Back in Ireland, I used to track down and interview men who cheated on their partners. I carried on the practice in Poland.
The late November snow was coming down in big corkscrew motions. Soft like lace but at the same time heavy enough to muffle the sounds outside the gym, a brutalist, concrete structure belonging to the Technical University of Silesia. I had been tipped off about a cheat who went by the name of ‘Bar-Bar’, a legend in these parts, rumoured to have more women than a shark has teeth, often to be found blasting weights of a Friday evening.
There was a man sitting by the door, collecting the 5 zloty entrance fee and handing out locker keys. He looked like he walked the earth before electricity, his face rigid as if frozen and dipped in wax.
Behind him, the place was full of big-chinned, mean fellers who didn’t laugh, bald too, their low-follicle profiles throwing the darkness of their eyes into stark relief.
The ambience was sharp and pinched, as if an ambush was imminent. Who was responsible for the knot choking everything? The giant staring at me from the centre of the room? Was he the Gadaffi of the joint? He had a chest on him like a bull elephant and dents on the side of his head. Dents. The kind of dents you get at birth when the child is so big they need tongs to pull it out.
Scary those dents, but nothing compared to his stare that said, ‘we shoot foreigners first around here’.
This part of Poland has a terrific problem with a variety of men who love nothing better than fighting and football. Odds were I had planted myself among a colony of them and the nervousness running through my body was picked up by my shoelaces which kept constantly unravelling.
Bending down to fix them I was hit with an almighty craving for a Martini. You know, bit of vodka, scratch of lemon, a nice, clear compound to neutralise my chickenshit chemistry.
I tried to blink my fear away and strode with no great intent up to the nearest weight machine. Old as a coffin this scowling black metal contraption, with chain levers to lift the stacked kilogram plates.
There were a few women around. One in particular stood out – gorgeous beyond belief, blonde, dark-skinned with silver-blue eyes and Cossack cheekbones. A brute with several stitch marks on his nose was helping her negotiate a machine for exercising a person’s thighs. She was all got up in a sight of pink cotton and her scent permeated the space with the tang of flowers.
Beyond the main area was an adjoining room, its dimensions two-thirds smaller in comparison. Most of the men there were two-thirds bigger than everyone else. Some were lifting weights. Others were lifting newborn calves.
The tension. Maybe if someone let out a bit of a laugh now and again. It’s not normal to be among a group of men and not hear a whoop or a guffaw. Kind of puts a body on edge so it does.
My heart was beating hard against my ribcage, in the main from the unspoken hostility that thickened the air like fog, but also from the acceptance that any of these ogres could crush me like a beetle if the mood took them. Dare I ask about Bar-Bar? It would be an awful embarrassment if the word, ‘Bar-Bar’ was the last thing I ever uttered. It’s not even a word is it? It’s more of a farmyard noise.
Then I saw something at the back of the smaller room that took me a while to recover from. Or rather it saw me. We looked at each other for what felt like a long time and I thought of running away, but the man who locked me in his stare wouldn’t allow something as easy as that. Not that he looked fast, the opposite actually. But it’s not the fast man that catches you, but the one who turns your legs to putty.
There are some people who spend so much time with an inanimate object that they take on its likeness and disposition. It sculpts not only their body but their aura. This man was an unforgiving chunk of steel and my innocence was of no consequence. My eyes were blue and his were black and that was enough reason for him to attack.
He pointed at me. Jesus, I felt I could empty my bowels at any minute. Should have remembered to tuck the ends of my gym pants into my socks. Or better still, tuck them into somebody else’s socks.
‘You,’ he said.
‘You are not Polish.’ The movements of his mouth producing the effect of weight stacks rising and falling.
‘No, I am not.’
I did. This brought a measure of relief. From the angle where I first saw him, it appeared he was sitting down but moving closer I could see he was standing. His width was fearsome but his height was that of a seven-year old child. Looking down at his feet I could see his shoes were exceptional for the thickness of their sole, designed to aid those who lack stature. I think Bono has a few pairs of such shoes lying around his house in Killiney.
A light went on in my mind, its neon glow etched the legend – ‘Bar-Bar’.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked in a slow voice as if he had learned to talk only that evening.
‘I’m from Ireland.’
‘Tell me about Ireland.’
‘Well, it’s a sm-‘
Hmm… Think I need to find a better word here.
‘It’s a very nice country. Green. Very green.’
My underlying response to this man was awe. He began walking up and down, moving with a deliberate slow gait as if gravity had a greater affection for him. Then he proceeded to lie down with his back resting on the floor. Observing him, I was drawn into a speculation that I was witnessing the handicap principle of selection: you can always distinguish the alpha male among a troop of gorillas as he is the most slow, the most lazy, the one who exposes his throat and abdomen. Doing so, he signifies that he is unafraid, confident that he can best all for he is the best. There was no doubt in my mind; this was the bold ‘Bar-Bar’.
‘This is your first time in gym?’ he asked as he lay perfectly still. His inertia seemed important and he performed it to an exacting standard.
By now, several of his cronies had loped a prehistoric circle around us and I was overcome with the sensation of doing a three point turn into a dead end.
‘Why you come to this gym? The machines are old, the space very little, huh?’
‘Little is good,’ I said looking down at the floor. ‘Good things come in small packages my mother always says.’
‘Why you here?’
My innards were doing a dance, the steps out of sequence, the rhythm irregular. I tried to relax by telling myself that I had approached fearsome men before. But there are fearsome men and there are fearsome men, there are horses and zebras and one can be tamed and the other can’t.
‘I’m looking for someone, someone called Bar-Bar…’
There was a pause but only a slim one, because the little tank sat up off the ground and not in a slow way.
‘What you want with Bar-Bar?’
‘It’s a private matter,’ I said with a degree of boldness. Seeing no hostile reaction, I went all out.
‘Are you Bar-Bar?’
After this question came a durable silence that I marked by scratching my nose. Then, a laugh from all sides, sounding like a gift, making me feel about twenty pounds lighter and even the little Iron Buddha allowed his lip to curl a fraction.
‘Are you?’ I repeated.
‘I wish I am. Bar-Bar has many beautiful ladies.’
He turned to the man with the dents in his head and said something in Polish. Mr Dent went to the main room and then returned. He spoke to the little Iron Buddha who then took some chalk and dirtied his hands with it.
‘Bar-Bar is gone,’ he said.
‘Okay – can you tell me what he looks like?’
‘He is no he. He is she.’
‘Blonde hair,’ he said, before allowing his hands to describe the apparition with the mighty chest.
‘Bar-Bar is a woman?’
‘Ah,’ he sighed. ‘Such a waste.’
The man I had mistaken for Bar-Bar was called Mirek. He studied the workings of computers at the Technical University. The others, he told me, were engineers and Bar-Bar whose real name was Basia, was in her final year of architecture.
Mirek explained that Bar-Bar had the magic ability to convert otherwise heterosexual women to her faith, and this wedded to a remarkable inability to remain faithful to anyone, had made well-known on campus.
Mirek gave me several instructions on body-building and more than once he emphasized the dictum of maintaining proper form. He warned me never to cheat with weights and recruit other muscle groups to assist with the effort. This shifting of weight on to weaker muscles that can’t handle the commitment, is fatal.
I listened as he spoke, with that slow but regular up and down movement of his speech. He came to the end of his session, telling me he had to return to the library for some study and I bid him good luck. Together with his dented-headed friend they clink-clanked away, leaving me watching the soft fall of snow and wishing I had a Martini.