For Jerzy Pilch
An opportunity came along at last. Gustav got a writer?s grant to go abroad.
This was not as remarkable as it might seem. Gustav, after all, though he had never published anything in his life, though he was the author only of ideas, scribbled jottings, arresting first sentences and elliptical last ones, was a well-known man. And not only in Cracow. His fame (as he was soon to discover) had spread. His name was in the air; his ideas were discussed; his sayings were quoted. Yes, much had been said about Gustav. His ingenuity, his extraordinary flair, his original way of looking at things may not yet have made their permanent mark, in the form of printer?s ink on paper, in even the humblest of literary newspapers, but there was no doubt about it: Gustav was famous. His genius had been recognised. Well, it must have been; how else to account for the grant? The countless discussions of which he was the subject, the subtly wrought phrases and brilliant aperçus which he let fall around him with such abandon, lavishly, trustingly, in the naive belief that no one would appropriate them ? all this had created a legend, which had finally found its way to the right place and done its bit. Well, it must have.
?This year,? the people on the committee must have said, ?this year, why not give a grant to the elusive Gustav? True, he?s never actually written anything. And he isn?t exactly in the first flush of youth. But how tedious to sit here, year in, year out, encouraging the young and the promising, handing out awards for achievements ? for things accomplished, finished, done! Thoroughly admirable things, no doubt, but all tainted,
* Polish writer and friend of the author.
weighed down by a darkness lurking at their core ? the shadow of their own completion. There?s such an inexorable finality about them. While here ? here we have the Great Unfulfilled. Could we not, just this once, put aside our dubious principles and reward the Great Unfulfilment? Give the Unfulfilled a chance to fulfil himself at last? Or indeed ... not? Come to think of it, why should the poor man fulfil himself? Why not give him a chance to go on not fulfilling himself! What, after all, is a Scorching Summer, or even a Stormy Spring, compared to the Great Hopes that each of them awakens??
?Yes,? they must have said, ?of course! Gustav! Who else nowadays has such courage ? the courage not to write? And to go on not writing, with such tenacity, such perseverance! His silence is magnificent; it deserves to be rewarded. Let him go on scattering those precious golden crumbs from his internal poem; let them go on sparkling like glow-worms in the air, lighting it up for the rest of us.?
So it must have been. The decision may not have been unanimous, there may possibly have been, say, one vote against and two abstaining, but that, more or less, is surely how things went. Well, it must be.
The Foundation?s subsequent modus operandi was admittedly unorthodox, displaying a degree of nonchalance, some might even say frivolity, surprising in such an institution; but we know how deceptive appearances can be. At any rate, news of his grant did not reach Gustav through his department or through the Writers? Union (to which he did not of course belong, and which in any case was still suspended at the time), or even by post. It was brought by a certain Swiss humanist who appeared one day in the holy city of Cracow. The manner of its delivery was not as eccentric as it might seem. The Swiss humanist had not come to visit the city?s holy monuments or to take part in a learned conference; he was clearly there on a secret mission. Times, as we know, were hard, and the eyes of the whole civilised world were upon us. There was really nothing peculiar about it at all.
Gustav, by then already the most experienced of the department?s guides for foreign humanists, strolled with the Swiss humanist around the Old Market and attempted to explain to him the dialectical value of the greyness and boredom of a country under communism, especially when the communism in question was of a martial, or at least militarised, kind. Swelling with pride and dignity, he tried to convince the humanist that for an artist such a situation was only ostensibly unfavourable. In fact the restrictions which hemmed him in from all sides were an invaluable opportunity for the artist to give birth to a pearl.
?You people, over there on Lake Geneva, in Lausanne, on the Aar,? he said, with a dismissive but sympathetic shrug, ?you?ve got everything: watches, chocolate, cheese... Everything?s clean, punctual, organised. The highest standard of living in Europe. The highest per capita income. And what do you get from it? Nothing. Boredom and pointlessness. Excess, superfluity. You?re drowning in it. You have no more needs. We, on the other hand ? we have nothing, only the four bare walls we live in, and yet... and yet...? But here, whether because he was at a loss for the right word or because something had interrupted his train of thought, he stopped, and the Swiss got the impression that he was bewailing his lot.
?May I help you?? he asked, reaching into the inner pocket of his jacket.
?No, no, no, you don?t understand!? Gustav flailed his arms about. ?I haven?t finished yet. Where was I? Ah, yes: nothingness. Emptiness. Inferiority. Do you see? Inferiority complex... Second-class quality... All that... all that, taken together, is a chance to soar, to leap... out and up, to transcend the... to... yes, to ascend. Ascension! Immaturity! Gombrowicz ? you have read Gombrowicz, I hope? Yes, it?s only through debasement and degradation, only through hitting bottom, that one can reach the summits and stand there proudly like Kordian, our romantic hero, on the top of Mont Blanc. The Alps in Splugen! Ah, to stand there, just for a moment! Or even just at the foot of it!?
And that was when it happened. The Swiss humanist nodded with sympathetic understanding and invited Gustav to the hotel bar, where he proceeded to give him the good news.
Of the lengthy exposé which followed Gustav was able to make out very little, as the Swiss spoke in an undertone (clear proof that the matter was a weighty one) and kept interjecting French and German words, but the gist was unmistakeable: travel and visa costs were to be Gustav?s responsibility; room and board ? well, they would think of something; the humanist was sure something could be arranged. As for pocket money ? unlikely, but not entirely impossible, either, you never know...
?But what about the invitation?? asked Gustav in a conspiratorial whisper. ?And invitation? Einladung? L?invitation? I won?t get far without an invitation. No invitation ? no passport. Ohne Einladung ? keine schweizerisch Visum...?
?Not to worry,? interruped the Swiss. ?I?ll bring it from Warsaw.?
?From Warsaw?? Gustav asked in surprise.
?Yes, yes, from Warsaw,? the other calmly replied. ?It can be arranged at the Swiss embassy.?
