And so you look on as more and more dead villages and dull little towns go by, followed by warehouses, forests and the occasional control towers of moustachioed junction switchmen who stare out of the rooms where they work, eat, watch television, sleep, celebrate religious holidays and eventually pass away. They stare like the old women down narrow town streets nearby, resting, in royal fashion, on cushions perched on window sills, only the view before them different. Instead of young people, rushing to and from work, to and back from shopping, to kindergarten, from kindergarten, with a howling babe in arms to some obligatory family dinner, back from same obligatory family dinner with faces that tell of pain, instead of all that the switchmen have before them trains rushing along predestined courses, full of successful folk, laptops open wide, sitting side by side with unsuccessful folk, sandwiches peeled of tin foil, wristwatches ticking all their lives away. For the switchmen it is almost like being at the movies, rectangular compartment window after rectangular compartment window flying by, the frames of a never-ending film about real life, some within arguing, others cuddling, everyone, including the switchmen, existing but for that one moment, disappearing in the distance, replaced soon enough by so many others.
And so sometimes you wave back, without once trying to work out what they could be thinking about you, what sort of a life they might be inventing, be having you live. All you know is that nothing they can imagine could be worse than the reality of what you are experiencing right now.
Four hours of travelling to go. Four there and four back and between them all those control towers set right by the train tracks, the name of each junction coded in some unintelligible railway language, etched beneath their windows. Eight hours altogether. And even before you leave home you often wonder what else could be done with so much time. In eight hours, you could fly to the other end of the world, start a whole new life. In eight hours, you could visit endless nightclubs, meet enough friends, drink yourselves into proper stupor. In eight hours, you could make so much love, lose all sense of all those hours passing by, all sense of time and place, nothing mattering anyway. For those eight hours, you could be sat behind a desk in an immaculately pressed suit, pushing valuable papers about, in that one working day earning more than those railway switchmen earn in a year. Eight endless hours to hold out on these short, regional trains, in carriages where the heating never works, where toilets never have running water, from which the old restaurant carriages have forever been disconnected and no one bothers to walk past offering colourfully packaged refreshments like they do on intercity express trains or jet planes soaring far from here. In eight hours you leave behind thousands of towns and hamlets and villages, none of which you would have ever seen, ever thought of, if not for these trips, thousands of places where some semblance of normal life still goes on, the sort you struggle to try and still remember, nose glued to the compartment window, even though actually you couldn’t care less about any of it any more. For eight hours, you try to read the books you always bother to pack for the journey, turning page after page, laboriously, never into the narrative, never in the action, never connecting with any protagonist. Else you try studying from the school textbooks and notes you sometimes drag along, though can never fix in memory any of the countless dates, figures, definitions and myriad of other data they want crammed into your teenage head. For eight hours you find yourself in some other, utterly different world, a chink between worlds, a place no news can reach, or where that which does is somehow diluted, twisted, hollow. And you no longer know how to kill time, how to stop those hours lasting as long as they do, how to numb yourself against this journey, a journey becoming ever more painful each time you choose to yet again take it.
And only the other women help. Even if it is only a little. Whenever you travel together, it feels easier, safer, calmer. They understand, ask no unnecessary questions, and the ones they do always help. They are the only souls who can make you feel better, remind you are not alone in all this. That you aren’t the only one riding the the grief of these endless rides, trudging through long, bitter hours, taking these trips into a whole other world.
Sometimes, you bump into one another on the platforms or in the station or already on the train, or maybe arrange to meet in advance if both of you happen to live close by, or chip in to get the taxi to the station while it is still dark, when the day is at its coldest, its least pleasant, when things hurt keenest. When it rankles the most that this Sunday cannot be like any Sunday in any of those other, ordinary families, when it is so painfully clear that there will be no lie in, no breakfast in bed made by the first of you to rise, no staring out the kitchen window at the tops of trees, at the indistinct sun, no gaping at family television shows just to have something to do together, no long walks to take in that refreshingly chill, cheek-pinching wind, not even the obligatory parental Sunday lunch where everyone stops themselves from saying anything honest or where no one holds back at all and everything ends in tears, and it rankles that there won’t be anything which could be considered part of a real Sunday when the two of you are together, are close, in spite of all the worries, problems, interruptions, regardless of the daily grind, of the constant lack of time, the need to always be getting something done, the putting off of so many things in the end. Any day, it would seem, can be put off and so you must postpone and believe, keep believing, that all these missed, accumulating Sundays can one day be rescued, restored, rekindled.
