Brad look older than his age. Maybe it was his hair: together with his long beard it resembled that funny bush, which tumbles across the desert, carried by a dry wind. Maybe it was his skin, scorched by the sun and covered with a mixture of salty sweat and grey dirt. And maybe it was because he wore incredibly tattered leather shoes, whose soles were on the verge of falling off. It was really hard to tell why it was so.
And nobody ever asked him, anyway. As a matter of fact, hardly anyone talked to him at all. In fact, there was not a single person who would. Brad must have felt it deeply, because he often used to mutter something to himself under his breath, as he strode along the middle of the road, pushing a large cart loaded with waste paper. The man used to live at the end of a narrow road in the suburbs, in a wooden hut that looked like a shed for storing tools. Ever since he remembered, he was alone. Lonely, solitary, on his own.
Lisa’s house stood two streets further. She inherited it from her parents. Everybody thought she was a spinster, because nobody ever saw her in the company of a man, but the truth was ever so much more cruel than this. She lost her husband when they had been married for nearly one year. He went on a military mission, to earn money for his dream truck. He wanted to start a transport company. Unfortunately, something went wrong and it seems he never came back from a night patrol. The tragic news gave the young woman such a shock that she had to spend three months in a hospital whose name was never mentioned aloud.
Every day Lisa got up before dawn and baked cakes for her clients. When she opened her kitchen window at seven in the morning, the fresh, warm fragrance floated all over the whole neighbourhood. The air was vibrant with the overtones of sweet chocolate, sensuous vanilla, hot cinnamon and an entire spectrum of other delicious smells, which invariably make your stomach rumble.
She knew how to invite her clients to a world of wonderful tastes. She knew of such cuisine tricks which would make any man long for her company. Yet she never made any practical use of this knowledge. She did not think she would ever be able to love again. She never came to terms with the loss of her husband, who was her first and only love.
At noon, when the last customer paid for the last cake, Lisa left her home and went to the nearby cemetery. She used to sit near an old grave and talk to a man who had left her all alone forty years before. She confided in him, talked about her concerns, or laughed at what happened to her or what she had seen on TV.
Sometimes she sat in silence, as if she wanted to listen for his reply. Then she quietly wiped away a tiny tear that appeared in the corner of her eye, adjusted her hair, kissed the tips of her fingers and softly touched the tombstone. Then she hurriedly walked back to the street.
On her way back, she used to visit her old aunt, who was so senile that archaeology professors from the local university slowly took interest in her. The woman always had a cup of delicious English tea for Lisa; she sat in her deep armchair, closed her eyes and listened. This is what Lisa’s every day was like.
One afternoon, after she had returned from the cemetery and visited her aunt, she finally reached her home and this is where she found a parcel lying on the lawn. She bent down to lift it, and suddenly she let out a scream. On top of the parcel, next to a row of stamps, she noticed a handwritten inscription, her husband’s name and surname written with a coarse marker.
In a split second, a million dark thoughts invaded the woman’s mind. She was about to open the parcel to see whether it contained any personal belongings of her beloved man, when she saw an address on the reverse. The city and district matched hers, but the street and house number did not.
With trembling hands, Lisa tore the wrapping paper apart. She was curious of what might be inside, yet on the other hand she was afraid. She took a deep breath, crossed herself and... saw a pair of man’s leather slippers. They were new. brand new.
And they were exactly the same as those her husband used to wear.
Some emotions just cannot be held back.
All of a sudden, you don’t even know when, your chin starts trembling and your eyes are behind a mist that gets thicker by the minute. Before you realise it, salty tears are rolling down your burning cheeks.
Yes, the strange parcel completely upset Lisa. And it was not only because of the name on it. This crooked handwriting seemed eerily familiar. She decided to get down to the bottom of this on her own.
She approached the window. She placed the parcel on the marble counter, brushed back her hair from her forehead, cleared her throat for attention and spoke bashfully:
“I’m sorry, I must have received this by mistake.”
“What is it?” the woman at the post office asked flatly.
“The name is all right, but the address…”
“Indeed, nobody's been living at 432 for quite a long time now.”
“This is not our parcel.”
“But here is the stamp...”
