The bus rattled Kathy through the winter morning streets, determined not to stop unless it had to. Yellow lights burned in apartment block windows, and behind those windows, Kathy made out the grey shapes of Warsaw’s old people up just for the hell of it. “I don’t believe in getting up early,” she said to the woman sitting opposite her, who hid a taut mouth in her collar. Get up, Marek had been fond of grumbling at her. Life’s passing you by. Life was just going ahead and doing whatever it did though. It was Marek who had been passing her by. “He’s going to be famous,” she reminded herself, and the words picked a melancholy way through her.
Kathy’s thoughts slid down a long slope. She was no longer in love. Love had passed almost as soon as she noticed it was there. All the same, she had the urge to smile. She regained the disapproving eye of her travelling companion.
Women with long, thin faces like Kathy’s, with large eyes and big noses, had dark times as childhood’s ugly sisters, but when they got to their twenties, they highlighted those eyes and made their lips bright red and framed it all in a symmetrical bob. Then they looked like the women who did well in the Weimar Republic, strong and wilful and with a frightening beauty all their own. They were eyed with a different kind of censure. “I’m sure she’s a nice girl,” Marek’s mother had said. “But what a face! I’m sure you can do better than that, dear.” Marek hadn’t needed to tell her that.
A surgeon had tried to pick her up during her evening in Café Literacka. Pony-tailed, with teeth sacrificed to late nights and a bad diet, his tie didn’t go with anything in the room, and his jacket was like a Scottish heath. “I am a good man with a knife,” he told her and then waited for her to appreciate the unsettling joke. He was a cheerful fatalist, a cynical romantic, a God-fearing nihilist, a socialist capitalist. Kathy nodded him through any view that might have appealed to her and fed him questions at which to bluster. He stared critically at the Slovak brew she asked for, his national pride prickled. He then thought of something to say about her Polish—she was cheerfully murdering the tongue of his mother. “Your mother,” she nodded, although she understood only one thing about men who talked about their mothers in a first conversation—that they should stay home with them and not go out to dark bars to pick up foreign women from the Weimar Republic. Then her Polish was allright by him, for you had to tear down the restrictive walls of tradition, didn’t you, and you start with language. Kathy didn’t care what he did with her tongue, as long as he didn’t get it near his own. “I’ll buy you a meal,” he promised. She called for another beer in her homicidal Polish, her eyes telling him she couldn’t be got for just any old meal. “I’ll take you to the Marriott,” she heard him say, but she was already away from the bar, going through the tables into the fug in the main room.
Her friend Dorota had her brooding eyes only half-open. She wore horrible clothes that didn’t suit her and, Kathy could tell, had just realised it. She sat down and waved at Maja, her oldest friend in Warsaw, if no longer her closest. Kathy wasn’t sure why that was so.
“Who’s that creep you were talking to?” Maja called across their mousey friend Agniusia, who joined in the conversation with an upward tilt of her pursed lips.
“Some doctor.” Kathy made a face. “But anyway, he was talking to me.”
As they puzzled over this trick of nuance, Kathy looked back at the bar and saw the schizophrenic surgeon already making earnest talk at a girl with a face like a blow-up doll, flabby upper arms escaping from her short satin sleeves.
“Locomotion?” she said but knew that nobody wanted to go to the Locomotion. None of them wanted to move in and out of the lights among the frosty rich people, nor to spot the bigshots and then hate themselves for saying, in a squeal fit for a princess, “Hey, that’s Zosia Poniatowska over there.” None of them wanted to look over their shoulders for the heavy girls from Wola with whom Dorota had tipsily picked a fight over some matter of etiquette last time they were there. Dorota reflected the incident in an agitated movement of her shoulders. Agniusia said, “Locomotion? It’s possible.” Maja was in a mood, it was plain. Kathy said no more, drank her beer, and listened to the dreary jazz band.
She could sense Marek in a corner with his cronies, pontificating about pictures. “Art’s for looking at,” she remembered saying, the company keeping a polite silence. “It’s for feeling,” and not, she meant, for the vanity they summoned up with their talk. The talk had nothing to do with what he did, the way he chased the light, froze it in place, made a tiny world beautiful with it. She remembered looking at the light outside, then at his work, both pleased and sad that the next time she looked outside that light would be haunting some different part of the country, but there it was in the room, captured and imprisoned.
