NOON IN KRAKÓW | Gary Couzens Ted's grandmother, Basia, has a hole in her throat. I don't understand more than a few basic words of Polish and she speaks no English. The robotic voice that comes out when she presses the electrolarynx to her throat makes her even less comprehensible. Even Ted – Tadeusz before he Anglicised his name – struggles to understand her, when he interprets for me. I only have my tourist German. Perhaps I can try to speak to her in that, a common second language in Eastern Europe. We arrived in Kraków after a ferry from England and an overnight coach. I'd hardly slept and it was hot: my T-shirt and long skirt, worn since yesterday, stuck to me in patches. As we walked up to the apartment block where Ted's grandmother lives, Ted tried to slip his arm about my shoulders. Irritable, I shrugged him off. He rested his hand on my bottom instead. If you put Ted side and side with his grandmother, you can see the resemblance: the same high-cheekboned face and stocky build. Basia is a short woman, some five inches less than me, her hair, almost all white, gathered up in a bun. She wears a rather faded floral-print dress and, despite the heat, thick tights. She embraces us in turn. “Tadeusz! Veronica!” I'm Ronni to my friends – only my parents and brother call me by my full name. Ted once told me how the Poles spell it: Weronika. It looked very strange, written like that. It doesn't fit me at all. Basia serves us both tea – black, in a glass with lemon – and a slice of marble cake. “Dziękuję,” says Ted. Thank you. I try my best to repeat the word. Basia sits in a corner of the room in an armchair, her feet set square, smoking a cigarette. She smiles at my efforts. As we sit in her small front room, I wonder again if I've made a mistake coming here. A sudden feeling of entrapment closes over me. I want to call home. My mother has always been there for me as a confidante: break-ups with previous boyfriends, the first nervous trip to University when I was expecting a huge culture shock that didn't really happen. But I can't call her now. I'll have to find a phone that can dial internationally first. The feeling soon passes. I can deal with this. It was Ted's idea to visit his grandmother. I knew nothing about his home country, which he's not seen since coming to England at the age of three. It's been two years since the Wall came down. Last year we were both heavily involved with our finals, so now is Ted's first chance to visit. Maybe I should have told him to go on his own. Certainly since... I don't even want to say her name. Her. Ted and I walk outside as the sun sets. I have my inhaler with me: I've been warned that the air quality is poor, the legacy of decades of Soviet-era heavy industry. This time Ted takes my hand and I don't resist. “She's a nice lady, is Gran,” he says. “My babcia. That's grandmother in Polish.” I nod. I have nothing against her personally. “I wish I could understand what she's saying.” “You'll have to start Polish evening classes when we get home.” I make a weak smile. “Tired?” he says. I nod, and rest my head on his shoulder. “You should sleep well tonight then.” I nod again. “I hope so – strange bed and all.” As I listen to Ted describe the sights of Kraków he's hoping we'll visit – the Castle, the Jewish quarter, the market square – I wonder about making a break for it, here and now. I have the złotys I changed from hard currency at the border, and I could change the rest at one of the many Kantor stands. I have some travellers' cheques, but they can only be changed in a bank or maybe at a hotel. We're not in Western Europe any more. In the evening we go to a small restaurant in the city centre. Ted pays for all three of us, the price ludicrously cheap by western standards. We start with barszcz, a spicy beetroot soup, followed by pierogi, meat-and-vegetable-filled dumplings, and a fried pork cutlet in thick sauce. Ted has very much taken charge for the evening, pouring glasses of wine and interpreting Basia's words to me and mine to her and mine to the waiter. The shoes I've changed into, new for this holiday, pinch my feet. My bra-strap digs into the flesh below my armpits. I glance across at the window: I am reflected there, contained in a globe of candlelight. “Mmm, this is good,” says Ted. “How's yours, Ronni?” I mutter, “Mmmm,” mouth full, nodding. It is good food, no denying that. We finish with pancakes with a plum spread and a glass of zubrowka, plum vodka. Basia raises her glass and says something in return. Ted laughs and says something in return. “What was that?” I say. “She wishes us good health,” says Ted. He leaves a pause, then makes a small shamefaced smile. “And she wonders when we're getting married.” “We aren't, are we?” I laugh. “What did you say?” “All in good time.” He kisses me, the smell of his aftershave in my nostrils. Basia beams. “We don't need to change what's working, not just yet. Living together's not the done thing here. Catholic country, remember. The Pope comes from here.” “Yes, Ted. I did know that. You didn't tell her what happened, did you?” About her. Ted frowned. “No, of course I didn't. She doesn't need to know. She'll only get upset and there's no need for that.” The kiss has smudged my lipstick. I renew it, gazing at my reflection in the window. Her. Tall, in a black low-cut dress, inviting you to lose yourself in full, lush breasts, the dark line of her cleavage. She didn't just try to infiltrate our relationship, she invaded it. Tart. An old-fashioned word, one my mother or even