Down in the Cellars

by Ewa Mazierska

The ten-story block in Poznań to which Alicja and Andrzej moved in the mid-1990s was built in the 1970s, a decade in the history of Poland when ambition of greatness led to an increase in living standards, as well as in wastefulness. This was reflected in the structure of their block: it was made up of mostly two-room apartments in which leaks and drafts were the norm. Inhabitants flooded their neighbours when they took showers and loose window fittings let rain and snow in. To balance it out, the block had a huge attic to be used as a communal area for drying laundry and large cellars, where people could store what didn’t fit in their small apartments. The attic had solid wooden floors; the cellars were covered with expensive tiles. Luckily, by the time when the couple bought their flat, most of the causes for leaks had been sorted out and the block had been replastered and boasted other additional amenities, so it could survive in a reasonably good shape until the housing crisis in Poland was solved. The extra space in the cellars (which was not added to the price of the square metre, determining the overall market value of the apartment) was a great bonus, as Alicja and Andrzej needed as much extra storage as possible. This was because they came from the countryside and were bringing from there their winter supplies: sacks of potatoes, carrots, beetroot, cabbages, dry wild mushrooms, sour and pickled cucumbers, pickled pumpkin and peppers, and tons of fresh and processed fruit. At first the fruit preserves were made by Alicja’s mother and her mother-in-law, but later Alicja took over from them, because Andrzej suffered from diabetes and was not allowed to consume much sugar. ‘One kilo of sugar in a year will kill him,’ his doctor kept repeating. Mindful of these words Alicja mastered the craft of making low-sugar jams and compotes which tasted as if they were full of this deadly, yet addictive substance. The secret of producing them was in choosing very ripe and healthy fruit and cooking it in an unhurried, careful way, constantly mixing the contents of the pot, so that the natural sweetness of the fruits was extracted in full. By the end of their first summer in the apartment, their entire cellar was taken up by these preserves. Alicja made so many of them that there was no space in the cellar for anything else. Consequently, for storing fresh vegetables they had to use the cellar of their neighbour who worked abroad; he let them use his cellar in exchange for keeping an eye on his apartment, making sure that any leak or crack in the wall was noticed early. There was nothing in his cellar apart from an old bed and Andrzej sometimes joked that if they got bored with making love in their flat, they could make use of the bed of their neighbour. Alicja, however, didn’t find this joke funny. She didn’t tolerate even mild vulgarity.
Apart from cellars for private use, there were three large cellars in the block, which were really full-sized basement apartments, although people called them just the ‘large cellars’. They were used by organisations working for the inhabitants of this and several other blocks comprising their tenants’ association. The largest was used by the tenants’ association’s administration; the medium one by the lawyer representing the association and the smallest by some sports’ organisation. Andrzej had objections about the way these cellar apartments were used, especially by the sports people, but Alicja asked him to keep quiet about it, not least because they were new in the block and it was important to be on good terms with the association. As for the attic, it was practically unused, because people stopped hanging their laundry there, preferring to do it in the privacy of their own apartments, using electric dryers. Moreover, two men hanged themselves in the attic: one, suffering from a broken heart, killed himself shortly after the block was erected; the other, only a year before Alicja and Andrzej moved in, because of debt. The inhabitants, particularly women, were worried that if they went there, they would find a ghost or worse, a corpse, as there was always talk about suicidal men living in the block. For example, the guy from the seventh floor, who was chased by loan sharks or one from the fifth, who was a drug addict with mental health issues, were considering ‘going up to the attic’.  