“It’s fake. There’s no doubt about it.”
“OK, I understand. Thank you for the clarification.”
Lisa squeezed the parcel under her arm and made her way to the place which had allegedly been uninhabited for years. The trees she passed by were swaying their branches in an unnatural movement, as if they wanted to tell her to turn back before it was too late. The sun would not look at it, so it just hid behind a storm cloud and kept its fingers crossed for Lisa’s mission.
She finally stood in front of house number 432. Although she lived a few, maybe a dozen, streets away from here, she felt as if she had never been here before. The door handle was covered with an aged layer of red rust, and sad, grey windows were overgrown with thick cobwebs. Lisa understood she had no business being here.
She quickly ran down the steps from the porch and as she did so, she nearly bumped into Brad, who lived a few dozen yards away from the abandoned house. The man came here to check who was wandering around the house. He caught the frightened woman by the hand and started muttering something under his breath.
The man was all shabby and tattered. In every way. The pungent, sweet and sour odour of old clothes knocked Lisa off her feet. When she came to, she took a deep breath and threw the worst oath she knew at the man and then pushed him away with all her strength. Next second she was already dashing towards her home. When she finally slowed down, the trees were still once again and the sun was hiding behind the horizon, pretending it hadn’t seen a thing.
When the evening came down with its warm blanket of darkness, Lisa lay down in her bed. She had no idea what to think. Yes, this strange parcel threw her off-balance and kept her mind restless. She felt as if the parcel had trodden on the peaceful life she managed to create for herself.
What is more, the woman felt guilty for treating Brad the way she did - as if he was rubbish. She decided she would go and apologise to him first thing in the morning. She would give the poor guy the best cake she could master.
She closed her eyes and sighed deeply. A few hundred yards away, in a room full of trinkets, where the smell of mothballs quenched all the other fragrances, her beloved old aunt did the same.
For the last time in her life.
Brad hastily wolfed down the plum cake, once in a while stopping to take a deep breath. Suddenly he closed his eyes and went back in his memories so far that he reached the borderline, behind which there was only unlimited place for inference, guesswork, suppositions and dreams.
He started muttering something feverishly under his breath. As he reckoned, nobody had ever treated him to something so delicious. Nobody had ever visited him, either. And nobody had seen a human being in him. Yes, it was a special day.
Once he finished eating, he wiped his frizzy moustache, he gently grasped the woman’s hand and kissed it as tenderly as he could.
'I’d better be going,’ Lisa got a fright.
‘Thank you. Thank you very much,’ muttered Brad.
‘Good bye. And once again, I’m really sorry.’
‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’
Lisa looked once again at his strange kingdom, where every single thing from among a multitude of objects found nobody knows where was just as important. Then she stepped into the street. And Brad decided he would never wash his hand as long as he was alive. He didn’t want to lose the smell of this wonderful woman, who showed him more feeling than anyone ever.
The day came when the last will was to be announced. In the notary’s office, apart from Lisa, sat her aunt’s children and grandchildren. Although they hardly ever visited their mother and grandma, they managed to find some time in their busy schedule when they learnt there was something to inherit. Although the woman’s house was in a condition that could be described as something between ‘dilapidated’ and ‘to be renovated’, it stood on a large land plot that was of interest to numerous developers.
A perfectly clad middle-aged man now entered the room. He greeted the family of the deceased woman and got down to business. He sat down at the oak desk, opened the envelope with the last will, read the brief introduction and then suddenly stopped. Everybody was silent. The only sounds included gulping and the buzzing of a young fly, which had spent nearly one week boasting that nothing human is alien to it.
“To my beloved children and mi kind grandchildren, who visited me so often and willingly, supporting me in my moments of sadness, I would like to say four words: thank you for everything. For Lisa, who was my distant relative, I have two envelopes...”
Hardly had the notary finished the sentence, when a deep murmur rose among the audience, like a pending storm. The children and grandchildren had no idea who this ‘Lisa’ was and why she set out to steal their money.
‘Uhmmm, excuse me?’ Lisa was so surprised she started coughing nervously.
“Two envelopes,” continued the notary. “In one of them there is something that will make you love me, while another one holds something you will hate me for. For many years I’ve been wondering what I should do and I thought it would be best if I leave it up to fate.”