She was glad she wasn’t among Marek and his friends, felt a rush of exuberance. She found her foot tapping and thought she might like to dance after all. Then her thoughts were taken by a slow film of herself and Marek in the city in the summer—she blamed it on something in the music—and she felt her eyes strobed, felt her head filling up with darkness, lights flickering away, dying. “Bit of air,” she decided and made her way through the bar room crush and past the candles that made the corridor look like something from a Nuremburg rally.
The street seemed dead after the racket in Literacka, shimmering lamps fading gently into a light fog. It was only when Kathy had collected her thoughts that she could make out a distant noise coming from the Irish pub around the corner.
She’d fallen in love somewhere near there; such things were unforgettable. She followed a far-off pulse as it counted the steps she made that winter day when she ran into Marek while picking aimlessly through the Christmas tat touted at the market in Castle Square. Her hands were stuck inside her coat cuffs when he appeared next to her, a gaunt, pale snowman with a pair of new woolly gloves, patterned like Christmas wrapping paper, held out to her. “I can’t bear to see the good lady cold,” he declared in his solemn language.
The damsel in distress in Kathy had withdrawn her pale hands, their veins standing out a little; the adventuress in her had looked at him with the coolest of smiles. “You’re a romantic,” she concluded. She had seen his face wanting to fall with the news that she wasn’t the Polanka of his dreams. “I’m English.” She still hadn’t taken the gloves, leaving him the liberty to withdraw his gentlemanly services.
“I speak English,” he admitted stiffly.
“Were you looking for the big romance?” she was asking him within the hour as they drank coffee in a place on the New Town square. Marek, faced with her directness, was somehow sweet in his perplexity. He was an artist, he told her hurriedly, and Kathy knew that he was explaining himself in this way. He made real the things he saw in his head, married them to the light outside it, and made them into something unique. Kathy guessed she liked the idea of that.
“What sort of thing do you do?” She’d put the inevitable question, and, like all artists, Marek had told her he couldn’t possibly explain, then launched into a disquisition about his work that Kathy stopped by suggesting she come and see it. He looked at her as if she’d thought of a stunningly original idea, and then he led her through the New Town to his little beaten-up car.
She’d already decided that she would sleep with him. She didn’t know if he was the kind of man one could love, didn’t know then that his art’s claim on him had left him dark and quiet and dead inside, that he would look upon her the way he saw all the possessions crowding out his flat in Mokotów.
Love is good, Kathy thought as she watched their ghosts make their way across Castle Square, Kathy pulling on her new gloves. But what comes after just tears you in two until you get to a night when you don’t care anymore. She smiled to herself and said, “A night like this.”
“Locomotion, then?” sulky Agniusia was saying in Kathy’s ear. She looked around and saw them all there, their coats on.
“We can’t go to Locomotion,” Maja said sharply, and Kathy felt as if she wanted to mimic her. As if reading her mind, Maja sent her a challenging look.
“What are you all doing out here?” Kathy asked, and they looked at one another.
“I told them,” Maja said. “They thought we were going, thought that was why you came out. I told you,” she reminded them.
“What now, then?” Kathy shook her head. “We’ve lost our seats,” she pointed out, “for sure.” She left them to think about that and ran back in to get her coat.
“We should have stayed there,” they were all saying in one way or another when Kathy came out all buttoned up. The fatuous argument followed them down the street and around a corner to Dorota’s Škoda.
“It’s cold,” they said. “It’s late. Where shall we go?”
Dorota wanted to go to a bar whose name and location she couldn’t remember. “You know,” she begged each of them in turn. “We went there.” She couldn’t remember when, either. The engine wheezed into life, and they were moving. Kathy liked that, when they just drove, made their way through the punch-drunk city of the small hours looking out at buildings in the unearthly light that dressed them, at implacable doors and inscrutable windows.
Agniusia said, “Praga?” They all said no, for there was no reason to go to Praga at that time of night except to score coke while dismissing the patter of trainee gangsters.
“What about Blue Velvet?” Dorota suggested, but then it was decided that the Blue Velvet was too full these days of the city’s diplomat brats to be cool anymore.
Kathy kept silent. She didn’t want to drink any more and no longer wanted to dance. She didn’t even want to talk, just wanted to be driven around that city in its winter agony, watch its lights receding into the fog. She wanted to remember Warsaw like that, as a glowing ghost in the dark, didn’t want Marek to become the city for her the way places had for so many women she’d got to know on her way around the world. She went bright for a second with the thought. She settled back in her seat and looked out as they came down the bank of the Wisła and past the redundant palaces of Mariensztat.