Alicja called their apartment ‘their nest’. It was a banal metaphor, but captured its appearance well. The flat was lined with soft, feathery things: fat embroidered cushions, fluffy rags, pictures on the wall whose novelty lied in them being not flat, but embossed and filled with moving sand or something like that, which felt soft and tempted visitors to touch them.  Their slippers were extra-soft and in winter they slipped into them even before they entered the apartment, as Alicja didn’t like snow or dirty water indoors. They also had an ornament in the form of a hen sitting in a nest, which laid eggs, when her back was pressed – Alicja’s childhood toy. The apartment was always well heated. They were the only occupants who didn’t mind that the installation of heating regulators was delayed in their block and when this eventually happened, they never used the knob to turn the heating down; they always had it at its maximum, even in May. Alicja listened in horror to the stories of Poles who, after emigrating to England, had to live in cold accommodation because they couldn’t afford to heat their houses properly. This would never happen to them – ‘never!’, she said with the maximum of resolve. 
The words ‘our nest’ also reflected its owners’ mindset. Alicja liked to think that it was the only place where they could feel safe, because the external world was hostile or at best indifferent to them. The feeling of coziness was at its strongest when they looked down from the windows of their apartment. From their sixth floor they could see a large chunk of Poznań, a large city from which they felt estranged, despite living there for fifteen years.  Even in their home villages they didn’t feel at home, because their extended families couldn’t be trusted, especially Andrzej’s brother, who took over the family farm and didn’t pay Andrzej any rent for his half. The sacks of vegetables and crates of fruit were all they got from Andrzej’s brother. Alicja was of the opinion that Andrzej should sell his part of the farm and use it to improve their life. If they got the money, they could move to a larger apartment or even buy a small house in the suburbs of Poznań. Andrzej, however, didn’t want to do that, as it would mean severing his ties with his brother and his roots, plus the money might be needed later when they were old or ill. ‘The land will always get a good price in Poland,’ he kept saying with his peasant’s stubbornness. 

Although Alicja and Andrzej’s apartment was cozy, it didn’t fulfill the main function of a nest: being an incubator of new life, because they couldn’t ‘hatch’ a chick there. This was attributed to Alicja’s endometriosis, although Andrzej’s diabetes might also have played a part in their infertility. By her late thirties Alicja accepted that they would remain childless. Andrzej, it seemed, was never bothered about having children, paying little attention to kids in their extended families and cherishing his comfort more than anything else. Alicja thought that in a sense, she had a child, because Andrzej was like a child and spoilt at that. 
The large doses of hormones prescribed for her illness made Alicja put on weight and made her look older than her real age. To make up for her diminished attractiveness, she paid great attention to her make-up, hair and clothes. She always had her naturally brown hair dyed blonde, her nails painted in bright colours, and her clothes adorned with gold embroidery and shiny  jewellery. Somebody in the block called her a ‘Christmas tree’, and this label stuck. When Alicja eventually heard about the jibe, she was reassured in her distrust of the people in their block.  

Although the prices of apartments kept going up, Alicja hoped that eventually they would buy a three-room apartment in a more up-scale block, not only because it would be more comfortable, but also because people in such places are gentler and more cultured. This dream, however, was crushed when a firm where Andrzej work, went bankrupt. It was a huge blow not only to the couple’s finances, but also to their morale, especially Alicja’s, as she liked to boast about her husband’s great prospects at work, to make up for her own disappointments. As there were few opportunities, the chances of Andrzej finding employment of a similar prestige were small and it was out of the question for him to seek manual work, so they resigned themselves to the fact that he might stay unemployed for a considerable amount of time. The main challenge was not to give into self-doubt, shame and depression. In this spirit Alicja suggested that Andrzej should use the surplus time to engage himself with the running of the tenants’ association. 

‘Now you have time to check who resides in these opulent cellars and how much we overpay for their upkeep,’ said Alicja. 

Initially Andrzej was unwilling to go, as this would reveal that he’d been made redundant, but eventually he went to the office of the tenants’ association, offering his help on a voluntary basis. It turned out that help was needed as the association had few paid positions and one was occupied by somebody who was on long-term sick leave. Andrzej started to go every day, helping with paperwork, as well as giving advice about various ‘projects’, such as how to increase the proportion of collected rubbish for recycling or prevent drug addicts from sleeping on the benches. He also got to know the lawyer working in the second cellar. Every day when Alicja returned from work, he greeted her waxing lyrical about all the people he was dealing with there, in the cellars. She was unable to reciprocate, as people at her work weren’t so nice; on the contrary, they were unhelpful, gossiped and undermined each other when talking to the boss. ‘They are like a pack of wolves’, she kept saying. Andrzej offered sympathy, but his only practical advice was, ‘ignore the people, just do your job.’ Yet doing her job was not enough and at the same time it was difficult for Alicja, given that every day there was a new regulation to learn, new software to master and do all this despite the rumours about redundancies or even wholesale replacement of the grumpy Polish clerks by enthusiastic Ukrainian gastarbeiters. 

Although Andrzej was now a house-husband, Alicja still did all the housework: cooking, cleaning and going to the post office to pay bills. This was because he never did these things before and because such jobs improved Alicja’s mood. Seeing their small apartment shining from cleanliness and Andrzej gorging on her delicious dishes made her think that life was worth living, despite all the disappointments. 