Dawn, still dark and cold, a biting wind blowing, piercing through all the layers you’ve wrapped yourself in. Fierce air getting into the tiniest nooks, stabbing with its tiny, relentless needles. The platform, the whole station appears almost empty. But then there is the woman in the ticket office pretending she’s not asleep. Two women in long, black coats, looking like they are travelling to the funeral of someone they can barely remember, but, all the same someone who in dying has given them the excuse to tear themselves away of everyday realities, realities punctuated with numerous doses of colourful pills and visits from children who are brilliant, of course, though not quite brilliant enough to accept advice accumulated over so many years of motherly experience,. And, next to them, a couple of kids, leaning on one another, falling asleep like babes in each others’ arms, on their way back from a party which, surprisingly, spontaneously, ended only an hour ago. Seeing their kind hits hardest. After all, they are the same age as you, maybe they even go to the same school, you can never tell. Boozy faces and smudged make up make recognition impossible. You remember all too well, months back, though it seems like only weeks ago, making such trips home yourself. Dazed and dozing off through tiredness and excess of alcohol and cigarette smoke, your make up wrecked, so much so you couldn’t recognise your own face as, silently creeping along the hallway so as not to wake your parents and two younger sisters, all of them still sleeping like children, you finally faced the bathroom mirror in an arduous and often ill-fated attempt to brush your own teeth. You remember all too well those silly moments, those pointless parties, drinking along with everyone, completely innocent, completely naive.
Yet today, cut off from all that, you look on with a mixture of pity and concern, with a tiny hint of envy. Today, they look at you the way you once looked at those like you now: what is she doing here? Where could she be going to at this hour? How naughty and nice it is to be just heading home when all these ordinary people have just risen to begin their boring, petty days.
And yet you would so desperately, so almost madly wish to be inside the skin of those who are just about now heading to bed or those just starting out on another boring, petty day. You would prefer anything other than to be sitting here, on this repulsively ugly, frozen station, trying to find a friendly face, one which looks like it is going where you are going, the face of someone who can be considered, approached, connected with. Like soldiers or members of some secret society, you have your own simple trick: a password which always works without fail and always manages to split the world in two, between those on the same side as you and those who don’t even realise such a split exists. Saying the name of the street you are all travelling to is enough. In most cases, signifying nothing, beyond comprehension by any outsider, but for you and for others like you it is etched somewhere deep inside your heads, popping up in dreams and fixing your place in the scheme of things. It is enough to approach another woman on the platform, whisper the name and if he familiar flash of recognition appears, everything is suddenly be clear and you become instant friends, friends for a long time to come, making the trip, life itself, a little easier, a little warmer, a little easier to stomach.