Suddenly everything became clear. Naturally ? the Foundation! One could only admire the prudence of its directors; how cunningly they had laid their plans! Aware of the obstacles and difficulties facing the citizens of that part of Europe (particularly the dissident artists and intellectuals), mindful of the perils to which life in a totalitarian system condemned them, such as (to list only a few): the jealous enmity which poisoned life in Gustav?s department; the constant manoeuvering, the permanent state of guerilla warfare which obtained there, the tactics, the strategies, the treacheries, the setting of traps; the negative selection process in the Writers? Union ? the promotion of mediocrities, the stifling of genuine talent and good work, the favouring of slimy sycophants over independent spirits; the bureaucracy; the slowness, bad will, corruption, sloth and venality of officials, most of whom wouldn?t think twice about resorting to blackmail if it looked lucrative enough; and finally, of course, censorship and the control of one?s correspondence ? the Foundation, mindful of these things, and mindful also of the singularity of its decision ? knowing, in other words, that in such a country their choice of candidate would give rise to a certain amount of controversy ? had acted wisely and with great forethought. It had decided to send its own man into the field. His secret mission is to contact the candidate privately, make sure of his identity and inform him of his grant. But, so as not to arouse suspicions, either among the candidate?s colleagues or in the passport bureau, he does not hand over any official papers. Instead, having settled the necessary details, he obtains an ordinary, private, tourist invitation. Yes, no doubt about it, that?s how it must have been planned.
Perefectly reasonable, when you think about it. All right, he?d be paying his own travel expenses. And there might not be any pocket money. Was that so very strange? It was common knowledge that universities, cultural foundations and scientific institutions all over the world were struggling; times were hard everywhere, even in Switzerland. Yes, nowadays even the Swiss had their problems, just like anyone else. It would have been surprising if they didn?t. Indeed, it would have been odder if they had paid his expenses. You?d have to start wondering where their money came from.
True to his word, a few days later the Swiss humanist, having paid his visit to the capital, duly reappeared in Cracow (travelling in his own car, the better to camouflage the real purpose of his visit) on his way back to his bright and sparkling country and handed Gustav a genuine Swiss invitation, signed and paid for and bearing all the right Swiss stamps. The one doing the inviting was of course the Swiss humanist himself, and the invitee ? Gustav.
So there he was ? the recipient of a grant to go abroad. To Switzerland! Lake Geneva! Lausanne! In the footsteps of some of his most illustrious countrymen: the great Adam (Mickiewicz), and Julius (Slowacki), and Zygmunt (Krasinski). And of course Henry James. And Thomas Mann. Not to mention Nabokov. And Canetti ... He was so absorbed by these thoughts, and by the passport and visa formalities, that he quite forgot about to think about his wife Emilia?s lover.
At last everything was done, everything was ready. Passport, visa, transit visas, tickets (bus ? the cheapest way). At exactly the same time his wife Emilia, too, was setting off ? on yet another professional training course. But Gustav didn?t care. He even derived a certain satisfaction from it.
Poor, pathetic creatures, he thought ? meaning, of course, Emilia and her lover. Another training course! Sitting through those absurd wooden lectures, those ridiculous discussions, pretending they?re there to learn something, when their only purpose is to snatch a little nooky in a dark corner. ?Professional trip?! ?Official delegation?! It was pitiful. If at least they did it with a bit of class ? a bit of imagination, a bit of bravado, even on their paltry, miserable scale; if they went off with the clear, fully premeditated aim of a little nooky, and indulged in it with hearty, untrammelled relish! But no ? they?re not capable even of that. They?ll talk and stroll about hand in hand, and in the evening exchange furtive kisses on some deserted bench (they?ll be four to a room, so the rooms are out), and then blush with shame and sigh and complain how hard life was. My God, how petty and demeaning! Here I am, off to Lake Geneva, to the Alps, on my writer?s grant, forsaken, abandoned, betrayed, while they ? while they jaunt off to their ?professional training conference?, that symbol of brainless socialist degradation, to play out their great tragedy in the midst of a crowd of half-wits and convince their bird-brained, chicken-souled little selves that they?re experiencing the highest reaches of a profound, noble, tragic passion. Oh, what the hell. Leave them to it.
He left on Saturday morning. The bus went through Czechoslovakia and southern Germany and followed the Danube. It passed through Prague, a brightly lit vision at night; it skirted carefully around Munich, home of Radio Free Europe. And on Sunday, after an overnight stop in Konstanz, on the Bodensee, it went on, deeper into Switzerland, up the Rhine, to Lausanne and Lake Geneva.
He had entirely forgotten his hateful tenant (his wife Emilia?s lover). His mind was on the immediate future ? his immediate future. Would Frank (for that was the Swiss humanist?s name) be at the station to meet him? Where would he stay? And, most important, what about the ?unlikely-but-not-impossible? pocket money? Had it squeezed through from the possible into the realm of the actual? How would it be handed over? In the form of cash in an envelope? Or as a cheque? How much would there be, and how far would it go? Just far enough to keep him in cigarettes, or would it stretch to Albanian brandy? Or as far as French cognac...? Or even Scotch whisky...?
He couldn?t stop thinking about it. The sum of his assets came to twenty dollars, bought off a seedy change merchant outside the bank. It might take care of a few minor expenses for a couple of days, three if he was lucky, but no more than that.
Things started off well enough ? quite auspiciously, in fact. Frank was waiting in his silver Volkswagen and bore him straight off to a country restaurant in the mountains, where they enjoyed plentiful amounts of Scotch whisky and French brandy, just as he?d dreamed, as well as cold Bavarian beer to wash down their lunch. Frank was in an excellent mood. He kept slapping Gustav on the back and raising his glass in an endless series of toasts, accompanied by roars of ?Salut!? After lunch he suggested a drive to see the sights: first the city, all the main streets and squares, and then the lake.
