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Tomasz Korcz had ducked out of the party to retrieve an envelope of vitamins from his home. The house seemed to be waiting up for him. Every room was lit and pleasantly warm, provoking the suspicion in Tomasz that one of them was set like a trap, and that a door would snap open any moment and a parent would spring out. Tomasz knew what he wanted and he would be in and out of the house within seconds, ideally without having to talk to anybody, but so stealthy was this poacher in reaching his bedroom that he would unwittingly turn gamekeeper. Tomasz blundered in upon the sight of his baby brother engrossed in a raid of his own, emptying drawer after drawer like a bear cub rummaging through garbage cans. Everything was strewn everywhere, in bright disorder.

Marek was obsessed with Tomasz’s camera phone, and with filming himself on this little device. Marooned together during an evening’s childminding, the elder brother had schooled the younger in how to film the clips and replay them. The little one was filled to the brim with a fervour for these movies, and he had spoken of nothing else ever since, repeatedly pestering Tomasz for the phone until Tomasz had denied it him simply out of irritation.

Tomasz saw that his envelope had burst open and that the vitamins had spilled across the floor, half dissolved into his filthy carpet. A wonderful, beautiful evening had been blown out like a candle. Outrage seemed to lift Tomasz off his feet, and he became stark and weightless, flushed with a superhuman energy, his mind shooting back into the faintest twinkle. For a moment, Marek had watched Tomasz’s reaction with an alert cunning, but when Tomasz suddenly thrust him against the wall, he screamed with real terror. Tomasz punched him several times before his arm froze hanging in the air.

After Tomasz had killed his baby brother, he sat on his bed and cried, not out of any noble emotion, more from sheer surprise. Amazed at how clearly he was thinking, and acting very quickly before he could change his mind, he plucked a thick plastic bag from the cranny where an ancient, dusty cloud of these things was always kept, and he ran down into his family’s large garden.

I often thought that Tomasz had gone outside to suffocate himself – pulling the plastic bag over his head and walking around in circles until he collapsed – because he was rebelling against the act as he performed it – because it would be fresher and cleaner to be suffocated in the open air. It had not occurred to me that there are few things more at peace than a cool garden on a summer’s evening.

Our story begins properly with the decisions made by Tomasz’s school. These people were put on the spot, and perhaps it is unfair to judge them, but they nevertheless made a complete mess of the situation. The regime at the school wished to honour Tomasz’s heroism – for all young people who endure death are heroic – whilst indicating that this could not wholly obscure the villainy which had brought about his death, just as one may be only half pleased by the fragrance of a rose which dines on fresh manure. They feared that most of the pupils were not sufficiently clear on the last point, for Tomasz had been a popular kid, and he was still viewed generously, as a victim of circumstances. It was a question of balance – the school did not wish Tomasz’s send-off to be too stern and gloomy, but they could not condone any of the things for which he would be remembered throughout all of the subsequent years. The fratricide, suicide, and passion for illegal substances.

The head was supposed to address the school on the day of Tomasz’s funeral. He was a wiry little man who would usually spend his assemblies briefing the pupils on the school accounts – delivering power-point presentations on wage costs and how much heating allowance was left – but when called upon to provide moral leadership and emotional support, he called in sick, to the scorn and dismay of the staff room.

The deputy head had to deliver an impromptu assembly to the grieving pupils, in which she admitted that words could not convey any of their feelings about Tomasz, and so brandishing a CD player, she instead played a recording of a Cherokee Indian singing “Amazing Grace.” After the assembly, a huge gang of pupils rolled around outside on the playing fields, looking absolutely murderous. The teachers feared that their buildings would be burned down.

For several months, the regime at the school regarded Tomasz as a non-person, who had been justly expelled from existence, whilst the pupils persisted in honouring his memory. The crisis escalated with a tree. It suddenly appeared beside the school pond: a little slip of a thing, in a shroud of wire, and with a crudely carved wooden plaque “with love for Tommy.” The head abruptly took two weeks’ holiday. The rest of the teachers apparently could not see the tree, although the caretaker was instructed not to water it.

Tomasz’s girlfriend, Renata, was perhaps the most dissatisfied with this standoff. Tomasz had been her first and only love and this had made him a figure of great effect, rather as a lone candle looks very striking in a darkened interior, creating intense light and dramatic shadows. She was now left with an empty sense of absence, as if Tomasz was merely continuing in the next room or down at the shops, except that the world was changing whilst her sense of him remained the same.

Tomasz now seemed like a vividly executed statue rather than a human being. He was sitting completely fixed and silent in the near past, unable to refresh her about himself with the latest news. Of course, he was not dead, merely frozen. Yet a fog was gradually sinking over the statue, and she was very careful in remembering its features and details, polishing these memories to keep them shining through the fog.

One morning Father Pochopien told Renata’s class that they would be addressed by a special visitor to the school. This visitor, Piotr, was a shabby old man, with odd scales across the side of his head and very keen, quick eyes. With his white hair and beard, he should have looked distinguished, but he was somehow undermined by one’s inexplicable conviction that he was an unmarried man and without children. He perched up on a table, with a knee cradled tightly in both hands, and, rocking nervously, he commenced his tale.

