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foraged for a living. One thing however distinguished the old schoolfriends; Mirek was a relatively healthy specimen whilst Borsuk was a gaunt, almost skeletal, alcoholic with brain damage. Even in his teens, he'd shown a propensity to oblivion-seeking self-destruction; slugging perfume and fly-spray beer cocktails with the hardened winos from the estate. As he nodded fondly at his old friend, Mirek noticed his ear, well, a mutant stump of ear, and remembered how he'd lost it: falling down insensible after a binge and lying in the snow for an hour on a -20 night. Presently, Mirek bade his friend farewell, giving weak excuses for not going back to his place for a session. For one thing, Mirek couldn't have kept pace and secondly, despite his own degraded social position, he still felt a couple of rungs above broken wretches like Borsuk.

The windows in his ramshackle street glowed with light and the chimneys streamed smoke into the seeping dusk sky, which was darkening perceptibly as it did at that time of year. The sight of the chimney smoke set Mirek thinking about his evening at the hearth, sipping on a flaggon of homebrew and playing the strategy computer game, when he realised that he'd used his last scraps of firewood that morning, "Christ Almighty!" he cursed. As he put away his pram, Mirek remembered old Stanislaw from across the street; he always had plenty of wood, every time you saw the old boy he was pulling his trolley back from the forest, laden with branches.

Mirek crossed the street and paused outside the old man's dwelling; between a half-constructed house of breezeblock and a solid-looking house of traditional type there was a low, wooden hovel fashioned from warped railway sleepers. A faint light flickered from within and a crackling radio broadcast seeped into the night. Mirek saw that the old soldier was admirably prepared for winter, the rude dwelling was lined with immaculate piles of firewood of various dimensions.

Mirek hesitated: Old Stanislaw had a reputation for being a bit rash with unwelcome guests. Not long ago, he'd peppered a couple of local winos with a shotgun after finding them stealing eggs from his hen house. He'd been given a discharge in court on account of his decrepitude. Mirek's grandma used to talk of the old man, how he'd fought against the Bolsheviks in the twenties and had been a high-ranking partisan leader during the second war.

Eventually Mirek summoned up enough courage to rap on the door, calling out to identify himself at the same time. Presently, the door creaked open and the ninety year old Stanislaw squinted out, a crackling blaze in his hearth illuminating the confines of his cave-like dwelling. A proud engraving of Pilsudski dominated the far wall and laden bookcases wrestled for space with the rest of his humble furniture.

The old man cheerfully agreed to let Mirek have some wood, even helping him to load it onto the pram. Afterwards, Mirek began to mumble awkward thanks, slightly uneasy as the ancient soldier fixed him with an unselfconscious, knowing lookčthe look of a veteran of life, used to sizing up men, a life which had taken him to the trenches, the partisan's lair, the Gulag Archipelago, and back. As he glanced shamefacedly at the stooped, ancient gentleman, Mirek was struck with shame at having come cadging to such an aristrocrat. He couldn't refuse the old man's invitation to sit a while by the fire and share some plum wine. He stayed for an hour as the old man muttered incoherent snippets of memory and gazed into the flames with an air of pathos.

It was about eight o'clock by the time Mirek had some birch wood burning in the grate and a bowl of goulash in front of him. He turned on the computer and began his campaign. Life wasn't so bad, he reflected, he'd get back on track; Christ, he hadn't slipped too far. He'd start foraging for electricals, start assembling radios and TVs and PCs, do repair jobs, might even get a stall on the market. Self respect man! that was it, groping around in bins for god's sake, what would his old mum have thought? He'd make a start tomorrow, get down the market pick up some cheapo electrical components from the Russians at the market, clear the backlog of stuff in the attic, yes! sod the bottle collecting! he had to go up a rung.

He finished his game and sat down in his armchair. He was abstractly gazing at the TV and turning over his strategy for the next day, when suddenly, he saw the bastard, nibbling on a fragment of sausage on the floor, wagging its scabby stump of tail. Instinctively, Mirek grabbed the poker and began to raise his arm; just before he brought it down on the rat though, he paused. " No, my friend, not tonight ", he murmured, "tonight`s your lucky night," he muttered gently, and resumed his contented reverie.

Bruce Downie (30) spent four years teaching English in Poland where he started writing in 1995. "The Pact" and "Knicker Picker," two of his short stories, have both appeared in 3 A.M. Magazine.

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