created by Tom Owen

It cheered Piotr to see his son (and his family) known around their little corner of east London for something other than where they were from, their ‘otherness'

In 1938 Piotr Chociemski was a promising young printer's assistant, an orphan who had never travelled more than 20 miles outside of the Krakow city limits – by 1946 he was a decorated fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, with a beautiful young wife, a baby on the way, and no idea what to do with his life.

Piotr was a pragmatic man and had gathered enough from news reports, shaky military intelligence and the constant 'soldiers gossip' that abounds in armed forces units all over the world, to know that there was not likely to be much of a life left for he and his wife Katya back in Krakow. And so, a little hesitantly, Piotr decided to leave the Air Force and create a life in England.

As a skilled worker and a young man - both in short supply at that time - Piotr soon found work as a printer. Within weeks of receiving his first pay packet Katya went into labour. They had talked about returning to Poland to have the baby, but Piotr was set on the idea of his son (and he felt sure it was a son) being born in the country he would call home.

And so, in Whitechapel Hospital, on the third day in March, in the year of our lord 1947, Adam Paul Chociemski was born. The name, chosen by the father, was as Anglo-Saxon as he could make it, much to the dismay of Katya, who’d wanted a traditional Polish name for her son. Something like her father, Pawel. Adam’s middle name, ‘Paul' had been Piotr’s one concession to her wishes. His son was to be one of the boys, as British as they come. And that was that.

In the years of his infancy life with baby Adam was rarely straightforward. He inherited from somewhere a strong pair of lungs that he exercised at any opportunity – neither parent knew where this questionable genetic 'gift' might have originated, although Katya thought perhaps one of her father's uncles had been a tenor of some quality in the days before Polish independence. Regardless of their pedigree, Adam's lungs created many sleepless nights for his parents. And for their neighbours. It was noticed by many that in the first 12 months of Adam's life the number of stray cats and dogs that were heard howling and yowling late at night in Shadwell dropped demonstrably – they had all gone to pastures new, searching for a decent nights sleep – so went the joke around the Chociemski's neighbourhood.

With the benefit of hindsight we can probably assume the shortage of cats and dogs on the streets had more to do with the corresponding shortage of meat of any grade or quality in post-war, rationing-era Britain, than it had with young master Chociemski's nightly caterwauling sessions. Nevertheless, like all things that have a ring of truth mixed with the fantastical, the story passed into local myth. Adam was henceforth known as the boy who kept the cats away – a nickname that pleased his father, whose greatest fear was that Adam would become known merely as 'the Polack kid from Armitage Street’.

It cheered Piotr to see his son (and his family) known around their little corner of east London for something other than where they were from, their ‘otherness' – he had always felt a small suggestion of resentment towards him and his family for being foreign. Maybe, he supposed, the Chociemskis were an unwanted reminder of the fires of conflict not-long extinguished – or perhaps, simply, it was the ageless reason that fuels most prejudice; there’s not enough for me and mine, so there’s damn well not enough for anyone new.

It was Piotr’s dearest wish that Adam be spared that kind of hatred. That he be as English as jellied eels.

And so began – in the roiling, broiling smog of a city that crept close to the brink of destruction – the long and interesting life of Adam Chociemski.

Tom Owen is a freelance writer, and Editor of Smoke and Tales

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