“A few years ago I was going through a very bad time. The big refinery in my town had shut down and myself and all of my friends had to start out again, as if we were fifteen year olds again. Indeed, the only jobs on offer were intended for teenagers. Cleaning tables in a restaurant. Riding about on a moped delivering pizzas. My generation was being humiliated.

“I was drinking every night – drinking anything, the cheapest, most unsophisticated cider – again, stuff for teenagers – and this left me feeling blank and sick, my bones chilled with a hatred of myself. I would cart my ruined body to prostitutes, but I was usually so filthy that they would demand double payment. I think that they put on rubber gloves before handling me. Every day I was vomiting so much that my throat was scorched with blisters. I had no control over my bladder and I was dripping constantly like a cranky old tap. I soon needed money for the drugs and the women, and I would lurk outside a school and follow children until they were alone, and I would then pull out a knife and pocket their mobile phones or jewellery.

“I had no fear – no shame – no hope. All that I had left was the freedom to degrade myself, to revile my own image. I was an atheist. I had never heard of the sweet love of Jesus Christ…”

Father Pochopien seemed to cluck with a note of warning and Piotr skipped over this bit, apologising with a bob of his head.

“One night I was drinking by myself, in a flat which looked out over this city. I was cold, and I opened a window so that I would feel colder. The city was just carrying on with its own business, and it looked so prosperous and certain of itself, and I felt like I was watching it from the moon. I had sunk to the bottom of a bottle of vodka, and then finally, as if I had merely determined to turn off the television, I climbed out of the window and dropped into the night.

“I remember the roaring cold and wishing that it would stop. A concrete pavement shot straight into my forehead like a bullet and then my whole body was briefly ringing like a fire alarm, tumbling disjoined, my skull and ribs and both legs broken. I finally seemed to crumple – I had taken a breath and it was no longer possible to take another – although I did not realise it at the time, my chest had rolled under the wheels of a moving bus.

“I had an odd sensation of falling again. This time, my body was beyond pain. It was as if I was dreaming, but I was not under the spell of any dream. My mind was sovereign, my senses were sharpened and gleaming like new knives. And then, even more alarmingly, I realised that I was completely sober.

“The heat was overwhelming and it was so stifling that the air seemed to be on fire inside my lungs. Have you ever visited the Bass Rock? It’s a little island carpeted with seagulls, and the noise is truly deafening. Well, I plunged into a similar cacophony – an endless drone of screaming and despair. Have you ever heard the sound which somebody makes when they are punched straight in the guts by grief? When a mother realises that her child is truly dead. I was drowning in that sound. Human souls alone and desperate. I was in Hell.

“I remained in Hell for almost twenty minutes. I saw sinners leaping in the flames, like salmon destined to forever jump at the brickwork of a new weir. The cries of the damned would break the hardest heart. I would not consign the worst person in the world – Adolf Hitler, Jack the Ripper – to such a darkness.

“And this is why I am here. For amongst the sinners, I saw a person who I recognised. A boy who had been in the local paper for killing his baby brother. Tomasz Korcz. He was naked in the flames and he cried out to me for help. I cried too, but I was unable to pluck him from his torments. He was weeping that he was alone and afraid, and that he wished that he could live his life again, so that he could honour God and his fellow men.

“As he tried to explain this over the roar of the flames, a demon gloated at the prospect of his leaping body. And the demon pulled at the bell of his prick, as if to wake it up, and Tomasz eyed it with fear, for the prick was so big and handsome that it seemed inconceivable that it could ever fit inside his own body. And then he was bent over in a spectacle which is quite unnatural for a boy, and he was staring like a pig, his eyes bulging, as the demon performed his wickedness.

“But as if I was watching from a boat which had docked at the wrong shore, these scenes began to recede. I had been given a second chance. The paramedics agreed that it was a miracle. All of the bigger bones in my body were broken. My heart had stopped beating for almost twenty minutes. And yet I was thirsty to live, every fibre of my flesh was gripped in the fight for life, and I was walking the city streets again in under a week.”

When Piotr had finished there was a long silence. Renata collected together an odd, hard voice in the back of her throat and she finally spoke. “You said that this happened “a few years ago” but Tomasz only died last year.”

The class grunted with the dawning realisation that this was indeed correct.

I wish I could report that when Piotr was informed of this error, he snarled fiendishly, before throwing a cat into the air, grabbing its tail as it ascended upwards, whilst Father Pochopien in turn grabbed Piotr’s tail, and they all flew over the spire into the next parish. In truth, there was merely an unpleasant scene in which Piotr abruptly extracted himself from the classroom, hurrying as if his own nose was pulling him to safety, whilst Father Pochopien looked somewhat flustered.

[Demons and hellfire appear not unfrequently in Tychy fiction, including in the short-stories “The Bride of Christ” and “The Conjugal Bed.” Ed.]