I had been in Warsaw for a day and seen nothing of the city except what I glimpsed on the drive from the airport and then from Laura’s living room window – a view composed of the sides of two other apartment blocks, bright blue autumn sky, and a strip of four-lane highway.
Laura had been called in to work urgently the day I arrived. She’d rushed to the airport in a cab to meet me and then we’d rushed back in another as she repeated her address to the driver from the back seat next to me. She answered his questions in the few Polish words she knew, leaning forward so that he could hear her. In a whirl of coming and going I barely spoke to her before we arrived at her building and she led me in, half-running up the stairs to the third floor.
I’m so sorry Nick, she said once she’d let me into the apartment, standing with her hand on the doorknob, ready to leave again. But you see, they called me this morning and said they absolutely needed me to go in and sort some things out, really boring IT stuff…Of course I said I would have to pick you up first…and you understand don’t you?
She patted me on the cheek once, and then after briefly trying to tame her wild, long curly black hair in the mirror, she rushed out.
I stood in her kitchen then, her keys in my hand, suitcase at my feet, staring at the old fridge that took up half the room. There was a green tinge to the light; green reflecting off the green-painted building next door, coming through the thick windows, reflecting off the green enamel cupboards and the overgrown basil plant in one corner near the sink. It was like being underwater.
I remember green, and a feeling of astonishment. Only the day before I was standing in my own home, wondering if this trip was a good idea. Now, here I was, on the other side of a continent, left to fend for myself.
The flat was far larger than anything she could have afforded in London: it had a dining room and separate living room, a kitchen with a kitchen table, two bedrooms, and a proper entrance hall with an old wall-mounted clock and a 1980s telephone. The dining room was empty except for the laundry rack, and two hideous floral watercolours that must have belonged to the landlord. On the other side of the hall the living room had little more to it, occupied by a sagging sofa, a stained coffee table, and an aged drinks cabinet.
The flat had the air of a place once abandoned by local inhabitants, and then reoccupied by invading nomads. Laura’s things were left scattered about, her underwear drying on the windowsill in the sun, her books piled on the floor. Her few belongings made little impact on the sense that the people who lived here had fled recently, taking with them what they could. The only room she’d taken some possession of was her bedroom, which, seen from the hallway, had the look of a more permanent encampment.
Instead of seeing the old city or the Russian market, as I’d intended, I spent the rest of that first afternoon sleeping on a mattress laid on the parquet floor in the empty spare room, and then later lay reading on the couch in the living room. I felt cocooned in the flat, in the warmth of the sunlight that came in through the big windows.
Laura came home late for dinner and we sat in the kitchen at the Formica-topped table. We spoke little. I felt myself skirting around the subject that lay between us like a giant hole in the ground, like a dead body both of us were too polite to mention. We talked about mundane things – my flight, the experience of Polish passport control, the weather in London. She answered each of my questions with one or two words, not volunteering information, never giving me enough to naturally lead the conversation where I needed it to go. Finally, after we’d eaten and I’d cleared the plates into the small sink, I asked her how long she thought she would be living here.
I don’t know Nick, she said, neatly peeling an orange with a small knife. Work said I can stay here until the new system is set up, which could take forever. A couple of months, maybe a year? Do I have to know exactly?
It would be nice if you did, I said. Because then I could go home knowing the answer and not have to shrug my shoulders when people ask me.
She pushed her thumbs into the soft centre of the peeled orange; she split it in two and put one half on to my plate in front of me. She didn’t say anything until she’d taken a bite of a segment, chewed and swallowed it.
Have you come to fetch me Nicholas? she said, pointing the knife at me. Have you come all the way to Eastern Europe to collect me and take me back?
My eyes flicked up from the point of the knife to her eyes. I don’t think she even knew she was brandishing it like that.
Don’t be stupid, I said. Of course I haven’t. I’ve come to visit. To see you, and to see how you are doing. That’s all.
Good, she said. Because sometimes, the way people go on, you would swear I had moved to the moon.
I picked up my own segment of orange and put it in my mouth, biting into it and thinking that if she had been offered a job on the moon, or even further, she probably would’ve gone just to prove a point.
