I tried to smile. She nodded, as if she’d understood.
There was silence for a moment, in which I felt my pulse quicken.
‘I came to ask you a favour,’ I heard myself say. I couldn’t look at her, so I looked at my interlaced fingers, which I’d been pressing so hard they’d turned red and white. ‘I’m in trouble. I need your help.’
Her eyes widened and she gave me a nod, as if to say ‘Go on’.
I told her about the man at the Bureau. The words came out more easily than before. I chose them carefully. I told her I wanted to leave to see my uncle. That they were holding on to my passport, blackmailing me – though I didn’t go into detail. I avoided the question for as long as I could, absurdly, and she let me go on. Light shone on to the parquet, making it look smooth and perfect like the surface of an ice rink. Hania looked at me with concern and sympathy all the way through, and strangely, despite myself, despite all my instincts of pain and revenge and humiliation for having to ask her, of all people, I felt a surge of love for her gentleness, her kindness in listening to me. For her ignorance of all that had happened between you and me. And for my innocence as seen through her eyes. When I finished talking she put her hand on my shoulder, a hand that weighed almost nothing, and said:
‘I will talk to my father.’
I thanked her, but saw that there was something unresolved in her face. She turned towards the large windows, towards the white winter sun. Then she pulled her legs up off the floor and folded them against herself, embracing them and her skirt.
‘There’s just one thing I need to know,’ she said slowly, looking uncomfortable. ‘What they are blackmailing you with. It will help. To know how to best approach the situation.’
I tried to concentrate on breathing. It felt like I was falling. I couldn’t possibly.
‘They know that I’m …’ I couldn’t face her eyes, couldn’t say it. Had never said it to anyone. Not even to myself. It felt like jumping over a five-metre wall.
‘Tell me,’ she said gently, her weightless hand on my shoulder again. ‘Go on. Don’t be scared.’
I almost crumbled. I took on the words again, as if they had fallen to the floor. I picked them up, lifted them, tried to push them over the threshold, like something immensely heavy that could crush me.
‘I’m a …’ I tried and failed under her gaze.
It was the same feeling, the same pulling to and fro, that one feels when standing on the edge of a diving board.
‘I’m a—’ My voice almost steady. ‘I’m a homosexual.’
The world did not tumble. Her face remained calm. The white winter light still streamed into the room as if into a church, illuminating the floor and us, my heart pumped blood around my body – accelerated, but still – and a shiver ran through me, through my entire being, and I felt like something dead and heavy inside had been expelled, as if I’d been carrying a leaden ghost within me all that time. I felt dizzy. I tried to say something else but there was nothing to say. She took me into her arms, and I allowed her to – into her soft arms, against her pullover, cushioned by the soft breasts beneath it.
‘It’s OK,’ she whispered. ‘I understand.’ She stroked my hair. ‘You’re good. Don’t you worry. You’ll be fine. You’re good.’
Even if I had wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to stop the tears. They poured out all by themselves, a force of their own, agents of relief and consolation, flooding my face, emptying my mind. And we sat like this, enveloped in one another, in the bright light, for an immeasurable amount of time. When I straightened myself, she left and returned moments later with a tissue.
I wiped my face and thanked her.
She stood still, looking down at me.
‘You love him, don’t you?’
She said it softly, neutral, almost as if it wasn’t a question. I closed my eyes to say ‘Yes’, and looked at her, saw that she’d understood. Then a shadow flickered across her face, a trace of doubt. The moment I’d been sure would come. She remained still and looked at me intently, scanning me for reassurance, begging me for it with her eyes.
‘You and Janusz …’ she began, but I interrupted her.
‘He doesn’t know,’ I said, slipping the wet ball of tissue into my pocket, trying not to tremble, to keep my voice steady. ‘Don’t say anything to him.’
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