You can’t now remember exactly when it was you became part of this subtly secret society, only know the very first time when you didn’t have to travel alone, to struggle solo with those landscapes passing by outside your window, each painfully slow minute bringing you closer to your destination. And every one of those Sundays you are still grateful to the other women for that. They accepted you as one of their own, without asking questions, without saying anything you might not have wanted to hear or be afraid to answer. A few pointed glances were enough, a few pertinent questions, a word or two which for those like you meant something altogether different than they might have done to the rest of the satiated, ignorant world. You instantly became their favourite: the youngest, the most frightened and by far the most vulnerable, needing all the support and care they could muster. It wasn’t like that with other things, but care, that was something the other women could provide a lot of. After all, their lives were spent now brimming with affection without a partner to share it with, brimming as if with milk, the kind of full which hurts and then has to be siphoned off with a rubber pump, the difference with them that they had no one to share it with, to surrender it to: gentleness, sensitivity, warmth, all the feelings which, through that one visiting hour overloaded with matters, emotions and practical trifles, they would try to share with their husbands, fiancés, boyfriends, brothers. But those men, they didn’t know how to or perhaps didn’t want to be on the receiving end of gentleness. The circumstances weren’t always exactly conducive. They had to keep acting the hard men, taking no break in performance, shrugging it all off the way a slaughterhouse apron shrugs off blood, unable to afford a moment of weakness or sentiment. Anyway, how to show affection in the kind of environment on offer? Large halls, in which, as if at some village fair, feverish transactions were being arranged along rows of perfectly aligned tables: words for gestures, scraps of feelings for promises, scenes from lives in exchange for rushed stories in which one wanted to conceal more than convey, reports of finished or unfinished errands for new requests. Or else in small rooms, split in half with reinforced glass, allowing only images of one another to get through, words smuggled down an arm’s length phone line. It wasn’t even like licking ice cream through a shop window, more of a vile, emotional peep-show, lacking even the basics, such as toilet paper one could then use to wipe and return things to some sort of tidy order. And always in someone else’s presence, that someone always listening to everything, having to decode the difference between real familial tales and secret codes, instructions, forbidden scraps of information. That official someone always watching the hands, trying to tell an affectionate touch from the passing of letters rolled up into tiny tubes to evade censorship, all of it simple human gestures, such as the writing, with a prisoner’s finger tip, in the palm of a partner’s hand, the addresses where that which had been sought and not found by anyone until now. All of it regulated, limited, forbidden, and even if allowed then only under close, unceasing supervision. This was not the time, certainly not the place, in which anyone could share or feel anything of their true selves.
And so they went on suffocating with feelings, experiences, all that affection and gentleness. And sometimes they let it spill, when it got too much, when it would no longer stay shut up, with random people along the way. Usually with someone close; a child, stubbornly believing in the mantra-like story repeated any time they asked, that daddy went to work abroad, believing this notorious, multi-layered lie propped up with letters, written to sound like they were from Daddy, sent my some friend who really was stuck somewhere in England or Ireland; or with a sister or a brother, busy living their own adult lives, yet all the time doing everything in their power to not appear as if they were turning away, rejecting, feeling shame or fear; or even with complete strangers, found on trains, in streets, at work or out shopping, people who for a second, having expressed a flicker of interest or empathy, would within a moment be listening to all those woes, both the madly emotional and the purely practical, whether they wanted to or not.
You were the ideal vessel for all those feelings – the youngest, completely out of place, lost and shy and yet, at the same time – not altogether fully consciously, it seemed – hungry for help and encouragement. And so you instantly became something of a mission for the others, something they could test themselves against, show how much their affections were really worth. And so they measured themselves, these women, helping you with everything they possibly could: entertaining you with their chats on the train, sorting out little favours on the inside, explaining how all the procedures, the ones you yet had to learn so much about, the ones which tripped you up every Sunday, work.
They couldn’t understand how someone like you became one of them – so young, so unlike the statistical average, the stereotype. And so you retold each time the same story, a story you yourself could not altogether believe. About how you met him in a club, when you were both already wasted, the party loud and ordinary, though you both quickly realised how alike you are in spite of that ten year difference in age, about how proud, how relieved you were to have a proper man, free not to go through all the motions of teenage confusion and permanent disappointment inflicted on all your school friends by the kind of boys they were all going out with. About how good it had been for such a long time. About all those months, taken straight out of some stupid Hollywood rom-com, always somehow set in New York and always somehow starring the prettiest actors of that particular time, which promised the world. And about how stupidly it all ended, in that almost impossible convergence of random, impossible to predict coincidences which caused him to be sitting that very morning behind the wheel, having a few hours earlier had a few beers which should have long gone out of his system, and that unfortunate, homeless man, out of his mind on booze and winter cold, stepping out in front of the car, and about how in that instant a respected and talented young professional, in the eyes of many already on the very verge of a long and illustrious career, became an enemy of the state, an animal hounded by state prosecutors, sneaking, head buried in his shoulders, from hard bench inside the courtroom to hard bench inside the prison transport truck, time and time and time again.
