The Hunter of Negativity
When I left the supermarket on Christmas Eve, I noticed that my bike fell over. I picked it up and tried to ride, but it did not want to go. The wheels behaved as if they were locked. It was really annoying as I had two large bags full of shopping and the supermarket was at the very end of my village. There was nobody to ask for help. But then somebody said: ‘These shitty Polish bikes. They bend all over when the smallest wind blows.’
I did not need to look up to know who said these words. It was my second cousin Ryszard. Without asking me, he put the bike upside down and started to kick its wheels and press its spokes. When he finished the job, he said, ‘Hopeless junk, unlike the old Russian ones which one could throw from the Palace of Culture and find them unscathed on the pavement. Still, you should be able to reach home on it’ and then added, ‘You shouldn’t leave a bike like that. Couldn’t you see that there are here these special stands for bikes? They’re there to be used.’
‘I know, but I don’t like them. Thanks a lot and Merry Christmas’, I said, to which he replied:
‘For you it might be merry. You have nothing to complain about. But for me,’ – he did not finish the sentence, just made a sign with his hand, pointing his thumb down. It was, however, not the usual sign of defeat, but defeat multiplied, with his hand lowered down so it almost touched the pavement, pointing to a hole in the ground – a road to hell he knew well.
‘Don’t fall there,’ he said as I was mounting my bike.
‘Thanks. I have to rush home,’ I said, suddenly worried that he might invite himself to my mother’s house. He must have read my thoughts, as he added:
‘And tell your mother that I will not visit her today or tomorrow, or any other day, for that matter. Tell her that I don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore.’
‘Okay. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!’ I said, jumping on my bike and feeling the familiar unease inside.
It was obvious to me that I would not tell my mother what my cousin said, but it would be difficult to withhold it from Andrew. Although Andrew avoided Ryszard, he did not mind talking about him, not in a gossipy way, but to learn something about – for the lack of a better world – I will call ‘human nature’. It was indeed Andrew who started to ‘theorise’ Ryszard by placing him in the broad category of ‘local creeps’. This category included people from my past, whom we did not like to meet. One such person was the Creep in Red Shoes. I did not know his name, but he knew mine and always shouted at me when we passed through the village on our bikes. Once or twice he also joined us when Andrew was eating ice cream sitting on a bench in the market square, asking how things were going in my life. The question by itself was innocuous, but the sense of intimacy the Creep projected and the creepiness of his entire demeanour, marked by his red sports shoes, with shoe laces nonchalantly undone, jeans torn at his knees and coupled with a fake army jacket, all so unsuitable to the unselfconscious provinciality of my village and his age (he must have been in his early fifties when he adopted such look), was very creepy and made Andrew cringe. Another case was the Weirdo Who Was in Love with Me. Apparently, I rejected his advances forty years previously, humiliating him deeply, therefore in his opinion I owed him at least a kiss on his mouth. Then there was the Slimy Drunkard who used to address all older women with spare cash with titles such as ‘Mrs. Manageress’ or ‘Mrs Chairwoman’ or even ‘Your Highness’, grabbing their hands to place on them his slimy kiss in exchange for a small financial support. This guy was eventually found dead under an oak tree in the park hugging am empty bottle of vodka, with saliva frozen into a small icicle.
These were the ‘straight creeps’. Ryszard wasn’t creepy in this way, or at least this ordinary lack of attractiveness accounted for a small percentage of his overall creepiness. He was off-putting due to his personality, not the way he looked. Andrew summarised it by giving him the name the Hunter of Negativity. This was because he had an immense capacity for finding flaws in everything: people, institutions, social structures, life itself. Admittedly, it’s not such a difficult task, given that life is not a bed of roses. Yet, I did not know anybody who applied himself to such a task with comparative zeal and thoroughness. To extract maximum negativity from the flow of human life, Ryszard mentally divided it into different layers, requiring different care.
The most superficial concerned the ordinary misfortune. Having plenty of time, he used it to listen to what the village people had to say, trying to extract from their stories the negative core. It wasn’t too difficult, as people in our village, as everywhere, were divorcing, dying from cancer and on occasion even committing suicide and killing each other. He collected them and disseminated them, usually adding one or two gruesome details. For example, when one of our neighbours died by hanging himself, he added that his dying was prolonged by the board in the ceiling, to which he attached the rope, being rotten, it left him hanging for hours with one leg practically touching the ground.
