Lesley Kelly has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past twenty years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way. She has won a number of writing competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Lesley lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.
What follows is an excerpt from A Fine House in Trinity, Lesley Kelly’s debut novel, which was published by Sandstone Press in April of 2016. A Fine House in Trinity was also long-listed for the McIlvanney Prize 2016.
See, if I had to blame somebody for the state of my life, if I had to root around in the dark recesses of my past and choose the one person that I could legitimately point a finger at and say, ‘It was you. You started all this. You started me on the drinking, the sleeping around, the not holding down a job. Everything. It was you.’ See, if I had to do that, I know exactly who I’d name as the culprit, and I know exactly the date of his crime. The date? 24th July 1948. The person? Josef Wiśniewski. My grandfather.
If you’d met him though, God rest his soul, you’d have thought him the sweetest old fellow going. And to give him his due, my grievances aside, he was a good man. He steered clear of most of the vices of men of his generation. His wages never went to line a bookie’s pocket. He never had his fill in the pub then gave his wife the benefit of the back of his hand. I never even heard him curse, although maybe he confined his bad language to his mother tongue. And he was always, always good to Granny Florrie (who wasn’t really our granny but, well, we’ll get to that one later).
In fact, to my eyes the man only had one fault–an overwhelming love for Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II. I know not everybody would see that as a flaw, but when you grew up in the Workers’ Republic of Leith like I did, it seemed a wee bit odd at least. But, Christ, the man was mad for royalty. His front room had so many pictures of Elizabeth II it would have put your average RUC canteen to shame.
But to understand why he did what he did (and by-the-by ruined my life) you have to understand where he was coming from. Grandad Joe was born in 1924 in a wee village just outside Lvov in Poland. To hear him talk, it was a bloody countryside paradise. A rural idyll. Birds singing in the trees, sheep in the fields, yadda yadda. The only fly in the ointment was that he was Polish, and most of his neighbours were Ukrainian, but for the most part they all rubbed along together.
There were five of them—Dad Filip, Mum Ewa, and his two younger sisters, Alicja and Anna, and Filip had high hopes for a couple more junior farmhands in the next few years.
By 1939 Joe was fifteen. He was at the local school with ideas in his head about going on to university (first one in his family to go, if he made it, and everybody was rooting for him). He wasn’t really keeping an eye on world events, to be honest none of them were; politics was an urban thing—what did the government of Germany have to do with getting the harvest in? What did they care who was in charge of the Soviet Union? Stalin knew squat about keeping your chickens happy. No, Joe was not worried. He was spending the best part of his time mooning over the lassies in his class, with big plans for getting into their knickers. After all, they were not short of hay to roll around in.
But that’s the thing about politics—just ’cause you choose to ignore it, doesn’t mean that it’ll choose to ignore you. On the 1st September 1939 German forces invaded Poland from the north, south, and west. A couple of weeks later, the Soviet Red Army invaded the eastern regions of Poland with the full support and cooperation of the Führer.
Filip was worried, but as he kept telling Joe, Poland wasn’t on her own. The British and the French would be sending in troops any minute, there would be a bit of bloodshed, he couldn’t deny it, but Poland would be liberated.
He was still holding to this line when the Red Army arrived at their house to tell them they didn’t live there anymore. Eastern Poland was now officially part of the Ukraine, and therefore the Soviet Union. Poles were no longer welcome to stay. Within days, Joe and his family were booted out of their house, and were on a train bound for the Soviet Union, and a life of communal paradise on a labour farm.
Siberia was cold. Brutally, mortifyingly, cold. Before he left Poland, the coldest Joe had ever been was on the ritual 3 am trip to the outside lavvy in the middle of winter, standing there with his hands shaking and hoping his wee man didn’t get frostbite, and by the time he got back to bed he was always so damn cold he needed to go again. That kind of cold? Siberia on a good day. In summer.
Wee Anna was the first to go. It started with a cough, then she lost her appetite for the meagre rations that were on offer, then she couldn’t get out of bed. Two months after moving to the camp, Ewa woke to find Anna dead beside her. She didn’t have long to grieve though, because within six months, both Ewa and Alicja had also passed away.