Laura had to work the next day. After again spending the morning asleep on the mattress on the floor, I moved a soft and battered old armchair into the empty dining room in the afternoon. It was the brightest room in the house, and I sat basking in the late autumn sunlight. I was tempted to leave, to take the keys she had left on the kitchen table and walk out into the city. But, each time I resolved to do so the door to her flat felt like a barrier I could not cross. So I read the guidebook instead and asterisked particular things I would like to see when she returned.
Warm air came in through the open window of the dining room; sunlight fell through the turning leaves of the huge chestnut tree that grew next to the building, fell orange and warm on to me, and across her laundry. Giving up on the guidebook, I held a thin paperback in my right hand. For minutes I stared at a page, at a single line in the book and then, realising I hadn’t read anything at all, started at the beginning of the sentence once again.
I was sitting with my leg slung over the arm of the large chair, my bare foot dangling back and forth as I pretended to read – book held loosely in hand, my eyes followed an aeroplane I could see out the window disappearing behind a tower block – when the front door banged open and I heard her dropping her bags and drawing breath to shout for me.
I’m in here, I said, before she managed to speak. I looked at my watch. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. You’re home early!
She ran in and dropped on top of me, squashing the book in my hand underneath her.
What the hell has gotten into you?
Nothing, she laughed, and wriggled. I am in a good mood, is all. I’ve managed to get the afternoon off, it’s beautiful outside, and I’ve been planning an adventure for us all morning.
She grinned at me, showing all her teeth, with a crazy glint in her eye that made me laugh. She looked so young suddenly, like the five-year-old in photographs from twenty-five years before when we were children. I started tickling her, digging my fingers into her armpits, sending her into a fit of giggling as she clamped her arms to her sides and tried to pull away. She started hitting at me, pushing to get away and eventually we both fell to the floor laughing.
I hate you, she said, getting up and dusting herself off, making a face at me. You bastard.
I lay on the floor and looked up at her, breathing heavily, my book thrown somewhere across the room, my head resting on the hard wooden surface. I sat up, and said, Where are we going then?
It’s a surprise, she said, offering me her hand.
A good surprise?
She pulled me up and said, Of course a good surprise.
We stood on the tram, both hanging on to the same yellow metal pole. I tried to observe the people around us without being too obvious about it, not wanting to look too much like a tourist.
Up front, the driver rocked back and forth on her spring-loaded seat; her thick, plaited pigtails swung wildly with each bone-wrenching jolt as the tram stopped to pick up more passengers. It rode down the centre of an enormous, dead straight, four-lane boulevard and I watched as we approached a huge monument in the shape of four giant numbers. A 1, 9, 3, and 9 stood as high as the tram, and as wide as a bus – grey and solid concrete.
Nineteen thirty-nine was when the Germans invaded and then occupied the country. In my mind I could see tanks rolling down this highway from the west, into the heart of the city. Even though I knew Warsaw had looked completely different then, that these highways, and these apartment blocks had not existed, it was an image I couldn’t shake.
The tram jerked around a sudden corner, throwing Laura and I against each other, and then sped up again, ploughing through a drift of bronzed fallen leaves, flying past the brightly painted Sofitel hotel. It seemed for a moment as if we were travelling along a forest floor, the forest that had been here before the city. Through the open window I could hear the rustle of leaves being pushed aside like water from the prow of a ship.
The whole city was turning colour. The trees that lined the streets and filled the parks were a riot of red, orange, purple, gold and bronze. The bright blue autumn sky overhead made the leaves stand out even more.
Where are we going? I asked Laura again, and she smiled, shrugged, and looked towards the front of the tram.
Tell me! I said in a loud whisper, conscious of the people standing around me, conscious of my obvious English and of the Polish people next to me reading their Polish newspapers and Polish fashion magazines. But, of course, nobody paid us any attention.
Tell me or I’ll tell mom you’ve moved here to live your dream of being a high-class hooker for American businessmen, and you’re now tattooed from head to foot.
She pulled a face of mock horror and poked me hard in the chest. You wouldn’t dare. If you do, I’ll tell her you are a giant homo.
My eyes widened. Giant? I said, in mock horror. Like enormous? Like the 50 foot gay dude?
