Simon Guest – Złota Polska Jesień (Golden Polish Autumn)

September is a delightful month. Summer is slowly bowing out, with autumn yet to make an entrance. Jesianą dni są ciepłe I ładne – autumn days are warm and nice. In towns and cities, the change is marked by the slow ebb of pavement tables and chairs and the return of the leafleteer to every street corner, while in the country the transformation is more subtle. Gradually leaves lose their sheen and slowly, as the trees start to shut down for the winter, they turn yellow, then orange and russet and finally brown before giving up entirely and drifting slowly earthwards, to collect in drifts and piles wherever they may lie undisturbed, homes for insects and rodents, hiding dead dogs and patches of mud.

It’s a Thursday morning when I head out, intending to catch up with a friend, take a good walk in the forest and return home with plenty of fungi to turn into sauce for naleśniki or soup. The nature of mushroom picking is such that to get to the best you have to be up and out pretty early, so the day isn’t that old as I board the 500, clutching a small cloth bag, empty except for a couple of sandwiches. Heading into town the bus is crowded until after we cross the river, the water brown and slow moving, the brick hypodermic of the palace of culture visible in the distance, its masonry orange in the weak morning sun. Most people get off at the Metro and make their way to other parts of the city. I stay on, take a free seat and watch the other passengers for something to do. At Arkadia a thin, middle-aged man gets on, dragging a small brown and white terrier on a long length of twine. He stands close to me, talking to the dog, who looks up occasionally. As we near the centre, the man leans over and asks the dog:

‘Are we getting off?’

The dog looks up and its tail starts to wag.

‘Getting off?’ The tail wags harder.

‘Are we going for a walk? Are we?’ The dog lets out an excited yap: one of two emissions from its small scrawny body. In a matter of seconds, the bus fills with the stench of eager, excited, wound-up canine fart. There is a brief interlude then, as the fumes spread, a mass flurry to open windows and cover faces with hands, newspapers or scarves. The owner neither notices nor cares; the dog looks secretly proud.

We pull up at the stop, the doors eventually open. Passengers alight as one, eyes watering. Great lungfuls of air are gasped, the smell of fumes and piss by Centralny infinitely better than the pong on the bus. The pałac clock tells me I’m late, so I hurry down the steps and through the underground maze that makes up the station. It is busy, even at this hour; masses of people travelling to all corners of Poland and beyond. Ticket queues snake along corridors lined with kiosks selling sweet buns or cigarettes, paperbacks or drinks. Trying to hurry I am jostled and bustled in my attempt to get quickly to the far end of the station, past the Mrówka kiosk, to the WKD ticket office. I buy a ticket and wander onto the platform. There are hardly any people here, waiting for a train out of the city. A couple of women with empty baskets and equally empty faces stand by the book stall. On a bench further down, two older men mumble and grumble at each other in the way alcoholics do, berating one another for a variety of things: taking their seat, touching a bag, trying to steal a drink. As I pass I see one clutching a book, European employment law for journalists and wonder how much, if any, he’s read and whether something within is the cause of the incoherent argument.

It is chilly on the platform. No sun ever gets down this far, the trackside walls are too high. Only people and pigeons down here – both get where oil can’t. On the wall someone has written in neat schoolchild hand: Oskar to parówki. I look down the tracks and see a light. A minute later the red, white and blue train screeches and grinds its way to a stop on the platform. With a shudder, the doors open and out pour the workers, ready for a day at the office or university, carrying briefcases, backpacks, shopping bags, hopes. There are no smiles, no sounds of conversation except for one man in a suit, trying to look important and bellowing into a tiny mobile phone held sideways in his hand, as if it will burn his ear should he put it there. Someone told me recently how to spot a Pole if you’re in England – they’re the ones screaming into mobiles on buses and trains. They must practice in Warsaw.

In two minutes the throng is gone, moving like a Roman phalanx up the exit ramp to disperse and go where they will. I hoist myself into the carriage, picking a place with a good window view. The seats are solid red plastic; the kind designed by people who know they will never sit on them. There is a loud ring, the doors shudder closed and, with a lurch, we trundle silently out of the station. The sun is beginning to filter down through the blocks, wisps of mist still visible along the tracks. On the right the railway museum, a line of rusting black steam engines, a throwback to former times. We roll slowly, never gathering much speed, further out into the suburbs of Warsaw. Past houses with gardens now, not apartment blocks and flats. A flash of colour: a field of gladioli waiting to be picked, transported into town and sold to people who need a constant reminder of what nature is.
After twenty minutes my arse is numb from the plastic bench. We judder along, starting and stopping at every wayside halt. It is another twenty minutes before we get to where I’m to meet Marek, my sometime drinking buddy and source of local knowledge. He is there when I get off the train, blinking in the morning sunshine, smoking one of his foul smelling Spike cigarettes and reading last week’s Metro. He looks up as I approach, the only passenger to alight here.

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Simon Guest – born in 1965 and, for a long time, a lorry driver before going back to university to study. Travelled extensively in Europe and lived in Warsaw before relocating again temporarily in north west England. Proof-reader, occasional translator and short story writer; also likes to write political song lyrics for angry bands.

Simon Guest – urodził się w 1965r. Przez dłuższy czas był kierowcą cieżarówek zanim zdecydował się na powrót na uniwersytet. Zwiedził niemal całą Europę, mieszkał w Warszawie nim tymczasowo powrócił do północno-zachodniej Anglii. Zajmuje się redakcją tekstów i okazjonalnie tłumaczeniami, a w wolnych chwilach pisze krótkie opowiadania i politycznie zaangażowane teksty dla wściekłych kapel.