Stories from the Hearth

Modest Mussorgsky and the Lonely Soldier (Historical Romance) - Story #10

Episode Summary

Ludoslaw Dragon is a lonely drunk. Ludoslaw Dragon has a hole in his heart. Ludoslaw Dragon has disappeared... In the aftermath of World War Two, a once-picturesque Polish town hides a dark secret beneath its air-raid rubble. A photograph of a young pianist is found among Ludoslaw's clothes. A heart-breaking love affair comes to the surface.

Episode Notes

Ludoslaw Dragon is a lonely drunk. Ludoslaw Dragon has a hole in his heart. Ludoslaw Dragon has disappeared... In the aftermath of World War Two, a once-picturesque Polish town hides a dark secret beneath its air-raid rubble. A photograph of a young pianist is found amongst Ludoslaw's clothes. A heart-breaking love affair comes to the surface.

Stories from the Hearth is an immersive storytelling experience ft. truly original fiction and thoughtfully produced soundscapes. The aim of this podcast is to rekindle its listeners' love for the ancient art of storytelling (and story-listening), and to bring some small escapism to the frantic energies of the modern world. Stories from the Hearth is the brainchild of queer punk poet, environmentalist, and anarchist Cal Bannerman. Vive l'art!

Episode #14 out on Halloweeeeen! (31.10.21)

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Track: Mussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain [Copyright Free] Music provided by Classical Music Copyright Free [] Watch:

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Track: Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported— CC BY 3.0 Music provided by FreeMusic109

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Episode Transcription

Welcome to Stories From The Hearth, the podcast for tall tales and fantastical fiction, short stories the likes of which you might once have heard a wandering bard tell, to a group of villagers, gathered around the fire. Each episode will feature a brand-new story, written and performed by me: Calum Bannerman. Historical, romantic, science fiction, or fantasy; these are tales to transport you, doorways into another world.

Today's episode is a lesson in the writing process for me. Usually I'll have a little seed of an idea that germinates in my brain for anywhere from a day to months, and this is one of them. I was sat and I had this idea of an old guy in a Glasgow flat, who was suffering from alcoholism, and had been for a while, and I had this idea of - kind of Day of the Triffids-esque - lots of plants around him being little seedlings (kind of like the idea for my story) growing and becoming this jungle all around him in his flat, which slowly but surely kind of, somehow (I don't know how), helped him to overcome his alcoholism. And that was the idea. I wanted it to be plant horror but not horrorific. And I wanted it to be short and sweet. Like, legitimately sweet, like a nice story, a nice feeling story, you know? Where the ending is happy.

And yet, what you're about to hear is... nothing like that. Nothing like that at all. It did still start out similar. I wanted to make my character Polish. There's quite a large Polish community in Scotland, I grew up around a lot of Polish kids in high school. So I wanted to write the main character as Polish. So that's what happened first, but then suddenly: oh, no! Now we're actually in Poland, and it's not modern day, it's in the aftermath of World War Two. And then it just spiralled from there. 

So I really hope you like what you hear. I am super proud of it. I would go so far as to say this is one of my favourite stories that I've written in a while. It was really fun to write, really fun to research as well, because I don't really know much about actual Polish towns and geography. There's a lot of reference to classical music in this story as well, which I really enjoy. My partner has played in an orchestra before, and got me into classical music, but I still am not particularly knowledgeable about it. But I did some research for this, and it does play a big part, so there's gonna be some which features in the episode as well. Hopefully it comes across really nicely!

Before we get into it, I'll quickly give a shout out to two of my top-tier patrons, as always. It's a perk they've earned through their tier. My brother and my sister, Mully Bannerman and Ruathy Bannerman, who - thanks to their support - help me keep going, help keep this podcast ad-free, and up and running, and free to listen to. Which is important to me, because I've been inspired for most of my life by punk DIY values, my mum got be raised on a bunch of punk music and second wave feminist ideals, so I've always sort of had that individualistic, autonomous bent in me, and it's being allowed to flourish in this podcast. Which is fantastic! You know, this podcast allows me to be myself and put out into the world exactly what I want to put out. But in order to do so, I do need your support. I need monetary support as well as regular support. If you want to support me in a financial sense, if you can, if you can afford to, then I do recommend checking out my Patreon by hitting the link own below. Via Patreon, you can get yourself heaps of bonus content. there's behind the scenes content, behind the scenes looks to every episode that's been out so far, there are I think seven bonus episodes which are exclusive to Patreon. You've got photographic behind the scenes, polls I put up where you actually get to vote on what's to come in the future from these story episodes, shout outs, commissions from me (you can actually commission a short story if you take the highest tier), you can get physical copies of every episode on certain tiers, there's lots there! So go and check i tout. If you can't help me out on Patreon, don't worry! But do help me out by giving this podcast a share, a download, telling your friends about it, telling your family about it, telling anyone you can about it who you think might need just a half-hour's respite from the chaotic energies of the everyday. 