The notary pulled two small envelopes from his leather briefcase: one was white and the other one - black.
‘Indeed, our deceased friend appended these two envelopes to her last will. Miss Lisa, will you kindly pick one of them? The other one will remain sealed forever.’
‘If one envelope contains good news and the other one - bad news, then...’ Lisa was trying to buy some time, although she didn’t really know what to say. ‘... please... open the... black one.’
‘Of course. There you go: an A5 piece of paper with a text written in royal blue ink. I will now read this part of the last will: “Dear Lisa, I would like to leave you my house, with everything inside and the grounds it stands on. Additionally, I would like to give you all the funds I managed to save. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to know the exact amount, and this is why when you hear my last will, ask the notary to show you the number in writing.”
Lisa approached the desk. She took the piece of paper, looked at it and nearly fainted. One thing was for sure: her old, thin and poor aunt must have been printing the money. Or raiding banks at night. There was literally no other possibility.
This evening, the notary went against the rules for the first time in his life: he opened the other envelope, the white one. He took out the piece of paper with tiny handwriting He started to read it frantically, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.
After a few lines he was not sure whether the insane idea that came to him was good and worth following through. But when he finished reading, he had no doubt. Without thinking, he looked at his watch.
On 15th September, at 8:34 PM he decided to marry somebody a woman was probably the richest in the town.
The notary would not wait until there is a bunch of men around Lisa, ready to convince the 60-year old woman that her beauty outshines all the starts in the universe. He selected the phone number, wiped the sweat off his forehead with a silk handkerchief and started a conversation as nicely as he could:
‘Good morning, dear Lisa, my name is…’
‘Oh, that’s you,’ Lisa immediately recognised the voice that told her the most surprising news of her life the other day.
‘Yes, that’s me. Could you drop by my office today?’
‘What is the matter?’
‘It’s a formality, I need to complete one more document and I was just…’
‘Could we meet at 3 PM?’
‘Of course, no problem.’
‘I will see you then.’
The notary tried his best to coax Lisa and win her favour. He did it in a number of ways: with flowers, gifts, smiles, compliments, and yes, even cakes. He learnt to bake, although since he was a child he hated even the simplest kitchen chores.
Lisa was stunned; for a long time she didn’t want to give in to the feeling, which broke through subsequent firewalls in he heart with surprising ease. She tried in vain to push away the persistent thought that took over her whole body.
In the afternoons she still used to go to the cemetery. She asked her husband what she should do. She asked him for a sign. Then one day she just told him she was sorry for everything, but she couldn’t take it any longer.
Meanwhile, the notary kept pushing forward and encircled Lisa from all sides. Time and time again he implied that he would make the best husband in the world. Finally he invited her to the most expensive restaurant in the town.
‘Lisa, would you...?’ he started shyly once they finished the dinner.
‘No way. It's out of the question.’
‘You won’t regret it.’
‘No, really. I mean it.’
‘Is this your final decision?’
‘Well, you know, there are certain limits a woman of my age should not go beyond. For her own good.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just look at my swollen belly.’
The notary burst out laughing.
‘I know I’m not perfect, but why are you laughing at me?’ Lisa was slightly offended.
‘Darling, because I...’
‘Is there anything you would like to tell me? Don’t bother.’
‘I wanted to ask you... To tell me... I would like to know if...’
‘Would you like to settle you accounts together with me? You know, there are some new tax credits for married couples and they are quite good...’
‘How romantic of you.’
‘I will think about it and give you an answer in writing within the next 14 days’ Lisa was clearly teasing the man whose efforts made her almost forget about Brad.
The wedding ceremony was about to reach its peak. The pastor was heading for the happy ending, Lisa stood stunned and the notary pretended to be playing it cool. There were just three lines before the pastor would say: “And now you may kiss the bride.”
The mature bride looked at her mature groom. She looked him deep in the eyes, as if she wanted to an answer to the question: “Is it really happening?” She was staring for a few seconds before she understood that something was wrong. And then she shouted louder than she had planned:
The notary went pale. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his brow and collapsed to the floor.
