Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski



The other women chuckled like hyenas in the dark. I didn’t dare look at you. I couldn’t see anything funny in that moment. We reached the end of the street with the Palace of Culture towering before us, large, dark and ominous, and beside it the train station, lit but seemingly empty.

You stopped and looked at me with a consolatory smile. ‘Don’t worry, this one is easy. You can ask Hania this weekend. At her house.’

A flash of opportunity raced through me. After that night, the restaurant, anything seemed possible.

‘Are you sure?’

You nodded. ‘She likes you. And I’m sure she can have some strings pulled for you. She and Maksio always had all the exam questions in advance, you know. That’s why I never needed to go to lectures. And at the camp neither of them lifted a finger.’

I looked at my shoes, my head racing. ‘And it won’t be weird with Hania? Coming on to you?’

You smiled and shook your head lightly. ‘Did you see her tonight? She’s not desperate. Besides, she falls for guys so easily. She’s probably into you right now.’ You laughed again.

‘OK, then,’ I said, still anxious. ‘This weekend.’

We hugged, our cheeks coming up against each other, me feeling the beginning of your stubble. I always loved that sensation.

‘Goodnight,’ you said, turning towards the other side of the river.

‘Goodnight, my dear.’

I don’t know why I didn’t confide in Karolina. Part of me wanted to, longed for someone I could talk to completely. I suppose I wasn’t ready. I was afraid she’d smile at me and say ‘Hear, hear!’ or something cynical about the seductive taste of whisky. I was afraid she’d warn me against asking for favours one couldn’t return. The last thing I wanted right then was to be warned. So when I called her that week from a telephone box on the corner of my street, and she asked how I was doing, I put on the most cheerful voice I could manage and told her everything was alright. And I let her tell me how she’d fallen for that short boy she’d danced with at Hania’s party. His name was Karol. He was an engineer. I made a joke about their names, Karol and Karolina, how it was clearly meant to be, and she laughed, like in the old days. Then she asked me about the PhD. I said I hadn’t seen the professor yet, that I was seeing him the week after. That I felt sure I’d get it. She said she’d cross her fingers for me, that she’d be happy for me. Hanging up, I missed her more than I had before the call.

I walked back to the flat to prepare for the weekend away. I packed, unpacked, packed again. Ironed my clothes. It didn’t feel like I was going on holiday, but on a mission from which I’d return changed. That evening, just to reassure myself, I walked back down into the cool street and to the telephone box.

‘Ludzio, I knew it would be you. Only you would call me so late at night.’

She sounded happy.

‘Granny.’

‘How are you getting on, darling?’

I swallowed. ‘Very well, Granny. Very well.’

‘Are you sure? Do you need money? You know I have almost nothing but I set aside a little. I could send you that …’

‘No, Granny,’ I said, smiling into the receiver. ‘I don’t need money. It looks like I’m going to do a doctorate. I won’t need your help any more.’

‘Oh, Ludzio.’ Her voice sounded teary.

‘Are you proud of me, Granny?’

‘Of course I am.’ She sniffed. I leaned my forehead against the cool metal body of the telephone. ‘And when will you come home, darling? You know, that’s what I care about most – seeing you.’

‘Soon,’ I said, not sure whether or not it was true. ‘Soon. When they confirm my doctorate. When I’m settled. I promise.’

I hung up, stayed there in the telephone box, in the little halo of the light bulb attached to the ceiling, protected by an iron grid, watching the night outside. My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading off it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.

The next day we met on the Square of Three Crosses, on the steps of the domed church that stood in the middle like a pagan temple. It was cold and overcast and overwhelmingly, despairingly grey, one of those particularly Varsovian days that makes you think the sun has ceased to exist and fear that your mind might suffocate underneath an impenetrable fortress of clouds.