Bujak and the Strong Force

Martin Amis

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.

‘Name?’

And number? ‘Sam,’ I told him.

‘Short for?’

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.

And it wasn’t enough ... Now, in 1985, it is hard for me to believe that a city is anything more or other than the sum of its streets, as I sit here with the Upper West Side blatting at my window and fingering my heart. Sometimes in my dreams of New York danger I stare down over the city – and it looks half made, half wrecked, one half (the base perhaps) of something larger torn in two, frayed, twangy, moist with rain or solder. And you mean to tell me, I say to myself, that this is supposed to be a community? ... My wife and daughter move around among all this, among the violations, the life-trashers, the innocent murderers. Michiko takes our little girl to the day-care centre where she works. Day-care – that’s good. But what about dawn-care, dusk-care, what about night-care? If I just had a force I could enfold them with, oh, if I just had the strong force ... Bujak was right. In the city now there are loose components, accelerated particles – something has come loose, something is wriggling, lassooing, spinning towards the edge of its groove. Something must give and it isn’t safe. You ought to be terribly careful. Because safety has left our lives. It’s gone for ever. And what do animals do when you give them only danger? They make more danger, more, much more.

It was 1980, the birth-year of Solidarity, and Bujak was Polish. This combination of circumstances led me to assume that Bujak was liberal in his sentiments. Actually it didn’t follow. As I proudly strolled with him to the timber yard or the home-improvement stores off the Portobello Road, Bujak would fume against the blacks, the czarnuchy, as they strutted and gabbled round about us. The blacks were fine, he grinningly argued, in a context of sun, surf and plentiful bananas; but in a Western city they were just children – understandably angry children too. Once he stopped dead to marvel at two gay punks in NO FUTURE T-shirts, with hair like old ladies’ bonnets, as they walked towards us hand in hand. ‘It’s incredible, isn’t it,’ he said, rolling the r. With the faggots, Bujak saw their plight, and their profusion, as an einsteinian matter also. He confessed to the fantasy of leading a cavalry charge against the streets and their strange ensembles – the sound of the hooves, the twirling cutlasses. ‘A desire which I suppress of course. But if I could just press a button,’ he added, greedily eyeing the pedaly, the czarnuchy, the street-dwellers as they turned and gesticulated and reshuffled and moved on.

Violence in a man is usually the overspill of something else. You know how it is. You see these guys. I appear to have an almost disabling sensitivity to violence in other men; a fallout detector for those spots of waste or exorbitance that spill over into force. Like a canary in a prewar coalmine, I check out early when there is violence, when there is poison in the air. What is this propensity? Call it fear, if you like. Fear will do fine. The raised voice in the restaurant and its sour tang of brutality and booze, the look a man will give his wife which demotes her on the human scale, which prepares her for the human disgrace of violence, the pumping leg, the fizzing eye, the public bar at ten fifty-five. I see all this – my body sees it, and gives me adrenalin, gives me sweat. I faint at the sight of blood. I faint at the sight of a band-aid, an aspirin. This sense of critical fragility (myself, my wife, my daughter, even the poor planet, baby-blue in its shawls), it drove me from my study in the end. The study life is all thought and anxiety and I cannot take the study life any more.

Late at night, over at Bujak’s large, aromatic, icon-infested apartment (the blue glow of saints, candles, vigils), I scanned the big Pole for the excrescences of violence. His mother, old Roza, made the tea. The old woman (‘rouge’ with an a on the end), she calmed me with her iconic presence, the moist hair grained like silver, as Bujak talked about the strong force, the energy locked in matter, in nuclei. Grinning through the gloom, Bujak told me what he had done to the Nazi collaborator in Warsaw, in 1943. Boy, I thought; I bet the guy didn’t do much collaborating after that. However, I couldn’t conceal my distaste. ‘But aren’t you glad?’ urged Bujak. No, I said, why should I be? ‘You lost two grandparents to these people.’ Yeah, I said. So? That doesn’t change anything. ‘Revenge,’ said Bujak simply. Revenge is overrated, I told him. And out of date. He looked at me with violent contempt. He opened his hands in an explanatory gesture: the hands, the arms, the policemen of his will. Bujak was a big fan of revenge. He had a lot of time for revenge.