Whenever you reached this moment in your story, large tears would roll down your cheeks and the other women would always cry with you, in an honest display of sympathy and solidarity, knowing all too well the reality of what you were going through. And there was only one thing they couldn’t get over, something which helped strengthen their respect for you even more. That you didn’t run away, didn’t leave it all behind, didn’t cut all ties and start everything anew. In theory, you could have. You hadn’t yet married, had no kids, so completely free to do what you wanted. Those women, they told you stories of others, before you, who had made a clean break, though they were older, mothers, stuck in ruts still ahead of you, but your loyalty, your lostness, increased their affection and their keenness help even more.
Admiring, believing, that everything will end well, they didn’t know then, the same as you couldn’t know then, that it will not end well. That you will keep on making this journey for a few more years, waiting, dreaming of the moment it all ends, planning a future, living as normal a life meanwhile as possible. Studying, then looking for work, then working. Meeting people from time to time, accepting invites to the quieter parties, though finding it harder and harder to avoid the endless questions about whether there is anyone new, anyone you’re with. That the end game will end, eventually, and the moment will come when you take that train ride alone, but the return leg together, and that this long-imagined, long-awaited journey will not feel the way you had envisioned it at all. That something won’t work, gel, fit, but that after all that effort, all that exhausting effort you will keep calm, hoping this slow thaw is only temporary, that it will pass and be back again like before. But then that nothing will pass, nothing rearrange itself back the way it was, just keep getting worse and worse. That with each day it will become ever more apparent how far you are from one another, how time apart had done just that, set you apart. That he is now someone completely other, someone you don’t recognise, someone you remembered as someone else. That you won’t know at all whether it was you now wanting something altogether different, or whether it was he who had changed so much. That you will struggle on with one another for another few long and painful months, counting on eventually becoming used to things, put everything back the way it was before. That in the end you will break up and that is when you will be crushed with an all-enveloping sense of emptiness, a terrifying awareness that the best years of your life were spent waiting on a train, chasing something which had escaped once and for all, that everything is now finished and all you have left now is work, a few of your most loyal friends and a long list of those who in all those years had wanted to get closer only to be pushed back before anything, anything new could happen.
But for the time being you’re not bitter yet, not yet crushed and exhausted by the awareness of just how hopeless your future appears. For the time being, you still believe that everything will be fine, will find in yourself the strength to once every week rise at dawn and reach that station and then ride all those lingering deja vu hours for those few fleeting minutes of joy.
Today, things worked out and you are travelling in a large group where you all know each other well, having taking this trip together before, having already exchanged numbers, tried to arrange some sort of random meeting, without pretext, not necessarily on the train, back in the ordinary, stationary world, though somehow it hasn’t so far worked out. And so you sit together, taking up almost the whole compartment, and talk. These conversations are essential and make you feel better, being guided by closely followed, though of course unwritten, rules, helping the whole situation be borne. None of you ever used the kind of words which naturally force themselves to the tip of each tongue, none asked questions which might otherwise seem completely obvious and unavoidable, none talked of things which always only caused anguish. And so it was easier. Easier not thinking about what was happening to your men in all this time, time apart from those weekly Sunday visits, what was hidden beneath their forced smiles, behind those hard man acts, the other side of all those tough, though stripped of all real meaning, assurances that everything is fine, good, holding together, that everyone was waiting and missing everyone else. Easier not to think about what probably took place beyond those grotty, and yet in some way now familiar, meeting rooms, what happened further, deeper beyond the towering brick walls. It was easier too, much easier, not being told and never asking what it was another’s husband, brother, fiancée had had gone down for and how long for. It wasn’t important, really. Only the women mattered to the women, while they, all those men, remained in the background, though of course they were why you all left home so regularly, counted down the days to the next meeting, booked the next visit, packed everything so carefully, the very reason why you were all now together in the first place, and yet, at the same time, conversely, they, the men, were immaterial, existing in memories only, outside of those rare hours of visits, hours made of minutes which rushed wildly past anyway.
And so you talked among and about yourselves, about good old every day life trifles, about who works where, where you all go to get your hair cut, where the best schools are, what time you will get home. Someone listening in on these conversations, someone who didn’t know who you all were, would have a hard time deciphering what it is connected you all and why you were all on this train together. Not unlike staff from some multinational corporation coming back from a team building weekend, or students taking on weekend out-of-town post-graduate courses, or a little like girl friends returning from an out-of-town shopping trip. They would have little chance to guess none of you met mid-week, none of you worked together, but that you had just passed the most difficult lessons and graduated in the toughest exams, exams in real life, the kind you cannot find in any text book, exams sat through in an institution which opened its all-encompassing doors for you for just a minute, and that the only shopping any of you had done was along the way there, right under its walls, sticking rigidly to the rules of what could be brought through those gates and what was strictly forbidden.