So, Joe and Filip were left on their own to try to make the best of life on the farm. They were used to life being hard back in the Ukraine but it didn’t compare to this. No equipment, no horses–they were trying to farm the soil with their bare hands. Just when they thought they couldn’t stand it any longer, politics found them once again. By 1941 Stalin and Hitler were no longer bosom buddies, the Poles were no longer the enemy, and they were pretty much free to go, if they could find their way back to Lvov.
Joe and Filip got themselves on the first transportation they could find back to Poland. Joe would have been on top of the world, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’d noticed that Filip had started with that oh-so-familiar cough. Sure enough, Joe waved goodbye to his last remaining family member somewhere in Azerbaijan, as the train door was opened and Filip’s corpse was dumped by the side of the track.
At the age of eighteen, Joe was orphaned and alone in the world. He joined the Polish Army, and saw out the rest of the conflict in Italy. Come the end of the war, the Polish situation had become a bit of an embarrassment to Churchill. Stalin was keen to hang on to control over Poland, and Churchill was not going to rock the boat, so it was the bum’s rush for Poland and the Polish Army.
Joe was flown to England, and demobbed. He was then given the choice–get flown back to Poland and take his chances with Stalin, or stay in England and take his chances here. He talked it over with his pals and they all came to the same conclusion. God Save the Queen.
One of his pals had a brother living in Edinburgh, so the pair of them took the next train North. Old Joe’d got a few bob in his pocket from the demob, so when he got to Edinburgh he decided he was going to get a room to himself. Lebensraum. He’d never had a room all to himself before, between his sisters, the labour farm, then five years sharing with other squaddies, but Joe decided–the good life started here.
He waved goodbye to his friend then wandered down the cobbled streets of Edinburgh until he saw a ‘Room to Let’ sign and chapped the door. An old wife answered.
‘I looking for room.’
The old wife looked him up, and down.
Joe, sensing reluctance on her part, tried to reassure her. ‘I have money. Can pay good.’
‘Oh, aye. And what’s your name, son?’
‘Josef Wiśniewski,’ he said proudly.
To his surprise the woman started shaking her head. Through the rapidly closing door she said, ‘Oh no, son, I’m not having any of you Poles staying here. You lot should be long gone by now.’
And with this welcome to Scotland, Joe realised that not everyone was all that grateful for their war effort.
Joe was sleeping on a bedroom floor with five other men and working twelve-hour shifts down Leith Docks. But he was not without ambition. He could do well in this country, he thought, if only he could be a bit more, well, British. He looked at his fellow Poles, all living on top of each other, drinking themselves insensible at weekends, and wondered if there wasn’t more to life than this.
One Sunday morning he was out for a walk when he saw a sign in a newsagent’s window. ‘English lessons. Good rates. Enquire within.’ Suddenly it all became clear to Joe. He was going to improve his English, get a job in an office and go to night school. He’d get his degree, get a better job and woo some Scottish lassie. He pushed open the door to the newsagent’s and nearly fell over the step in his haste to begin his self-improvement.
Miss Ailsa Morrison was a very proper-looking young woman. She explained that she was a qualified primary school teacher and was offering English lessons in the evenings. Her father did not approve of her teaching foreigners so she was holding the lessons in the back room of the newsagent’s. She named her price.
In the first lesson he learned about English nouns, and noticed how beautiful Miss Ailsa Morrison’s eyes [noun] were. The second lesson covered verbs and adverbs, and Joe noticed how delightful Miss Ailsa Morrison’s laugh was. She laughed [verb] beautifully [adverb]. By the time they reach prepositions he realised he was completely in [preposition] love with Miss Ailsa Morrison.
Ailsa, for her part, played her cards close to her chest. It must have been obvious to any observer that she’d got a lovesick Pole on her hands, but she didn’t encourage, or for that matter, discourage, him. She was, however, happy to listen to his stories at the end of each lesson. He told her about his family, his experiences in Italy, and what life was like for him in Scotland. When he suggested they meet for a walk one Sunday afternoon, she blushingly accepted.