Thanks for listening to this introduction. Let's get started with the story!

This is Episode Thirteen: Modest Mussorgsky and the Lonely Soldier.


Ludoslaw Dragon was a drunk. 

By the time Ludoslaw Dragon disappeared, he had been a drunk for as long as anyone could remember. Ludoslaw Dragon was what they called a tramp, down-and-out and never getting back up. In the pretty little town of Ełk, with its tree-lined streets and beachfront adorning one of a thousand glacial lakes in that area, the people had a nickname for Ludoslaw Dragon. They called him ‘the Lonely Soldier’.

Before peacetime – when the dense forests of Białystok Voivodeship were shaved to stubble on German razors, when the waters of the lake district ran slick with the effluence from a hundred death camps, when all Poland braced itself beneath the boot of the Nazis – Ludoslaw Dragon had been a determinedly sober man. During the war years, Ludoslaw Dragon had spent hi time in the basements of Ełk’s bars and restaurants plotting, planning, and resisting, not drinking.

Though their role had been rendered obsolete by the Great War, the dragoon class (from which Ludoslaw’s surname came) had once been one of the most ferocious military classes in all Poland. The dragoons were riflemen of deadly accuracy, who rode into battle on the back of mighty steeds. And whilst the family name had never quite sat right on the shoulders of pre-war Ludoslaw, when he took control of Ełk’s underground resistance it became clear to all that the blood of the dragons did indeed run through him. So, it was with pride that the sallow eyes and gaunt faces of Ełk’s residents secretly praised the efforts of Ludoslaw Dragon in undermining the Nazi occupation.

But when the war ended and Poland finally regained its independence; when Białystok Voivodeship was founded, and Ełk climbed wearily to its feet as unofficial capital of the region; when at long last the thousand lakes which were the jewel of that country began to run clear again, attracting holidaymakers in summer as they had in days of old; when even the forests returned to swathe the land in Pollockian beauty – riotous splashes of black birch and larch and pine blanketing the hillsides – when from the ruins of a country came crawling the survivors of those unspeakable years, Ludoslaw Dragon was left without purpose.

He tried to remember what it was he had done before the war. Tried to recall an old lover, whose ashes were now mingled indistinguishably with those of a million others. He tried to bring back memories of a time when his days were easy and free of fear; when he could walk the streets in daylight, not sporting a pink triangle on his lapel. But try as he might, he could not see past the interminable fog of war, which shrouded everything in darkness.

In the first few months after the surrender, Ludoslaw made a concerted effort to apply his newfound skills in the emerging reconstruction economy. After all, he was now something of an expert in several fields: espionage, leadership, organisation, the Russian language, assassination. And indeed, he was quick to find work: first as labourer, then construction site manager, and soon even as liaison to the Russian firm which the Polish government had contracted to rebuild Ełk.

But try as he might, Ludoslaw Dragon could not suppress the feeling that none of it really mattered. Of course, it was pleasing to see historic buildings repaired, residences restored, public parks sewn and excavated from the rubble. And yet he remembered so vividly watching them being buried in the first place. Knew just how easily his work might be undone again in an instant. And so, breaking an oath he had made to himself way back in 1938, Ludoslaw began accepting his colleagues’ invitations to the pub. 

A quiet man, Ludoslaw Dragon was not known as a socialite. Private in all matters, it had been of great surprise to all in Ełk when he had taken control of the resistance. And though he had worn a pink triangle, not the yellow star of David, his fellow Poles had welcomed his leadership with open arms. Now, in peacetime, Ludoslaw had expected that his war-time friends would no longer overlook the sexual proclivities for which he had been forced to wear the mark, just as much as his friends expected he would once more vanish into the woodwork. As such, it was an exceedingly pleasant surprise when Ludoslaw finally crossed the threshold of Gerick’s Inn not as patriot, but as patron.   

