Pretenders, by weronika wolska

The bruise, I saw it on his arm. Summer morning at my old house. The day Grandad came to help Mama with packing all our stuff. Gabriel and I were on the street, playing tag, and he fell over. I helped him up and he tried to get away like crazy, but I saw it. It was big and purple. No bruise would go purple in three seconds. He pulled his sleeves down as much as possible and it became his ritual from then on.

weronika wolska

My responsibilities on Christmas Eve seem simple: play with Gabriel, look good, behave well, put someone in prison and talk like a rich, British gentleman with a top hat. Mama thinks that every British man is like that, and that they are all posh even though she’s never been to the United Kingdom. She likes posh people because Grandad likes them. They were never posh themselves and they are not British, but they can pretend. Pretending is fun. 

The worst part is, I don’t know what to do with Gabriel. I feel like I’m suffocating when I meet his pale, blue eyes; guilt makes my larynx rebel. I’m not posh and it turns out you need evidence to lock someone up, so I might as well screw up this Christmas. Gabriel will be looking for the Star in the night sky; the one that led the Three Kings to Jesus so that they could see him and give him their gifts. The moment Gabriel spots the Star, the present opening will begin. When I find my star – a few words from Gabe, a mark, anything – I will receive my gift in the form of Grandad’s disappearance.

Everything in our house is falling apart, but Mama will not let anyone notice that. The table in our living room is old, has loose screws and stains from spilled wine, kompot and raspberry tea, but Mama put a white tablecloth all over it. I can still remember how Gabriel cried when he knocked Mama’s sweet, red Fresco off the table. She thought that he’d said sorry so many times because he’s a good boy. How can adults overlook everything so easily? I’m sixteen and I see every little red flag thrown my way.

I sit next to the Christmas tree and think. It smells like the Stary Gaj right outside Lublin that I’ve been to with Grandad and Gabriel to look for mushrooms. The sun trying to trespass, leaving patches of light on the ground, the fresh air, the blue spots calling out to be harvested. It was a chilly, innocent Saturday morning. I thought it was going to go easy, that we’d have fun.   

Grandad walked to the car, cursing the mosquitos for following him and I liked him then. His snow-like, fluffy hair, his checked shirt and glasses peeking out of his pocket. I had nothing to be worried about and nothing that could make me go crazy. But Gabriel had to open his mouth.

‘Why can’t I live with you, Tosiek?’ He wasn’t looking at me. He almost never did, so that was no shock. He whispered and that was weird.

‘We have no room,’ I said and watched Gabriel nervously swing his little basket. ‘And Grandad would be lonely without you.’ What was I supposed to say? Sorry Gabe, but we’re broke and my mama’s too depressed to look after you?

‘I don’t care.’ Gabriel said, and this time, his voice was clear, loud, frustrated. What’s his problem?

‘Hey, you’re a big kid now. You don’t need no mama. Besides, Grandad’s nice.’

Gabriel frowned, but he wasn’t saying anything. He was looking past me with the intensity of a hunter, and I realised he was making sure that Grandad wasn’t able to overhear us.

‘He cares for you. Like Mama cares for me,’ I said.

He started screaming, kicking and pinching me. A few moments later, we were back in the car. Grandad did not look surprised; there was no sign of anger or annoyance. Just an eerie silence and a darkness in his eyes that I had never seen before. I was looking at Gabriel, too confused to do a thing. I thought that touching him would wake a beast hiding behind his screams. I saw how stiff his muscles were after he’d calmed down, I saw how his eyes never drifted from Grandad’s face, waiting. That was his first and last rebellion. I thought about it but pretended it meant nothing. I’m guilty. I’m a traitor, a hypocrite, a pretender.

‘Tosiek, are you deaf?’ Mama’s running back and forth; setting the table, wiping counters and making sure she doesn’t burn the carp. She wants to show Grandad what a good mother she is, head of the house. I let Gabriel and Grandad in and wait by the door, bouncing on the balls of my feet. 

‘Good evening, Antoni,’ Grandad says in a low voice. Mama should notice that something is off about him. He called me Antoni. Antoni? No one does that. Sign one, but it’s too subtle, not enough for Mama. Time for action; I need evidence.

Mama gives everyone an opłatek and the wishes begin. Mama comes up to me and wishes me good grades, having friends and a girlfriend, but I pay more attention to the other
two. Grandad says something to Gabriel, but he doesn’t smile. I wish Mama a bunch of clichés
like good health, money and luck. She breaks a small piece off of my opłatek and I do the same with hers. We eat it and hug. And then, Grandad tries to hug Gabriel, but he takes a step back. I want Mama to see it so much that I try to turn her around, but she laughs and pulls away.

‘What are you doing, do you want me to choke, you muppet?’

No, these signs are short. Blink once and they’re gone. I need to get evidence from Gabriel. I have a perfect opportunity just before we’re about to eat as Mama unconsciously helps me.

‘Go wash your hands, boys.’ She smiles and claps her hands. Her fake enthusiasm around Grandad is disgusting. Gabriel runs to the bathroom laughing; his enthusiasm is honest and powerful enough to be contagious. I smile. Go on Star, stop playing up now.

‘Hey, sleeves buddy. Pull them up.’ I sound sensible and maybe a little nervous. He’s only seven, though. He won’t notice. He takes the sleeve between two fingers and slowly slides it up, looking at himself in the mirror. No marks there, right, Grandad’s smarter than I thought. ‘Aren’t you hot in this sweater, anyway?’ I’m close.