Yes, she said.
And then before she could say any more, the tram stopped and she grabbed my hand and pulled me out onto the sidewalk.
We stood at the tram stop in the centre of a wide street, marooned on a concrete island. Warsaw is a city where the new and the old overlap – both layers covering the ancient, buried in the soil beneath. Like weeds through the 1950s and 60s concrete, the glass towers of the InterContinental and the Marriot grow towards the sunlight. In my head, guidebook asterisks marked the map: a block away ran the Aleje Jerozolimskie, named for the Jewish district that no longer exists.
Despite the shining glass buildings, it was Stalin’s Palace of Science and Culture that drew the eye. It stands like a giant grandfather clock, a sand-coloured nightmare rising from the busy city centre.
Are we going there? I asked, pointing up at the hulking building.
Around us people walked quickly, heads down, their thoughts the everyday thoughts of their jobs or their families. After the last day spent sitting in Laura’s flat on my own the determined bustle of the city made my head spin.
She didn’t say anything. Instead she took my hand again and led me down a flight of stairs, running down into a system of underground subways. I felt enveloped then by the tunnels and the chaos of people rushing to their destinations.
Everywhere there were people. People moving in two streams, on the left and the right, people racing to get somewhere, people dawdling on their day off. And Laura dove between them, and drew me after. She plunged in seemingly without touching anyone, while I seemed to catch every elbow, and every bag. I was instantly disorientated – the signs all in Polish no help to me.
You carry on going, she said to me over her shoulder, her hand still holding mine, until you see the sign towards Pizza Hut. And then you take the next tunnel left. If you don’t you could end up going round here for hours.
Before I had time to adjust to the rush of people and the sound of their footsteps echoing on the yellow tiles, we were running up another set of stairs and out into the light to find ourselves standing in the square at the base of the tower.
It had been turned into a Casino of all things. Well part of it had. A wing projected out into the square from each corner of the main tower, and in one of these there was a cinema, and in another a museum; but it was the casino that drew the eye first, here at the base of a former symbol of communism.
We stood on the paving staring up at the building against a moving sky. It was a poison gift from the big papa, a mark that could be seen across the city, reminding people, when they looked up, just who the big boss really was.
I followed Laura across the square, the sun striking the huge flagstones beneath our feet, beating against the side of the tower. We walked into the building, under a giant archway. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the relative gloom and then I saw we were in a wide hall with a bank of lifts on either side. Six sets of shining steel doors stood waiting, two illuminated triangles above each one, pointing up and down.
It’s the one at the end, she said. That’s the express.
Where are we going? I asked, for the first time feeling apprehensive about not knowing where she was taking me, about being led so easily, so blindly. A part of my brain ran with that small, involuntary panic. Had the lift in front of us not pinged open I may have turned and run, but the doors slid back into their recesses and, pulling me after her, she stepped in.
It was a small space. Carpeted floor competed with carpeted wall; both seemed to be closing in on each other. A small fan whirred in a corner near the ceiling, but this provided little relief from the stuffy air. It was only then, as I watched the doors close behind me in the large mirror that I noticed the woman sitting on a small stool by the door.
I turned slowly, looked at Laura, eyes wide, and then at the woman who was not a trick of reflection, but was indeed sitting there. She was hunched over a gossip magazine, her shoulders covered in a thin grey cardigan, her grey hair permed tight. Laura half winked at me, and I realised that this was part of the tour.
The small woman looked up and, satisfied that the doors were shut, pressed one of the two buttons on a panel near her head. This really was an express lift: the button she pressed was marked 30, without any intervening floors between it and zero. The lift car lurched suddenly and the pit of my stomach sank lower as we were pulled upward. Without thinking I clutched Laura’s arm.
I hate heights. I hate going up towards them too, and she knew this. I should have known where she wanted to go, as soon as I saw this monstrous construction. I should have known with Laura’s sense of humour where she would want to take me on my first day out in the city. I had then a sudden feeling of us as children, Laura dragging me along behind her toward some mischief. I kept my eyes fixed on the woman sitting in the corner reading her magazine, her job done. I wondered how often she took this journey every day. How many times did she press 30 and race towards the top? I wondered what sort of insane place employs someone to sit in a corner and press one button to go up, and then another to go down, all day, every day, over and over. I was aware Laura was saying something, but the fearsome whooshing in my ears drowned it out.