It is almost over for today, over, until next Sunday or the next national holiday. The train is almost done rushing back to where, left behind with au pairs, grandmothers or other female friends, are the children and the thousand little matters waiting to be taken care of, the sort you would always manage together but now must manage alone, where your apartments stand empty, in need of tidying, now only out of habit, only because you should, even though no one ever comes to visit, making you care less and less about cleanliness, or sometimes the very opposite, making you spend frenzied hours wiping every nook and cranny in every chintzy pot and cup lined up on shelves collecting dust by the tonne, making you search out every crumb, every white strand of god knows what, every bit of balled up dirt hiding on the floor and under wardrobes, even making you comb the tasselled edges of carpet so that not a single strand can be seen pointing in a direction different to the others. And you do all this just not to have to think, to have something to kill time with, to to fill every last second so as not to leave the tiniest chink into which, ready and waiting round every corner, despair and disgust could slip.
In your case, though, this looks a little different – you have your parents who, though they really do not approve of the whole situation, have learnt to say nothing, to not criticise, to never try convincing you to change anything, supporting you as best they can, helpful in all things. You have your studies, though you have to force yourself to do them, running from the obligation in a thousand different ways, the routine holding you together somehow, keeping you from folding over, curling up into a ball in the corner of the room, staying there for a long while, maybe even as long as it will take to reach the moment when it all ends, and normal, ordinary life begins again, the kind of life everyone else seems to be living, unconscious of all the bad things which passed them, though not you, by. And yet, at the same time, you know how little it would take for them to find themselves in the same sort of trap, that only the faintest aspect of their existence needs to crack, collapse, crash. And then nothing is as before, nothing will go back to any sort of ordinary, healthy and almost always unappreciated sort of normality.
You still have a few things, appropriate for your age, which help you bear up a little better than your friends from the train compartment. The remains of friendship, mostly kept going by every day contact at school, each week crammed with lessons, sometimes from morning until late at night, the compulsory and the extracurricular, something you still seem to care about, your parents doing everything they can to keep it that way, and then of course all those struggling efforts to keep any sort of social life going, even if it be in some sort of fragmented, inevitably damaged form. All this helping you cope, helping you drag yourself, crawling across the whole, unending week, until the next departure, the next journey, the next visit.
And so in the end you all alight, quick to swap numbers with those who are new, who are only now coming to learn this way of life, who do not yet fully appreciate what awaits them in the coming years. You part like the closest of friends, like families, sisters, the best of colleagues, like all those who know that without mutual help none will manage, none will handle reality. You embrace tightly for drawn out seconds, kiss cheeks wet with tears, hug as if to pass on a little warmth, even if it is only enough to get you through to “next time”. You all alight and go your separate ways, each one in a different direction, each one to count the very same hours until then.
translated from Polish by Marek Kazmierski
This extract is taken from the forthcoming Boys and Girls in Poland, being published by OFF_PRESS in the summer…
Przemek Gulda, born in 1974 in Gdansk, lectures in History of political and legal doctrines in Gdansk, while also writing for Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland’s biggest daily) and Nowy Dziennik, the biggest Polish language newspaper in the US. He regularly contributes to mainstream and specialist arts and media publications in Poland. His first book, “Siedemnaście sekund” was published by in 2005 by Lampa i Iskra Boża.
Przemek Gulda urodził się w 1974 roku w Gdańsku, pracuje naukowo na Wydziale Prawa i Administracji UG, gdzie wykłada historię doktryn politycznych i prawnych. Jako dziennikarz związany jest z Gazetą Wyborczą największą gazetą polonijną, czyli nowojorskim “Nowym Dziennikiem”. Autor książki “Siedemnaście sekund”, która w ankiecie czytelników “Lampy” zyskała wyższe notowania od Stasiuka, Piątka, Vargi i Tokarczuk.