Months passed, and before long 1945 – one of the blackest years in Ełk’s history – was over. With the new year came a feeling of new life. Spring turned to summer, and Ełk welcomed to its dark-sanded beaches the first tourists in years. Ludoslaw’s colleagues at the firm began speaking of holidaying themselves, and now the songs sang round the table took on a different tune. The sombre mourning, which had laced melodies like tree sap, was not present in the bouncing, dance-worthy tunes of that summer. Words commemorating lost souls and hopeless futures were dispensed with, replaced instead by the chanting of frivolous refrains concerning beautiful girls, hapless fools, absurdist dictators, and new romance. 

As 1946 rolled into ’47, and Ełk’s scars faded ever further, Ludoslaw found himself once more the outsider. He alone would not move on, as his colleagues had done. Stubborn as the hill behind Ełk, whose crown remained bald when all those around it had regrown their trees, Ludoslaw would not lick his wounds. Ludoslaw Dragon did not want to. He could not understand the merriment of his peers, nor the determination of his country to leave its past behind. 

Soon, Ludoslaw’s colleagues at the firm stopped inviting him for after-work drinks. Not only did they know Ludoslaw would clock-off earlier than they, and would be deep in the drink by the time they arrived, they no longer savoured his company. Ludoslaw wished only to exchange war stories, and drink to the dead. They had no more stories to share. Ludoslaw wanted to speak of hiding among corpses, killing men by hand, the broken skulls of newborn babies. They could not bear to think of these things, let alone talk of them. When Ludoslaw got drunk, he sang violent, angry songs about overthrowing the occupiers, but the residents of Ełk had already overthrown the Reich, and knew not why Ludoslaw persisted.

Only Ludoslaw knew why Ludoslaw persisted. Only Ludoslaw knew of the terrible hole in his heart, which the war had so fleetingly helped to fill.

And so Ludoslaw Dragon drank by himself. In the least-frequented corner of Gerik’s Inn, a medieval-style pub on the banks of Ełk lake, Ludoslaw Dragon sat and told stories to the ghosts of old comrades, sang songs to their memory. In time, Ludoslaw Dragon stopped showing up to work, and by the time his colleagues from the Russian firm would reach the pub, he would be too drunk to recognise them, and would greet them with a scowl. In time, Ludoslaw’s ex-colleagues chose a different pub for their local, and when the landlord at Gerik’s cottoned-on to the effect his most loyal customer was having on the rest of his clientele, Ludoslaw was thrown out on the street.

With no family, no job, and an unmanageable addiction, the man who had come to be known in Ełk as the Lonely Soldier resigned himself to the title. He turned tricks for cash: pickpocketing tourists on the beach, burglarising holiday homes when their owners were out of town. At bus stations and in the restrooms of truck stops, he sold himself to other men, who used him sometimes tenderly, sometimes violently, but always from an emotional distance, so that the Lonely Soldier was left lonesome. 

And always he drank, and thought about the old days. And when he got really drunk, he cast his mind back even further, to his youth, and the only man who had ever made life in peacetime worth something.

By the time that the winter of 1949-50 rolled round (in which the mysterious disappearance of our protagonist takes place), with snowdrifts as high as houses, and temperatures nearing those of the record lows experienced under Soviet occupation a decade earlier, Ludoslaw Dragon would have been unrecognisable even to his former self.

Bloated from the alcohol, his face a violent web of burst, scarred and purple blood vessels, Ludoslaw had lost chunks of his cheeks, two fingers from his left hand, and all bar the big toe of his right foot to frostbite. Once clean-shaven with military precision, Ludoslaw now sported a ragged beard, whilst his hair was tousled into dreadlocks with the grime of all the years since last he had bathed. Dressed in rags stolen from the washing lines of Ełk, Ludoslaw Dragon was most recognisable by his immense height, and the swaying, inebriated limp with which he carried himself from hovel and squat to street corner and bridge.

Though by the late forties Ełk had more than doubled in size, when compared to its wartime population, the Lonely Soldier was known to almost everyone in town. Even newcomers, here only a few months, soon learned of Ludoslaw’s sad story, and learned not to fear him, but to pity him. True, most in Ełk avoided the Lonely Soldier when they saw him in the street, whilst others actively avoided the streets he was known to haunt, but there were, thankfully, enough souls in town kind and compassionate enough to provide Ludoslaw the blankets he needed in winter, the bread and wine he needed year round.

As do all small towns in this world have their resident outsider, Ełk had Ludoslaw Dragon. But then one day, Ludoslaw disappeared.

