Lady Ryder and the Poles

(remembering the Sue Ryder community at Cavendish, Suffolk 1980-85)

We shelter on the edge of the Stour, where once little diesels chugged between Sudbury and Cambridge. But it’s silent now and the graveyard up the hill is spattered with awkward-sounding names - people whose last wish might be that they’d never arrived anywhere by train. But they’re lucky - to be resting here in an English graveyard. It’s a triumph, and not one of them need be worried by the half-baked pronunciations of the natives.

‘Powell Glootch?’ they say, reading a name at random from one of the alien graves (and, to be honest, ‘Pavel Gluch’ is one of the easy ones.) ‘Why we ’ave to ’ave these foreigners ’ere - it beggars belief…’ It dampens property values, so they claim.

And I’m no better. I only work here. I know the fact, of course, but not the truth. A dark splodge on the inside of Pani Mita’s arm. What is that exactly? A dark splodge as she passes me a cup or quickly pulls a dirty plate from my lazy English hand. But they’re numbers: Numbers tattooed on the inside of her arm. I search her impenetrable face; creased, old and ever-scowling. And yet it has a kind of beauty.

‘You’ve had it so good you Een-glish’ she seems to be thinking. She turns her arm away, tugs at her sleeve - not at all proud of being one of the numbered. She’s aware of what we say - that she’s a funny, snappy little woman who gives out crazy orders in Polish.

‘Jajke! Jajke!’ she calls, and into that paralysed moment of incomprehension someone will mutter ‘Egg - egg - she wants an egg…’

It’s strange to meet Polish people here in Suffolk in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing junta. It’s impossible to think that somewhere as weird as Poland will ever be part of the EU. Since the war, these fenced-in people have gone to ground. They keep to themselves - the older ones, particularly, with only fluent Russian as a second language. They move through the village in clusters like the impossible consonants of their language. They have ‘work’ clothes that fall about them like rags and we smile as they sport their varicose veins and ankle socks. They’re unfamiliar - wedged into the book of the past and chewed by history. There are no Nazis here, of course - no Communist secret policemen cross-referencing their files in the saloon bar of The Bull.

But there’s a palpable mistrust; these strangers brought in from the wrong side of the Cold War. Well, think about it. Deals are done, they reckon - the Foundation cosying-up with the Communist authorities. How else could they possibly get them out?

They carefully police themselves - the old keeping a hold on the young. Times are changing but here the wearing of Solidarnosc badges is hardly encouraged.
 
I learnt about the war from my mum - the shortages, the bombings, Mr Churchill - Neville Chamberlain waving that scrap of paper. You name any place you like in the Kingdom and my mother will say ‘Oh yes, I went through there in the war…’ She did her ‘bit’ it seems - her ‘bit’ being to catch trains obviously - her war a blacked-out carriage that trundled its way through a succession of unnamed stations.
 
But that’s over. And now this. From the early Fifties they gathered here. A last encampment for the victims of concentration camps. It’s not exactly your average nursing home - stuffed to the gunnels as it is with these jaw-cracking names. Lady Ryder, who we are told, fell into Poland in 1940-something under a parachute, doesn’t quite know what to say to us who simply work here and have trouble identifying the initials of the Special Operations Executive. The blue van stuffed with good things she once drove into Poland now sits forlornly outside the doors of her own museum. She has passed into her own history.

‘Andrew - Andrew’ she fusses in the corridor, ‘you must straighten your tie.’ This is about the only conversation I ever have with her. She dashes up and down in her blue-checked housecoat - up with the lark and still there late at night - a very little woman - intensely serious - whose false teeth shine vibrantly in all the publicity photos that festoon the walls. Here she is, graciously accepting this cheque or that gift. She never flashes those teeth at me - but then I never offer her any money. I look at her. Is this what greatness looks like? Such a deeply Catholic woman whose interest in a deeply Catholic country has led to this ramshackle organisation.

I do not speak to ‘L. R.’ as they call her, and even less to Pani Mita. No. They’re too scary. But I soak up a few Polish words and I get used to hearing strange versions of my name - Ondrej; Andruka - and I pretend not to notice the tattooed numbers. I don’t have words for that. On the news we hear about Lech Walesa - people wave flags in Poland and talk of Solidarity. How the older ones look troubled.

But the young? To be honest this is our territory. We might be Polish or English but most of all we are young and we make space well away from the old. We don’t go to bed at eight and get up at four like those daft old Poles. Who cares? Ours is the future. The past can bury itself with those weird names in the graveyard. Let us appreciate the Slavic good looks of a young Bozena or Maizenka or Kataizyna. Youth is all and a new train leaves and the graveyard is a thousand miles away. Us English boys (are you listening Bozena, Maizenka, Kataizyna?) we’re laid-back - we laugh - we joke - we drink alcohol and do bad things. Give us a swig of that Polish White Spirit. Come on, you Polish beauties! Let’s go to bed…
 

I worked at Sue Ryder Headquarters in Cavendish, Suffolk as a carer. It had originally been set up as a refuge for concentration camp victims, many of whom were still alive in those days. I remember 99 yr-old Pani Maria who was reputed to have been in Moscow when the October Revolution took place (she’d have been 32 even then we worked out - ie. much older than we were then.) The home used hoards of foreign volunteers (quite a lot of Poles but many other nationalities as well, including English) who all lived together in an incomplete building called the Scrubs (one wonders how they were allowed to use a building where there was just a hole where the stairs were meant to be!) ‘Vols’ received the sumptuous fortune of £4 per week. Hence they were a little dependent on the ‘kindness’ of those of us who actually got paid. To be honest it was one long party in the Scrubs. What I was trying to get at in this piece was the contrast between the earnestness of L.R. and the Foundation and the fact they were so dependent on the output of youngsters who knew nothing at all of history, but had that youthful capacity to have a good time wherever they found themselves.

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