I once saw him use those hands, those arms. I saw it all from my study window, the four-panelled screen (moon-spotted, with refracting crossbar) through which the world came in at me then. I saw the four guys climb from the two cars and steady themselves in front of Bujak’s stoop. Did I hear a scream from within, a cry of warning or yearning? ... Bujak’s daughter gave the old man a lot of grief. Her first name was Leokadia. Her second name was trouble. Rural-looking yet glamorous, thirty-three, tall, plump, fierce and tearful, she was the unstable element in Bujak’s nucleus. She had, I noticed, two voices, one for truth, and one for nonsense, one for lies. Against the brown and shiny surface of her old-style dresses, the convex and the concave were interestingly disposed. Her daughter, little Boguslawa, was the byblow of some chaotic twelve-hour romance. It was well-known on the street that Leokadia had round heels: the sort of girl (we used to say) who went into a hot flush every time she saw an army personnel carrier. She even made a pitch at me, here at the flat one time. Needless to say I failed to come across. I had my reasons: fear of reprisals from Michiko and Bujak himself (they both loomed in my mind, incongruously equal in size); also, more basically, I’m by no means sure I could handle someone like Leokadia in the cot. All that breast and haunch. All those freckles and tears ... For six months she had been living with a man who beat her, lithe little Pat, sinewy, angular, wired very tight. I think she beat him too, a bit. But violence is finally a masculine accomplishment. Violence – now that’s man’s work. Leokadia kept going back to Pat, don’t ask me why. I don’t know. They don’t know. There she goes again, ticking back to him on her heels, with black eye, grazed cheek, wrenched hair. Nobody knows why. Not even they know. Bujak, surprisingly, stayed out of it, held his distance, remained solid – though he did try to keep the little girl, Boguslawa, safely at home, out of the turbulence. You would often see old Roza ferrying the kid from one flat to the other. After her second spell in hospital (cracked ribs this time) Leokadia called it a day and went home for good. Then Pat showed up with his pals, and found Bujak waiting.

The three men (I saw it all) had an unmistakable look about them, with that English badboy build, proud guts and tapering legs which bent backwards from the knee down, sparse-haired with old-young faces, as if they had done their ageing a lot quicker than one year at a time. I don’t know whether these frighteners would have frightened anybody much on the American circuit, but I guess they were big enough and their intention was plain. (Did you read about the Yablonsky murders? In the States these days, if you’re on the list, they come in and do the whole family. Yes, they just nuke you now.) Anyway, they frightened me. I sat writhing at my desk as Pat led them through the garden gate. I hated the flares of his jeans, the compact running-shoes, the tight Fred Perry. Then the front door opened: bespectacled Bujak, wearing braces over his vest, old, huge. In a reflex that spelt seriousness and scorn, the men loosened their shoulders and let their hands dangle in readiness. Words were exchanged – demand, denial. They moved forward.

Now I must have blinked, or shut my eyes, or ducked (or fainted). I heard three blows on a regular second-beat, clean, direct and atrocious, each one like an axe splitting frozen wood. When I looked up, Pat and one of his friends were lying on the steps; the other guys were backing away, backing away from the site of this incident, this demonstration. Expressionlessly Bujak knelt to do something extra to Pat on the floor. As I watched, he tugged back the hair and carefully poked a neutronium fist into Pat’s upturned face. I had to go and lie down after that. But a couple of weeks later I saw Pat sitting alone in the London Apprentice; he was shivering remorsefully in the corner behind the jukebox; the pleated welt on his cheek bore all the colours of flame, and he was drinking his beer through a straw. In that one blow he had taken payment for everything he had given Leokadia.