He wouldn?t stop talking. He kept up a continual chatter, and every few seconds took his hands off the wheel to gesture at some sight worthy of Gustav?s notice. Gustav, after his ample lunch, washed down with equally generous amounts of drink, felt heavy and sleepy. After a while he simply switched off and ignored the excited speeches of his cicerone. In what remained of his befuddled consciousness he was alert to one thing only: whether Frank, swept up in his tourist guide?s fervour, would ever get around to the beef. The pounds, shilling and pence. Or Swiss francs, in this case. In other words, the little matter of his, Gustav?s, living expenses. His per diems. His pocket money. He was fairly sure that so far there had been no mention of it. Nothing, not the slightest reference, not even the shadow of a discreet allusion.
Well, he thought to himself, so far everything?s proper and correct. He picked me up, he gave me lunch. I got my whisky. And now he?s showing me the sights. He must have arranged somewhere for me to stay as well ? he can?t very well just dump me in the street, not after a start like that. And if he takes me to a hotel, it?s probably safe to assume that it will have been paid for. Well, that?s fine, but ... the money, what about the money? Will there be any? Where is it? When is he going to tell me about it?
He wasn?t wrong. Franks had indeed arranged a room for him: in his own house. The view, admittedly, left something to be desired: the window overlooked the cemetery. You could even enjoy the sight of the crematorium. But Frank chuckled loudly and said,
?Very romantic, isn?t it??
?Yes, really, wonderful,? Gustav replied. ?Actually it?s just the thing,? he added, ?because at the moment I?m working on something called ?Graveyard Prose?, which I was hoping to finish here.?
Inexorably, quarter-hour by slow quarter-hour, Gustav?s hopes were fading; the minutes ticked away and still there was no mention of pocket money. Maybe it will come up later, he thought; he might mention it in passing, in the course of some conversation. But clearly nothing of the sort was to be hoped for now. It was not to be part of his official welcome.
Frank, seeing that Gustav was looking glum and had fallen almost completely silent, slapped him on the back again and roared,
?Let?s go to the lake shore! ?Where the water?s pure and deep,?? he added, tossing off the quotation with the knowing smile of one fully initiated into the arcana of Polish literary place-myths.
So they got back into the silver Volkswagen and sped off to Lake Geneva.
After half an hour, which this time elapsed in complete silence, they arrived at the mythical place. It was empty and quiet and still. The waves licked the shore; the water really was incredibly clear. You could see the bottom. And at the bottom ... At the bottom was ... money. Unbelievable amounts of it. Piles of it, just lying there. Coins ? coins in all shapes and colours, gold and silver, twinkling like stars. And all of them of impeccable breeding: good hard Western currency. Francs, marks, schillings, even the occasional pound coin. These were no poor metal tokens of the people?s democracies. Gustav stared.
?Unbelievable, unbelievable,? he whispered, gazing into the clear blue depths.
?Yes, isn?t it. Amazing, extraordinary,? replied Frank, a hint of pride in his voice, but then, as if to make up for it, added severely, ?But water is not so pure as in old times...?
But Gustav was no longer listening. ?Is there a bus that goes here?? he asked nonchalantly on the way back.
?Sure,? said Frank. ?The seventy-two. But if you want to spend some more time there, or see anything else, just let me know ? I?d be happy to drive you.?
?No, no!? Gustav cried in alarm, perhaps a trifle too violently. ?I wouldn?t want to put you to any trouble. Besides, this is the kind of place where I have to be alone. I?m sure you understand. You know what Lake Geneva is for us Poles ? especially for Polish poets. You quoted the lines yourself, back at the house, as we were leaving ? those legendary lines from that inspired cycle of lyrics, written there, on the shore of the lake, by our great national poet. So you can understand that I?d like to spend some time alone there, in silence, fishing out the ... thoughts and impressions he might have had ...?
?Sure, sure, it?s clear, it?s quite natural,? Frank conceded easily. ?I?ll point out the bus stop to you.?
From then on Gustav?s waking hours were spent in a flurry of nervous ? and, as it turned out, extremely tedious ? preparations. He began by trying to work out a plan: when to go, and what time of day would be best; what to take that might turn out to be useful; where to buy bus tickets; where to change his dollars into Swiss francs.
The next morning, after an almost entirely sleepless night, he decided not to delay: he would go at once. On a reconnaissance trip ? a sort of dry run. So he announced to Frank, in the most nonchalant voice he could muster, that he was going out ? just to, you know, wander about for a bit, get the feel of the place.
?Just look around,? he chirped, fluttering his hand vaguely in the air to impress upon Frank the sheer frivolity and utter purposelessness of his projected wanderings.
?Good luck!? said Frank cheerily.
Out on the street, Gustav turned his steps in the direction of the bus stop Frank had pointed out to him. On the way, which happily he had no difficulty in finding, he considered the pitfalls faced by one availing himself of the services of Swiss urban transport without a valid ticket.
The driver himself might ask to see it as he was getting on and demand that he buy one. Or one of the passengers (every one of them a strict Calvinist, he was sure), seeing that Gustav betrayed no intention of punching his ticket in the machine provided for that purpose (if indeed such was the Swiss practice), might remind him that he ought to do so. And even if this was spared him, there was still the possibility that a ticket-inspector might get on.
He decided that to all these unpleasant eventualities he would respond in the same way. If anyone asked him to show or buy a ticket, he would take out a ten-dollar bill (ready in his pocket) and firmly, silently, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, profer it as payment. As if he had been intending to do so all along. And when the unexpected sight of the dear green American currency caused signs of consternation to appear on the features of whoever it was ? driver, passenger or inspector (albeit consternation of an entirely different kind from the consternation it would have caused in officials on Gustav?s native shores) ? he would explain, with an edge of impatience to his voice, that he was a foreigner and hadn?t yet been able change his money. Sorry, but I couldn?t find any exchange here, he would say with a typical American mixture of arrogance, irritation and nonchalance.
After a performance like that they wouldn?t fine him, surely? And even if they did, how would he pay? In dollars again? At worst he?d be made to get off the bus. But it would be so petty and mean of them to throw him off ? he doubted they?d really do it.