A young housewife, Irka Balodis from Latvia, had noticed the Lonely Soldier bedding down for the night in her neighbour’s barn, but when next morning she went to take the man a glass of milk, she found only his clothes, and the tattered photograph of a young pianist. Sun-bleached and much-creased, the photograph was of a handsome boy maybe seventeen years old, with a Slavic jaw and Jewish nose, a mess of curly black hair, and eyes as radiant as dewdrops. Sat at an old Kalisz piano, the boy was deep in concentration, spindly fingers poised above the keys with furious purpose. She guessed it must be an old photograph of the Lonely Soldier, only in happier times.

As Irka sought news of the soldier from neighbours and, later that day, her husband, word began to spread around Ełk that the town drunk had finally upped sticks: moved on to tap the sap from a new tree. 

And though former colleagues of Ludoslaw, including those who had served under him during the war, thought this highly unlikely, these were the same people who were first to admit that they cared little either way. The soldier’s war songs and constant grieving, the frightful scowl he shot you from the town’s dark alleyways, his ill repute among tourists and the damage his presence did to one’s business – none of it would be sorely missed. 

Naturally, the circumstances of his disappearance were cause for considerable gossip. No matter where Ludoslaw had went, the town was in agreement that it made little sense for him to have gone without his clothes. When a week had gone by, an old woman by the name of Małgorzata Gomółka, who had known the Lonely Soldier as a young man, finally identified the boy in the photograph.

‘Oh yes, I’m absolutely sure,’ said the old woman, her bottom lip touching her nose. ‘That’s poor Piotr Klimek, so it is. I taught that boy to play the piano, before the war.’ Małgorzata peered at the picture over the rim of her glasses, trembling hands exaggerated by the terrible cold of that January day. ‘Where did you get this, lassie?’ she asked Irka, who, by the look on her face, had not quite comprehended that her week long search was at an end.

‘The Lonesome Soldier,’ replied Irka, in broken Polish. ‘His clothes, it was… left behind.’

Małgorzata Gomółka thought about this for a moment, and as she did a strange smile began to thread its way through the heavy lines of her face. Her eyes sought the ground for answers, and absentmindedly her fingers smoothed the dogged ears of the photograph. After a while, she turned from the porch and shuffled back into her house. 

'Come on in, lassie,’ she called.

Irka, a little affronted by the old woman’s curtness, protested:

‘Oh, no, I can’t. Mister Balodis is home early, he’ll be expecting his dinner. There’s washing to do, and the house is a mess, I–’ But she was interrupted by the return of Małgorzata to the doorframe. The old woman raised her eyebrows.

‘You know, my Mariusz married me when I was just fifteen years old. Took me a while, but I loved him dearly in the end. Died on liberation day, 19th January 1945, the day the Red Army marched through town. Heart attack, just sheer couldn’t believe his luck.’ She chuckled, as if sharing the joke with her deceased husband. Then, more seriously, she said: ‘Broke my heart, it did. But you know what I realised that day?’ 

Irka shook her head. 

‘By the time Mariusz died, we’d been together for fifty years. I was sixty-five then, and I’d been with him since fifteen. Fifty years of my life I’d worked, day in, day out, putting food in that man’s belly, washing the stains from that man’s soiled undergarments, sweeping the floors of that man’s house,’ she leaned closer, putting a hand to the side of her mouth, ‘letting that man prod me with his thing… Fifty years I did all this, every day, and do you think I ever received a word of thanks in exchange?’ 

Irka shook her head again. 

‘Now, how about you do an old woman the courtesy of joining her for a wee glass of Maślanka?’

Finally, Irka’s face softened. She blushed, her pale, porcelain cheeks turning bright red. ‘Of course,’ she said.

Taking the young housewife by the hand, the elderly widow pushed the door shut behind them, braying like a horse at the welcome envelope of heat which met them from the roaring fireplace. 

‘I’ll have you back in plenty of time to cook for Mister Balodis, don’t you worry. But a word of advice: these men might not look like they’re capable of much, but trust me, they can cook their own meals. Biggest mistake my Mariusz ever made was boasting about the richness of the dumpling gravy he used to make, on the field during the Great War. Told him right there and then that if he could make it under shell fire, he could sure as hell is filled with fire make it one night a week whilst I put my feet up.’

Irka looked quite shell-shocked, and seeing this, Małgorzata roared with laughter. 

'That’s as good an impression of my Mariusz as I’ve seen yet!’

