Remembering Olenka - The Story of a Friendship

Strawberry Street where Sandra lived.

I've never written about this before but because I've been writing about my childhood in Leeds for my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, it has become very fresh in my memory. Even though I didn't include it in that book, now, in Easter week, I think the time has come to remember Olenka. This is a long post but it seems like a long story.

When I first knew her, she wasn't Olenka. She was Sandra. Her Polish name was Aleksandra, Olenka for short, but at school she was Sandra Jankowski, just as I was Catherine Lucy Czerkawski. It was only later that we both had the confidence to insist on the female 'a' ending for our respective surnames. I carried on using the English/Irish version of my first names but Sandra became Olenka.

I don't have a picture of her. Not even a school photograph. I wish I had. She was a pretty little girl, with very dark hair and an almost translucent complexion with a rosy spot of colour on her high cheekbones, like a doll. We both had fancy clothes: mine because my mother was a talented seamstress whose sisters worked in tailoring, and Sandra because her mother, Irene, spent all her spare cash - of which there wasn't much - on good clothes for her much loved daughter.

We started school more or less at the same time in 1955. Holy Family Primary School in Armley was a small, very ordinary Roman Catholic school in a not-very-well-off part of Leeds. I don't think we were best friends from the start. My friend at that time was a girl called Christine Danby, but a year or so after we started school, she and her family moved to Drighlington - not too far away, as it turned out, although it could have been Mars for all two six year olds knew about it. Then Sandra arrived. I have a feeling she started school later than I did, but it may have been because there were two 'intakes' at that time, depending on age. While I started in the autumn, Sandra may have started just after Christmas.

Sandra's mother was a widow: Irene (presumably Irena) Jankowski. I never knew what had happened to her father, but only that he had died, possibly as a result of injuries sustained in the war, so Irena was left to bring up Sandra on her own. We were two 'only' children - not lonely, but certainly a little spoilt, precious, and a bit precocious too. Also, we knew that we were Polish and proud of it. In my case, I knew that I was Irish too. And English.

We became friends. Neither of us quite fitted in at school but I think I fared better. I had a strong Leeds Irish mother and a father who was respected (and quite possibly indulged) by the teachers because of his academic prowess coupled with his typically Polish charm. I was seriously asthmatic, and I spent plenty of time at home. There was always somebody to look after me: my grandparents were on hand and my mother helped out in their little sweet shop. It didn't do me any harm. I read avidly and my father taught me the rest. Sandra couldn't skip school. Her mother worked long hours in Armley Mill, and there was nobody else to look after her, so come hell or high water, she had to go, even when she wasn't very well. She had, I think, the reputation for being a 'nervous' child although I didn't find her so. She just wasn't very robust. I was often ill but as strong as a horse.

We spent a great deal of time together, Sandra and I. She lived on Strawberry Street, which sounds prettier than it was. I lived in a tiny two roomed flat on Whitehall Road, next to my grandparents' house, until we moved across the city to a big, chilly, council flat in Bellevue Road. She loved Cliff Richard. I didn't. When we walked down the hill from school past the big cemetery, she would make up stories about the ghosts she had seen there. I half believed her. We shared hopes and dreams.

One of our teachers was notorious for having almost daily tantrums and throwing the furniture - and herself - about, at the risk of her pupils' life and limb. I can still remember the terrible noises, the shrieks and roars that emanated from her classroom. At the end of one school year, just before I was due to go into her class, my dad paid a visit to the school, and - miraculously it seemed to me - I skipped a year and went straight into the next class. Sandra, with no father to fight her corner and a shy, struggling mother, had to face the gorgon. Then my dad got a temporary placement at a scientific research institute in Mill Hill and we moved to be with him. At some point during that year, a rumour from relatives in Leeds reached our ears that quiet, well behaved Sandra had stood up in the middle of the classroom during one of the teacher's all too frequent crazy spells, thrown her books and her chair on the floor, put her hands over her ears, closed her eyes and screamed and screamed and screamed, bringing the other teachers running.

So she moved classes as well, but with far more trauma than me.

When we came back to Leeds, we moved into another chilly flat in Rosemont Road in Bramley to discover that Sandra was living just around the corner in Hough Lane. When we started secondary school, we made the journey to Notre Dame Grammar School, a walk and two bus-rides, together. Irene had remarried a man called Stanislaw Wilk and Sandra had gained a stepfather. Mr Wilk - Mr Wolf in English - was quiet and kindly: a good man who loved his new wife and his stepdaughter and his garden.

