Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski


I don’t know what woke me up tonight. Not the branch of the chestnut tree knocking against my window, not Pani Kolecka coughing in the room next door. Not any more. Maybe it was the ghosts of these noises, swept up by the wind, carried across the ocean to knock on my consciousness. Maybe. What I am certain of is this: my body feels depleted, like a foreign country after a war. And yet I cannot go back to sleep.

I think of you. The face that my memory can conjure up with its rough outlines and fine details, with the grey-blue eyes the same colour as the Baltic Sea in winter. I think of your face while I get up, while I move in the darkness from bed to window, clothes lying around the floor like unfinished thoughts. And then I recall yesterday evening, and the chill of it makes me stop in my tracks. The radio was on, song hour like every day after work: something light was playing, I can’t remember what. I was standing in the kitchen looking for the coffee when the music stopped.

‘We are interrupting the programme for a special announcement,’ said the lady in her soft, round voice. ‘This morning, on December the thirteenth, martial law has been declared in the Socialist Republic of Poland. It follows weeks of strikes and unrest by pro-democracy protesters, and the meteoric rise of the first independent trade union of the communist bloc, Solidarność’ (mispronounced). ‘In a televised address, the government announced a series of drastic measures: schools and universities have been shut down, the country’s borders have been closed and curfews have been imposed on the population. We will keep you updated on any further developments.’

The music went on.

I can’t even tell you what I felt in that moment. It was the purest form of paralysis. My body must have shut down before my mind could react. I have no idea how I made it into bed.

I light a cigarette by the window. Outside, the street is empty, and the night’s rain shimmers on the pavement, reflecting the two-storey buildings and crackling neon. ‘24 hours,’ says the hamburger joint down the block. ‘Wanda’s Greenpoint Convenience,’ whispers another in red and white. Police sirens wail in the distance. Bizarrely, they are the same as at home. Whenever I hear one the hair on my forearm stands on end. They remind me of the night when that same shrill sound filled the air of a city far away. Before that city became an outline, an item on the foreign news. Before loneliness covered me like night-blue tar.

I don’t know whether I ever want you to read this, but I know that I need to write it. Because you’ve been on my mind for too long. Ever since that day, twelve months ago, when I got on a plane and flew through the thick layers of cloud across the ocean. A year since I saw you, a year that has felt like limbo – ever since then I’ve been lying to myself. And now that I am stuck here, in the dreadful safety of America, while our country is falling apart, I am done with pretending that I’ve erased you from my mind. Some things cannot be erased through silence. Some people have that power over you, whether you like it or not. I begin to see that now. Some people, some events, make you lose your head. They’re like guillotines, cutting your life in two, the dead and the alive, the before and after.

It’s best to start with the beginning – or at least what feels like it. I realise now that we never talked much about our pasts. Maybe it would have changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have been different. Who can say? Either way, I probably never told you about Beniek. He came more than a decade before you. I was nine, and so was he.

Chapter 1

I had known him almost all my life, Beniek. He lived around the corner from us, in our neighbourhood in Wrocław, composed of rounded streets and three-storey apartment buildings that from the air formed a giant eagle, the symbol of our nation. There were hedges and wide courtyards with a little garden for each flat, and cool, damp cellars and dusty attics. It hadn’t even been twenty years since any of our families had come to live there. Our postboxes still said ‘Briefe’ in German. Everyone – the people who’d lived here before and the people who replaced them – had been forced to leave their home. From one day to the next, the continent’s borders had shifted, redrawn like the chalk lines of the hopscotch we played on the pavement. At the end of the war, the east of Germany became Poland and the east of Poland became the Soviet Union. Granny’s family were forced to leave their land near Lwów. The Soviets took their house and hauled them on the same cattle trains that had brought the Jews to the camps a year or two earlier. They ended up in Wrocław, a city inhabited by the Germans for hundreds of years, in a flat only just deserted by some family we’d never know, their dishes still in the sink, their breadcrumbs on the table. This is where I grew up.