Vacationer from the Spit, The

Kazimierz Orłoś
Vacationer from the Spit, The
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie
    Kraków 2008
    152 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-0804276-2
    Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie

The plot structure of "The Vacationer from the Spit" is based on a tried and tested idea: as he gradually bids farewell to life, seventy-year-old Józef finds a box full of old letters. Two of them remind him of things that happened over fifty years ago, in particular that once upon a time he chose to ignore the news that he had become a father. At the end of his days he wants to find out what happened to the child and its mother. He sets off for the place where he expects to find them, or gain some sort of information that might act as a starting point for his private investigation. He writes a detailed account of this journey in the form of a letter to his son. This lengthy letter, which makes up the bulk of the book, is not only about his youthful affair and the paternity he never took on. In the first place it is Józef’s major confession as he faces up to his unsuccessful life and tries to “explain himself”.
The place Józef goes to is the Vistula Spit of the title, and its largest resort, Krynica Morska. It was there that the 17-year-old Józef, on a summer holiday from Warsaw, met a simple local girl, Mirosława, with whom he enjoyed a mutual passion. Józef spends two weeks in the seaside town, conducting his own inquiry, but with no results. He returns to Warsaw empty-handed: Mirosława is no longer alive, and her daughter will never know the truth about her origin. The Vacationer from the Spit is a simple, raw tale, told in a matter-of-fact style, terse and wreathed in melancholy and nostalgia. Somehow Józef knows he won’t be able to resolve issues from over fifty years ago, and that he can’t change or fix or satisfy anything. In fact he really comes to the Spit to communicate with “the impossible” – with the world of his own youth, with long gone times when he was genuinely happy. He is relying on the fact that some sort of footsteps will have remained in the sand at Krynica. He feeds on these illusions, but they do not improve his mood at all. The past is a closed book, and there’s no going back to it. It is not at all clear why Józef is so concerned that his son should know his story. The son is a grown man, unreceptive to this object lesson based on his father’s mistakes, which comes far too late. Perhaps Józef is trying to tell him that his marriage to his mother was a failure. Perhaps he is seeking some sort of justification in his son’s eyes. At the end of the novel we learn that the son has read his father’s letter after his death. Józef’s death finally closes the whole issue of the unwanted child and its abandoned mother.

