Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

Pani Kolecka would go out every morning, early, and join the queues that seemed most promising, according to a rumour picked up by some acquaintance. She would walk the city carrying shopping nets in her handbag at all times, and whenever she chanced to walk past a queue that seemed like it might yield something – whether it was toilet paper or canned beans – she’d join and wait.

Most evenings Pani Kolecka came home empty-handed, tired. She’d sit at the table in the living room, her hands illuminated by a tiny lamp, using leftover cloth to make hats she’d sell in the queues. She’d smile at me when I got back from your place, night having fallen outside. ‘Waiting for nothing, queuing for a possibility, that’s what we’re all doing now,’ she said, quietly, one night. Her eyes sparkled with sadness and irony. ‘There is no other currency than time. And it’s cheap.’

We were eating less, and fewer things. I often ate at the campus canteen, though not the meat. But sometimes we’d be lucky. Sometimes I’d come home and she’d be standing in the kitchen, the radio beside her playing Chopin, something fragrant cooking on the stove, most likely with cumin. She loved cumin.

‘Come and eat, Ludzio,’ she’d say, with a smile in her small eyes. ‘You must be hungry. Sit down and tell me about your day.’

One morning, while I was still waiting to hear from Professor Mielewicz, I found Pani Kolecka lying on her bed in the living room, blanket pulled up to her chin. ‘It’s the standing,’ she said, coughing. Her cough was dry and violent, like a complaint. It seemed strange that a small, fragile being could make such a sound. I prepared some tea for her, dissolved honey in it that she’d brought from the countryside where her sisters lived. But it didn’t help. The coughing continued. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her eyes red with exhaustion. ‘I will need to get some medicine.’

That night the winds grew stronger, the trees in the courtyard moved against each other, air howling between their branches. I woke up and heard the coughing from the next room, sharp and uncontrolled like a threat.

The next morning, I went to the pharmacy for Pani Kolecka. They didn’t have what she needed.

‘We might get it in two weeks,’ the pharmacist said, without a trace of emotion on his face. I tried another pharmacy further away, and they told me the same. I walked back to the flat with anger collected at the bottom of my stomach, pulsing through my body.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Pani Kolecka. ‘I’ll be fine. I just need some rest.’

I made her some more tea and boiled some vegetables. I brought her food from the canteen, ruskie pierogi and pickled cabbage. But the cough continued. Its dry cracking sound would stir me from sleep, accompany my nights. As if something was trying to tear up her body from inside.

During those weeks, you and I would go to the university pool every now and then. It wasn’t far from the Old Town, tucked in below the ramparts of the faculty grounds. I remember its large reception hall and the strong smell of chlorine – how I liked that smell – and the cloakroom where we left our shoes in a shared cloth bag. In the changing rooms we undressed amongst other boys, drying themselves, joking around, unaware of their nudity, or used to it like something that was a given – strong backs and thighs and asses, skin smooth and covered in drops like forest leaves after rain. But in a strange way this didn’t excite me. When we were naked like that, changing, showering amongst them, we weren’t really ourselves. We were lighter, without consequence. We took off our roles along with our clothes, and only belonged to the anonymous world of bodies. And when we swam our rounds and I pushed through the water, I felt even lighter. It reminded me of our summer together, of the ease with which we’d floated across the lake. As I swam I dissolved in the water, and something came to me from the depths of my memory.

I was very young; Father had just left us and Mother was so distraught I was afraid she’d die from grief. She stayed in her room all day. Her lips pale, her eyes red. I tried to cheer her up, to distract her with my picture books that I’d bring to her bed and read out loud. Then one day she came out of her room, her face made up, lipstick on and eyes dark with kohl, and she took me outside and lifted me on to her bike. We rode all along our street and across the large empty park to the pool in the domed Centennial Hall. This is where she taught me. This is where we went into the water together, and she, my lifeline, held me while I wriggled my legs and arms, exhilarated and free. She taught me patiently, to trust my body, to let myself float, to move on my own. For years we’d go together, even when I no longer needed her to hold me. I wanted her to see me, to be proud of me. To make each of us feel important to the other. So when the day came, some years later, when they found something in her lungs and I came home from school to find the flat empty, with only Granny crying on the couch, it never occurred to me to go back to the pool. Not without her. It was as if that part of my life had died along with her, as if it could never return.