And then, unbidden, a line from a song wound its way into my mind…elevator lady, elevator lady, levitate me…. It filled my head for a second, drowning out the tinny music coming from the speaker in the corner. It was all I could remember, that line repeating over and over, and I couldn’t remember who sang it or where it came from.
The lift slowed down quickly, and then stopped with a shudder. The doors opened, and Laura pulled me outside. The woman didn’t acknowledge us at all as we left, and when I turned my head around to look back at her I saw her reach up to press the button to descend, her head still down, her slow, patient reading of the magazine uninterrupted.
I looked around us. We stood in a wide lobby, a mirror of the one we had left thirty floors below. Here though, both ends were open to the perfect blue sky. It was several degrees colder than at ground level, the wind was brisker – it felt like a different world altogether.
We walked out from under the roof onto the viewing platform that ran all the way around the top of the tower. My heart beat faster the closer we got to the edge, but Laura kept on going, pulling me after her. I looked down. I looked at the floor, at the stone that matched the rest of the building. I concentrated on the new mark on the end of my shoe, and wondered how it had gotten there. And, before I knew it, we were standing against the tall fence that ran around the edge, attached to the original stone balustrade. My hands wrapped tightly around the fence posts.
Look, Laura said, and I could tell she was pointing, but I still looked down at my feet. That’s the Marriot there. They have this amazing cocktail bar on the top floor and you can stand looking back at this building with a martini in your hand.
That sounds good, I said. And, breathing in slowly and out again, I looked up from my feet for the first time.
It is good. It’s like sneaking into the first class lounge at an airport. It was full of American and Japanese businessmen in suits. I dressed up when I went.
I meant the martini sounds good, I said. Right now any sort of alcohol would help.
It’s the middle of the afternoon! When did you become such a lush?
The moment my sister dragged me to the one place she knew I’d be terrified I said, looking up at her finally, glaring.
Her hand flew to her mouth and then dropped away, guilty. Oh god, Nicky, I’m sorry. I’d half-forgotten. I thought you’d be over that by now. I mean, you are a grown up.
Liar. You did it on purpose.
No, really, it didn’t cross my mind.
You’re a terrible older sister, I said.
Sometimes, in the past, Laura had been known to decide what was best for me, and then push me along into it without consulting me. Like when I was fifteen and she left a Men’s Health magazine under my pillow with a Post-It note saying, Enjoy! At first I’d thought it was my mother, which caused some small panic, but when I showed it to Laura she’d casually confessed, but said nothing more. She was all for leading the horse, and making it drink too. It suddenly felt strange that it was now me trying to force her to talk, not the other way around.
I looked at her then and tried to think what she was thinking. Was she unhappy? I couldn’t tell. Ever since I arrived I’d been rehearsing my little speech. I’d sat in her flat going over the different directions in which the conversation could go. I tried to think of a way to ask her questions in a way that wouldn’t offend her. I asked myself again if she was right. Had I come to fetch her, to persuade her to come back with me? The sun warmed the metal fence, and the stone felt warm too when I touched it.
Don’t look at me like that Nicholas.
Like you are turning me into a character in one of your stories. I can almost hear your brain thinking the lines: She was a girl lost in a new city, exiling herself to the edge of Europe, she ran from her troubles… but they followed her anyway.
I would never use the word troubles, I spluttered. It sounds like you’re a pregnant, runaway Regency sixteen-year-old. Or Northern Ireland…I looked at her steadily and said, quietly, You aren’t pregnant, are you?
Of course not, you bimbo! Is that what you have all cooked up? You in London and Mom in South Africa, sitting on the phone swapping theories?
Honestly, no one knows what to think. You were engaged. Phil was so upset I had to move in with him for two weeks.
She cut me off, sneering suddenly: I bet you enjoyed that. Did you sleep in his bed too?
