Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

You were already there when I arrived, your bag lying by your feet. We kissed each other on the cheek. There was a strange air between us, as if we’d become accomplices in a game. Your eyes sparkled with mischief and play. ‘Ready?’ you said, piercing me with them.

I nodded, feeling a wave of nausea, pushing it away.

Their car arrived on the square. I knew it was theirs before it had even stopped. Foreign cars were so rare even I could tell them apart from the two other kinds that one could dream of owning in our country: it was neither a Maluch, the tin can Fiat made for the socialist bloc, nor the Trabant, the larger, clumsier model from East Germany. Here was a thing as smooth and elegant as a panther – a black Mercedes.

It came to a halt by the steps of the church. The passenger window slid down and Hania, in a pair of gold-coloured sunglasses, waved at us excitedly. ‘C’mon, boys!’

We grabbed our bags and hurried down. We climbed in, on to the brown leather bench in the back, where Maksio’s blonde from the party was already sitting, like a very expensive doll. She wore a short leather miniskirt and a red bandana around her head. Hania introduced her as Agata, and she nodded at us slowly, as if sedated.

‘Hey, guys,’ said Maksio, turning around from the steering wheel with a smile in his eyes. ‘Let’s do this!’

‘Is anyone else coming?’ I asked.

Hania spun around, her mirrored sunglasses still on, their lenses reflecting and distorting my face, which struck me as silly and pale.

‘Just us,’ she said, and smiled.

We whizzed off, speeding seamlessly and effortlessly along Ujazdowskie Avenue. We passed the run-down palaces of the long-forgotten aristocracy, the Łazienki Gardens with my hidden deer, and the gigantic gates and lines of soldiers that protected the castle that was the Soviet embassy. After that the city turned sparse. We passed endless stretches of identical blocks, blokowisko upon blokowisko with mud fields in-between, where riotous hordes of children played. We passed factories, smoking behemoths, big and solemn like sooty churches. The radio was on, playing something by the Velvet Underground. Nico sang in her low, litanic voice, bells ringing and a guitar jittering, like a flickering mirage.

Throngs of white birch trees came into view, naked in this late autumn and all the more solemn. And fields. Soaked brown fields with women and men and horse-drawn ploughs. The sky was still covered, white-grey like rice pudding, but in the countryside, among this nature, there was beauty in that, like the comforting duvet in a bed one takes refuge in.

We chatted for some stretches, and were silent for others. We rode on and on, rock music playing on the radio, Agata humming along. Light started to drain from the sky and the earth began to undulate. Low hills surrounded us, and now it was all forest, a sea of pines. And then, at an unmarked dirt road, Maksio turned the car and we drove all the way down through the dense forest until we came to a gate. Hania got out and unlocked it, and we drove through, just as night was falling, along an avenue with tall stately poplars.

At the end of the lane there was a house. It was white, clear against the dusk like a ghost, with thick proud columns supporting the triangular roof of the veranda. Leaves and little twigs crunched under our shoes as we climbed out of the car. The house stood there majestically, oblivious to our presence. It was a dwór, an old country estate, that must have been there for centuries already, and would outlive us all, I thought, and I admired it for that, for all it had already seen and all it would still see and which we would never know.

Maksio unlocked the front door, switched on the light inside. The smell of dry cedar invaded my mind. There were old faience stoves, fireplaces and hunting trophies, the heads of boars and deer, oriental carpets covering the floors. A place of pleasure and peace, indifferent to governments, faithful to whoever happens to be in power. You said something about how impressive it was, this house, and I remained silent, thinking how undeserving you all were of it.

We followed Hania upstairs, where she gave us our room: you and I would be sharing. She had the room next to ours. Maksio and Agata had taken another bedroom downstairs.

‘My parents are coming on Sunday,’ said Hania, pointing to a large door at the end of the corridor. ‘That’s their room.’

‘Isn’t this house something?’ you said as we put down our things and unpacked. ‘It’s practically a castle.’

I nodded. I wanted to be alone, to have the place all to myself, to take everything in. There was a view over the garden – a park, really – oblong and wide like several sports fields and bordering the forest. I stood and watched the last specks of light dissolve above it, forgetting myself, until the darkness outside was complete and I could see my face in the window. I turned back to the room. It was large, probably as big as Pani Kolecka’s little flat. There were two single beds, heavy and gleaming, separated by a nightstand with a porcelain lamp. A door led to a large bathroom with a bathtub. I turned on the tap, enjoyed the savage rumble of the water filling the tub. Steam rose from it. I undressed and got in, leaving the door open to see what I could of the park. The water was too hot, scalding almost, but it embraced me. I lay there for a long time, feeling my skin prickle from the heat, feeling droplets of sweat form on my forehead, letting my mind wander. After a while my eyes closed all by themselves.