Małgorzata’s home was sparsely decorated, but welcoming. Above the kitchen table, which was pushed against the wall, were hung two of only a few decorations in the whole house. One, a dark wood shelf unit, was hung adjacent to the head of the table, a few feet above the back of the chair. On it was arranged some China trinketry, presumably imported via the Soviet Union from its sister state. The little frogs, mice, and rabbit figurines were a little sentimental for Irka’s tastes, but she was impressed, nonetheless. On the other wall, at right angles to the first, was hung a grandmother clock. Roman numerals in polished pearl peered out from an ivory face, beneath which swung a big brass pendulum, like the testicles of an old man. The thought made Irka giggle, which she covered with a cough. Momentarily, she wondered how on earth the old woman had managed to keep these evident antiques out of Nazi hands, but she knew better than to ask.

Presently, the younger woman was shown to a seat at the end of the table, opposite the shelves with their Chinese menagerie. Małgorzata banged and thudded with surprising vitality about the kitchen, and returned holding two mismatched tumblers and a carafe of thin white Maślanka, which was a fermented buttermilk left over from the churning process. The Latvian took it cautiously, but quickly discovered that the taste was to her liking. 

Once the table had been furnished with a small plate of chocolate-covered plums, Małgorzata finally took up her seat at the side of her young companion.

‘You know, my Mariusz used to speak a little Latvian. In fact, he taught me a good deal of it, so as I could help him practice. I can switch to it if you should prefer?’

Irka sipped her Maślanka, neatly returned the tumbler to the coaster, and shook her head. ‘No thank you, for me it is important to try my Polish.’

Małgorzata nodded approvingly. ‘Very well.’

'Now about poor Piotr Klimek. Remind me why it is you have his photograph?’ The old lady munched a chocolate date between her gums, her expression blank, as if it were Irka who had come to her for a story, and not she who had impressed the story upon Irka.

‘I found it, when the Lonesome Soldier disappeared, I was person discovered his clothes, and I found this picture there. I thought it was must be him as younger man.’

Slowly, recognition returned to Małgorzata’s eyes. 

‘Ah, yes. Well, you’re not far wrong. Did you know that I used to teach young Piotr here piano, before the war?’

Irka dutifully shook her head.

‘Oh yes, yes. He was a natural talent, you know. Such a quiet boy, so slight and delicate, you could hardly get a word out of him. But when he sat beside you at that stool, placed his scrawny-knuckled hands to the keys, it was as if suddenly he could speak with all the elegance of… of a Greek philosopher, of… of a consul of the Roman senate, or… yes, exactly! as Queen Wanda of our ancient nation had spoken, when she was faced with the prospect of marriage to German invaders, and gave them a passionate speech about the virtues of independent womanhood, before taking her own life.’

At this point in the story, Małgorzata paused to cross herself in the manner of the Church. Though the old woman’s eyes were to the ceiling, and could not have noticed what Irka was doing, the young Latvian followed suit, out of politeness. She did not know who this Queen Wanda had been, nor had she heard tell of the woman’s oratory until now. 

Małgorzata turned to Irka, a spark in her eyes.

‘That boy could play. Very soon he surpassed my ability to teach him, but still he came, every day after school, to practice by my side, over there, at that piano.’ She pointed to a dustsheet-covered mass in the corner of a room spied through the open kitchen door. A little surprised, Irka saw that it was the same room pictured in the photograph. ‘Every day,’ the old woman sighed. ‘Anyway, I think in playing the piano Piotr found a measure of peace, which he could not find in the outside world. 

‘My Mariusz and I were not the sort to want children, or, at least, God did not in His infinite wisdom see it fit for us to bear them. But Piotr, well I think sending Piotr to me was God’s way of gifting me a child, when I myself could not have one. And so, with what little money Mariusz could give me each month, I would buy a new record for Piotr and I to listen to. I thought it only prudent that I school him on the great Slavic composers: Chopin of Warsaw, for starters. Though, whilst Piotr marvelled at Frédéric Chopin’s delicacy and complexity, he found his Nocturnes… lacking. Lacking what, I’m sure I don’t know.’ Amused, Małgorzata shook her head. ‘So, I turned to the Russians. Tchaikovsky, of course. I thought surely the 1812 Overture had the soldierly force, the pomp and audacity which young boys lusted for, but when I played it for Piotr he screwed up his face, said that it was vulgar. Vulgar! Tchaikovsky!’ She laughed. ‘Of course, like I said, though he was but a child he had an immense gift for music, a kind ear. He was always grateful for the records, and never would have expressed such a contradictory opinion unless pressed. And I always pressed. When I played him Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, I thought that finally I’d cracked it. That piece excited Piotr to no end. However, Rimsky-Korsakov soon proved a dead end, too. My boy called him a “one-hit wonder”! 

