Society as presented in Zbigniew Kruszyński’s masterfully written collection of stories is dominated by an endless obsession with communication, whether by mobile phone or via the Internet. However, no real communication ever takes place, because these modern tools give the protagonists the opportunity to create all sorts of masks to suit their needs, sometimes to hide from potential danger, and sometimes to beguile a partner. In Kruszyński’s world sex has lost its communicative function too – though eagerly desired, it is ineffective as a means of conquering the distance between people; sometimes it is theatrically robotic, as in the title story, where because of a misunderstanding, two prostitutes attend to the main character at once, though he fails to achieve more than just “professional” contact with either of them. Unable after many years away to make a real return to his home town, he is also incapable of fully finding himself in the sterile world of Sweden. Having left the scene of his youth, he is no longer capable of resettling there, and as a result he has no proper roots anywhere; not just the political tragedy of martial law is to blame for his alienation, but also more or less objective processes: the way in which the world has changed in the meantime, quietly performing a curious volte-face and turning its back on the hero. Thus he has two valid passports entitling him to travel all over the world, but none that could help him to settle in one particular place where he would feel at home.
She was standing in a casual pose leaning against the doorframe, her dark glasses shielding half her face. Her shoulder-length hair was smooth, with no highlights. Reaching up her left hand she tucked it behind her ear just the right way. As she smiled, her cheekbones bulged like ripe apples with a gentle blush. She took off her glasses and tested their tips between her teeth, as if to say, correct – they are made of plastic.
“Well hello,” she drawled. “I’m Nina.”
Aleksander couldn’t understand a thing.
“We spoke on the phone,” she continued. “We made a date for four,” she said, showing her watch. The watch was black too, made of plastic, also correct.
“Come on in,” said Aleksander, with less enthusiasm this time. Nina took off her top and sat down on the bed. “A hundred zlotys,” she said, just as they’d agreed. “Plus twenty for travel costs,” she quickly added. Her shoulder straps, double on either side, were coming dangerously loose, ceasing to stay in place. For the second time that afternoon Aleksander reached for his wallet.
Nina emerged from the bathroom, glued to the telephone. She had already managed to get dressed and her make-up had managed to get back into place. “You’re here?” she said, happy to see her alter ego sitting demurely on the bed. “Long time no see!” They fell into each other’s arms. “You still on the game?” “Yes, you see for yourself, I’ve got stuck here somehow.” Aleksander started trying to work out how the sudden increase had come about. He had betrayed Nina with her friend from the hotel, who had come in good faith, before four. He seemed worried about it, he didn’t know what to do, and now he longed to be absent again, hosting them from somewhere at the other end of a phone.
“No need for him to worry,” he heard, “we’ll work it out somehow.”
“No need for him to worry,” said Nina via Nina. After all, it was only another hour, sixty minutes charged by the second. Better think of all the things they were saving him. (“All right, if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to take them off – we’re not in a changing room, are we?”) Years and years of living in bliss. Herds of children, endlessly having colds, having to be educated and fed so they’ll grow up into people, thanks to all that consumption. A stuffy bedroom, where they all snore away at once and you can’t open the window because of the draft. (At this point Aleksander felt homesick for the island, where he used to sleep outside and where the only accompaniment he ever heard to his snoring was some creatures, in first place the corncrake, who was never seen, but only existed in sound, an island on the island.) Serious conversations about the future and the lack of money for it. Dozens of cousins who never arrived on time and left spirals of piss all round the loo. Indigestible suppers in front of prime-time television. Serials including five hundred episodes in the life of someone’s son-in-law, charged by the second – by this point Aleksander could only imagine what he was losing.
Nina was sitting either side of him on the bed, passing herself tough arguments from mouth to mouth. He needn’t be afraid it’d be born with Down’s syndrome, he needn’t be in the least bit afraid it’d be born as anyone, beautiful or hideous. He wouldn’t have to go to the hospital, see a fat lady porter slurping from a jar, or the sweat-soaked flannel pyjamas that never helped anyone get better. He would save on bribes for the doctor and wages for the nurse who slept with him like a necrophiliac in the cupboard full of dirty linen pulled from under corpses. Aleksander too seemed barely alive – he couldn’t bear to listen any more, he just watched Nina’s nimble hands, her fingernails blood-red one moment, crimson the next, as if the blood were passing from artery to vein.
Others had to hold out for their entire lives, while he only had less than an hour to get through. No need for him to worry, we’ll work it out somehow. He didn’t have to worship them, phone them, buy them flowers, or drop in at front office as if by chance to deal with something that had needed urgent attention for years. Or die of jealousy when it turned out he wasn’t the only representative of his species on duty here, but that all DNA is shaped like a helix with coils to right and left; that regardless of any claims, he had none to make, no favours to ask, no provisions, payments, or write-offs. Then he thought about the bank he gave a fifth of his wages to each month, still less than he would pay in rent for a flat he didn’t own – the system rewarded ownership, the interest was tax deductible, and all he had to decide was whether to have it fixed at the current, low rate, or let it float, to his profit if it continued to fall, but risking a loss if it rose. He impulsively began to raise himself on his elbows, and the blood – arterial or venal? hard to say, at this point it looked more purple and plum-coloured – began to pulse again.
He had spent a long time looking for a home, an old one sufficiently lived in, until finally he found it in a garden district bordering the university. A retired professor had been widowed and decided to move to another flat, with constant nursing care, no doorsteps and stairs, which in the old house sprang up all over the place, as if it had been built from several directions at once on various levels. He wanted to leave most of the furniture and fittings for someone who wouldn’t throw them away, and along came Aleksander, who had always visited rubbish bins to fish out, rather than discard some pretty well-used objects, such as an iron that had flattened the Himalayas, or a strange toaster with a side opening – maybe it toasted rather feebly, but its bottom did retain the crumbs of several generations – and a large ebonite radio, through whose speaker the word “cultural” had never passed (despite appearances, it exists in every language).
Yes, Aleksander was beside himself with happiness, reading old dictionaries syllable by syllable over a bottle of Burgundy opened with a corkscrew so tarnished that he’d almost fallen victim to alcoholism before managing to give it a reasonable shine by screwing it into a long succession of corks. The only thing he did throw away – and that after lengthy hesitation – was a set of rusty tin openers with dried-up samples of their contents stuck to them. Now he was feeling homesick again. He’d sit on the steps and stare at the parquet for an hour – time that here in the hotel room, as he stared at the patterned flooring, was still refusing to elapse.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones