‘What friend?’ I asked.
She made a face like she was thinking. ‘You wouldn’t know him.’
I nodded, smiled ironically. ‘Fine. Can we leave now?’
Her face was unchanged, as if she hadn’t heard me. She drank the rest of her beer in one go, put her money on the bar and got up from her stool. ‘Let me just go to the bathroom.’
She walked off and I stood alone in the crowd, feeling entirely powerless, an embarrassed child in the midst of pleasures it couldn’t grasp. No, it was worse than that. Beside me, two old men in suits who had appraised us spoke in excited voices.
‘You know, darling,’ said one to his friend, in a stage whisper, with a fur collar around the lapel of his jacket, sounding drunk, ‘you must read that unpublished Baldwin I told you about. It moved me to tears. If that won’t make you wake up, nothing will.’
The other one – very thin – nodded. ‘You’ll pass it to me, will you, darling?’
‘Yes, but be careful with it, you know it’s not even my copy, it’s hers,’ and he pointed at a man in a white silk shirt across the bar, deep in conversation with what looked like one of the actors from the play we had seen, a pretty boy with wavy blond hair and a small upturned nose.
After this, Karolina came back from the ladies’ and we left. I was determined to take nothing from this place, not one memory, not one conclusion for myself. But like stones thrown into the sky with all one’s might, pieces of that night – the boys and the men who wanted them, the flirtation, the codes of seduction I could only guess at – returned to me with even greater intensity than I had lived them. The law of gravity applies to memories too. And one day, as I sat in the library trying to work, to clear my mind, I remembered the book. I found his name in a catalogue of the foreign literature department. Baldwin. James. There was a list of his works, and only one of them had no official translation: Giovanni’s Room. This had to be it, I thought. I shut the catalogue, tried to forget about it. But the title wouldn’t leave me in peace, tantalising me like a loose tooth. I set out for it. And after weeks of searching, weeks of questions to suspicious-looking shop attendants who’d tell me there was no such book, that it had never been translated, I got lucky. It was just a few days before camp, in a tiny antykwariat bookshop that specialised in art and history, run by a man who could have been a friend of those men in the bar. He shot me a meaningful, almost amused look, then walked off to a back room and returned with a rustling brown-paper package.
When it was time to pack for the camp, I tore off the cover and glued the pages neatly into another book, burying it deep down at the bottom of my bag.
Our bus arrived at the end of the afternoon, as the sun was getting weaker but hadn’t yet begun to set. The camp lay just outside a village, surrounded by low wooden fences and lined by a little river on one side. The bus stopped in front of the main building, a wide concrete bungalow with a clock on its facade and a set of flags (white and red, hammer and sickle) hanging limply from its front. A short, stout man in a uniform watched us with small, attentive eyes as we climbed out of the bus, slightly dizzy, shaken from the ride.
‘I’m Comrade Leader Belka,’ he boomed, commanding us to line up in front of him. There was something imperious in his voice and something both weary and angry about his manner. It was the same anger and weariness I’d observed in my schoolteachers, those who struggled to believe in the system yet punished others for doing the same. ‘Welcome to the work education camp,’ Belka called out, walking up and down the line we’d formed. ‘I congratulate you for having signed on for this important service.’ Our faces were impassive, but the irony of his words couldn’t have escaped anyone. The camp was obligatory – no one would be allowed to graduate without participating. He continued his speech, extolling the importance of agricultural work, the role of the working classes in our socialist struggle, and the duty, even for ‘intellectuals’ (he grimaced at the word), to contribute to the efforts of the fatherland. Obedience was key, he said.
It was the same spiel we’d heard all our lives, with more or less conviction. I turned my head and looked along the line to find Karolina, but instead my eyes fell on you. I had never seen you before – not consciously, anyway. Yet my mind felt strangely relieved, as if it had recognised someone. You were as tall as me, broad-shouldered, and your eyes were light, contrasting with your dark hair. You were looking at Belka, concentrating, and I took a moment to take you in, unguarded, forgetting myself. As if by instinct, like an animal suddenly aware of being watched, you turned your head towards me, and before I could avert my gaze our eyes met, locked for an infinite, interminable instant in mid-air. A flash of heat travelled from my stomach to my cheeks, my thoughts jumbled like a ball of string. I turned my head as quickly as I could. For the rest of the speech I looked straight at the comrade leader, my mind scrambling for composure, stumbling over itself.
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