‘By this time, Piotr had started bringing a friend to our house for my weekly listening sessions. The friend, of course, was that Lonely Soldier of yours. Ludoslaw Dragon was his name. He was the only friend I’d ever known Piotr to have, or go on to have. I’ll admit that at first I was a little put out, that my Piotr should share what we had with another. But, when I saw the fierce loyalty that young Ludoslaw held for my Piotr, when I watched a smile, so rare!, spread across Piotr’s face whenever he saw Ludoslaw’s eyes twinkle at the music, I could not help but welcome this other child to my bosom.

Still, when it came to music, you must realise that I felt I had reached an impasse with Piotr. Ludoslaw, on the other hand, had less of an ear for music than an ass, and I don’t doubt he would have lapped up The Battle of Prague by that drivelling Czech Kočvara, if only I’d have deigned to bring that muck into my house.’ 

The old woman laughed heartily, but not without a measure of genuine disgust. Irka watched on, mouth a little agape, as this ancient elder of Ełk bandied the works of famous composers about like objects of local gossip. 

‘No, Ludoslaw… I think Ludoslaw cared more for the time he spent with young Piotr, than he did for the music. But with Piotr, I was ready to give up. Then, one day, I played for him Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky. Do you know it?’ 

Irka shook her head, Małgorzata smiled sadly. 

‘Oh, it’s quite beautiful,’ she said. Turning her gaze to the kitchen window, the old woman allowed her eyes to flutter whilst she hummed. ‘The change in Piotr was quite immediate. Something in that music, something deep within it spoke to him, I think, quite powerfully, as the Divine might speak to a true follower of the faith. But it wasn’t just the music which reached him. Piotr studied every record sleeve in minute detail, of course, but with that Mussorgsky slip, he could not peel his eyes from it. You see, it told the tragic tale of Modest Mussorgsky’s life: his youthful defiance of musical standards, and later his melancholia, his trouble with alcohol, his eventual retreat into hermitage and poverty and, eventually, his death. Sad, lonely, suffering delirium tremens, the composer was only forty-two when he died…’ 

Małgorzata stopped talking. Though she made no sound, her cessation of movement told Irka that she was struggling to contain herself, and a glance at her eyes, red-rimmed and watery, told her the rest. The young Latvian housewife produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and offered it to her host. Małgorzata accepted it gratefully.

‘Oh, thank you my dear. You know, the older I get the more easily the tears come. One would think it should be the other way round,’ she chuckled, daubing at her eyes with a corner of the hanky.

‘I could not understand at the time what drew my Piotr to Modest, and that man’s tragic tale. I thought, as might any mother, or… well, you know… I thought little more of it than a fascination for the grotesque, as most boys Piotr’s age held. We were not long after the horrors of the Great War, of course, and young men at that time – even boys – had seen darker sights than had likely any others in human history. 

The fervour with which Piotr took to Mussorgsky’s compositions from that day on was only matched by the passion with which young Ludoslaw pursued Piotr. Together, the pair wore the grooves smooth on my recording of Night on Bald Mountain. Later, when they became young men and began to earn their own way in the world, I would often see them parading around town together, a copy of Mussorgsky’s most anguished and alluring cycle, Songs and Dances of Death, clutched under-arm. Eccentric, perhaps, but I think in Mussorgsky the pair found a like mind, a kindred spirit. At least, for Piotr I believe that to be true. 

Modest was of course also an outsider. By the end of his life he had removed himself from all of his friends, or had been removed by them. A drunk, I don’t think Mussorgsky ever really felt like he fit in, and in this my Piotr most certainly had an equal, whilst his mind for composition was on par with Piotr’s. For Ludoslaw, I believe it was Piotr in whom he found a kindred spirit. And so it was, the pair grew up around that bitter, beautiful, melancholic, tremendous and exacting music.’

Again, though completely absentmindedly this time, Małgorzata hummed those pounding refrains of Night on Bald Mountain. As her humming faded to silence, a quietude settled to the kitchen table for the first time that afternoon, like dust dances and falls in the autumn sun. Irka finished her glass of Maślanka, thought about taking a chocolate date, then thought better. After a while, she spoke:

‘What happened to him?’

The old lady looked up from her reveries, her eyes a little glazed. 

‘Hmm? What’s that deary?’

‘What… What happened to him? To Piotr?’

Małgorzata smiled to soothe the obvious nerves of her young companion.

‘Oh, what happens to most brilliant men, in the end. What I should have seen coming, had I but better understood his adoption of that Russian as his hero.’            