With Bujak, I was always edging into friendship. I don’t know if I ever really made it. Differences of age aren’t easy. Differences of strength aren’t easy. Friendship isn’t easy. When Bujak’s own holocaust came calling, I was some help to him: I was better than nothing. I went to the court. I went to the cemetery. I took my share of the strong force, what little I could take ... Perhaps a dozen times during that summer, before the catastrophe came, the cretinous catastrophe (it was heading toward him slowly, gathering speed), I sat up late on his back porch when all the women had gone to bed. Bujak stargazed. He talked and drank his tea. ‘Travelling at the speed of light,’ he said one time, ‘you could cross the whole universe in less than a second. For you, time and distance would be annihilated, and all futures possible.’ No shit? I thought. Or again: ‘If you could linger on the brink of a singularity, time would be so slow that a night would pass in forty-five seconds, and there would be three American elections in the space of seven days.’ Three American elections! I said to myself. Christ, what a boring week! And why is he the dreamer, while I am bound to the low earth? Feeling mean, feeling small, I often despised the dreaming Bujak, but I entertained late-night warmth for him too, for the accretions of experience (time having worked on his face like a sculptor, awful slow), and I feared him – I feared the energy coiled, seized and locked up in Bujak. Staring out at our little disc of stars (and perhaps there are better residential galaxies than our own: cleaner, safer, more gentrified), I sensed only the false stillness of the black nightmap, its beauty concealing great and routine violence, the fleeing universe, with matter racing apart, exploding to the limits of space and time, all tugs and curves, all hubble and doppler, infinitely and eternally hostile ... This evening, as I write, the New York sky is also full of stars – the same stars. There. There is Michiko coming down the street, with our little girl folded in her arms. They made it. Home at last. Above them the gods shoot crap with their black dice: threes and fives and ones. The Plough has just rolled a four and a two. But who throws the six, the six, the six?

All peculiarly modern ills, all fresh distortions and distempers, Bujak attributed to one thing: einsteinian knowledge, knowledge of the strong force. It was his central paradox that the greatest, the purest, the most magical genius of our time should have introduced the earth to such squalor, profanity and panic. ‘But how very like the twentieth century,’ he said: this was always going to be the age when irony really came into its own. I have cousins and uncles who speak of Einstein as if he were some hero ballplayer captaining a team called the Jews (‘the mind on him’, ‘look at the mind on the guy’). Bujak spoke of Einstein as if he were God’s literary critic, God being a poet. I, more stolidly, tend to suspect that God is a novelist – a garrulous and deeply unwholesome one too ... Actually Bujak’s theory had a lot of appeal for me. It was, at least, holistic. It answered the big question. You know the question I mean, and its cumulative disquiet, its compound interest. You ask yourself the question every time you open a newspaper or switch on the TV or walk the streets among sons of thunder. New formations, deformations. You know the question. It reads: Just what the hell is going on around here?

The world looks worse every day. Is it worse, or does it just look it? The world gets older. The world has seen and done it all. Boy, is it beat. It’s suicidal. Like Leokadia, the world has done too many things too many times with too many people, done it this way, that way, with him, with him. The world has been to so many parties, been in so many fights, lost its keys, fallen over, drunk too much. It all adds up. A tab is presented. Our ironic destiny. Look at the modern infamies, the twentieth-century sins. Some are strange, some banal, but they all offend the eye, covered in their newborn vernix. Gratuitous or recreational crimes of violence, the ever-less-tacit totalitarianism of money (money – I mean, what is this shit anyway?), the pornographic proliferation, the nuclear collapse of the family (with the breeders all going critical, and now the children running too), the sappings and distortions of a mediated reality, the sexual abuse of the very old and the very young (of the weak, the weak): what is the hidden denominator here, and what could explain it all?