- Dariusz Nowacki


As I drove, I remembered the familiar bends in the woodland road, behind me and ahead of me. To the spot where the Lagoon was shining behind the trees. I was getting close to my goal. Houses began, on the left and right sides. Driving very slowly, I tried to work out where the Lachowicz’es house had been. I remembered that it stood on a hill, on a bend in a sandy track through the village (the tarmac was laid later, probably in the 1960s). I couldn’t remember – it all looked different. The houses were different – grey, like concrete bunkers with flat roofs. The ones I saw in my mind’s eye had disappeared – redbrick houses, with pantile roofs. I remembered that there was an old oak tree at the bend from where the path ran uphill. It was no longer there, but I noticed a stump and some shoots growing out of it – a bunch of sprigs and some yellowed oak leaves. Higher up, behind some pine trees, stood the house. I saw grey walls. The sky was reflected in the windows of the glazed porch.
I pulled over and got out of the car. I stood for a while by some bent-over trees, breathing in the cold air. It smelled different – the old aromas that I remembered from those days, of pine trees, meadows, sand and chimney smoke, had disappeared. A few dozen metres further on, at the crossroads where the tarmacked road met the track through the forest that led to the sea (we used to run down there every day towards the fishing boats on the beach), I saw a petrol station. There was petrol on the wind. There were cars going by along the busy route, and it smelled of dust and exhaust fumes.
I ran across to the other side of the tarmac and slowly started walking up hill. I remember walking along a narrow pavement, past a chicken-wire fence with some flowerbeds on the other side. There were flowers, vegetables, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes. I reached a locked gate, with a rusty letter box hanging on it. I stood there for a while, gazing at the altered house: the wooden veranda had gone, and so had the deck above it, from where we used to look down at the meadows and the lagoon. In its place a stone porch with small windows had been built. Concrete steps led to a landing in front of the porch. Then there was a door. Only the pine trees were still the same. Even the withered bough of one of them looked familiar. There was once a swing hanging there, on which Mirka used to swing the twins.
I rang the bell. Inside, a dog started barking. Moments later, when someone opened the door at the top of the steps, the dog – a small mongrel with a curly tail – ran out, yelping. I recoiled instinctively, because it started jumping up at the gate on the other side, barking furiously. In the half-open doorway I saw a woman. She was in a grey skirt and a green sweater. She was wearing a headscarf, something colourful. We were only a few paces apart, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying because the dog went on barking non-stop. The woman came down the steps and approached the fence. On her bare feet she had backless slippers, which shuffled as she came down the concrete path. She drove off the dog.
“Good morning,” I said. “Is this where Mr and Mrs Lachowicz used to live? Jan and Barbara.”
She stared at me for a moment, as if surprised by the question. She looked like an old woman, tired. Wisps of grey hair were escaping from under the headscarf. I noticed her hands – the skin on her palms was red, as if from chilblains. Only her blue eyes were young.
“They did. But they’re both dead,” she said.
Now the dog was barking from under the currant bushes.
“What about Mirosława, their daughter?”
“My mother’s dead too. She died this year, in the spring.”
“Oh my God,” I said. And after a pause I said it again: “Oh my God.”
She looked at me without smiling. I reckoned she had no desire to chat. She won’t open the gate, she won’t invite me in. I’ve nothing to wait for. Inside the house a radio was playing loud.
“I used to come here on holiday, as a boy. A very long time ago. It’s fifty years now. I knew your grandparents and your mother,” I replied after a pause.
Only now did she smile, but at once she said seriously: “Unfortunately they’re all dead now.”
Behind her, a little girl was standing in the doorway; she might have been ten or twelve. In a sky blue dress. On her thin feet she was wearing a large pair of trainers that must have been her father’s or mother’s. She had a mop of fair hair, a bit like an Afro.
“Mummy, Uncle Krzysiek’s on the phone!”
“Excuse me,” said the woman.
She turned and walked towards the house, shuffling her slippers on the concrete path just as before. Her bare heels shone. For a while I went on waiting at the gate. The door was still ajar. The dog was barking – it had run up to me again. I felt as if the thin girl was looking at me through the gap. She could see an old man in corduroy trousers patched at the knees, an unzipped anorak and a flannel shirt: who was I, what did I want, why was I bothering her mother? White hair, glasses, big nose. I laid a hand on the metal top bar of the gate, which enraged the dog even more, and waited. But the girl’s mother didn’t come back again.
After two or three minutes I gave up. I slowly started walking down the narrow pavement. The dog went on barking the whole time, seeing me off all the way to the road.
Later on, standing by the car, I gazed at the Lagoon for a while longer. It was grey, like the clouds. Far off in the mist was the other shore. I got into the car and slowly drove away.

Two hours after this conversation I rented a room at the Tourist Centre annex, at the end of the village, far from the Lachowicz’es house. It seems I was the only guest. I wanted to be alone for two or three days, to do some thinking.
My dear Jacek, only there in that shabby place – once no doubt a “Workers’ Holiday Centre” – at about ten or eleven at night, lying on a hard sofa bed, on a musty blanket, did I realise that the woman I’d been talking to might be my daughter! You see? And the girl on the porch was my granddaughter. Can it be possible?
I lay there staring at the glowing light bulb, a white sphere. I closed my eyes, and saw a red blotch under my eyelids. I opened my eyes – a white sphere. I closed them – a red blotch. Finally I started to doze off. A call from your mother woke me from my semi-slumber – the mobile ringing. Before I left Antoni’s we had had a brief chat – I had said I would call that evening. Olga rang first. Of course she was upset and worried – why hadn’t I called? I tried to apologise. I said I was by the sea, that I wanted to stop here for a couple of days. To rest.
“What do you want to rest from? You’ve got a cushy enough life.”
“I’ll explain it all when I get back,” I said several times.
“What do you want to explain?” she said, raising her voice. “Better say it at once!”
And so on, and so on. Lots of unnecessary words. Your mother got more and more upset, and I was helpless. I didn’t try to explain what it was about, to search for those few words that would have calmed her down. Once again I couldn’t bring myself to be frank.
She was surprised I wasn’t spending the night at Antoni’s place in Jeziorna. She asked about it several times: “Why not?”
Finally she hung up. For a while I went on listening to the short, repetitive bleeps.
I only fell asleep towards dawn.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones