Bujak and the Strong Force
Bujak? Yeah, I knew him. The whole street knew Bujak. I knew him before and I knew him after. We all knew Bujak – sixty years old, hugely slabbed and seized with muscle and tendon, smiling at a bonfire in the yard, carrying desks and sofas on his back, lifting a tea-chest full of books with one hand. Bujak, the strongman. He was also a dreamer, a reader, a babbler ... You slept a lot sounder knowing that Bujak was on your street. This was 1980. I was living in London, West London, carnival country, what the police there call the front line. Dr Alimantado, Sons of Thunder, Race War, No Future: dry thatched dreadlocks, the scarred girls in the steeped pubs. Those black guys, they talked like combative drunks, all the time. If I went up to Manchester to stay with my girlfriend, I always left a key with Bujak. Those hands of his, as hard as coal, the nails quite square and symmetrical, like his teeth. And the forearms, the Popeye forearms, hefty and tattoo-smudged and brutal, weapons of monstrous power. Large as he was, the energies seemed impacted in him, as though he were the essence of an even bigger man; he stood for solidity. I am as tall as Bujak, but half his weight. No, less. Bujak once told me that to create a man out of nothing would require the equivalent energy of a thousand-megaton explosion. Looking at Bujak, you could believe this. As for me, well, a single stick of TNT might do the job – a hand-grenade, a firecracker. In his physical dealings with me (you know, the way someone moves across a room toward you, this can be a physical event) he showed the tender condescension that the big man shows to the small. Probably he was like that with everyone. He was protective. And then, to good Bujak, thoughtful, grinning Bujak, the worst thing happened. A personal holocaust. In the days that followed I saw and felt all of Bujak’s violence.
His life went deep into the century. Warrior-caste, he fought in Warsaw in 1939. He lost his father and two brothers at Katyn. He was in the resistance – all his life he was in the resistance. In that capacity he visited (and this is a story of violence, of visitation) many neat tortures on Nazi collaborators. He rose up with the Armia Kraiova and was imprisoned in December 1944. During the post-war years he worked in a touring circus, a strongman, bending bars, butting brick walls, tugging tractors with his teeth. In 1956, the year of my birth, he was there for the Polish October, and for the November in ‘Hungaria’. Then the United States, the halls, queues and cubicles of Ellis Island, with wife, mother, small daughter. His wife Monika was hospitalised in New York for a minor condition; she came down with a hospital supergerm and died overnight. Bujak worked as a longshoreman in Fort Lauderdale. He took and gave many crunchy beatings – strikebreakers, mob men, union goons. But he prospered, as you’re meant to do, in America. What brought him to England, I think, was a certain kind of (displaced) Polish nostalgia or snobbery, and a desire for peace. Bujak had lived the twentieth century. And then, one day, the twentieth century, a century like no other, came calling on him. Bookish Bujak himself, I’m sure, saw the calamity as in some sense post-nuclear, einsteinian. It was certainly the end of his existing universe. Yes, it was Bujak’s Big Crunch.
I first met Bujak one wintry morning in the late spring of 1980 – or of PN 35, if you use the post-nuclear calendar that he sometimes favoured. Michiko’s car had something wrong with it, as usual (a flat, on this occasion), and I was down on the street grappling with the burglar tools and the spare. Compact and silent, Michiko watched me sadly. I’d managed to loosen the nuts on the collapsed wheel – but the aperture for the jack was ominously soft and sticky with rust. The long-suffering little car received the vertical spear in its chassis, and stayed stoically earthbound. Now I have to say that I am already on very bad terms with the inanimate world. Even when making a cup of coffee or changing a light bulb (or a fuse!), I think – what is it with objects? Why are they so aggressive? What’s their beef with me? Objects and I, we can’t go on like this. We must work out a compromise, a freeze, before one of us does something rash. I’ve got to meet with their people and hammer out a deal.
‘Stop it, Sam,’ said Michiko.
‘Get a real car,’ I told her.
‘Please, just stop. Stop it! I’ll call a tow-truck or something.’
‘Get a real car,’ I said, and thought – yeah, or a real boyfriend. Anyway, I was throwing the tools into their pouch, dusting my palms and wiping away my tears when I saw Bujak pacing across the road towards us. Warily I monitored his approach. I had seen this hulking Bohunk or throwback Polack from my study window, busying himself down on the street, always ready to flex his primitive can-do and know-how. I wasn’t pleased to see him. I have enough of the standard-issue paranoia, or I did then. Now I’ve grown up a little and realise that I have absolutely nothing to fear, except the end of the world. Along with everybody else. At least in the next war there won’t be any special wimps, punchbags or unpopularity contests. Genocide has had its day and we’re on to something bigger now. Suicide.