Sometimes a single word is more capable of destruction than a furiously speeding bomb launched to turn a flourishing city into a sea of rubble.
The mention of Brad’s name was enough to make the notary panic. His heart failed him. He didn’t know that Lisa reacted this way because she was reminded of her first wedding. He was convinced she had somehow managed to see through his intricate plan. Anyway, the situation was out of control.
As he lay ashamed in a hospital bed, he started telling the woman he wished to marry about the content of the other envelope appended to the will.
It turned out her aunt had written that Brad was still alive. What is more, she knew from the onset that he had not been killed. She kept it secret from Lisa to spare her the pain. She didn’t want her to suffer the hell of living with a man who was clearly insane. She had to do something to keep Brad out of her life. And she nearly managed. She hoped her young and beautiful relative would soon find somebody new and forget her first husband forever. In her last will, she repeatedly begged Lisa to forgive her. She confessed she had been tormented by incredible remorse for all her life and she wanted to unburden herself, but with every passing day, month and year she found it more and more difficult to confess what she had done.
‘Is that all?’ Lisa asked quietly, trying to suppress a mixture of anger, regret and disappointment.
‘Yes, that’s all’ the notary lied rather smoothly.
‘And have you ever... really loved me at all?’ that was his last chance to save himself.
He lowered his eyes, as if he wanted to let her know he has a right to withhold his reply.
What the aunt had written was true. Brad was not killed. He never told anybody what exactly had happened during the mission. One thing was for sure. Since then he had been living in a shade of a horrible stigma. The things he did while away from home turned a young, enthusiastic and gregarious man into somebody people should avoid at all cost. That’s why he decided to forget about Lisa. He no longer deserved her and he sincerely doubted this would ever change.
Lisa took a trip to the address mentioned in her aunt’s last will. As she walked, she prayed it would not be the first place that came to her mind. Unfortunately, her wish was not to be granted.
She opened the wooden door to the garden shed and took a step back. After a while a man came out - the same man she had seen in her dreams almost every night over the past forty years.
‘Brad…’ she said aloud, to drown out the beating of her heart, although it was not necessary, as a plane was just flying low above the town and workmen were tearing off the road surface from the local road.
‘Brad, is it really you?’ she repeated and then she hugged him so tight, as if she wanted to make up for all the lost days in this single moment.
‘Thank you for the cake,’ Brad pretended he did not understand what she was getting at.
‘Honey, there’s nothing to thank for. From now on I will be ...’
‘Who are you?’ that was an unexpected blow.
‘Brad, this is me, Lisa. I was… I am your wife. I live over there, just look behind…’ she gestured with her hand.
‘Uhm,’ replied Brad without lifting his head. Then he turned around as if he wanted to resume what he had been doing.
‘Come with me. I live alone. I have always lived alone.’
‘Thank you. Thank you very much for the cake,’ he replied mechanically and turned back, so that Lisa would not see his red eyes.
Lisa would not give up so easily. She waited for this moment so long that she would not accept the defeat. She visited Brad a few times a day. She cleaned up his place. She rebuilt it from scratch. She brought him food. She told him what she had suffered for all these years. Slowly, bit by bit, she elevated his world and lifted it up.
After a few weeks, Brad finally plucked up courage. He found the nerve to reveal the truth. One evening, while they were having dinner, he said all of a sudden:
‘We can’t be together. It is impossible,’ that was the worst surprise for Lisa.
‘Brad, what happened?’
‘Long time has passed. I am a different man now. And you are different.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Lisa tried to reassure him.
‘We no longer have anything to talk about.’
‘We will find something, don’t worry,’ the woman laughed nervously.
‘We cannot even recollect our shared memories, because we have none. We cannot talk about our children, because we never had a chance to have any. We cannot go back to the nights we spent together, because there were but a few...’ that was probably the longest sentence he has uttered in years.
Lisa ran out of Brad’s house into a cold night. And Brad sighed heavily and burst out crying.
‘Laura, who are you talking to? It’s been half an hour already!’ an elderly man’s voice was coming from behind the door.
‘Nobody. It wasn’t me, it was the TV,’ replied a frail, exhausted woman. For many years she had been enduring her husband’s disease.