He needn?t have feared; his carefully planned counterattack proved unnecessary. No one ? neither the driver nor the passengers ? displayed any interest in his ticket, and the pervading spirit of Calvinist honesty seemed to preclude the very existence of such a thing as a ticket-inspector.
He had less luck with his reconnaissance. True, the place was still empty and quiet, as on the day before. But not empty enough. Complete solitude was required for the contemplation in which Gustav intended to indulge. That meant no one: no people whatsoever. He would also have liked to be certain that his solitude would last at least half an hour: such certainty, by removing the need for vigilance, would allow him to concentrate on the task at hand, and this in turn would increase the yield considerably.
But the blessed, almost unearthly stillness was constantly disturbed by one thing or another. A solitary walker, wrapped in thought as he gazed into the water; or a pair of lovers strolling along the shore; or ? most irritating of all ? a flock of children wading in the shallows and ? the outrage of it! ? stooping eagerly at almost every step, with shrieks of unashamed joy. They always threw their booty back in the end, obedient to reminders from their parents or guardians, but ... with what abandon! It was scandalous. At best it was unseemly and irreverent. They flung it back in handfuls ? handfuls! in a place like this! ? as far as they could, as if to see who could throw the farthest; as if to consign their catch, if they could not have it, to eternal oblivion.
Damn the little brats, he thought. Is this what they teach them in Sunday school? Is this the famous Swiss spirit of thrift and economy, of careful calculation? Unbelievable! What waste, what reckless profligacy!
It was now clear, at any rate, that the daytime was no good. It would have to be evening ? late evening . Or even at night.
Disappointed but not entirely disheartened, Gustav plodded back to the bus stop and examined the schedule. The last bus left at 10pm. His options were twofold: get there early, around eight, and leave by the last bus two hours later (surely two hours would be enough?); or arrive late, around ten, and leave whenever he wanted, on foot. After some thought he decided that the latter alternative, although much more laborious, would guarantee the best results. Even if there were still some daydreamers wandering about at that hour, surely they wouldn?t hang around until midnight? And he would have all the time in the world.
To see how long it would take, he decided to walk back to town. As he trudged, following the route of the 72 bus, he cheered himself up by imagining how the very next night, perhaps, he would be walking this way with a light heart ? walking on air, despite the heavy load in his holdall and the weight in his pockets. He imagined the pleasant surprises which awaited him, the unexpected pleasures and delightful discoveries. With time, however, as the walk began to tire him, this sweet anticipation of joys to come gave way to anxiety about practical matters. How would he explain his late return to Frank? Or rather, how would he arrange it with him? For arrange it he must, if he didn?t want to spend what remained of the night on a park bench. He needed a key. But what possible reason could he give for needing one? Then there was the question of where to stash his booty. But above all ... above all, it now struck him, he would need something to light his way. A flashlight was indispensable. How was he going to explain his need for such a thing, or contrive to get one without having to do so?
Back in town, exhausted after his three hours? march, he walked around searching for a cinema with night screenings. An hour later he found one, but all the films were X-rated, and he didn?t feel up to presenting himself to Frank as an amateur of pornography. At last, when he was faint from exhaustion, fortune took pity on him. In a small side-street he found a studio cinema which screened old classics at night. This was Bergman week; the following night, at 10pm, they were showing of The Seventh Seal. Just the thing ? perfect. He made sure of the programme and noted down the name and address of the cinema. Then, barely able to stand, he collapsed on to a bench and immediately fell into the deep and easy sleep of the tramp.
It was evening by the time he got home, refreshed in both body and soul.
?Where have you been so long?? asked Frank, greeting him joyfully.
?Oh, it is very long story,? Gustav muttered. ?I walked all over town and I am most impressed, but also very tired. So please,? he added in Polish, ?please for God?s sake just leave me alone.?
?Oh, I can imagine, I can imagine,? said Frank, nodding sympathetically. ?Go to bed and relax.?
Gustav went up to his room and lay down on the bed. But his brain, churning with the events of the day, would not let him rest. From the crowd of anxieties gnawing at him the problem of light had now nosed its way to the front and was leading by a good head. How on earth could he get hold of a flashlight? He wasn?t about to buy one. And it was hard to see how he could ask Frank without arousing suspicions. Perhaps he could find it himself? Have a hunt through the house ? tomorrow morning, when Frank was out shopping? He must possess such a thing, surely; everyone has a flashlight. Yes, all right, but what if he didn?t find it? By then it would be too late to ? and then it came to him. He leapt off the bed, flung open the door and in his excitement almost came crashing down the stairs, but contained himself enough to close the door quietly behind him and saunter at a dignified pace down to the living room, where Frank was sitting in an armchair, absorbed in a book.
?Sorry, but do you have a candle by any chance?? he asked quietly.
?Yes, a candle ... Maybe you?ll think I?m being silly, or pretentious, but after all my experiences I thought it would be nice to sit for a while by candlelight. I?m sure it would do me good. Actually, it?s something I do quite often at home.?
?Sure, no problem,? said Frank, smiling broadly. He disappeared in the kitchen and reemerged with a whole pack of decorative red candles. Then he took an equally decorative candlestick down from its shelf and handed the whole lot to Gustav.
?Many thanks,? said Gustav, trying to imbue his voice with just the right amount of suppressed emotion. ?I am really obliged.? He took the offerings and gravely retreated with them to his room.
Leaving the door slightly ajar, he put two candles in the candlestick, lit them, turned off the light and sat down at his desk. Then he began to intone, in a low voice but loudly enough for Frank to hear, and stressing the metre, a poem written (although some prefer to think it was improvised on the spot) by the great Polish national poet. It was not, perhaps, the most fortunate of the poet?s compositions, but it was well known, and was part of the cycle that written here, in Lausanne. It went something like this:
While my corpse sits among you and discourses brightly,
Gazing into your eyes as it chatters politely,
Far away is my soul, and unheard its sad sighing
As it wanders alone, its laments softly crying.
Gustav went on repeating these words until he heard Frank move out of the living room and felt him standing tensely, straining to listen, on the stairs.
The following day he woke up at noon. Frank had been up for hours.