Irka noticed this time that Mussorgsky’s name – which Małgorzata had treated quite plainly before – was now replaced with ‘that Russian’, or rather ‘Russki’, a slur which the Poles only employed when all rational reasoning had failed.

‘He drank himself to death, my love.

‘In adulthood, my wee Piotr Klimek and his best friend, that Ludoslaw Dragon of yours, well… they became more than friends, shall we say.’ Again the old lady crossed herself. It suddenly struck Irka that despite her obvious faith, she had seen no crucifixes on her host’s walls. Not knowing quite what for, Irka followed suit again. 

More astute an observer than her age suggested, Małgorzata was quick to clarify her point for the confused housewife. ‘They were… lovers, dear. Homosexuals.’ She crossed herself again. ‘Ludoslaw, though reserved, was a big man, frightening when he needed to be, and I think for that reason alone he allowed himself to be proud of his… nature. But Piotr…’ she shook her head, ‘I think Piotr saw that he could never be with Ludoslaw and be a famous musician, which had been his only dream since ever I had known him.

‘In the end, I think it was this which tore him apart, which pushed him further into the drink. When I saw him last, I was bringing his neighbour some eggs, and passing his door I heard the opening bars of the Mussorgsky song which I had first introduced him to. I let myself in, and found him alone in the filthiest room I’d ever seen, listening to that record on the only well-kept thing around: my old gramophone. I hardly recognised him, lassie, and I thought for all the drink he could not possible have recognised me. But then do you know what he said to me, as I turned to leave?’

Irka shook her head.

‘He thanked me.’ Małgorzata inhaled heavily through her nose, stifling her emotions. ‘My poor Piotr thanked me for believing in him. It had been years since last we’d spoken; even longer since I’d shown him any love.’ She coughed, hiding a sniffle. ‘Years, and look at all he’d been through since then! And yet… here he was… thanking me. He recognised me after all!’ This time the old lady could not contain her tears, and let out a single heaving sob. ‘They found him dead in his house three days later, that same record still under the needle of the wind-up.

‘That was 1938, the year before war broke out again.’ Małgorzata took Irka’s hand and held it. ‘Supposing what we know now, I would hazard to guess that Ludoslaw, though estranged from Piotr for some time, took the death of my boy very hard. When war came, it was Ludoslaw who led the resistance, Ludoslaw who, grieving in his own way, set out to save as many folks as he could – and believe you me, he saved hundreds.’ 

Małgorzata fell silent.

‘I suppose… well, I suppose in the end even a thousand saved soul could not have filled the hole my Piotr’s death had bored in the young Dragon’s heart… Oh, God…’

At long last, as if the great walls of Babylon were finally stricken down, streams of soundless tears began to pour from the ducts of that ancient woman. Through the estuaries of her wrinkles ran rivers of saltwater, recompense for the lives she had touched, and yet had been unable, or unwilling to preserve. Irka put an arm tentatively round Małgorzata’s shoulder, and held her until the woman’s eyes ran dry. 

For lack of some better way to console her, Irka picked the tastiest looking chocolate plum from the plate, and offered it to her host. Initially a little dumbstruck, the offer soon had Małgorzata in tears again, though this time with laughter. The youngster’s youthful compassion had loosened the knot in her breast.

‘My, my, look at me, what a mess you must think I am.’

As she said that, the grandmother clock on the wall chimed, startling both women with its bell. The hour had turned, and it was now four o’clock in the afternoon. Irka realised with a start that previous chimes must have passed her by with her noticing, for she had been sat in Małgorzata’s kitchen far longer than she had intended.

‘Oh, dear me!’ Exclaimed Małgorzata. ‘And now I’ve made you late home, and after my promise to have you back in time to make Mister Balodis his supper!’

The old woman began to get up, ushering Irka to do the same with an anxious flurry of gestures. But Irka stopped her.

‘Please, Mrs Gomółka, I need to know: what does this mean? About… Ludoslaw… the Lonesome Soldier. Why would he leave photograph behind, when it mean so much to him?’ she slid a finger across the kitchen’s tablecloth until it came to rest on an edge of the tattered photograph. There, Piotr’s frail, angelic features peered down upon his piano, as a shepherd might watch, lovingly yet tensely, spring lambs take their first trembling steps. 

Małgorzata Gomółka rested where she stood, half out of her chair, captivated by the elusive charm in the boy’s dark eyes. Then, with a sigh as soft as bird’s breath, she sank back into the seat. Slowly, carefully, the old woman popped the chocolate covered date in her mouth, masticating whilst she thought. 

