Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

Chapter 6

The Wednesday after the party I went to see the professor. I was more nervous than I thought I’d be, my mind circling in hostile loops as I walked the New World Promenade. The air felt thin. I arrived at the office, knocked on the door. A subdued ‘Come in’ resounded from inside. I affected a confident smile. The professor gave me a weary nod.

‘Please sit down,’ he said, his voice strangely lifeless. His face seemed greyer than it had a couple of weeks earlier, as if he’d aged since the last time I saw him. The silence between us was heavy, and seemed to sit entirely on my chest.

‘The board liked your proposal, Głowacki,’ he finally said, in a strangely formal voice. I looked at him, uncertain. ‘They like it more than they want to admit, actually. Your writing is good, your ideas worth exploring. You know that.’

I didn’t know whether it was my turn to speak. A pained smile distorted his face.

‘But, as you might imagine, there are other forces at play too.’

My gut contracted. I looked at the professor, trying to read his face. I felt completely powerless.

‘There are other candidates,’ he went on, sounding tired. ‘Their proposals aren’t as good as yours. But …’ He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes. ‘Some of them have contacts.’

Another silence, another glance from him to me, as if he wanted me to release him from this chore. My mind in freefall.

‘The final decision hasn’t been taken yet, but if things continue as they are now, it doesn’t look good for you. I need you to know this.’ He let out a sigh, looked at his desk, his papers, then back to me.

‘Then why have you called me in? What do you want me to do?’ My voice was small and angry, more than I wanted it to be.

The professor looked at me softly, as if he’d expected my anger.

‘I know how disappointing this must be for you.’

This made me feel more desperate.

He placed both of his hands on the papers before him and leaned across the desk towards me, so I could see the single grey hairs of his moustache and his kind round face, closer than I’d ever seen it.

‘I know you are not in the Party,’ he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, ‘and it’s too late to join now anyway. Even if you wanted to.’ He lowered his eyes, maybe embarrassed by what he was about to propose. ‘But maybe you know someone, Ludwik? Someone you forgot to mention and who could help tip the balance in your favour?’

His gaze on me was suddenly like yours the night of the party: expectant, too much so. I sat still, entrenched in silence.

Finally, he nodded, visibly awkward. ‘Think about it. Maybe someone will come to mind. It would be a pity for you to miss this opportunity.’

It almost seemed that if I didn’t acknowledge this moment, it wouldn’t be true. I remained silent.

The professor stood, attempted a smile. ‘Let me know as soon as you can, will you?’

I managed to rise, to nod into space. We shook hands, mine limp, his far too big, and a moment later I was standing in the corridor with oblivious strangers hurrying past me in all directions. The academic year had started and new students were walking the grounds. New faces so young-looking I could hardly believe they’d finished high school. They strode around as if the place was theirs, as if no other student had ever been there before them. I left the campus, staggered through the streets, felt the wind bite at my fingers and neck, gnawing at my head.

It was a cold day, maybe the first really cold day of the season, and I was unprepared. I had neither scarf nor gloves nor hat. I had underestimated the weather. The trees were losing their leaves. I drifted about the streets, hardly knowing which way I was going. I just walked, put one foot in front of the other, feeling the vague protection of the movement, its rhythm lulling me. But not enough to make me forget that my allowance would run out in a matter of weeks. Suddenly I had no vision of the future, only a dreadful void. I’d been naive, stupid even. I saw it then. As long as I walked, though, I didn’t have to think, didn’t have to face anything for long.

When I came to my senses, I was on Marszałkowska Street, and there you stood, talking to a guy in a pair of sunglasses, the one Hania had danced with at the party. He introduced himself as Rafał and gave me his hand with a wry smile. It was unnerving not to see his eyes. We looked at each other, you and I, but we couldn’t say anything.

The sun was already weak and descending; it grew colder, but I didn’t feel it any more. From where we stood, on the city’s straightest, longest street, you could see all the way to Constitution Square with its gigantic Stalinist buildings and carvings of muscled workers and strong healthy mothers, and even further past the damaged Church of the Holiest Saviour and towards the tiny square beyond, where Hania and Maksio lived. It was only four o’clock but night had already started to envelop us. We stood and waited under the neon sign of the restaurant – a large red ‘Mozaika’ in handwritten style – like a beacon of something better and more modern that might brighten our lives. We talked to Rafał but my mind was absent. I can’t remember a word we exchanged. I can’t remember anything until a black Vespa stopped right in front of us. Hania was wearing a biker jacket and high boots, her hair untied, and Maksio had on a thick Alpine-style jumper the colour of cream. All their clothes looked new and foreign. I stared at them in awe as if they were a pair of actors from a Fellini film. We kissed on the cheek and shook hands. They seemed genuinely glad to see me, and already the tingling warmth of flattery began to soothe my nerves. We walked into Mozaika, where it was warm and soft. A low-ceilinged room decked out in red carpet and uniformed black-tie staff, and – again – those giant potted palm trees, each leaf big enough to wrap a baby inside, reaching into the room languidly and lazily and utterly aware of their own magnificence. The people there were the sort one never saw walking in the street, and so one would have been excused for thinking they didn’t exist: women with large wavy hair, heavy bright necklaces and fox collars, and men in well-cut suits and serious clean faces, smoke dancing up from their American cigarettes more slowly and more preciously than in the outside world.