsiderable efforts at pleasing his ungrateful adopted family – who made a point of extracting payment from him for any service they rendered.

I remember him at Smiths, working from bell to bell, hands a blur in the coolant as he raced through every job set up for him on his Mikron lathe, unable even to stop to handle or manage his fag – the roll-up masterfully kept alive to leave a yellow streak up his top lip. Shunned by workmates who accused him of being a company man due to his inability to play the system – a rate-fixer’s dream in that he assigned to jobs impossible times, where, when they returned to the machineshop, frantic and manic activity was necessary by anyone other than him to make any bonus at all on them – he just thought his critics were lazy.

In that typically colonial and very English dismissal and disrespect for other peoples and races, to this day he is called John, even by his wife – Ann’s mother – although his name is Pawel. His unsophistication seemed to require, rather undeservingly, that he was treated and spoken to like a half-wit and although I never really hit it off with him, I shared some of his alienation. Possibly to fit in, he seemed desperate for acceptance, he even adopted the family’s fascination with death, illness and pessimistic remarks and often his broken conversation, after mentioning that the weather was terrible, went… ‘something or other… was bloody ridiculous!’ To which Ann’s mum would immediately respond, ‘Do you have to curse John?’

Well yes, he did!!

Dylan Thomas once wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I think if anyone had the right to rage at the dimming of the day it was Pawel, but to my knowledge and probably due to his strongly-held faith, sadly, he did not.

from Writing Some Wrongs, Hand Over Fist Press, 2007