“So where are we going?” they were still saying.
“The Blues Bar,” Kathy said, though she knew the Blues Bar would be shut. She remembered things like that, so why couldn’t they? Dorota crossed Jerozolimskie and the Place of the Three Crosses and followed the spectral road past the embassies towards Łazienki Park. She stopped, and they got out, the chill of the fog falling immediately on their heads.
“Not a sound.” Dorota pointed towards the trees that guarded the Blues Bar.
“Nor a light,” Agniusia agreed.
“It’s shut, that’s why,” said Maja. They all looked at Kathy, who made a flippant apology. It was good to stand there in the still night, the empty road behind them. This idea took hold even as they shivered, then paired up, arms round one another’s shoulders: Agniusia and Dorota, Maja and Kathy.
“So where’s Marek tonight?” Maja said conversationally.
They all liked him, but they didn’t know him at all, which was when he was at his most likeable. Kathy hesitated, then confessed. “It was his big show tonight.”
“And you weren’t there?” Maja sounded shocked.
The others caught it in her voice. “What? What was that, Kathy?”
“I’ve lost him,” she confirmed and felt a wave of blue wash over her.
“But he’s going to be famous,” Agniusia blurted out.
Kathy looked back at her patiently. “He can have it.” It felt good to say that. At the gallery, she knew the party would long have been over. Marek had attended to its preparation with all the twittery foolishness of wedding parents; his mother had been involved and caterers and a sound system. The place would have been full of greater and lesser art world figures fawning and yet talking tough at the same time, playing their parts in the pecking order. Kathy’s clothes had been chosen as had what she was to say to so-and-so, just in case posterity would give a shit. She heard them sniggering, “So where is your English rose tonight?”
Marek had been catching what she thought of it in her eyes for weeks, she knew. “If you’re not there,” had been the last thing he said to her. She’d finished the sentence for him in her head in a hundred different ways.
“Just didn’t go,” she said into the silence that surrounded her. “It’s finished.”
“We’ll talk about it.” Maja gave Kathy’s shoulder a squeeze, adding, “Whenever you want.” Kathy looked at her and sent her a smile like a kiss, remembering then why she liked Maja. “Let’s go, then.” Maja clapped her hands. She sounded wide awake. “Let’s go to Agniusia’s, drink some coffee.”
“We can play backgammon,” Kathy said. She had introduced them all to the game, which both maddened and intrigued them. They nodded doubtfully. In the car, Dorota suggested MTV, and Agniusia tutted, promising that instead she’d crack open the middle of the night and play her battered piano and teach Kathy some Warsaw songs as old as the world, forgotten songs that would make her cry once she worked out the words. At a nudge from Maja, she nodded herself into a painful silence.
“That’ll be… good,” Kathy said brightly, although she wasn’t so sure if it would be quite such a perfect end to a winter night when she’d made a commitment to falling out of love. She thought of all they could do, settled into her seat again and felt almost comfortable, but once back in the brashly-lit city centre, about to head up towards Agniusia’s place in Żoliborz, she spotted the Mokotów bus sitting at its terminus and told Dorota to stop the car.
“You’re going home?” Maja called, without judgement, but the others set up a dawn chorus of dissent, about the coffee and the backgammon and the MTV and the songs.
“Got to go home.” The word had a strange feeling in Kathy’s mouth. “Got to get my things,” she spelt out. “Got to pack.” All the same, she kept her hand on top of the car, as if unwilling to let it go.
“Just like that?” said Maja. “But Kathy… Kathy, come to my place. Tomorrow? First thing? Will you?”
“I will.” Kathy tried to swallow, suddenly finding it impossible.
The bus driver had been watching. He blinked his lights.
Their goodnights rang in her ears and made a trail through her head as they got mixed up with what she would say to Marek. She ran across to the bus and was soon on her bone-shaken way.
They might have been good, the coffee, the backgammon, the MTV, even those old laments, but Kathy had her own music to face. As the bus came to a halt in Mokotów, she got off and let tears fall in the icy cold of the morning. They almost froze on her face and prompted her to remember one of those dreary songs whose words she would never learn, even as they imprinted themselves into her, the oldest songs of all.
© Nick Sweeney
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Nick’s interview]