grandmother might use, but it's the only one for her. I drum my fingers on the table. Tart. Tart. Tart. I really want to go home now. “Basia says you're very pretty,” says Ted. “Tell her thank you.” I take another sip of my vodka. It is very strong. We take a taxi back to the apartment block, the three of us on the rear seats. I'm pressed up against the side. We sit in Basia's front room. The television is on in the background: as well as the Polish channels, it can pick up Czech ones. There's nothing I can follow, though there's an American film with a Polish voiceover. Ted nudges me in the side with his elbow. “Ronni, you're falling asleep.” Basia smiles indulgently. “It's been a long day,” he says. “Two days,” I say. “It is time to turn in.” He says something in Polish to Basia. She nods. When I stand up, she does too, and leads me to the spare room. Inside is a single bed. I turn to Ted. “It's all right,” he says. “Catholic country, remember. No sleeping together before the wedding day. I'll sleep on the sofa.” He seems a little disappointed, even if he rationalises this, to himself as well as to me. He's led this day, this evening, this whole holiday up to now, taken charge and orchestrated it, but unable to provide the intended finale, making love to me. If he's expecting me to demur, I don't. Not now. At the moment I'm quite happy to sleep alone. He seems to realise this. He kisses me, his tongue briefly flicking between my lips. “Goodnight. See you in the morning.” Once I've washed and brushed my teeth, I shut the door behind myself. It's a very small room, with barely a foot's space either side of the bed. I undress; it's a relief to take that bra off. I pull on an old T-shirt over my nakedness. Outside the window are the nighttime lights of Kraków. My face, held in the glass, gazes back at me. I think of her again. She obviously thought Ted could do better than me. Never mind that we'd been together since the middle of the first term of our first year. We met in the Hall of Residence bar. And maybe I can do better myself. I draw the curtains and climb into bed. I don't sleep very well. It's a hot night and the bed is harder than I'm used to. Despite my lack of sleep last night I toss and turn but cannot make that last transition. Nothing works. Noises from the street outside, the thump of antiquated plumbing. I close my eyes but sleep doesn't come. But I must have slept, briefly and dreamlessly, because all of a sudden I'm wide awake again. There's a queasiness in my stomach which tells me: Get out of bed now. I just have time to pull on a pair of knickers and stumble across the hallway to the bathroom, to be sick in the toilet. For a while I'm crouched over the bowl. A tense heat travels up inside me and bursts inside my head, leaving cold behind. Maybe it's something I ate. But I don't think so. I'm late as it is. There's a creak of a floorboard behind me and I look up sharply. Basia is standing there, thickly swathed in a dressing-gown. “Veronica?” she says, the electrolarynx pressed to her throat. “It's okay,” I say, a little too brightly. “Something I ate.” I don't even convince myself. And she surely can't understand me. Not the words, at least. How much she's picked up by empathy, I don't know. She smiles, then turns and walks away. I straighten, flush the toilet, wash my hands. Basia returns with a glass of water. “Thank you.” Then I remember. “Dziękuję.” The water sits coldly in my stomach. She smiles again, more broadly now, and puts her hand on my elbow, resting it there. “Please don't say anything to Ted,” I say. “I don't want him to worry.” And I haven't decided what to do yet. But I will soon. * In the late morning we are in the Market Square - the largest in Europe in the Middle Ages, Ted tells me – under the long covered walkway of the Sukiennice, or Silk Market. Ted seems a little distracted, at times holding my hand then letting it go. I wonder if Basia has told him something about what happened during the night. I'm not tired now, thanks to breakfast and two cups of strong coffee, but I know weariness will catch up with me by the evening. At the eastern corner of the Square is The Mariacki Church, a fourteenth-century Gothic building, its tallest tower topped by several spires, a crown and a helmet. Just before noon we go inside and sit in the wooden pews. It's quite gloomy inside, the only light coming from the high windows. A nun stands at the pulpit at the high altar and begins to speak. Needless to say, I can't understand what she says. Basia stirs, to my left. Ted takes hold of my hand. Then two men slowly open the panels of the altar triptych. Inside are six reliefs framing a huge centre panel of The Dormition of the Virgin, a wash of blue and gold before my eyes. All around me, gasps and sighs, the clicking of cameras. Outside again, almost swept out by the rush of people. A moment of panic as I stumble but fortunately right myself. And then the trumpeter, high up in the tower, plays the hajnał. Played every hour, and broadcast on national radio every noon, a commemoration of a watchman, who, centuries ago, saw the first signs of a Tartar raid. He played the trumpet as a warning, cut short by an arrow in his throat. And now the trumpeter plays again, stopping abruptly. Beside me, Basia is gazing up at the tower, tears in her eyes. A warning against invaders, to protect your home, your family. And there are tears in my eyes too, tears at the decision I will soon have to make. Ted slips his arm about my shoulders and holds on to me, tight.