Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

‘Goodnight, Ludwik,’ the man said, turning around to me. ‘Watch out for yourself. And don’t push your luck.’

Chapter 5

This morning, like every morning, I took the subway across to Manhattan. I sat at my desk and tried to work, but my mind was back home. I had a bad feeling. Some sort of intuition. As soon as midday struck, I left the office and walked a couple of blocks over to the telephone box on the corner of Third and East 43rd. No one is ever at that corner, and no one was there today. I called Jarek. He’s a fixer, a connector, knowing everything about everyone in the community. He works late shifts at a factory down in Queens and I knew he’d be home.

‘Did you hear?’ he said with his smoker’s voice, almost immediately after picking up the phone. ‘The ZOMO killed nine miners in Katowice. They were protesting the martial law. Can you believe it? First they lock our people in our country, then they jail them, now they shoot them in the street. Sons of bitches. This time they’re gonna pay for it.’

A shiver ran down my back and across my lips. ‘Are you sure?’

He spat out his words like bullets. ‘Sure as fuck. This is serious.’

I thought of the miners, and it struck me that they could have been the same people I saw a year ago from that window where I threw the flyers. Or it could have been me. But then, I had been a coward compared to them. I had hidden under window ledges, in kitchen closets; I had not been in the streets demanding my right to be heard. Now I was an ocean away, wearing a new suit. I wondered about your role in all this, what kind of pact you’ve made with yourself. Because we all make one, even the best of us. And it’s rarely immaculate. No matter how hard we try.

‘GÅ‚owacki? Are you still there?’ Jarek’s voice brought me back. ‘You alright? Got family in Katowice?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m OK.’ I thanked him, which felt macabre, and cut the call. Then, for the umpteenth time that week, I dialled Granny’s number.

The tone went beepbeepbeepbeepbeep, repeating mercilessly like a reproach.

I walked back to work, waited for the sadness to pass.

The night after the flyers I slept deeply, dreamlessly, as if floating under water. I was unmoored, a ship that had finally left its harbour, only to be pushed by the wind without any control of its own. When I awoke I hardly knew who and where I was. It felt like I’d returned from a long journey underneath the sea. I was on my bed, fully dressed; my bag lay beside me on the floor. Outside, the sun stood high in a spotless sky.

I heard Pani Kolecka coughing. I got up to check on her, the remains of sleep diffused by anxiety. There was no blood on her, or on the sheets. I went to the kitchen and prepared her tea, wondering what I’d make her to eat, wondering whether I’d try the doctor’s office again. Wondering whether it was even safe for me to go out on to the street. Whether the police wouldn’t somehow come looking for me, or whether I was being paranoid. And then, as I served Pani Kolecka the tea, the doorbell rang. The ringing was shrill, like a cry.

Pani Kolecka looked at me. We never had anyone over, except for a neighbour who came every Friday to knit with Pani Kolecka. But it wasn’t Friday.

‘Pan Ludwik, are you expecting visitors?’

I shook my head, listening for movement.

The doorbell rang again, with more urgency.

‘Won’t you see who it is?’ she asked.

I walked down the corridor towards the door, my knees weak. I closed my eyes. My heart was beating hard, reminding me of the previous night’s narrow escape, of the small closet, the policemen standing inches away from me. I made myself open my eyes, look through the peephole. In the globular glass your face was large and round like a moon, your body tiny underneath it, attached to you like a stalk to a flower. I felt relief rush through me. I opened the door. We looked at each other for a long moment, without saying anything.

‘I brought you something.’ You pointed at the shopping net in your hand. I beckoned you inside. In the corridor you took off your shoes. It struck me how strange it was to have you there, how small you made the place look. I introduced you to Pani Kolecka. Her face lit up in a way I hadn’t seen in weeks.

‘So you’re the nice pan who Ludwik went travelling with this summer?’

You nodded, the perfect son-in-law.

‘Would you like some tea?’ she asked, looking at you in adoration, when a fit of coughing took hold of her.