?I heard you talking to yourself last night,? he said. ?It sounded intriguing. What was it??
?Oh, nothing important,? said Gustav in the voice of a man exhausted by some huge creative effort. ?Nothing important. I was writing a poem. Incredible place, Lausanne ? one day here and already you?re overcome by inspiration. Thank you so much again for the candles.?
?Not at all, not at all, my pleasure,? said Frank graciously. ?An honour, in fact. A Polish poet, writing a poem, in my house! It?s wonderful! And what are your plans for today?? he asked suddenly, swerving away from the subject.
?Well,? said Gustav, putting on his energetic tone of voice, ?actually, I thought I?d go to the cinema. Yesterday, while I was wandering around, I found this place where they?re showing old Bergman films. It?s the Seventh Seal tonight ? I?ve seen it, of course, but I?d really like to see it again.?
?The Seventh Seal?!? cried Frank. ?The Seventh Seal? No, really??
?Well, yes, The Seventh Seal,? conceded Gustav, feeling his stomach lurch unpleasantly as the first stirrings of a dreadful suspicion made themselves felt. ?What?s so amazing about that??
?I?ve been wanting to see that film for years! Where?s it playing??
The suspicion grew darker and rose slowly from Gustav?s stomach to clutch at his heart. ?But ... it?s a late screening! At night! Very late!? he babbled in a desperate attempt at discouragement.
Frank shrugged. ?So what? So much the better! We?ll go together, my friend!?
Gustav thought he might faint from fury. He felt sick. ?Excuse me,? he blurted suddenly. He got to his feet and dragged himself to the bathroom with the resigned shuffle of a condemned man.
He collapsed onto the lavatory seat and considered his predicament. His thoughts raced around like rats in a cage. The plan he had elaborated with such care lay in ruins around his feet. All that effort ? the thought, the time, the trudging around, the sleepless night ? all wasted, because of Frank?s unexpected, ridiculous, stubborn insistence on accompanying him to the Bergman film. And it posed an entirely new problem as well: how, exactly, did he intend to buy a ticket when he didn?t have any local currency? Of course Frank would most likely treat him, but what if he didn?t? And most important ? what now? A day?s delay wasn?t catastrophic in itself, but he?d have to think of another reason for going out late at night.
After protracted ablutions and a meal that was more an early lunch than a late breakfast, Gustav turned to Frank with the breezy air of the experienced globetrotter and said,
?I spent all my francs yesterday. I need to change some dollars. Where can I find a bank??
?How much do you need?? asked Frank, neatly turning the question around and reaching into his pocket.
Gustav felt the pricking of a serious dilemma. Here, finally, was an opportunity to get the first instalment of that longed-for unofficial pocket money. On the other hand, what if it turned out to be a loan? And if he took the money now, he wouldn?t be able to get out of going to the cinema with Frank, which was precisely what he was trying to avoid.
?Just for bus,? he said finally, with some reluctance. But then, realising that such a reply might be misconstrued, added with smile and a wink, ?For the moment, of course, for the moment.?
Frank reached into his pocket, took out a gloriously multi-hued banknote and handed it to Gustav, who saw with a thrill that it said ?20?.
?Buy a season-ticket,? advised Frank. ?It?s much cheaper.?
?So I am going to do,? replied Gustav in world-weary tones. ?Thanks! And see you!? he tossed over his shoulder as he almost ran out of the door.
He felt cheerful again. The crisp, crackling note, with its cheerful ?20?, had the immediate effect of banishing all his anxieties. Even its rustling sounded encouraging: ?Don?t worry,? it seemed to be saying, ?everything will be all right.?
In accordance with his declared aim, he went to the bank, but only to check the rate of the Swiss franc. This, he discovered with satisfaction, was high: his twenty francs were worth almost twelve dollars. Which meant that his total assets had increased by over a third.
After the bank he went to a tabac to check the prices of bus-tickets, and particularly of the season-tickets so warmly recommended by Frank. Here he discovered, with considerably less satisfaction, that a season-ticket cost eighteen francs. Buying one would wipe out, in one fell swoop, almost the whole of this new and unexpected increase in his assets, and with it his good mood ? that satisfying warm glow which no season-ticket could provide. A season-ticket just wasn?t quite the same thing, somehow, as a nice new crisp 20-franc note. Single tickets, he saw, cost only two francs, but it seemed a pity to part with the note so soon after receiving it, even if he did get eighteen francs in change. Its loss would discourage him. He decided to buy nothing. He knew now what he should do. Refreshed in his mind, he left the tabac, lit a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his pocket and set off slowly along the street.
The weather was mild. A perfect, cloudless September day. The sun shone benignly, warming but not scorching. What could be more pleasant? What more could one want? Well, actually, quite a number of things. Beer, for a start. A pint of icy, frothing beer in a stein, or perhaps in a long, delicate glass misted with cold and sparkling with beads of moisture.
It was just such a glass that now stood in front of Gustav as he sat in the shady garden of a café called ?Sous les ch?nes?. As he took his first sip and felt in his throat the blissfully soothing tickle of its bitterness, he gave himself up to a variety of musings. He started with Emilia, wondering what she was up to at those training sessions, especially in the evenings and at night; but after a mental sneer he hastily abandoned that line of speculation. Then he considered that evening?s planned expedition, once again going over the tasks before him and the perils and difficulties they might involve. Finally, he turned his mind to the most urgent question of the moment, namely how to get out of the trip to the cinema with Frank. After a few hours? thought he had an idea. It had cost him five beers, but it had been worth it.
?You?re not going to believe this,? he cried as soon as he had come in, ?but the most amazing thing has just happened. Guess who I bumped into in the street: an old friend from university I haven?t seen for years! He emigrated, and he lives here now. Unbelievable coincidence! He was so thrilled he wouldn?t let me go until I?d promised to have dinner with him tonight. So I?m afraid I won?t be able to go to the cinema with you after all. I?m so sorry ... But I?m sure you understand. Bergman can wait.?