To paraphrase Bujak, as I understood him ... We live in a shameful shadowland. Quietly, our idea of human life has changed, thinned out. We can’t help but think less of it now. The human race has declassed itself. It does not live any more; it just survives, like an animal. It just lasts. We endure the suicide’s shame, the shame of the murderer, the shame of the victim. Death is all we have in common. And what does that do to life? Such, at any rate, was Bujak’s damage check. If the world disarmed tomorrow, he believed, the species would still need at least a century of recuperation, after its entanglement, its flirtation, after its thing with the strong force.

Academic in any case, since Bujak was insuperably convinced that the end was on its way. How could man (that dangerous creature – I mean, look at his record), how could man resist the intoxication of the Perfect Crime, one that destroys all evidence, all redress, all pasts, all futures? I was enough of a peacenik, optimist and funker to take the other view. A dedicated follower of fear, I always thought that the fat brute and the big bastard would maintain their standoff: they know that if one fist is raised then the whole pub comes down anyway. Not a masterpiece of reassurance, I agree – not at ten fifty-five on a Saturday night, with the drink still coming.

‘Deterrence theory,’ said Bujak, with his grin. ‘It’s not just a bad theory. It’s not even a theory. It’s a nonsense, an insanity.’

‘That’s why you have to go further.’

‘You are a unilateralist?’

‘Well yeah,’ I said. ‘Someone’s got to make a start sometime. Make a start. England is historically well placed to give it a try. So the Russians take Europe, maybe. But that risk must be smaller than the other risk, which is infinite.’

‘This changes nothing. The risk is unaltered. All you do here is make life easier to part with.’

‘Well I just think you have to make a start.’

Our arguments always ended on the same side-street. I maintained that the victim of a first strike would have no reason to retaliate, and would probably not do so.

‘Oh?’ said Bujak.

‘What would be the point? You’d have nothing to protect. No country, no people. You’d gain nothing. Why add to it all?’

‘Revenge.’

‘But that’s not a reason.’

‘In war, revenge is a reason. Revenge is as reasonable as anything. They say nuclear war will not be really war but something else. True, but it will feel like war to those who fight it.’

On the other hand, he added, nobody could guess how people would react under the strong force. Having crossed that line the whole world would be crazy or animal and certainly no longer human.

One day in the fall of 1980 Bujak travelled north. I never knew why. I saw him on the street that morning, a formidable sight in the edifice of his dark blue suit. Something about his air of courtly gaiety, his cap, his tie, suggested to me that he was off to investigate an old ladyfriend. The sky was grey and gristly, with interesting bruises, the street damp and stickered with leaves. Bujak pointed a tight umbrella at his own front door. ‘I come back tomorrow night,’ he said. ‘Keep an eye on them.’

‘Me? Well, sure. Okay.’

‘Leokadia, I learn, is pregnant. Two months. Pat. Oh, Pat – he really was too bad.’ Then he shrugged powerfully and said, ‘But I’m pleased. Look at Boguslawa. Her father was an animal too. But look at her. A flower. An angel from heaven. A poem. A poem for adults.’

And off he went, pacing out the street, content, if necessary, to walk the whole way. That afternoon, I looked in on the girls and drank a cup of tea with old Roza. Christ, I remember thinking, what is it with these Polacks? Roza was seventy-eight. By that age my mother had been dead for twenty years. (Cancer. Cancer is the other thing – the third thing. Cancer will come for me too, I guess. Sometimes I feel it right in front of me, fizzing like television inches from my face.) I sat there and wondered how the quality of wildness was distributed among the Bujak ladies. With pious eyes and hair like antique silver, Roza was nonetheless the sort of old woman who still enjoyed laughing at the odd salacious joke – and she laughed very musically, one hand raised in gentle propitiation. ‘Hey, Roza,’ I would say: ‘I got one for you.’ And she would start laughing before I began, into the straight fingers. Little Boguslawa – seven, silent, sensitive – sat reading by the fire, her eyes lit by the page. Even the brawny beauty Leokadia seemed steadier, her mouth more easily containing that large and eager tongue. She spoke to me now as levelly as she used to before we had that awkward tangle in my apartment. You know, I think the reason she put out for the boys so much was the usual thing about trying to accumulate approval. Approval is funny stuff, and some people need a lot more of it than others. Also she was obviously rich in her female properties and essences; being prudent isn’t so easy for girls kitted out like that. Now she sat there equably doing nothing. The red flag was down. All was calm with her dangerous floods and tides. A moony peace – Michi was like that herself sometimes, when our child was on the way. Our little one. Expecting. Expecting – that’s what they’re doing, that’s what they’re up to ... I stuck around for an hour or so and then crossed the road again, back to my study and its small life. I sat and read Mosby’s Memoirs for the rest of the evening; and through my window I did indeed keep an eye on the Bujak front door. The next day was Friday. I looked in on the ladies to drop off a key before heading north myself – to Manchester and to Michiko. Meanwhile, energetic actors, vivid representatives of the twentieth century were on their way south.