We slid back into friendship again. Sandra came on all our expeditions, My dad was keen on expeditions: hill-walking on the moors, blackberry picking, museum visits. We  went to cricket matches at Headingley, and played tennis on the public court in the nearby park. I celebrated various Polish festivals in her house, but most particularly Easter.

Irene Wilk always cooked an Easter feast: feather light yeast cakes with crumble or apple or plum toppings that filled the whole house with their scent, dense and delicious baked cheesecakes, rye bread and frankfurters and sauerkraut, boiled eggs and gherkins and salads of all kinds. There would be pisanki, hand painted eggs that my dad made as well, and the grownups, friends of Irene and Stashek, would drink vodka. These parties were memorably hilarious, warm and foreign, and I loved them.

Sandra and I found ourselves in different classes at Notre Dame which meant that the steady drift apart had  - although we didn't know it or acknowledge it - already begun. I was academic; she was a little less so, but intensely artistic and creative. We both loved to draw and paint and read. Then, when I was twelve, my father, with his new, hard-won PhD in biochemistry, got the offer of a position at a government research institute just outside Ayr. We moved to Scotland and went back to Leeds only a handful of times. Once, in the year following our move, I stayed with the Wilks for a week. It might even have been during the Easter holidays. We wrote to each other, but then the letters stopped.

In the mid seventies, when I was doing my Masters at Leeds University, we met again, just once. Olenka, as she liked to be known now, was living with her boyfriend, while I was still fancy free. She cooked a meal for the three of us. She didn't want to talk about the past at all. We made no arrangements to meet again. I wondered if we even liked each other very much. Now, I chiefly remember how her childish prettiness had turned to a truly exquisite beauty, stunning in its intensity, and how she was planning to pursue an artistic career.

I stayed in touch with her mother, more than with Olenka. Looking back, I can see that Irene loved me very much, but I was young and busy with my life and thoughtlessly selfish. We sent Christmas cards and Easter cards too, in memory of those Easter feasts. I can see Irene now: small, energetic, always cooking or cleaning, always cheerfully, volubly Polish when she was at ease with you as she was always at her ease with me. I've wondered since if she was - at that time anyway - slightly overawed by her own daughter, or perhaps by her daughter's singular beauty.

And then one day, in the early 1980s, I and my partner returned from a weekend away to the dreadful news that Sandra had died, taken ill, quite suddenly, with a bleed on her brain. Worse, her mother and stepfather had been away too, on a long anticipated trip back to Poland. Her funeral was the first I had ever been to involving somebody so young, a contemporary. She had been my first close friendship.

Irene and Stashek are long gone, although somewhere in my box of Easter decorations, painted eggs, fluffy chicks, there are one or two Polish Easter cards with greetings in Irene's familiar, spidery handwriting. Mr Wilk died first, leaving her alone. One year, there was no card from Irene. There was nobody left to tell me what had happened to her.  Their house is still there. I've walked past it, virtually, on Google Maps and given myself a frisson of sadness.

I find myself wondering if, had Olenka still been alive, we might have reconnected on Facebook, shared notes and lives, remembered the terrible teacher, or the expeditions to Bolton Abbey, the cricket matches, the clumsy, giggling tennis, the picnics at Adel Crag and Ilkley, the bonfire nights with parkin pigs and treacle toffee  - or Mrs Wilk's spectacular Easter feasts that every year I think of replicating - and every year, without fail, find that I can't.

Sitting on top of my piano, the piano I've had since I was thirteen years old, is a small, nicely modelled plaster head of a young girl, with her long, thick hair in plaits. It was the last gift Sandra gave me. Before I left Leeds, we were old enough to spend time painting our nails and experimenting with face packs. We pretended to be grown up, but we were still little girls. On Saturdays, we would sometimes go into Leeds, to the shops, more often than not with our parents or my aunts, but we were allowed to browse the shopping arcades by ourselves. Sandra always had plans for the things she was going to buy. She would save up her pocket money, although I think her mother and stepfather would give her whatever she asked for. One Christmas or birthday, when I was eleven or twelve years old, this figurine was her gift to me.

'I bought it because it looks like you,' she said.

And it did.

I've treasured it ever since. I still play the piano and whenever I look up and see this young girl with her plaits, I remember Sandra - Olenka - and the story of our friendship.



gz said…
A sad ending...but at least you know the truth.
I look at old photos and wonder....
Unknown said…
touching story