?Mais oui, mais oui,? said Frank with an understanding smile, for some reason switching to French. ?Where does he live? Perhaps I can drop you??
?Mais non, ce n?est pas nécessaire,? replied Gustav smoothly, unperturbed by the startling language change. ?We?re supposed to meet at this restaurant he knows ... ?Sous?...? ?Sous les ch?nes?, I think it?s called,? he said doubtfully, after a moment of mock struggle with his memory.
?Ah, oui, ?Sous les ch?nes?. C?est tr?s joli,? said Frank. ?Et la cuisine est tr?s, tr?s bonne.?
?Oh, and I almost forgot,? said Gustav, stopping abruptly at the door to his room and assuming his absent-minded-poet pose, as if a vital detail had struck him just in the nick of time, ?Could you let me have the key to the house? I might come back while you?re still out, or you might already be asleep ...?
?Mais bien s?r. Tiens, le voici.? He handed Gustav an elegant key-ring in a leather case and initiated him into the mysteries of opening the door.
He now had everything he needed: key; candles, a free evening and a perfect alibi for a late return. And two francs, which was all that remained after his libations at ?Sous les ch?nes? and which he silently vowed to spend on a bus ticket.
He lay on his bed with his eyes closed and tried to contain his excitement. ?Rest and conserve your strength,? he said to himself. ?You?ve got a tough evening ahead, perhaps even the whole night. You must rest, Gustav.? And to calm himself he began to recite one of his favourite couplets by the great poet ? about finding a treasure on a dark night. Admittedly the treasure the poet had had in mind was of a rather more ethereal kind than the (fairly concrete) one he, Gustav, was thinking of, but still it calmed him.
At exactly eight o?clock, dressed in loose-fitting, wide-legged trousers, with five candles and a towel in his holdall, the keys and the two francs in his pocket, Gustav left the house and set off with the wary step of an East-European trapper for the bus stop.
A bus came quite soon, and it was barely a quarter to nine when he arrived. The place was dark and quiet; not a soul about. At last. ?Stars overhead and stars underfoot,? he thought, and two moons. Yes, it was just as it should be; just as the poet had described it. Just as it must have been then, for him ...
He approached the lake. But he didn?t look down, didn?t even check whether anything was visible on the bottom. He was conscious of a strange unease, an anxiety which overshadowed the excitement he had felt only a moment before, on the bus. Or maybe it wasn?t so much anxiety as a feeling of inertia, a kind of paralysis. He stood there staring into the distance, not knowing what to do. Take off his shoes and socks, roll up his trousers, light a candle and wade into the icy water? Suddenly it was unthinkable. It wasn?t that he was afraid: afraid that he would lose his balance and fall, for instance, or that someone would see him by the light of the moon. It was nothing like that. He simply felt he couldn?t do it.
Well, there?s certainly no one around, he thought sleepily, observing the scene almost without caring. No doubt about that. But if so many of the Great were drawn here, and almost all of them came back changed, as if burning with an inner light, some of them blinded by it ? then perhaps ... perhaps some Dark or Supernatural Power inhabited this place? The Eye of Providence? The Spirit of History? The Genius of the Earth? And watched, observing all those who ventured here ? the Chosen, the Daring and the merely Presumptuous. And penetrated deep into their souls, and read their thoughts. And having judged them, turned them inside-out and seen what there was to see, deliberated and pronounced sentence. Was this one worth enlightening or not? Should he be granted an insight into the nature of things or struck blind for his audacity? Is he worthy of the breath of inspiration? Or should he be sent off with a flea in his ear?
And the Pilgrim or the Chosen, the Daring or the merely Presumptuous, would concentrate his mind and summon up all that was best and noblest in his soul: all his possibilities and all his achievements. And present them for inspection. He would speak with the clarity of Descartes and the subtlety of Spinoza; he would draw on the deepest wellsprings of his eloquence. He would improvise; he would recite the most perfect of his poems. He would sink into a mystical trance and open himself up to receive the divine rays.
And if it should turn out that within his soul there lurked some falsehood or impurity, something base or unworthy ? if, in short, what lurked there was not true genius, or even great artistic ability, but a simple, vulgar magic trick ? then the Examining Eye would spurn his offering and reject him in anger, might even punish him, possibly by robbing him of his wits for the rest of his miserable life.
But what does all that have to do with me? thought Gustav. I didn?t come here to prove anything or challenge Fate. Am I driven by pride and an arrogant belief in my own worth? Do I crave enlightenment or supernatural knowledge, or initiation into the secret of Existence? Hardly. I only came for ... a bit of help with the mundane practicalities of life ? a have-not come to pick up a few miserable coins carelessly tossed into the water by the haves of this world. I only want to make myself useful to Frank, to lighten the burden of his generous hospitality and spare him some expense. In Your eyes, Lord, I am but dust, he thought, paraphrasing another of the great poet?s lines. Sawdust and ashes. A worm; a humble hewer of wood. Who am I to come here and expect to be granted soaring flights of the spirit? I?m a poor fallen creature, sunk in the slippery mire of dialectical materialism, cast there by the false, godless communist regime. A miserable sinner. Homo sovieticus. A reptile; a weak, low, worthless crawling thing.
But are we not taught that the Lord upholds all that fall, and lifts up those that are down? And is it not written: Blessed are the meek, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven? And is it not also written that blessed are the pure of heart, for they will dwell in the house of Lord?
So if you?re out there, and if you see me, Gustav continued, stooping suddenly and beginning with great energy to take off his shoes and socks, behold my abnegation and the poverty of my soul. See how despicable I am, how low I have sunk ? having dealt with the shoes and socks, Gustav turned his attention to his trousers ? and if You love Your creatures with a fatherly love ? he rolled them up neatly ? do something! Prevent this! Don?t let me sink and touch bottom. Send Your Angel to stop me as he stopped Abraham!
He took two red candles out of his holdall and lit them. Then he raised them slowly, careful not to let them go out, lifted up his face towards the sky and for a long moment stood there, arms upraised, a candle in each hand, gazing up at the heavens, silent and motionless.