At midnight on Saturday Bujak returned. All I know about what he found I got from the newspapers and the police, together with a couple of stray details that Bujak let slip. In any event I will add nothing; I will add nothing to what Bujak found ... He had no premonition until he placed his key in the lock and saw that the door was open and gave softly to his touch. He proceeded in deep silence. The hall had an odd smell to it, the smell of cigarette-smoke and jam. Bujak tipped open the living-room door. The room looked like half of something torn in two. On the floor an empty vodka bottle seemed to rock slightly on its axis. Leokadia lay naked in the corner. One leg was bent at an impossible angle. Bujak moved through the terrible rooms. Roza and Boguslawa lay on their beds, naked, contorted, frozen, like Leokadia. In Leokadia’s room two strange men were sleeping. Bujak closed the bedroom door behind him and removed his cap. He came closer. He leaned forward to seize them. Just before he did so he flexed his arms and felt the rustle of the strong force.

This happened five years ago. Yes, I’m here to tell you that the world is still around, in 1985. We live in New York now. I teach. The students come to me, and then they leave. There are gaps, spaces in between things big enough for me to glimpse the study life and know again that I can’t take it. My daughter is four years old. I was present at the birth, or I tried to be. First I was sick; then I hid; then I fainted. Yeah, I did real good. Located and revived, I was led back to the delivery room. They placed the blood-fringed bundle in my arms. I thought then and I think now: How will the poor little bitch make it? How will she make it? But I’m learning to live with her, with the worry-bomb, the love-bomb. Last summer we took her to England. The pound was weak and the dollar was strong – the bold, the swaggering dollar, plunderer of Europe. We took her to London, London West, carnival country with its sons of thunder. Bujak country. I’d called my landlady and established that Bujak, too, was still around, in 1984. There was a question I needed to ask him. And Michi and I wanted to show Bujak our girl, little Roza, named for the old woman.

It was old Roza whom I had thought of most fixedly, during the worst car journey of my life, as we drove from Manchester to London, from fair weather into foul, into Sunday weather. That morning, over coffee and yoghurt in her cubicle, Michi handed me the smudged and mangling tabloid. ‘Sam?’ she said. I stared at the story, at the name, and realised that the rat life is not somewhere else any more, is not on the other side but touches your life, my life ... Cars are terrible things and no wonder Bujak hated them. Cars are cruel creatures, vicious bastards, pitiless and inexorable, with only this one idea, this A-to-B idea. They made no allowances. Down we slid through the motorway wheel-squirt. Neighbours were gathering as we parked, the men bearing umbrellas, the women with their arms folded, shaking their heads. I crossed the street and rang the bell. And again. And for what? I tried the back door, the kitchen porch. Then Michiko called me. Together we stared through the living-room window. Bujak sat at the table, hunched forward as if he needed all the power of his back and shoulders just to hold position, just to keep his rest energy seized, skewered. Several times I knocked on the glass. He never moved. There was a noise in my ear and the seconds fussed and fussed – slower than a fuse. The street felt like a cave. I turned to Michi and her four-lidded eyes. We stood and watched each other through the heavy rain.