After six months of careful tutoring, Joe felt confident that his English was good enough to start implementing his plan. So he headed into town and presented himself at the first office he came to. There were three men in the office, so he addressed himself to the one who looked the most senior.
‘I am looking for work.’
The man looked him up and down in a way that was becoming familiar. ‘Oh aye. And who might you be?’
‘My name is Josef Wiśniewski.’ Joe hated himself for the small hint of defensiveness now in his tone.
The two other men sniggered.
‘The boss doesn’t employ papes.’
Joe thanked them for their time, and hurried back to find out what a ‘pape’ was.
‘Oh, Joe,’ said Ailsa, ‘It’s a rude word for a Catholic.’
Joe considered this new information. ‘But I do not go to church. How do they know I am Catholic?’
‘Well, your name I suppose.’ Ailsa sighed. ‘It’s a Polish name and Polish people are Catholic.’
‘I fight a war for this. I fight for Poland and now I cannot get accommodation and I cannot get job because of my Polish name.’
‘Oh, Joe,’ said Ailsa again. ‘I’m so sorry.’ And she took his hand.
They were sitting side-by-side in the room at the back of the newsagent’s. The newsagent had gone home.
‘Do not be sorry. It is not your fault. My name is my name and I proud of it.’
Ailsa was so moved that tears welled up in her eyes. Joe noticed her distress and wiped the tears away with his calloused hand. They were sitting very, very close together.
‘Oh, Joe,’ said Ailsa for the final time that evening. Joe put a finger to her lips and kissed her.
‘We can’t, Joe.’
They were sitting a respectable distance apart in the back room of the newsagent’s.
Joe threw his hands up in a gesture of disbelief. ‘I learn the words for nothing.’
‘And you said it beautifully,’ said Ailsa, tactfully ignoring the fact that he had just asked her to marry ‘it’. ‘But my father will never approve of me marrying a foreigner.’
Joe leaned forward and took Ailsa’s hand again. ‘Why not? I work hard, I get better job, I work harder for you and for our babies.’
‘The babies are the problem.’ Ailsa pulled her hands back to her lap. My father’s never going to accept his grandchildren growing up called Wiśniewski.’
Joe got to his feet. In one sentence Ailsa had confirmed all his fears. He walked slowly out of the room, and was halfway through the shop before he heard Ailsa call his name. He paused, looking at the tins of peas and the posters about sugar rationing.
‘I can still give you English lessons.’
He shook his head and opened the door.
Joe wandered the street for hours that night. He asked himself ‘in my position, what would Queen Elizabeth II do?’ (although I’m not sure she’d really have the frame of reference to imagine herself as a penniless twenty-four-year old Pole). But in a blinding flash of royal inspiration, Joe realised what Bessie would do, old Miss Saxe-Coburg-Gotha herself. What she would do is change her name to that of an inoffensive local town. So, he borrowed a map of the UK from work, closed his eyes, crossed himself for luck, rotated his arm three times above his head and came down hard.
Three days later he marched into the Victoria Street Registry Office and changed his name by deed poll. On 24th July 1948 Josef Alojzy Wiśniewski officially became Joseph Aloysius Staines.
Now, I’m not saying that things couldn’t have been worse. A couple of inches northwest and I’d be going through life as Joseph Bishop’s Itchington. At least that would have spared me a lifetime of ‘stain’ puns. In Joe’s position I might even have done the same thing. I can relate to his motives: he was too proud of his name to change it to get better digs, or a half-decent job, but the first whiff of a bit of skirt and he’d renounced all his patriotic fervour. I’ve done enough daft things over lassies myself.
And, I know that there was no malice in it. Old Joe didn’t realise when he went into the Registry Office, the repercussions his act would have twenty-five years later. He didn’t know the impact on my first day of primary school when the teacher sat us in alphabetical order. If old Joe hadn’t messed with nature I would have been nestling safely in between George Thompson, who went on to be Dux of the school, and Angela Young, who everyone agreed was the prettiest Gala Queen they’d ever clapped eyes on. I could have spent my formative years sandwiched between brains and beauty.
Instead, on my first day of school I sat down, turned my head, and stared into the fat, four-eyed face of Lachlan Stoddart.