While Alicja was waiting for weekends to spend time with Andrzej, he seemed to prefer weekdays. At weekends he was constantly looking at his watch and got bad-tempered when she was circling the sofa with her vacuum cleaner while he was watching telly.  However, although the weekends dragged on for him, he didn’t want to go out as he once did, even to help Alicja with shopping. 

‘Are you too tired?’ Alicja teased him, to which he replied in all solemnity: 
‘Yes, I am.’

‘What I should say?’ asked Alicja, to which he replied in the same serious tone: ‘All you do the whole day is look through papers, so you have no reason to be anxious, unlike me, whose entire life has been unravelled by redundancy. Stress makes me tired.’ 

‘Spend more time looking for a job, so you will stop feeling anxious,’ replied Alicja. 

‘This is what I’m doing, helping with the administration of the tenants’ association. I should think I will soon get a paid position there.’ 

This moment arrived in the following year, but Alicja didn’t see any money coming to their joint account, because Andrzej used it for his own expenses, most importantly clothes and toiletries. When she asked him why he dressed up so much, he replied that it was to make up for the time when he had no reason to dress at all and his looks deteriorated. 

Initially Alicja took such explanations in a good faith, but with the passage of time she grew suspicious and one day she got hold of Andrzej’s mobile phone and found there a chain of text messages to a woman, proving that he was having an affair. Additional proof was a notebook in which he penned his love letters, to be translated into text messages – either because they required much concentration or because Andrzej was poor with technology. It was Alicja who bought him his first mobile phone and showed him how to write text messages. There were also presents which she found in his desk: expensive perfumes and lingerie, which for sure was too small for his wife. 
With the help of a woman from the fifth floor, Alicja discovered that Andrzej’s lover was an accountant in the tenants’ association. Alicja also learnt that her rival was married with two children, but this didn’t stop her from ensnaring men – she was apparently the lover of her previous boss who ensured that she was promoted through the sacking of her predecessor. It was not difficult to fathom that this woman, whom Alicja despised so much that she never used her name, was the recipient of most of Andrzej’s income. Most likely she arranged the job for him to siphon off the money from this very job. Yet, it wasn’t him having an affair or stealing money from what should be their joint pot which angered Alicja most, but the fact that he treated his lover so much better than his wife, writing to her in a poetic, lofty way. It didn’t matter that his metaphors were ridiculous; what counted was that he made so much effort to conjure them. He never bothered to be poetic with Alicja, in the past saying that she was a woman who couldn’t be fooled by pretty words, which she tried to take as a compliment. 

Despite showing him the proof of his infidelity, there was no contrition on Andrzej’s  part. He called Alicja mad, denied any wrongdoing and continued to spend his days in the cellars and text the woman with his silly love confessions. In a nutshell, he wanted to continue his affair and Alicja to put up with it.  The discovery of Andrzej’s betrayal and his cheek made Alicja so despondent, that she wanted to cry her eyes out. Yet she didn’t want Andrzej to see it, so she started to go to the attic.

Although it was only an attic in a high-rise block, for Alicja it felt like the top of a cathedral. There was silence and solemnity there, like if it was a passage to a different reality. For sure, for the two men who took their own lives there, the attic was a portal. There was a mark on the beam where one of the men hung the rope. He must have been a large guy, Alicja surmised. She looked at it admiring his courage, as she was thinking that she wouldn’t be able to do the same thing. She was paralysed by the fear of breaking her neck, of not being able to see the world again, and of the spectacle of her dead body about which she couldn’t do anything: her inability to cover her roundness and varicose veins on her legs while hanging high up like a carcass of a slaughtered cow. There would also be shame for her family and all the people who knew her in the village. On top of that her suicide would play into Andrzej’s hands as in this way he would get rid of her lightly and be in a position to promote his lover from the cellar to their apartment. Ultimately, the trips to the attic cleared Alicja’s head and she started to conjure up a plan for how to deal with the situation. She told Andrzej that she wanted a divorce and to start living separately as soon as possible. He was against it, but without really objecting to her plans. Of course, he couldn’t move out because he had no money to buy or even rent a place, so Alicja had to leave. They agreed, however, that he would sell half of his farm to pay her off. The issue for Alicja was to arrange it quickly so she wouldn’t need to rent forever and could buy a place for herself. 

It was hard to tell her work colleagues what had happened to her, as she never shared her marital problems with the women in her office, but once she confessed, she got a lot of sympathy, not least because most of her colleagues were already divorced. Indeed, only now she felt like a member of their club.  