Later, I was some help to him, I think, when it was my turn to tangle with the strong force. For some reason Michiko could bear none of this; the very next day she bowed out on me and went straight back to America. Why? She had and still has ten times my strength. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps she was too strong to bend to the strong force. Anyway I make no special claims here ... In the evenings Bujak would come and sit in my kitchen, filling the room. He wanted proximity, he wanted to be elsewhere. He didn’t talk. The small corridor hummed with strange emanations, pulsings, fallout. It was often hard to move, hard to breathe. What do strong men feel when their strength is leaving them? Do they listen to the past or do they just hear things – voices, music, the cauldron-bubble of distant hooves? I’ll be honest and say what I thought. I thought, maybe he’ll have to kill me, not because he wants to or wishes me harm, but because he has taken so much harm himself. This would free him of it, for a while. Something had to give. I endured the aftermath, the radiation, the yield. That was the only thing I had to contribute.

Also I went with him to court, and was at his side throughout that injury, that serial injury. The two defendants were Scotsmen, bail-beaters from Dundee, twentyish, wanted – not that it made much difference who they were. There was no plea of insanity, nor indeed any clear sign of it. Sanity didn’t enter into the thing. You couldn’t understand anything they said so a policeman translated. Their story went like this. Having had more pints of beer than were perhaps strictly good for them, the two men took up with Leokadia Bujak on the street and offered to walk her home. Asked inside, they in turn made passionate love to the young woman, at her invitation, and then settled down for a refreshing nap. While they slept, some other party had come in and done all these terrible things. Throughout Bujak sat there, quietly creaking. He and I both knew that Leokadia might have done something of the kind, on another night, in another life, Christ, she might have done – but with these dogs, these superdogs, underdogs, threadbare rodents with their orange teeth? It didn’t matter anyway. Who cared. Bujak gave his evidence. The jury was out for less than twenty minutes. Both men got eighteen years. From my point of view, of course (for me it was the only imponderable), the main question was never asked, let alone answered: it had to do with those strange seconds in Leokadia’s bedroom, Bujak alone with the two men. Nobody asked the question. I would ask it, four years later. I couldn’t ask it then ... The day after sentencing I had a kind of a breakdown. With raw throat and eyes and nose streaming I hauled myself on to a jet. I didn’t even dare say goodbye. At Kennedy what do I find but Michiko staring me in the face and telling me she’s pregnant. There and then I went down on my lousy knees and begged her not to have it. But she had it all right – three months early. Jesus. A new horror story by Edgar Allan Poe: The Premature Baby. Under the jar, under the lamp, under the knife, jaundice, pneumonia – she even had a heart attack. So did I, when they told me. She made it in the end, though. She’s great now, in 1985. You should see her. It is the love-bomb and its fallout that energise you in the end – the love yield. You couldn’t begin to do it without the love ... That’s them on the stairs, I think. Yes, in they come, changing everything. Here is Roza, and here is Michiko, and here am I.