‘You a Jew?’ asked Bujak in his deeply speckled voice.
‘Yup,’ I said.
And number? ‘Sam,’ I told him.
I hesitated, and felt Michi’s eyes on my back.
‘Is it Samuel?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Actually it’s Samson.’
The smile he gave told me many things, most obviously that here – here was a happy man. All eyes and teeth, the smile was ridiculous in its gaiety, its candour. But then happiness is a pretty clownish condition, when you stop to think about it. I mean, round-the-clock happiness, it’s hardly an appropriate response. To me, this gave him an element of instability, of counter-strength, of violence. But Bujak here was clearly happy, in his universe. Bujak, with his happiness accessory.
‘Jews usually good up here,’ he said, and knocked a fingertip on his shaved head. ‘No good down there with their hands.’
Bujak was good with his hands: to prove it, he bent forward and picked up the car with them.
‘You’re kidding,’ I said. But he wasn’t. As I got to work he was already shooting the breeze with Michiko, nonchalantly asking her if she’d lost any family at Nagasaki or Hiroshima. Michi had, as it happened – a cousin of her father’s. This was news to me but I felt no surprise. It seems that everyone loses someone in the big deaths. Bujak changed stance freely, and, at one point, lifted a forgetful hand to scratch his skull. The car never wavered. I watched Bujak as I worked, and saw that the strength he called on owed nothing to the shoulders or the great curved back – just the arms, the arms. It was as if he were raising the lid of a cellar door, or holding up a towel while a little girl dressed on the beach. Then he roughly took the tyre iron from my hands and knelt on one knee to rivet the bolts. As the grained slab of his head loomed upwards again Bujak’s eyes were tight and unamused, and they moved roughly too across my face. He nodded at Michi and said to me.
‘And who did you lose?’
‘Uh?’ I said. If I understood his question, then the answer was none of his business.
‘I give money to Israel every year,’ he said. ‘Not much. Some. Why? Because the Polish record on the Jews is disgraceful. After the war even,’ he said, and grinned. ‘Quite disgraceful. Look. There is a tyre-mender in Basing Street. Tell them Bujak and they will make it for you fairly.’
Thanks, we both said. Off he went, measuring the road with his strides. Later, from my study window, I saw him pruning roses in the small front garden. A little girl, his granddaughter, was sliding all over his back. I saw him often, from my study window. In those days, in 1980, I was trying to be a writer. No longer. I can’t take the study life, the life of the study. This is the only story I’ll ever tell, and this story is true ... Michiko was sold on Bujak right away and dropped a thank-you note through his door that same afternoon. But it took a while before I was really on terms with Bujak.
I asked around about this character, as you will when you’re playing at writing. Like I said, everybody knew Bujak. In the streets, the pubs, the shops, they spoke of him as a fixer and handiman, omnicompetent: all the systems that keep a house going, that keep it alive – Bujak could handle them, the veins, the linings, the glands and the bowels. He was also marked down as a definite eccentric, a stargazer, a ‘philosopher’ – not, I gathered, a valued calling in these parts – and on occasion as an out-and-out nutter (one of those words that never sound right on American lips, like quid and bloody). People gave Bujak his due as a family man: once Michi and I glimpsed him quite far afield, outside the Russian church on the junction of St Petersburg Place and Moscow Road, erect in his suit, with his mother, his daughter and his granddaughter; I remember thinking that even huge Bujak could show the fussed delicacy you get from living in a house full of ladies. But most eagerly and vehemently, of course, they spoke of Bujak the peacekeeper, the vigilante, the rough-justice artist. They spoke of skirmishes, vendettas, one-man wars, pre-emptive strikes. Standing there in the pub, the shoulderless and bespectacled American with his beermug awkwardly poised, or peering over a counter, or standing on a corner with milk-carton and newspaper under my arm, I was indulged with tales of Bujak and the strong force.
The time he caught two black kids prying at a neighbour’s basement window and sent them twirling into the street with two flicks of his wrist, like someone mucking out a trench. Or what he did to their big brothers when they jumped him in Golborne Road the following night. Any brawler or burglar nabbed by Bujak soon wished himself under the hosepipe in some nice safe slammer. He took on all-comers. Feuding with the council, he once dragged a skip full of rubbish a hundred yards from his front door. He went out one night and upended a truck after a row about a generator with some local building contractors. The Bujak women could walk the All Saints Road at any hour and expect no bother. And Bujak himself could silence a pub just by walking past it. He was popular, though. He was the community man, and such community as the street had devolved upon Bujak. He was our deterrent.
The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.