Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

‘Quick, Pani Waleszka, the kitchen.’

The woman took me by the arm and we hurried along the narrow corridor to a tiny kitchen with a view of the street. Before I could see anything going on outside, we heard more banging on the door. Then the sound of it being opened.

‘Citizen,’ we heard a voice boom in the other room, ‘a suspect is hiding in this building. Have you seen him? A young man with light hair and a brown rucksack?’

‘There is no one here apart from myself and my secretary,’ said the man calmly.

‘Then you will let us search the space.’

Their boots crossed the threshold.

The woman and I looked at each other in the tiny kitchen. Right behind the door was another, very narrow, door, painted the same colour as the wall. Pani Waleszka opened it quickly, took out some brooms that were inside and pushed me in. I fit sideways, and she closed the door. I heard her shoving the brooms up against it, heard running in other parts of the office, and then the sound of her heels on the wooden floor of the corridor.

‘Is there anyone in that other room, citizen?’

‘No, officer,’ said her voice, betraying no tension.

The kitchen door was flung open, and the door to my hiding place trembled. I could see them through a crack, a tiny slice of them. I thought my heart would burst. There were two. Flushed, angry men in uniforms, inches away. I would never see you again. Panic gripped me and pulled me into an abyss. The policemen moved quickly, looking around the kitchen, and out on to the street through the window.

‘Shit,’ one of them whispered, banging his fist on the kitchen counter.

‘All clear!’ shouted the other one into the corridor.

There was a scratching on the door.

‘You can come out now,’ said the woman’s voice. I don’t know how long I had been in there, listening to the sound of the policemen thundering through the building, banging on doors, searching the flats and offices, returning to interrogate the man and the woman and to take down their details, and the commotion outside, the screams of the crowds, and then, gradually, the dying down of any sound except for the wailing of sirens. Finally I’d heard cars honking, and the buzzing of the trams, and then this scratching.

The door to my cell opened. They both stood there, a light bulb hanging above their heads, night in the street behind them. I forced my body out of its hiding place, dusted myself off, aware of their eyes on me. They had their coats on, and both wore a look of exhaustion and curiosity.

‘That was very brave of you,’ said Pani Waleszka.

‘And foolish,’ said the man, with a hint of a smile in his grey eyes.

‘I know,’ I said, feeling embarrassed. ‘Thank you. You saved me.’

Pani Waleszka poured a glass of water and handed it to me.

‘Yes, that was rather close,’ said the man, eyeing me. ‘And an interesting spectacle too, those flying papers. What an idea, to throw propaganda out there when the whole of the city’s police is mobilised in the street. If it hadn’t been for us, you would have spent tonight in prison.’ He smiled, stretching out his hand. ‘I’m Tadeusz Rogalski, attorney,’ he said. His hand was large and soft, his fingers like little pincushions.

‘I’m Ludwik.’

‘And this is Pani Waleszka, my secretary.’ We shook hands.

‘Call me Małgosia,’ she said.

‘So what happened?’ I asked.

They looked at each other. ‘They dispersed the strikers,’ said Małgosia hesitantly, unwillingly almost. ‘A few people got hurt.’

‘Did anyone die?’

‘We don’t know,’ said the man, looking at the floor. ‘Ambulances came and took people away.’

‘Do you think it’s safe for me to go out there?’

‘They might still be looking for you,’ he said. ‘Or not. But we’d better not take any risks. We’ll take the back entrance. Let’s go.’

We went down the dark stairs very quietly. Before we reached the ground floor I could hear the noise of passing cars – the entrance door was unhinged, leaning against a wall. We slipped into a long dark corridor that led in the opposite direction, where Pan Tadeusz quickly unlocked a door. We crept into an unlit courtyard. There was light in a couple of the windows that faced us, the lamps behind the drawn curtains somehow ominous, like secrets about to be unveiled. We hurried towards a white Trabant and they made me lie on the back seat. We started, the engine vibrating, my cheek cool against the leather. Driving out of the courtyard, we flowed into the arteries of the city, inserting ourselves into its body like an unsuspected virus. From below, I watched the houses and monuments rush past, both familiar and new from that perspective. Police sirens howled in the distance, and then the Trabant stopped at the mouth of the blokowisko.