*

Bujak was still on the street. He had moved, from 45 to 84, but he was still on the street. We asked around. The whole street knew Bujak. And there he was in the front garden, watching a fire as it flexed and cracked, the snakeheads of flame taking sudden bites from the air – snakes of fire, in the knowledge garden. After all, we coped with fire, when it came; we didn’t all get broiled and scorched. He looked up. The ogre’s smile hadn’t changed that much, I thought, although the presence of the man was palpably reduced. Still old and huge in the vest, but the mass, the holding energy softened and dispersed. Well, something had to give. Bujak had adopted or been adopted by or at any rate made himself necessary to a large and assorted household, mostly Irish. The rooms were scrubbed, bare, vigorous and orderly, with all that can-do can do. There was lunch on the sun-absorbing pine table: beer, cider, noise and the sun’s phototherapy. The violence with which the fiftyish redhead scolded Bujak about his appearance made it plain to me that there was a romantic attachment. Even then, with the old guy nearer seventy than sixty, I thought with awe of Bujak in the sack. Bujak in the bag! Incredibly, his happiness was intact – unimpaired, entire. How come? Because, I think, his generosity extended not just to the earth but to the universe – or simply that he loved all matter, its spin and charm, redshifts and blueshifts, its underthings. The happiness was there. It was the strength that had gone from him for ever. Over lunch he said that, a week or two ago, he had seen a man hitting a woman on the street. He shouted at them, and broke it up. Physically, though, he was powerless to intercede – helpless, he said, with a shrug. Actually you could feel the difference in the way he moved, in the way he crossed the room towards you. The strength had gone, or maybe just the will to use it.

Afterwards he and I stepped onto the street. Michiko had ducked out of this last encounter, choosing instead to linger with the ladies. But we had the girl with us, little Roza, asleep on Bujak’s shoulder. I watched him without fear. He wouldn’t drop the folded child. He had taken possession of Roza with his arms.

As if by arrangement we paused at number 45. Black kids now played in the garden with a winded red football. Things were falling away between Bujak and me, and suddenly it seemed that you could say what you liked. So I said, ‘Adam. No offence. But why didn’t you kill them? I would have. I mean, if I think of Michi and Roza ...’ But in fact you cannot think it, you cannot go near it. The thought is fire. ‘Why didn’t you kill the sons of bitches? What stopped you?’

‘Why?’ he asked, and grinned. ‘What would have been the reason?’

‘Come on. You could have done it, easy. Self-defence. No court on earth would have sent you down.’

‘True. It occurred to me.’

‘Then what happened? Did you – did you just feel too weak all of a sudden? Did you just feel too weak?’

‘On the contrary. When I had their heads in my hands I thought how incredibly easy to grind their faces together – until they drowned in each other’s faces. But no.’

But no. Bujak had simply dragged the men by the arms (half a mile, to the police station in Harrow Road), like a father with two frantic children. He delivered them, and dusted his hands.

‘Christ, they’ll be out in a few years. Why not kill them? Why not?’

‘I had no wish to add to what I found. I thought of my dead wife Monika. I thought – they’re all dead now. I couldn’t add to what I saw there. Really the hardest thing was to touch them at all. You know the wet tails of rats? Snakes? Because I saw that they weren’t human beings at all. They had no idea what human life was. No idea! Terrible mutations, a disgrace to their human moulding. An eternal disgrace. If I had killed them then I would still be strong. But you must start somewhere. You must make a start.’

And now that Bujak has laid down his arms, I don’t know why, but I am minutely stronger. I don’t know why – I can’t tell you why.

He once said to me: ‘There must be more matter in the universe than we think. Else the distances are horrible. I’m nauseated.’ Einsteinian to the end, Bujak was an Oscillationist, claiming that the Big Bang will forever alternate with the Big Crunch, that the universe would expand only until unanimous gravity called it back to start again. At that moment, with the cosmos turning on its hinges, light would begin to travel backwards, received by the stars and pouring from our human eyes. If, and I can’t believe it, time would also be reversed, as Bujak maintained (will we move backwards too? will we have any say in things?), then this moment as I shake his hand shall be the start of my story, his story, our story, and we will slip downtime of each other’s lives to meet four years from now, when, out of the fiercest grief, Bujak’s lost women will reappear, born in blood (and we will have our conversations, too, backing away from the same conclusion), until Boguslawa folds into Leokadia, and Leokadia folds into Monika, and Monika is there to be enfolded by Bujak until it is her turn to recede, kissing her fingertips, backing away over the fields to the distant girl with no time for him (will that be any easier to bear than the other way around?), and then big Bujak shrinks, becoming the weakest thing there is, helpless, indefensible, naked, weeping, blind and tiny, and folding into Roza.