Oh, stop it, she said. You’ve always fancied him. Sometimes I thought he fancied you. The bestest of friends. All that hugging…
My face flushed with anger. I stared at her, struggling for control. What is wrong with you? I asked. Seriously. What? Why would you even say that? Why the fuck did you leave, Laura? No one knows. No one can figure it out. You sold the house from under Phil. You don’t talk to Mom, even though she’s going crazy on the other side of the world worrying about you. You refused to speak to me until I told you I was coming here.
My voice tipped up at the end with suppressed hysteria. I was so furious. She turned away from me, spun around, her long black hair whirling around her head, and walked across to the fence perpendicular to me.
I stood. I stood staring after her, and then, without thinking, followed.
She was standing looking east now, out towards the river and the rest of the city beyond. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to start the argument again. I could feel the pull of the earth beneath me, its gravitational need to pull me down, so I looked up and out at the horizon to steady my nerves. And I waited until finally she broke the silence.
Sometimes, she said quietly, I feel a bit like Poland.
What? I said, not understanding.
Stuck between Russia and Europe, always directly in the way of an advancing army. She glanced at me and a self-mocking smile crept across her face – and then it was gone.
I think that might be offensive, I said. To Poland I mean…what do you mean?
Nothing. It’s nothing. She shook her head. Do you know, she said, that the Germans wanted to completely wipe this city off the map. After evacuating or killing most of the people they systematically destroyed it building by building, burning and blowing up houses, libraries, churches – anything that might be of value to the people who used to live here. They gutted the place, even when they knew they were going to have to leave it, even when they knew that they weren’t going to hold it as part of their empire. All of this was built after the war. Some was made brand new – all concrete and socialist utility, but some of the old bits were reconstructed to look like they did before, putting the city back brick by brick.
I didn’t know that, I said.
She didn’t say anything, then, just looked out east towards the river. And I felt like in her mind she could see that disappeared city crushed and burning.
Let’s go down, I said eventually, after we’d stood for fifteen minutes. And, after one last look at the view that stretched out east across the city towards the river and beyond, we turned and walked away from the edge. The lift pinged as it arrived and the doors opened. And there, sitting on her stool, was the same old woman. In the descending lift she never once showed she might recognise us from the trip up only forty-five minutes earlier.
Around us Warsaw moved. People walked the pavements – professionals about their business, locals on errands, tourists wandering, like us, towards further attractions – and traffic hummed along the wide boulevards and avenues.
I love this place, Laura said. Tomorrow we’ll go to one of the big parks. The trees turning orange are just spectacular, and there is this hilarious Tex-Mex place where the American diplomats all go.
Sounds great, I said.
It’s a funny thing, she said, when you end up somewhere by accident but it ends up just fitting. You know?
That is amazing, I said, not wanting to point out that she had said the exact same thing about London when she’d first moved there eight years before. The way she’d talked about the city then was part of what convinced me to follow her. Talking to her on the phone, sitting in the flat in Johannesburg I shared with film school friends, I had such a sense of missing out on some great adventure that I felt compelled to discover it for myself. It was only later I realised she’d been desperate for me to join her, made lonely by a city that didn’t care how much she wanted it to love her back.
Around us, as we walked, the Warsaw changed – concrete gave way to stone and brick.
I’m starving, Laura said.
There’s somewhere we can eat down here I think. Do you remember, she said, those long car journeys when we went to visit grandpa in Durban and we would have to stop to eat lunch at a Wimpy, the same Wimpy, every time?
I just remember being so hungry the whole trip before we got there.
You make it sound like we weren’t fed.
I was always hungry, even after we’d just eaten. I’m the same now. Then, without looking at me, without preamble, she said, How is Mom?
She’s fine. She’s actually quite good, I think. I mean…it’s only been two years, right, since dad died? So she’s not great, but I think she’s fine. She’s channelling all her worry into us.
She means well.
So, are you going to tell her? About being a big gay? Since you obviously talk to her so much.
A gay? I’m not sure you’re allowed to say it like that. I can, but you…probably not. I’m hurt.
Sure you are. When are you telling her then? You used dad having a fatal heart attack as an excuse to keep it quiet. That was after not wanting to hurt her after we’d both moved to London.
She stopped walking and I turned to look at her. You’re twenty-seven Nick. Stop being such a wimp and live your bloody life.