‘No.’ I knew it, he hides it, I knew it.

‘Really?’ I ask, drumming my fingers on the sink. I’m crazy.

‘Yes.’ He smiles at me and leaves, stumbling over the doorstep. Why can’t he rebel now? Okay, new plan.

Mama lights the candle on the table when I enter the living room.

‘Gabryś, what do you want to try first? Bigos? Barszcz? Pierogi?’ Her smile doesn’t match her face. Please say bigos, say bigos, bigos.

‘Give him barszcz, Amelia.’ Grandad is ruining everything. I don’t want to hurt Gabriel. Think.

I jerk up and make the glasses wobble. ‘I’ll do it.’

I go to the kitchen, pour some barszcz in the bowl and put it on the counter. Finger in the pan, warm. Yes. I walk fast and pretend to trip over the carpet as I approach Gabriel and just like that my dream comes true. I spill some of the barszcz on his sweater; enough to get what I want.

‘Tosiek, what are you doing?’ Mama’s words cut the air. Not behaving very well, am I? I’m ruining her plan, but mine works so far. ‘Go give him one of your shirts. Now.’ I cough to mask my amusement; if she heard me laugh, I’d be dead.

‘Come, Gabriel.’ I have to turn away, my smile could scare him. I’m close. He follows me, watching his step now, as if our floor was thin ice.

‘Here.’ I pass him the smallest shirt I can find. Short-sleeved, of course. ‘Put this on and we’re all good.’ I pretend to be putting something back in the wardrobe, so that he can change, but he stays still. ‘Hurry, your barszcz is getting cold.’

‘I don’t like this shirt.’ His voice is quiet. ‘Give me a sweater.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’ I raise my eyebrows at him. ‘I don’t have a small sweater. Just take this.’ I’m too close to give up.

‘No.’ He’s looking at me like he was challenging me to a duel. I’m holding the shirt, not moving and I spot tears shining in his eyes. ‘Auntie, Tosiek is being mean to me,’ he shouts, his voice shaking. Oh, stupid, smart kid. If he had nothing to hide, he wouldn’t complain, he would just change right away. I’m this close to getting evidence. I’m this close to see, to convince myself that I’m not imagining things. My star is clearly messing up.

Mama comes into the room and says: ‘What’s wrong, Gabryś?’

His eyes are wide open. ‘Tosiek won’t give me a sweater.’ He’s scared, of course he is.

‘Mamo, please listen, let me explain…’ I throw the shirt on my bed and drum my fingers on the wardrobe door. There was a time when I believed she knew what Grandad was like; there was something in her eyes every time she saw him. Fear. But if she knew, wouldn’t she want to save Gabe?

‘Just give him a sweater, Tosiek.’ She shakes her head and sighs. ‘And stop being weird, please.’ She leaves and I let my clothes fly high in the air when I look for a sweater. I don’t look at Gabriel; if I did, he’d probably cry. 

The bruise, I saw it on his arm. Summer morning at my old house. The day Grandad came to help Mama with packing all our stuff. Gabriel and I were on the street, playing tag, and he fell over. I helped him up and he tried to get away like crazy, but I saw it. It was big and purple. No bruise would go purple in three seconds. He pulled his sleeves down as much as possible and it became his ritual from then on. He did it when he thought nobody was looking, but I always looked at him when he thought I wasn’t.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. I bang the wardrobe door and bite my lip. I want the fury to pass, I want people to know, I want Grandad to disappear. Please, Star, make him disappear for me.

Gabriel is back at the table, laughing that the sleeves are too long. He always laughs when Mama’s there. Grandad gives him a look and he leans to eat, watching his spoon carefully, making sure that he doesn’t do anything that might anger Grandad. I notice that Gabriel looks at him for a split second before he tells Mama that he is full and doesn’t want the barszcz anymore. She nods and gestures at all the other dishes she prepared, but he’s not looking at the table. 

‘What are you looking for, Gabryś? The Star?’ Mama wags her finger at him in a playful manner. He shakes his head and points at a sweet.

‘I thought you were full,’ she says and raises her brow. ‘Besides, you’re not supposed to eat sweets today, you know that.’

He smiles at her like little kids do. She nods and winks at him, so he runs to the tree and freezes with his hand raised. He looks at Grandad, waiting for permission and I bet Mama thinks that it’s adorable. Grandad gives him the ugliest smile ever, which apparently means “yes” because Gabriel takes the sweet and throws it down his throat. I can’t stand it. Is Mama blind?

‘Mamo, can’t you see?’ What am I supposed to tell her? Grandad is sitting right next to her and my star is refusing to show up properly. What if he freaks out? What if she doesn’t believe me? Or what if she does? Will they take Gabriel to some foster family or an orphanage? Will I ever see him again? I don’t know how the: we’ll-take-the-kid-away-instead-of-actually-fixing-the-problem institution works. I stare at my plate and take a breath. How will I say it?

Everyone is looking at me. Grandad’s eyes – dark and judging. Mama’s – narrowed and focused. Gabriel’s – happy. I’ll tell her, I just need some time.

‘The Star,’ I say. I’m not pretending; I do see a light. ‘It’s right behind you.’

Weronika Wolska  is a writer from Wolverhampton who mainly writes YA and humour. She was born and raised in Poland, and she moved to the UK at the age of twelve. This transition has made her think about the impact of immigration and how location shapes us as people. She just started her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University  and is planning to explore this idea further in her final project. 

Picture credits: Quinn Dombrowski