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The sad guest

Matthias Nawrat


On the third Sunday in January, I took the U-Bahn from our neighbourhood to the Hasenheide area at Sudstern station, on the other side of Berlin. There was a church there where the Polish community met up. I had only been inside the church once, not for Mass but to look at the stained-glass saints. Directly opposite the church was the restaurant Mały Książe, The Little Prince, and if you arrived at the right time you could get a table before the place filled up with families and elderly ladies and gentlemen leaving Sunday Mass. The language in the restaurant, which had its own grocery shop, was Polish, but every guest also spoke German and the two young waitresses spoke without accents; they were the daughters of the restaurant owners, I believe, and helped out on Sundays.


All the tables were free when I arrived, but it began to fill up shortly after eleven. People were soon standing between the diners, staring down at their plates to judge when they’d be vacating their places, so an elderly gentleman joined me at my table. He was dressed in a grey suit with a white shirt and a golden-yellow tie and wore a golden signet ring on his little finger, its crest a shield and two crossed swords. Both of us had to pull our seats up close to the table and lean in, the people behind us pressing against our backs, the room reverberating like a departure lounge. Matthias Nawrat


He asked me whether I would recommend the pierogi I had just begun eating, and I said they weren’t the best I’d ever eaten in my life and perhaps not the best I’d ever eaten in the city either, but they were still good. And so, once one of the two young waitresses had worked her way through the crowd to us, he ordered a portion of pierogi.


We spoke Polish to one another. It turned out he originated from southern Poland, from a town near Opole, the city my family came from, where I had been born and spent the first ten years of my childhood.


You’ve just come from church then, too? he asked.
No, I wasn’t at church, I said.
Has something happened?
No, I just don’t go to church, I said.
He cast me a concerned glance. For a moment, I felt like a con-man who had come here to profit from the church-goers’ feelings of purification and transcendence.
He asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a writer.
What language do you write in?
And what about?
I write stories about various things, most recently about my family and people I know, I said. I’ve published three short-story collections.
I see, he said.
He told me he was a tradesman and had been living in the city for more than fifty years. He had escaped during the protests in the 60s and had met his wife here, who was from Lublin and had died seven years ago. Now he lived alone, a few streets away.


What kind of tradesman are you? I asked.


A piano tuner, he said. But his hearing was bad now, he told me, otherwise he might still be making a little on the side, at the age of 81, since many people in the richer parts of Berlin had a piano at home. He had a house in his hometown as well but he didn’t know anyone there these days. His son and daughter took their families there on holiday.


His pierogi had arrived and he was occupied with eating for a while. I asked him how he liked them, and he said he’d had better but he’d had worse as well.


Oh look, he said then, pointing towards the counter where peo-ple were queuing up to pay for food from the shop. There’s Mrs Halina.


From the restaurant’s entrance area, a lady in a red coat waved at him, with golden ear clips, a powdered face and red-painted lips. She came over to us, taking tiny steps and holding on to the backs of the chairs between the fathers, mothers and children.


Hello, Mr Rosowski, she crowed directly into his ear, louder than necessary. She gave me a smile that was friendly but also dis-trusting, as though I might be a grandson no one had previously been aware of. The two other seats at our table were taken by a young couple talking quietly, their heads pulled in close. I stood up and offered Mrs Halina my chair, but she declined.


Please, go ahead, I said.
I had long since finished my meal and was exhausted by the vol-ume in the restaurant and the people still standing around wait-
ing for tables. I said goodbye to Mr Rosowski but he took no more Matthias Nawrat
notice of me. He had got to his feet to help Mrs Halina sit down and was draping her coat over the back of my chair.
I ordered a portion of pierogi, he yelled in her ear as I was still standing alongside them.
Lovely, she shouted back, and pulled her chair in closer to the table.


I paid at the cash desk at the front, thanked the young waitress I believed was called Małgorzata, and stepped out into the chilly winter air, dazzled for a moment by the bright sky arching above the church and cemetery on the other side of the street and above the whole of the city. It took me an instant to remember where I was, and then I set off back towards the station.


Families were out strolling around me. At the crossroads, a man on a bicycle stopped, behind him two children with hel-mets on smaller bikes. The whole of the city seemed to be out and about, though the air was bitterly cold. I walked past the under-ground station and along the shops on Urbanstrasse to the canal, letting the atmosphere drive me on. I really did feel like I’d been to church, like as a child on my family’s housing estate on the edge of Opole, back when I’d still believed the stories about the miracles, the marriage at Cana, the kingdoms of angels and devils.





– Translated Excerpt 
  The sad guest – Matthias Nawrat
– Translation by Katy Derbyshire