‘We don’t have two TV sets!’
‘Indeed, we don’t.’
‘Why don’t we have two TV sets?’
‘Don’t start… The courier has just brought a parcel and was telling me…’
‘Excuse me, this is my husband,’ said Laura to the courier, who was sitting at the table, drinking coffee and munching on a bun. ‘He has… He is...’
‘I know,’ the courier blurted out.
‘Erm... Where was I?’ the man tried to find a way out of his blunder.
‘You said Brad was trying to withdraw.’
‘And that’s what I don’t understand. Why did he reject Lisa? It was so cruel of him!’
‘You know what it’s like. Life is like a yeast cake. Every day we add another fluffy crumb. If all goes well, all the crumbs of the everyday life are then covered with icing. But without these crumbs, collected day by day, without these single moments, hours, days, months and years we spend together rather than away from one another– without them there is nothing to put the icing on. Nothing to hold this thin, fragile layer of happiness. Without these crumbs of ordinary life everything can just fall apart.
‘Right, you’ve got a point. So Brad abandoned Lisa, did he?’
‘Not really…’ Lisa cooled down and next morning she came back. She took Brad by the hand and asked him to give her one hour. She ran back to her house. She found her old, ragged clothes and put them on. And then she returned. She behaved as if she were carrying out her usual business. She simply accompanied Brad to the streets and helped him push his “treasure” cart.
‘She wanted to show him she would do anything to be with him, am I right?’
‘Yes, she went out on a limb. For some time the people they passed on the way thought Lisa just lost her mind because of the fortune she had inherited. Sometimes Lisa and Brad heard a few cruel words. Fortunately, these were only words. But with time people got used to us... To the sight of them.’
‘Laura! Laura! Who are you still talking to? It’s been ages!’ the husband was clearly irritated.
‘I know you have to go, but what was it about with these slippers? Who delivered them to Lisa?’
‘I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. So many years have passed. My God, it’s been so many years… Lisa first suspected her aunt, then the notary and then she even thought it might have been Brad.’
‘Laura! Come here!’
‘OK, now I’m really running late...’ the courier glanced at his watch and made for the door.
‘Thank you for this story,’ said Laura as she bade him farewell.
‘It is I who should be grateful for the delicious meal,’ replied the courier. Then he kissed her hand and walked away with a slight limp.
Laura closed the door behind him and took the knife to open the parcel. Winter was coming and the warm hat from the online store arrived nearly at the last moment.
However, the woman was stunned when instead of the expected hat she retrieved … a new, fragrant pair of leather slippers. She was about to reach for the phone to report a claim, when she noticed the sender had attached a handwritten letter to the parcel.
She put on her glasses and started to read:
‘Dear Laura, thank you for listening to my story. I know your husband is ill. I know he’s behaving like a child, that he’s afraid of the outside world, that he finds the world terrifying and cowers in fear whenever he hears the news of wars, rapes, murders and other horrible things on the TV.
These are not just ordinary slippers. They will help you save your husband. They will help you make the world a better, friendlier place for him (and not only for him). With them, you will be capable of things you now believe to be highly unlikely. Thanks to them, your husband will be the man he used to be.
Remember, true love is patient. Very patient. And it never ends. You can do it! I will keep my fingers crossed for you!
PS. Why am I doing this? Because when somebody feels loved, they want to share this love with the world. One more thing - your winter hat will arrive in the afternoon.’
Brad look younger than his age. Maybe it was his hairstyle and his well-groomed beard, which looked... Well, we could say it was not conspicuous. And maybe it was his cheerful smile, which hardly ever left his face. And maybe it was his childlike gentle eyes, which could capture anyone within seconds. It is really hard to tell what is was.
Anyway, Brad never answered when people asked about his date of birth. He hardly ever spoke about the details of his life full of confusion. In fact, there was nobody he would allow to get closer to his freshly healed wounds. Nobody - except for Lisa.
As he walked around the town with the woman, who loved him more than life itself, he sometimes still muttered something under his breath. But Lisa, who spent many years soothing his tormented heart with pure, selfless love, pretended she never heard anything...
Author: Maciej Wojtas
Translation: Maria Antonina Jaszczurowska