Zofia rushed down the corridor as fast as she could. Her throat felt constricted and her breathing came in gasps.
Her friend Karolina had got her the job cleaning in the hotel after they spoke over coffee a few months ago in the square of Krakow. Karolina had worked in Bournemouth, England for two years and was well thought of by everyone else who worked at the hotel but was home for a few days to see her parents and grandmother.
They returned to Bournemouth together. Zofia had never seen the sea before and was enthralled at her friend’s descriptions. The hotel overlooked an island she had never heard of before. She could now say Isle of Wight quite well and her English was improving each day. She liked the job and worked hard. Nietrundy (not difficult) to keep hotel rooms clean and tidy. Although the room she now shared with Karolina was at the back of the hotel and you could only see a car park, she looked forward every day to being in the rooms with the beautiful views of the sparkling sea.
She called out “Karolina, Karolina,Wsparcie!” Help!
“What is it? Zofia calm down. What is the matter?”
Zofia clung to her friend as she appeared from the next room doorway. She sobbed and breathed noisily.
Karolina took her shoulders and shook Zofia. “Tell me, tell me, what is the matter Zofia?”
Zofia stopped sniffing and drew a large lungful of air. He shoulders shuddered. She fixed her friend face-to-face and too close for normal.
“The man in the room is dead. He’s dead and I touched him. He was cold. His eyes were open. He stared at me when I bent over to shake him. I wanted to ask him if I could clean his room. Or how long before I come back to do so. I have never seen a dead person before. The room smelled bad too. Oh Karolina. We are in England. The man is dead.”
“Stop jabbering. Stop and get your breath.”
“He is dead though. I know.” She gulped air out loud again.
“Come, help me finish my room and I will come back in with you. Then we must find the manager, Mrs.Kowalski, the house cleaning manager will know what to do.”
They made the bed in the room Karolina had been doing. They pulled the covers tight and tidy and Zofia dropped the rubbish sack outside the door. Karolina checked that she had done all that was necessary and nodded to her friend.
They held hands and Karolina went first. Zofia followed but was hurting her friend’s hand she clung so tight. Karolina shook her hand free. She beckoned Zofia in beyond the bathroom door and the wardrobe opposite to follow right into the room. The man was lying on the bed. His bare chest was pale and bony and had white hairscurling out amongst blue veins. His skin was like white crepe paper with blue smudges.Both young women looked at the old man. There was an empty glass and several pill bottles on top of the bedside cabinet.
“He reminds me of my Grandfather.” Karolina said in a quiet voice. “He has a nice face.”
She went a step nearer. Zofia stood back with her hands clasped together under her chin. She stared at the old man.
Karolina touched the man’s shoulder. She looked away at her friend and back to the man.
“That looks like paper in his hand. It looks like hotel paper.”
Zofia nodded but no sound came out.
“Shall we look?” Zofia nodded again.
Karolina studied her friend’s face looking for assurance and approval. “Shall we look?”
She leaned over and eased, what proved to be several sheets of paper from the hotel writing pad that was left in each room with a pen, from the man’s fingers. One job on their check list, to make sure the pen and paper hadn’t been used or stolen and to renew if needed. They could see it was some sort of letter written in a spidery hand.
They looked at each other. Karolina went to the small sofa by the window and sat down. Zofia sat down next to her. Slowly Karolina eased the pages open and flat on the small table in front of them. She unfolded them gently and flattened with her hands, glancing at Zofia from time-to-time as she did so. Zofia nodded her encouragement.
“Can you read it? Can you read what it says? Can you read English words?”
Karolina picked up what was obviously the first page and studied it. Her face changed. Her eyes widened.
“What’s the matter? Karolina why are you looking like that? What does it say?”
Karolina turned to her friend and held out the piece of paper.
Zofia looked from the paper to her friend and back several times in disbelief.
“It’s written in Polish!”
“How can it be?”
“But it is.” Zofia had picked up the other pages and was staring with wonder.
Karolina handed the first page to her friend and leaned back on the sofa with her eyes closed. She stayed like that. The room was quiet until she said. “You read it.”
Zofia took a deep breath and began.
To whoever finds this I ask that you follow my wishes.
My name is Zygmunt Kaminski I was born in Tarnow, Poland in 1925. I had three brothers and two sisters. The Nazis killed them. The Nazis killed my mother and they killed my father. I escaped in 1941 and walked across Europe till I met some English soldiers somewhere in France. They gave me food and they gave me clothes and a pair of boots. They were truly kind to me. They asked their officer to put me on a boat and he did. I later found out that it was Portsmouth, the first town I ever saw in England. I asked to join their army. They turned me down at first because I could not speak English I supposed. But the army fed me and gave me a bed in a wooden hut with lots of others. The next time I tried to join, I told them I was nineteen and I managed to tell them I was Polish and what had happened to the rest of my family. I was in the army till 1947. I went back to Poland with the British Army and saw the camps again. The camps where my family were killed. I only cried at nights.
Just before I left the army I met a girl called Alice. I found out that there was a well-known story called Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t ever read the story, but I called the girl My Alice from Wonderland. We married in 1948. When we got married all my army friends gave us presents and Alice’s friends did too. Her mother and father seemed to like me, for which I was grateful. Her father would give me lessons in English. They both died many years ago. She had some money saved up so we went on a honeymoon to Bournemouth. In this hotel. It is different now of course. But the view from this room is the same as I remember.
My beautiful Alice from Wonderland was 21 then and when my Alice died a few months ago I decided what to do. I would come back here to this hotel and to remember our lives together.
I have been here the same four days as in 1948. It was time to join Alice.
This is my request if you are reading this letter.
I have left some money in the bedside cupboard. It is enough to have my body cremated and put in the small box you will also find with the money. The box contains Alice’s ashes. It is precious, please be careful.
Karolina got up and opened the draw of the bedside table. Sure enough there was a wooden box. A pretty wooden box she told Zofia as she took it out. There were also two bundles of money. One of pounds and one of zloty. She flicked each in turn and gasped. They exchanged a silent acknowledgement.
“Carry on, finish the letter.” Said Karolina sitting back down holding the box.
Please, whoever finds this letter, arrange for my cremation. I have no family to tell. I left letters to the few friends I made in Portsmouth. My house was always rented and I left it clean and tidy for the landlord to take back. I left a will in my house for them. I hope my possessions to sell will cover their expenses. Please take this money to do whatever is needed to get my remains and put them in the box with Alice and take us to Tarnow, Poland. It is not far from Krakow. You will find the Jewish Cemetery in Tarnow. Just leave the box somewhere in there.
When you are in Tarnow please tell Alice that Zyggy always promised that he would take you home to meet his family one day.
Any money left is yours. From my heart I thank you. May God bless you.