5. Fifteen

By Peter Fraenkel

In a land of wiry men with weather-beaten faces, Weisbrot was flabby and pale. In his moist hand he held a thick cigar.

“Note how he fondles it” said Zbyszek.

Weisbrot drove a Cadillac with a wide chromium grin. From the window he flicked ash from his cigar at the world around. He knew what mattered. And he had it: money. He must have known that women didn’t find him attractive but he got them never-the-less.

Weisbrot had his eyes on Aniela. I hated Weisbrot.

She was young and vivacious and very beautiful. She had a proud toss of her head that I loved. I could bear her affair with Zbyszek for he, too, was young and keen. He had a sharp mind and a bitter wit: a Polish refugee with no money, no prospects and no country. His homeland was under Stalin’s occupation. I could, perhaps, bear the vapid young Kings’ African Rifles officers who took Aniela to dances. But not Weisbrot. If Weisbrot had her it would prove that nothing mattered in this world except money and I could not accept that.

I was fifteen.

I once found some beautiful red snake lilies on one of my lonely walks through the African bush. I brought them back with Aniela in mind. But would I ever dare to present them?

She was drying her long golden hair in the yard outside her window.

“Very curious plants, botanically,” I said and when she expressed some interest I bowed with what I imagined was old-world gallantry and presented them – and blushed fiercely. She kissed my forehead – a mere peck – and laughed. She knew she had another slave. I was lost in dreams of myself as the Rosenkavalier, her – the Marschallin.  I was fifteen.

After that we sometimes chatted. She accepted me as a sort-of ally – a fellow Continental, alien to the sordidness of our African refuge.

Sitting in the cool of the evening outside her room she would talk about herself while she waited for an escort who would take her to the cinema or a dance at the Gymkhana Club.  She would talk about first nights at the Warsaw ballet, the glitter of the jewellery, the chandeliers and the dazzling dresses she had worn.

Once, waiting to be taken to a Christmas “do” she reminisced about First Footing back in Poland – the white carpet of snow and the pine forest and the bells of the sledges on a moonlit night. They would gallop from estate to estate, the champagne would flow and at each estate more people would join them in more horse-drawn sledges.

The last time we spoke her tale was more sombre: about a young officer she had known and loved who in one mad night of gambling had lost everything… everything ….but everything, and had joined the Foreign Legion.  He had perished somewhere in the Sahara desert. He could not bear a life of poverty.  I suspected, even then, that the tale came from one of that stack of magazines that she read listlessly while reclining on her bed.

She was obviously in financial difficulties.  She told Mrs Salomon that she owed Weisbrot, the landlord, several months’ rent. Mrs Salomon passed this on contemptuously:

“A whore with no money?”  But young Salomon, my school friend, confided to me that Aniela didn’t do it for money. He knew. He was always snooping, looking in at her window. He was keeping a tally of her lovers and sometimes passed on snatches of their love talk. I don’t know how much of this was true.

I, too, had reconnoitred the place but I never went to spy on her. Perhaps I was afraid of being discovered. Or perhaps I adored her too much.

To look into her room from the yard one had to squat low under her window, avoiding the beam of light from between her curtains.  The yard was dark but drinkers from the hotel bar would stagger through it on the way to the toilets. The cinema projectionist frequently came out of his projection cubicle for a breath of air.  From the top of his iron stairs he would have seen any snooper below Aniela’s window.

But I listened avidly to young Salomon’s reports. Some sounded improbable to me even then, such as the lyrical things Zbyszek had said extolling her thighs. The two would have spoken Polish and neither he nor I understood that language. But I never spied on her myself – not until the night Weisbrot went to her room.

I was round the back in a flash but found I could not look in.  First there was the mosquito gauze, then the faded curtains.

But I could hear: “What more do you want? Haven’t I been good to you, pussycat? Now you be nice to me…..I’d do a lot to make you happy, pussy.”

I tried to push a finger through a hole in the mosquito gauze to move the curtain aside but I failed.

“What is it you want?” he shouted suddenly. “A horse?  A carriage? Champagne?”

Without warning the curtain was pulled aside and the mosquito screen thrust open. I lay flat beneath the window, hardly daring to breathe.

“Jamieson!” Weisbrot shouted “Jamieson!”

From the bar a voice answered: “Bwana?”

Jamieson was the “bar boy”. He washed the glasses and drank the slops.  Washing glasses was a black man’s job; serving drinks a white privilege. Drying his hands on his apron Jamieson came across the yard. Weisbrot had turned back to Aniela. I crept away quickly and hid behind the staircase to the cinema projection box.

“Yes, bwana?”

“Run to the bwana barman.  Give him this key and tell him I want a case of champagne – a case of six! Do you understand? And none of your thieving!   And then bring one more bottle –a cold one from the fridge.”

I moved slightly. A rustling noise – discarded film stock – bits cut away when the cinema film broke.


I had acquired some fame at school as a maker of smoke bombs. Discarded nitrate film, rolled tightly, can be made to burn slowly and will produce a cloud of acrid smoke.

I scooped up several lengths of discarded film in the dark and rushed to our house next door. I tore out a page of a school notebook and rolled my packet. Within minutes I was back under Aniela’s window. There was a clinking of glasses.

“That’s better, pussycat” I heard Weisbrot say. “Now kiss me!”

I could hear Aniela, slightly hysterical: “Maybe you’ll turn into a prince?”

“I’m king, here, in this place. I’ll take care of you….”

I twisted the wrapping of my bomb more tightly. The art was in packing it tightly and getting it to smoulder slowly.

“Pretty little tootsies”, I heard him say. “Pretty.”

I waited as long as I could bear it then lit the end of my package. The wrapping paper caught fire. I blew out the flame to make it smoulder. I waited until it approached the tightly rolled film. Then, as the characteristic hiss started, I thrust it through the hole in the mosquito gauze. I heard it roll from window-sill to floor.

There was a shriek inside followed by a string of profanities. Smoke started to pour out through the gauze.

“I’ll murder the little bastards!”

I took to my legs.

Weisbrot never discovered which of the little bastards was responsible. He could not very well hold a public enquiry.

But Aniela knew. She knew.  She never again spoke to me – not of moonlit winter nights and sledge rides over the snow; not of tinkling bells … nor of champagne.