You won?t, he said at length, bitterly, and lowered his head. I see. Very well. So be it. And in his bare feet he waded into the icy waters of Lake Geneva.
He bent his back like an amber-gatherer and began stooping down for the spoils. And no Mighty Hand stopped him, no Angel swooped down to blow out his candle. The Lord God of Hosts did not raise him up. So he went on with his work, toiling patiently in the cold, until he had gathered all that he could see.
When he came out his feet were numb and his calves screaming with pain from the icy water. But he was happy: he had succeeded. He rubbed his legs with the towel and looked at his watch. It wasn?t yet ten. If he hurried he might even catch the last bus.
He hurried, and caught it. His toil and stubbornness were rewarded. He rode in comfort back to town.
Frank was out, no doubt watching The Seventh Seal at the little studio cinema Gustav could therefore settle down at once to the blissful, long-awaited task of viewing, counting and arranging his spoils. Which, after a strengthening sip of brandy from the bottle in the kitchen and a warming cup of tea, is what he proceeded to do.
The size and variety of his his catch astonished him. The big fish were as follows:
27.40 Swiss francs
13.70 French francs
3 and a half pounds sterling
5.60 US dollars
In addition he had netted an impressive haul of smaller fry ? liras, schillings and Dutch guldens, as well as handfuls of other, less familiar creatures, some of which he had never seen before: single items from the Far and Near East, whole series from South and Central America, and even a few examples from Africa ? the Ivory Coast and Kenya. But even without these, the total far surpassed anything he had expected in the way of pocket-money.
He segregated the coins by country, poured each batch into its own little plastic bag and stowed the bags among the clothes in his suitcase. He kept back only the Swiss francs, which he secreted about his person ? in the pockets of his trousers, to be exact. Then, soon after midnight, before Frank had got back, he lay down for a well-earned night?s sleep.
But it was a restless sleep. His physical and mental exhaustion brought on nightmares. In the first, customs officers at the border search his suitcases and find all the little bags. The whole lot is confiscated, of course, but the customs officers do not seem to consider this punishment enough: they call in a few lugubrious secret police types to give them a hand with the interrogation.
?Where did you get all this?? asks the first, with a piercing, menacing glare. ?Who gave it to you? What were the services you rendered to Radio Free Europe for this payment? What foreign powers have you been spying for? When did you start working for the CIA? You might as well talk, you bastard, we know everything anyway. Judas! You?ve betrayed your country! And you?ll live to regret it, believe me!?
?I haven?t betrayed anyone, I swear it!? Gustav babbles. ?I?m a poet. I?ve been abroad on a writer?s grant. This is just the rest of my pocket-money.?
?The rest of his pocket-money!? sneers the second. ?A huge sum like that?! In all these different currencies? A poet! A writer?s grant! So tell us, Mr. Poet, what kind of verses did you compose to sell state secrets in? Alcaics? Trochaics? Elegiac couplets? Or maybe just plain hexameters? Since when have agents been called poets? Are you going to talk or not? Go on, tell us how you sold out your country. Confess! You took orders from that traitor who?s been spying for the CIA, didn?t you??
?Who, what? What traitor? Gentlemen, what are you talking about?? wails Gustav.
?He doesn?t know what we?re talking about!? jeer his tormentors, now clad in the long leather coats of Russian NKVD officers from the 1930s. ?The man has no idea!? They?ve started swearing at him in Russian, too. And then they go at him with their leather boots.
Hardly has this nightmare dissolved before his sleeping imagination brings forth the next, even more dreadful. This time Gustav is at home, in his flat in Cracow. It?s early morning. There?s a ring at the door. He opens it. There are five of them. They show him their ID?s.
?Currency speculation brigade,? their chief announces. ?We?ve received information that you?ve been illegally dealing in foreign currency on a large scale. Here?s the search warrant.?
?But, gentlemen, there must be some mistake ... A misunderstanding ... I don?t deal in currency ... I work at the university.?
?We?ll soon find out.? They all troop in and head unerringly, unhesitatingly for the suitcase under the bed. They open it. They take out all the little bags, one after another. As they do so, they hold each one up for Gustav to see and wave it before him with a significant look.
?Look at this! I?ve never seen anything like it!? says their chief. ?As God?s my witness. And I?ve seen a lot in my time. Well, my lad, you?ll be spending a nice long stretch inside, you will; I can tell you that much. I almost pity you, I do, really.?
And a moment later, with no investigation and no trial, a prison wagon drawn by four black horses is already bearing Gustav away across the snowy steppe to Siberia.
He woke up drenched in sweat, and racked by a dreadful uncertainty: had he cried out only in his dream, or also in his sleep? Could Frank have heard him? Suddenly the previous day?s experiences seemed so improbable that he began do doubt their reality. He turned on the light, opened his suitcase and looked inside.
The little plastic bags full of coins lay peacefully where he had put them.
?Damn!? he whispered. ?What a mess!? Even as he said it he was surprised at himself: after all, the sight of his haul, very much real and safely tucked away, should have pleased him. Why was he worried? First thing tomorrow, I?ll go to the bank and change all this into Swiss francs, he thought, making a conscious effort to return to his practical-minded self ? as if to dispel a creeping fear that he had gone mad for a moment. Reassured, he got back into bed. This time his sleep was peaceful, and in the morning rose calm and refreshed.
At breakfast he made cheerful conversation with Frank, improvising stories about his old friend from university and listening with grave attention to Frank?s observations about The Seventh Seal. Then he dressed and set off for town, his holdall heavy with coins.
In front of the bank he stopped and hesitated, suddenly unsure if he ought to change everything at once. Not because he was reluctant to part with some of the coins, but because so great and varied an amount might look suspicious. In the end he decided to change just the dollars, as an experiment. And in order to lend seriousness to the transaction he added the ten ?green ones? he had brought from home to the five hundred and sixty cents in coins.