Since she learnt about Andrzej infidelity, Alicja changed her appearance. Her hair and clothes got darker, the gold jewelry was put away into jewelry boxes and she stopped doing her nails. She also lost her excessive weight, not because of diet, but from grief, from pain, from indifference to almost everything of material nature. The food lost its old taste, like life itself. Yet, everybody was telling her that she looked better than ever before thanks to shedding her provincial garishness. 

The women at work tried to prepare Alicja for worse things to come: ‘Be ready for him trying to rob you. Make sure you don’t leave in the house anything which is yours. Even if it is an engagement or a wedding ring, he will sell it or recycle it for his next flame, as now he assumes that everything which he bought for you is his again.’ ‘Take your stuff before he changes the locks.’ 
‘He can’t do that, as the apartment is still legally ours’, replied Alicja.
‘Men don’t care about legalities. They only care about suiting themselves.’

How true these words turned out to be. When Alicja visited their apartment to collect her ornaments, most importantly the egg laying hen, she couldn’t open the door with her key. She wanted to confront Andrzej, but he didn’t return in the next hour and she didn’t want to sit on the stairs, making a spectacle of herself. Alicja went down to the cellar, where the preserves were kept. Luckily the cellar’s key still worked on the padlock. The jars were also there, intact. First she wanted to destroy them, so that Andrzej couldn’t eat the fruit of her labour. But it occurred to her that there was a better way to use the jars, recollecting the doctor’s words: ‘A kilo of sugar would kill your husband.’ She put in her two large bags as many jars as she could fit to take home. Then she went to the cellar of the neighbour. There were no potatoes or carrots any more, but the bed was there and rather than being propped up by the wall, it was spread horizontally. Next to it there were two stools, suggesting that the bed played a double function: to facilitate debauchery and act as a table. There was an unfinished bottle of cherry vodka with two cheap glasses and an ashtray with cigarette butts; some of them with lipstick marks. Together these objects told a simple story: Andrzej and the woman shagged and then drank and smoked or the other way round. The sordidness of this affair was almost comforting, as it left no room for hesitation in Alicja’s heart. 
At home Alicja carefully opened the jars, poured their contents into pots and recooked them with extra sugar, then put them back in the jars. They tasted so good that she left a couple of jars to take to work. For the next two weeks she kept repeating the operation. In the end she added to them seven kilos of sugar, the amount which should kill seven men with Andrzej’s condition, if the diabetes specialist told the truth. She was swapping the jams in the cellar when Andrzej wasn’t at home, so he couldn’t see her carrying the jars backwards and forwards. Alicja was also checking the other cellar and noticed that it was no longer in use, as the amount of alcohol in the bottle did not change and the ashtray wasn’t emptied. This confirmed what she learnt through other channels, namely that Andrzej’s lover had left him – she didn’t want to carry on with him as a single man as this would put her own marriage in jeopardy. 

For the next weeks and months Alicja was waiting for news about Andrzej’s death, but nothing reached her. He seemed to be in good shape, physically at least. Maybe he wasn’t touching her jams or all the years when she looked after his health paid off and even ten kilos of sugar couldn’t break him. 

Finalising all dealings between Alicja and Andrzej took almost two years, the time needed for Andrzej to sell half of his farm and pay Alicja off. What she got in the end was less than the value of half of their flat, not to mention the cost of the rent she had to pay when she was living on her own. But she accepted what he offered her because the alternative was to prolong the conflict and spend even more money on lawyers. After that they lost contact with each other and Alicja got news about her ex-husband only indirectly, through her sister, who stayed in touch with Andrzej’s cousin. Alicja’s anger subsided and she was only sad to think about all the sacrifices which were in vain – the years of saving for the apartment, striving to make herself attractive to Andrzej, the effort to support him when he was unemployed and to punish him when he betrayed her. Once the dealings were closed, it felt like her life was over too. She didn’t look forward to anything and neither was able to enjoy the present. Yet, life went on, because she didn’t belong to the people able to ‘go to the attic’. 

Then, one day, Alicja’s sister rang her up and said that Andrzej had had an accident in the cellar. He stumbled and broke his leg in several places. It didn’t heal and needed to be amputated. ‘What poetic justice for this cellar reptile,’ finished Alicja’s sister. ‘Poetic? I see no poetry here’, said Alicja, spreading plum jam on a piece of bread. 

Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, and Mystery Tribune, among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories have been shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.