As a result of being attacked in a Polish bookshop, I made a friend.
Don’t be alarmed, that’s how a lot of foreigners begin relationships here.
Gliwice is Poland’s eighteenth biggest city, but without doubt it’s the capital of grey; the people, the cars, the snatches of overheard Polish language spoken in achromatic tones, but most of all the buildings – embedded in each are a trillion flecks of satanic dirt, as if some old, demon, almost dead, crawled from a coalmine and took himself to the centre of the city to fulminate in one gargantuan detonation, sending out a shower of streptococcus and clostridia lodging in every brick, in every door, in every fold of cement. And nothing, I swear to you, nothing, not even autumn itself, with its giddy parade of swirling leaves, dazzling reds, mellow yellows, can transform this hue of gloom.
I made my way down Zwyicestwa Street, home to twenty-one separate banking institutions, seven shoes shops and five pharmacies, the plastic facades an insult to the street’s original austere, Mendelsohn architecture. I’m thinking, this is it…a married man, a father and I’ve got to carve out some kind of existence… here.
What am I going to do here? Every foreigner person living here works as a teacher, but I can’t teach – I get confused by paperclips, shoelaces make me cry. Maybe I could write a book? Then the hassle of getting published? Jeeze, where’s the roadmap for that journey?
That’s when it hit me, a kind of a hand-over-the-mouth, smothering anxiety attack –
I can’t do this, I thought. I can’t live here! Jesus, I might stand a chance in Warsaw, but this is too much! I was all wild-eyed and trembling like a mountaineer who just watched three of his fellow climbers smash off a glacier. My legs began buckling from under me. There was a bench nearby and I sort of collapsed on it in a very Irish fashion, like a mule that’s taken a shotgun blast to the neck.
I settled my breathing and hummed a song to myself, Ca Plan Pour Moi, remembering how I used to date a French girl called Laurie Prevot who hailed from a town called Orange. I imagined what life would be like if I stuck with her – I could be sitting on a beach watching French people covering each other in chocolate as Nicholas Sarkozy floats by wearing Carla Bruni’s Yves St. Laurent evening dress. My life would still be arse over teacup, but everything would be masked by the terrific Frenchness of it all.
I drifted on to the Market Square. They’ve got a bookstore there called Empik with an English Language section that’s home to about twenty titles. I examined the covers with a morbid curiosity, a trap door opening in the pit of my stomach when I saw the entire works of Cecelia Ahern being hustled for seventy zlotys a pop.
I was this close to working myself into an interior monologue-fuelled rage when something happened. Trouble was brewing in bookland.
Two people getting hot and bothered in the aisle adjacent to mine. As far as I could make out, they were a couple. Some sort of argument… she was really letting him have it, poking at his chest in finger-pointing anger. He was backing away, all the while moving closer to me. She had red-hair, lava pouring out of her head, but her eyes were misty, tearing up over their disagreement. She was holding a book – the title was in Polish but the picture on the cover was unmistakably that of Jeremy Clarkson.
For a moment, I thought they were arguing over the book and I had to fight the urge to step in and be the final arbiter in their dispute – yes folks, he’s funny, but it won’t compensate for the acidic stomach ulcers brought on by his ‘philosophy’.
But everything went nuts. She screamed and threw the book at him with an accuracy not common to her gender – it must have been a habit of hers because he ducked and Clarkson hit me in the face. Christ, what is it with Jeremy putting the hurt on Irish people? Didn’t the BBC sack him for this already?
The blow from Paperback Clarkson wasn’t that bad, even if a little blood was bending off my bottom lip onto Jeremy’s gurning mug. I searched for the couple…? Gone? Kind of. The girl took flight – she just ran out of the shop, crying. The man came over to me, smiling like some demented children’s television presenter. With his large girth and massive brown eyes framed by thick glasses, there was something benign and bovine about him. He kept blabbing at me in a high-pitched mixture of wheezing and Polish as if impersonating the world’s smartest goat.
‘Relax,’ I told him. ‘I’m okay. You speak any English?’
He answered me by saying,
‘You are bleeding!’
It was unnerving how he was able to emit concern while maintaining his creepy, perpetual smile.
‘No kidding. What did you do to get that woman so worked up?’
‘Ah… I told her that I cannot be her boyfriend any longer.’
‘Why’s that?’ I asked, not out of any real interest, more to distract myself from my split lip.
‘Because I must face a truth in my life and that truth is I am a homosexual.’
‘Oh… I see.’
‘Apart from her, you are the only person I have told this to.’
‘It’s a day we’ll all remember,’ I said hoping the people at Empik wouldn’t force me to buy Clarkson’s book just because my blood was all over it.
‘She called me a sinner against man and God and wished I were dead,’ he said.
He took out a hanky and handed it to me. Homosexuality is a sin? Wonderful, I thought. I’ve just time-travelled back to 1980’s Ireland.
The man introduced himself as Philip, a thirty-two year old native of Sosnowiece and as soon as I got a grip on my injury, we made a coffee stop, where I listened to his story. He met this Silesian woman called Marta while they were both working in Dresden. Despite having two homosexual experiences in his teens, he mistook their friendship for love and spent a year denying his true orientation.
There was no specific reason why he picked Empik as the location to reveal his secret to her. That’s just the way it happened. She’s an educated woman, a lab assistant and he told me it was a surprise when she went nuclear.
‘What did you expect?’ I asked. ‘Roses? You just dumped her. You flushed the last twelve months of her life down the toilet.’
My head was now home to a thumper of a headache, a by-product of the Clarkson attack I reckoned. King Kong was behind my eyes drilling for oil with the leg of a chair. I sipped my coffee as Philip talked with some difficulty.
‘I thought the news of my…homosexuality would soften the blow… I wasn’t breaking up with her because I didn’t love her but because I couldn’t love her… Yet, I think her reaction…had more to do with…religion. Some Poles take their Catholic teachings very seriously,’ he said giving the impression there was something dying in his chest that was going to take him with it.
‘Same in Ireland,’ I said. ‘Thanks to the church and their Men in Black, there were no gays in my country until 1993 – just a lot of neat men, who liked Dolly Parton.’
Phillip cleared his throat. ‘Yet, the Poles are á la carte Catholics… Marta and I were only together six weeks when her mother forced her to move in with me. Ridiculous! Ridiculous!’
But the way he wheezed in such a breathless fashion, he only personified the word itself. All through our conversation, his smile and face didn’t seem to be in the same place at the same time. Sure enough, when I asked him what was up, he admitted to taking a Xanax before his showdown with Marta.
God bless that quality 1.0 Xanax, it really takes the edge off the spikey central nervous system. Philip told me he’d been necking tranquillizers since he was eighteen. Now, he needed hits of the stuff nice and regular to keep the side-effects at bay – tremors, blurred vision, muscle pain, numbness, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, vertigo and that lovely sensation of cockroaches pissing on his skin.
‘So what’s your next step?’ I asked him. Thick gulches of sweat were popping up on his person like he had his own climate.
‘Haahh… I can’t got back to our flat… perhaps you could help me?’
‘Could be tricky. We live in a small place with two kids.’
‘Ah…ah…so I am to be cast out among the…indigent…’
‘Hey, if you’re stuck, I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure my Polish in-laws can spare a room for a gay drug addict.’
‘Ahh…thank you…’ he said, giving a good impression of a man who has spent three minutes underwater. We swapped numbers and agreed to stay in touch.