Holding the cash ready in his hand, he crossed over to the exchange window, put the ten-dollar bill on the marble counter and very carefully poured out his pile of coins. He poured with his hand low over the counter, in a slow, silent stream, watching tensely to make sure that nothing clinked or rolled away and fell on the floor, causing an unseemly amount of noise and embarrassing confusion. Nothing did.
The cashier did not even glance at him. This was a good sign: she was treating him like any other customer, nothing out of the ordinary. With a precise and deliberate movement she pushed the pile of coins to one side, took the ten-dollar bill and punched some keys on a little eletcronic calculator. Of course, thought Gustav, with some irritation: the easy work comes first, and the tedious job of counting is left till last. In this diagnosis, however, he was mistaken. The cashier handed him ten dollars? worth of Swiss francs and the receipt, pushed the pile of change away from her (with, it seemed to Gustav, a shiver of disgust) and said:
?Sorry, but we don?t accept coins.?
Gustav stared. For a moment he was stunned. But he soon rallied.
?So where can I change this?? he asked, nodding in the direction of the pile of coins.
The cashier shrugged and looked blank. ?I don?t know. But certainly not at any bank here. Maybe at the main branch in Geneva...?
Gustav would not concede defeat. ?And at the railway station??
?Sorry,? she said, smiling with false regret. ?I don?t know. But try...?
Gustav left the bank almost choking with rage. Not only had he failed to get anything done and lost all hope of ever getting any of it done, but on top of that he had quite needlessly forfeited his ten dollars. Well, not ?forfeited ? exactly; he still had the same amount in Swiss francs. But local currency had a tendency to run through your fingers like water: it was always gone before you knew it. Only foreign currency had any permanence.
To calm his jangling nerves and consider his predicament coolly, he made his way to ?Sous les ch?nes?, where he sat down at ?his? table in the garden. The waitress who had served him the day before clearly recognised him, and treated him almost like an old and valued customer. This cheered him up so much that instead of the beer he had intended he ordered a double brandy. He felt a new energy flow through him.
After the third brandy he felt less tense and able to think clearly. Where could you go to change foreign coins? Where would they be accepted not only willingly, but gratefully? Of course ? at home! In the foreign currency shops! Where you could also buy all sorts of goodies with what they gave you in exchange. So what was the point of getting worked up, suffering humiliations, creeping about like a beggar or a thief, when back home on this sort of money you could live like a lord of the manor? No point whatsoever, he decided with relief. It made much more sense to spend his pocket money when he got home.
He gave himself up to blissful contemplation of the possibilities. What would he buy? How much would there be, and how long would it last? He decided to stick with tradition and spend the dollars on plain vodka. The sterling, of course, should be spent on whisky, and the French francs on cognac. The Deutschmarks would buy flavoured vodkas. He calculated that the total contents of the little plastic bags would buy about twelve bottles of assorted alcoholic beverages. This was disappointing. So much trouble and energy, and not even a month?s worth of provisions! When people came back from grants abroad, they always lived like kings for half the year at least! No, it was intolerable. He had to do something.
He settled his bill, stood up and walked to the no. 72 bus stop. The bus came; he got on. But when he got off at the lake and once again stood on the shore looking down into the water, he almost gasped aloud. The bottom was practically empty. There were perhaps a dozen or so coins lying about, and not very impressive-looking ones at that. Twenty at most. The impression of emptiness was heightened by their isolation: a few little silver circles in a vast dark stretch of water. Had he been as efficient as that, despite the cold and the dark? Had he really managed to fish out almost everything in less than an hour? It seemed so. But how long would it be before this watery piggy bank filled up again?
He looked around. There seemed to be more people about than on the previous day at that hour, but none of them was throwing in any coins, or even looking remotely as if he might be considering the idea. Gustav sat down on a bench and, gazing forlornly into the distance, recited his favourite poem ? from the famous cycle of plaintive lyrics which the Great Poet had composed on the shores of this lake. It went something like this:
Ah, even then, as a young lad,
I was a disappointing child.
I never wanted to be bad,
Yet all my doings somehow riled.
To parents, relatives and friends
I was a constant source of woe.
I tried to help and make amends,
But only made their anger grow.
I brought no comfort and no joy
To anyone, e?en as a boy.
And now ?
Here he broke off. Perhaps it was a kind of prayer, which God had at last decided to hear; or perhaps it was not a prayer but a magic spell, which shifted something in the order of things, like a kaleidoscope. Whatever the cause, at that moment a coach drew up and disgorged a group of American tourists.
They spilled out, chattering noisily, and approached the lake. They laughed and shouted and took snapshots. Gustav observed them keenly, his eyes following their smallest movements. But no one reached for his wallet or gave the slightest indication of possibly being about to do so. The thought just didn?t seem to have occurred to them. Philistines! fumed Gustav in disgust. No manners, no respect for local customs, no idea how to behave! But who can blame them? Two hundred years of culture isn?t the same as two thousand, or even a thousand. They need teaching; they need to be told what to do.
He reached into his holdall and took out one of the little plastic bags ? the one of greatest interest to numismatists, with the unfamiliar, peculiar-looking coins from faraway places, coins which even the Polish foreign-currency shops would refuse. He poured its contents into his pocket and slowly approached the Americans on the lakeshore.
He stopped and stood for a while in an attitude of deep thought, his hand in his pocket. And when he judged that the Americans had noticed him, and felt a few curious glances, he flung out his hand and ... threw. His arm moved with a smooth, elegant grace, in an arc that was wide and generous, as if he were throwing grain, sowing the seeds of some splendid idea perhaps, or symbolically repaying Fate for a dream that had been fulfilled. He threw, and cast into the lake?s depths one gold coin from the Ivory Coast.
And at this majestic spectacle the shouts of the Americans died down, and were silenced. In the sudden grave hush they reached into their wallets and their pockets and began throwing their change into the lake, imitating Gustav?s noble gesture.
And Gustav turned to them and smiled, and walked past them nodding with approval. You have done a good thing, said his eyes, filling, like the Great Poet?s in the most famous of his ?Lausanne Lyrics?, with sudden tears.
Translated from the Polish by Agnieszka Kołakowska