My Polish Teacher's Tie



Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore was born in 1952. She studied English at the University of York and then taught in Finland before embarking on a distinguished writing career. She has written in a wide range of forms including poetry, short stories, novels (both for children and adults), journalism and literary criticism. Her novels have been shortlisted for several literary awards and she won the inaugural Orange prize with A Spell of Winter (1996). Her novel The Siege (2001), which was shortlisted for both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, is set during the siege of Leningrad in 1941. It is well worth reading.

Helen Dunmore's writing is characterised by a strong and sensuous imagery. She began as a writer of poetry and says that she will probably end in the same way. It shows in her prose writing through her delight in description and scene setting. She has said that landscape and setting are not a backdrop in her books but a character.


The story is written in the first person. The narrator, Carla Carter, tells us that she is a part time member of the catering staff in a school canteen. One day she is serving tea and cakes to the staff when her attention is caught by the headteacher announcing that some Polish teachers are looking for English pen friends to improve their skills in written English; staff members who are interested should get a contact address from him.

Carla is half Polish although her name is English and no one at the school knows her background. As a child she was taught Polish language and poems by her mother, but her English father eventually put a stop to it. She decides to ask the Head for the address.

Carla begins writing to 'Steve', a teacher in Poland. He tells her about his poetry writing and sends examples of it in both English and Polish. It reminds her of the stories her mother used to tell her as a child. She notices that he appears to assume that she is a member of the teaching staff and she doesn't tell him her actual job.

She writes to him about her childhood memories of her mother's Polish words and stories. She and Steve write to one another more frequently and in an increasingly chatty, informal and friendly tone.

At school one day the Head announces that a Polish teacher, Stefan Jeziomy, will visit the school next week and will be staying at the home of a teacher, Valerie Kenward. Carla realizes that Stefan is in fact Steve. Why had he said nothing in his letters?

At home there is a rather stiff and formal letter from Steve. She realises that, because he believes her to be a teacher at the school, he must have thought she already knew he was coming and had not offered accommodation to him during his stay. The whole thing threatens to be awkward and upsetting. She thinks…


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