I know, I said.
We walked towards the old city, felt it growing around us, buildings changing character again until it felt like we were suddenly in what could be any old European capital. Painted townhouses, cobbled streets, and small squares ranged around us. Much of it rebuilt, a reconstruction. It was beautiful and strange. It was a living reminder of what Warsaw had been, a ghost of the old city reborn.
At a square near the Royal Castle we sat at one of the small café tables grouped underneath a flock of wide, bright-yellow umbrellas. After the waiter had brought our drinks, I took a sip of my beer and looked her in the eye.
I didn’t come here to fetch you sis, I said. No one has ever been able to force you to do anything you don’t want to do, so I don’t know how I could have even done that.
Basically, I came to check you were alive. And to deliver a note from Phil…
Her eyes narrowed.
…but you don’t have to read it! I said quickly.
She said nothing, taking a sip of her own beer instead. Just as I was about to say more, to explain better, the waiter brought our food – two plates of pasta – and didn’t leave us until he had applied the exact amount of black pepper and cheese we required.
She spoke before I had a chance to. How’s the new job? she asked, popping the ravioli on the end of her fork into her mouth.
Fine, I said. It gives me time to write.
You’ll get there, she said.
And your love life? What happened to that posh English guy?
I snorted and said, He, believe it or not, fucked off and started dating girls.
Look at us, both single again. No wonder Mom is horrified.
We ate then in silence, and I felt the first chill of evening. A small breeze ruffled through the umbrellas as the sun went down behind a row of buildings.
I just panicked, she said then, looking out away from me, at the crowds of people, at an older couple shopping at the nearby flower stall. I moved to London to get away from all those expectations of what my life should be, you know? Like, back home people thought because I’d finished studying and I’d got a job, now the next stage was to find a man, get married, kids, and so on and so on.
She ran her hands through her hair, combing it back from her face, and then she looked directly at me. I know it wasn’t an original idea. It’s just what everyone our age was doing then, living in London for two years to delay growing up, but I really meant it. It was more than that for me. This wasn’t a holiday, this wasn’t a small break in my inevitable march towards becoming my parents – this was it, this was me forever.
I know, I said.
The waiter arrived just then to clear our plates and we paused until he’d walked away again.
Well, she said picking at something on the table and then brushing the surface clear of small crumbs of dry Parmesan, I didn’t do all of that just to marry the first South African bloke I met in an Earlsfield pub. And before you say anything, that is what he wanted – marriage, kids, possibly moving back home to live near his parents in Joburg. And I could feel him wanting it, and I was never going to give it to him. Ever.
He wasn’t the first bloke you met, I said. You’d already been in London for three years by then.
And you were with him for five years. Five years.
I just don’t get it.
For a second it looked like she was about to cry, but she didn’t. Instead, she took a final sip of her beer and then said, You don’t get to lecture me about commitment, all right? Or courage. At least I made a decision. At least I’ve done something, not just sat on the side-lines watching other people have relationships, get the job they want, try really hard for something.
Don’t what me. You know what I mean. You don’t really ever try Nicky. You just hope someone will come by and make things happen for you. It’s fucking lazy and cowardly and frustrating to watch.
I could feel the blood rushing to my head. I could feel my heart racing. I was angry, but I had nothing to say. I had no defence. I had no evidence to the contrary.
After the silence stretched on too long, after I said nothing for what felt like minutes on end, she reached across and gripped my forearm.
I’m sorry, she said, that was mean. I’m not really one to talk. When I still said nothing she let go of me and said, I felt this overwhelming feeling of being trapped and I panicked. I asked around at work about possible positions overseas and I took the first one that came up. I would have gone almost anywhere – further would have been better really, but I came here, and you know what?
I know I should feel guilty, that I should feel sad and regretful. But I don’t. I feel good for the first time in years. I have no one and no one has me and I’m bloody marvellous at it.
I wanted to tell her she was a fucking liar. I wanted to grab her and shake her and tell her that she was terrible at being on her own. If she was so wild and free then what the hell was I doing here?
But I didn’t do those things. I just watched her as she dug in her bag and slammed some money on the table – more than enough. And I watched her as she got up and walked off.
And I followed her.