Ryszard made the most of such incidents, as every bad occurrence counted, but they did not excite him, being too straightforward. The more attractive were the seemingly happy events, because they contained in them a seed of tragedy. Weddings meant the beginning of a poison and hatred, the birth of a child meant that one would be screwed up by an ungrateful parasite for decades. He followed these routes, creating mental charts for everybody whom people in the village regarded as successful, waiting patiently for their downfall. And if there was no obvious downfall, he conjured one up – claiming that he knew something about these people the rest of the village did not know: extra-marital affairs, bribery, drugs. In his perception tragedies always befell men; women were merely their instruments and their misery did not have any autonomous value. Another layer of life, from which Ryszard extracted negativity, was existential. He revelled in the passage of years which robbed people of their health and beauty. For example, once or twice, when we were sitting at the shore of the lake, he touched my naked thigh to show me the spots or sagging flesh, saying, ‘It doesn’t look good, does it? Still, somebody might agree to shag you,’ adding after a while with a laugh, ‘if you pay them.’
Such talk, fuelled by his misogyny and spite, upset Andrew, but there was no point in trying to put Ryszard off from peddling his obscenities. His answer would be that he acts in good faith, vaccinating my son against dirtier talk – as life is dirty and cruel. So, we tried to avoid Ryszard. However, avoiding him was more difficult than the other local creeps and weirdos, because he was a family member and he sought our company. He requested my mother to inform him what we were doing and made an effort to identify patterns in our activities, so that he could stalk us, if we did not give into his company voluntarily. Over the years, we learnt how to avoid him, but he was always one step ahead of us, appearing when we least expected him, piercing me with his gaze, in which accusation and triumph mixed in equal proportions.
Ryszard stalked me not just out of desire to upset me but also from the conviction that we had much in common. First, we were family – the same blood flew through our veins. Ryszard’s father was a prisoner of Auschwitz and Gusen, as was my grandfather. For me this shared past was practically meaningless, as I felt no trauma related to the death of those ancestors whom I never met, but Ryszard claimed that we were both sufferers, no matter whether I felt this way or not. He, of course, suffered more, despite the fact that his father survived the camps, while my grandfather died in Gusen. The fact that our ancestors ended up in Austria also meant that they knew other countries and cultures, and we inherited from them this travel bug. I pointed to Ryszard that they were not exactly tourists and their knowledge of other cultures was kind of skewed and one-dimensional, but it did not matter. They travelled, while the rest of our village stayed in their place. On top of that we both emigrated to the West, Ryszard to Canada, me to the UK, although I still lived abroad, while he returned to our village ten years previously, after approximately twenty years spent in Toronto, following the collapse of his marriage and loss of his job. This was, however, something he did not like to ponder. As Andrew noticed, it is easier to hunt for negativity than to mine it: to see flaws in others than in one’s own character. All these commonalities were for Ryszard a reason that we should travel together, throwing all the negativity which lent itself to our gaze into one pot, to be spiced and heated, like a witch’s cauldron.
When I told him that I’m not like him - I didn’t need to prop myself up with other people’s misfortune, he looked at me ironically, as if he knew that it was bullshit. At best I fooled myself; at worst I tried to fool others and it was always better to live in truth.
And now, the thought that Ryszard distanced himself from our family, instead of liberating me, made me sad and worried. It felt like his grotesque pursuit of negativity sheltered me from noticing the real negativity, in the world and myself.
Andrew must had read my mind, as he said, ‘Ryszard is a creep, but he is our creep. Let’s go to him.’
So we took a bottle of wine, pieces of cakes and one Christmas wafer, and cycled to his house. Ryszard was so surprised to see us, and admitted that he had no food for Christmas except for bread, cheese and garlic, which he ate every day. The only Christmas luxury he afforded himself was a lemon, as he liked tea with lemon. He made himself tea with lemon and ate three pieces of cake, while we talked about the weather. He did not bother to share the Christmas wafer with us; he was beyond such nonsense.
We excused ourselves quickly, to return home for Christmas Eve supper.
‘What an easy way to score brownie points,’ Andrew said when we left.
But it wasn’t as easy as we thought. When we returned home, my mother greeted us with reproaches that we left her without telling her where we’d go. And when we confessed that we left to visit Ryszard, she got even angrier, saying that Ryszard offended her deeply when he visited last time. She was so furious that she spent the rest of the evening listing our deficiencies. When she finished, Andrew said:
‘You know, granny, who you are?’
‘Who?’, she asked.
‘A Hunter of Negativity. Just like Ryszard.’
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. Several of them were published or accepted for publication in literary magazines: ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Adelaide Magazine’, ‘The Fiction Pool’ and ‘Literally Stories’.