Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

On our last evening the comrade leader made a speech, thanking us for our hard work. Then he ordered us down to the river. We walked in little groups, unsure what would happen, filled with excitement tinged with dread. But what we came upon were dozens of little boats flopping in the water. We got in, six to a boat, me with Karolina and Beata and the boys from my hut, and we rowed down the river, not towards our spot, but in the other direction, where the forests began. We formed a line of boats with Belka at the head. We saw the sun set far behind the fields we’d so carefully emptied that month, and along a narrow arm of the river that snaked its way into the forest. Tall pine trees began surrounding us, fragrant, solemn and seemingly infinite. It was cooler there, and utterly dark, and soon the only light came from the faint moon above us, barely visible in-between the canyon of the treetops, and the distant light of Belka’s torch in front. We heard the sound of light paws on the forest floor, and the cracking of branches. An owl hooted.

Then our convoy stopped, and we all got out. There was a clearing in the forest. A fire was made that threw light on the ground and warmed us in the cool of the night. Sausages were pierced on twigs. Someone took out a guitar and began to sing, and bit by bit this wild dark place turned intimate. The night was full of noise and crackling and talk. We stood by the fire and drank beer and the boys talked about their trip to Romania. Further off, in-between some trees, I saw you standing with your group: the girl with the dark hair and Maksio Karowski. I observed you for a moment, your profile in the dark, the way you smoked your cigarette, holding it between thumb and index. Then I forced myself to look away.

Towards the end of the night I was sitting by the fire by myself, sipping a beer and staring into the flames. I was thinking about the rest of the summer, the rest of my life, and struggling to see anything. It seemed like the only thing that was certain was change itself, unstoppable and careless like fire eating wood. Then a shadow moved and you sat down on the log beside me. We didn’t say anything for a while. I felt weak. You looked exposed in the light of the flames, and even more handsome, with your red-and-black chequered shirt, your eyes reflecting the fire. You looked around, as if to see whether anyone was listening. There were many conversations around us, couples dancing, others sitting on logs, singing along to the guitar.

‘I’ve almost finished the book,’ you finally said.

‘And?’ I tried to sound detached as my pulse began to quicken.

You looked into the fire. ‘I like it. I can see why it’s not officially published.’

Our eyes met for a moment, and you smiled.

‘Why did you stop coming to the river?’

I turned my head away. No words came to me. Finally I looked up and saw you looking at me with tenderness.

‘Don’t be scared.’

The way you said this – softly, perfectly calm – pierced right through me. The flames crackled. I nodded; that’s all I could do. You smiled, dissolving the tension, your teeth flashing in the light of the fire. We sat there for a while, in our private silence, worlds shifting in me.

‘I’m going to the lake district tomorrow,’ you said. ‘I’ve never been, and I always wanted to go. And I thought this was the moment, before returning to the city, before real work begins. There are some great places out there. Lakes, rivers. I have a tent and all.’ You paused, and our eyes met again for a moment. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you. Do you want to come with me?’

Chapter 3

I remember the bus leaving with the others, and you and I staying behind. It was an overcast day. Rucksacks on our backs, hands around the straps, we walked up the country road, hoping to hitch a ride. I was nervous and we talked little, but somehow the silence between us was a pact. I felt like a small bird set loose, scared and exhilarated by the void before me.

The first car that stopped took us east. The driver, a middle-aged man, eyed us from time to time but asked no questions. We drove silently along country avenues lined with tall chestnut trees, past fields bordered by poppies. I had no idea where we were. We had no map and there were few road signs, but even if there had been more the names of the places would have meant nothing to me. While I took it in, this nameless expanse, you slept with your face against the window.

At some point in the afternoon the driver let us out at a country junction. You tore a coupon from your hitch-hiker’s booklet and passed it to him.

‘Hope you send it in and win a hairdryer or something!’ you cried, and swung the doors shut. He nodded and sped off into the horizon.