Eventually, she turned to Irka. 

‘I think the mystery may be less complex than it appears.’ She pointed then, directing Irka’s gaze to the kitchen window, beyond which was the rising townscape of Ełk, and beyond that, the wooded hills onto which the historic settlement backed. Crowning this group of hills, however, was one which still bore the scars of war: a mountain whose head was shaved clean of trees. Turning back, the young housewife found Małgorzata smiling.

‘I think Ludoslaw Dragon went to spend his last night on this earth atop that bald mountain of ours. And I think that there, at the very end, the Lonely Soldier felt not so lonesome, after all.’


Thank you for listening to Stories From The Hearth. With today’s story, as I explained in th introduction, it kind of came out of nowhere, and I just rolled with it! It was a pleasure to write, and I hope it came across that way, but I would really be interested to know what you all thought of it, because it was something done very differently. The protagonist never got a voice, he not once said a word, he wasn't even... we didn't see anything from his perspective, not once. And that was very deliberate. I really wanted to kind of make him feel like an outsider to us. I didn't want us to know - I didn't want myself to know - what had gone on in his head. I just wanted us to see what everybody else saw of him, so that we might realise how difficult life was made for somebody like that. I found one of the most interesting things about doing this episode Małgorzata's voice. That was really difficult actually, because until this episode there hasn't been a story where it's been largely told by a very specific narrator who has a very specific character. It's usually a sort of anonymous narrator who doesn't have a part in the story. But for me to relate Piotr Klimek and Ludoslaw Dragon's story from Małgorzata, I had to find an old woman voice which I could perform for, let's face it, the majority of the story. And I'm interested to know whether you thought that worked. It was not easy to do. I'm an amateur voice actor at best, and trying to come up with a voice and then carry that through for the entirety of the story... em, not something I've done before! [Laughs] So you know, we'll see how it came out.

This story obviously has a lot of very tentative, sensitive  subjects in it. The persecution of Jewish people, the persecution of homosexuals, queer people, people of... differently-abled people, Gypsies and Poles, indiscriminately, is a part of history which is hard to tackle. It's hard to stare at because it's ugly, it's upsetting, it's traumatic for many millions of people around the world whose heritage is directly linked to that blackest, blackest period of European and World history. But it's still one that I wanted to look at, to examine with this story, because I feel it important, I feel it important to keep those stories alive. That's what storytelling is, is taking stories that you heard when you were young and reformulating them, reworking them, reshaping them, rewriting them to present something new so that you can keep that content and those facts alive, you know? There are stories written in the Great War, or World War One, and the Second World War, which are still incredible pieces of literature, incredible stories, but perhaps don't excite or engage the younger generations now as much as they did when they were first released. 

So it's important to me to try and rework a story within that setting, in order to keep all of that information alive, and introduce people who perhaps weren't familiar with the fact that homosexual men and women would have to wear a pink triangle on their lapel just like Jewish people would have to wear a yellow Star of David, to identify them in public as somebody who was essentially, in the end, going to be going to the death camps and the labour camps to be exterminated, just because of their sexuality. And of course, for Ludoslaw, he managed to carve for himself a space, and somehow survive throughout the war, without that being his end point. And yet, he'd already lost a lover before the war, lost a lover to homophobia before the war; and his death in itself is kind of a product of homophobia after the war. I wanted to show that dichotomy between, you know, the irony  of him surviving this most brutal period of history for his kind of people, but in reality it's always been brutal. You know? To be a queer person in history has almost always been dangerous, and I wanted to show that. Anyway, enough of the bloody lectures. 

Thank you so much for listening. If you liked what you heard, please do subscribe, and share this podcast with friends, family, and anyone you know who could use a bit of respite from the chaotic energies of the everyday. If you wish to support the podcast, please head to my Patreon by hitting the link in the description below. Similarly, you can check out the podcast’s Instagram, Twitter, and website via the links below. Story episodes are released once a month, and the next episode is going to be a Halloween special, out on the 31st of October. Between now and then, however, you're going to get one of the minisodes which is usually reserved for my patrons, and you're going to get an episode of The Wandering Bard historical series, which looks at the history and the people behind storytelling. That will be out on the second Sunday of October. A shout out before I go to two more of my top-tier patrons: to my gran and papa Sandy and Jane, and to my mum Vivian Bannerman. Thanks to them and many other patrons who support me on Patreon, I'm able to keep writing these stories, keep putting them out, keep experimenting, keep being creative, and hopefully, keep you entertained. Until next time, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to Stories From The Hearth.