Every day is a celebration of routines. The same journey, the same filthy tram number 3. Like countless others across Eastern Europe, she awaits its squeaky arrival: the most electrifying event of the day. She tilts her delicate body slightly forward: one foot up to spot the two great glaring eyes as they approach. Two steps to climb. Three stops to look ahead. The human mass crowds in, misty circles are cut through by XIX century buildings, the Main Post Office with its round belly and decadent ornaments. Ina unbuttons her dull coat and slips out the door in her fragile ballet shoes, joining thousands of other women along the cobble-stoned streets of old Kraków or modern pavements which remember the high heeled boots of students from the 70's. In the Main Square are wanderers seeking lost companions and dear friends mingled with dreary colleagues and disrespectful pigeons around the statue of a great Polish poet whose confessions are imposed in the school textbooks.
Ina's father believed strongly in the superiority of Vienna. She travelled with him to his native Austria, where he taught her to drink coffee when she was barely fifteen, and almost force-fed her on the unbearable sweetness of Sachertorte. But he never found courage of a different kind. She still remembers the long night train, the couchette with its brown, rough blankets as if made of a wild animal, the sandwiches packed by her grandmother (tomatoes and hard boiled eggs for strong bones). She was always relieved to return to the familiar, and over the years grew increasingly fond of the old Polish city, settling within the mighty Cracovian walls. She found a job in an English bookstore and café, just off the Main Square, frequented by foreigners, students, professors, and local writers. It was tucked between a massive colorless building, once home to another poet, the noble Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, when Poland was swallowed up by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and Habsburg Austria, had proposed that his native German become the obligatory language. On the other side of the bookstore a restaurant called "La Fontaine" is painted a garish red (hoping to attract a literary clientele, it has recently closed for health reasons).
From the first hours of Ina’s day no one really looks at her. She opens up the poorly lit bookstore. The door is always reluctant to her gentle push, its wood damp from the spring drizzles that prey on it slowly and persistently. And the whole world seems to be preying on Ina.
She never cried as a little girl. Not even when they sent her to a kindergarten and made her eat a warm mixture of milk and over boiled rice. Having forced herself to swallow the rapidly cooling glutinous grains, she would be quietly sick in a tiny bathroom with pink walls innocent as flesh. There was not much sophisticated color in those times of political cholera. She knew little about it then except for a few random facts associated with her family. Any fondness for the confetti of the cursed and rotten West resulted in a radically lower quality of life. Less space, no landline, Ersatz chocolate, and the lingering fear of accusations reading the wrong books and watching foreign movies. In order to survive one had to grow a convincing outer layer. Ina inherited this skill. The longing to be invisible ran thick in her tiny veins. She also developed a selective sense of hearing as a chorus of voices laughed at her unusual name, exceptional politeness, and the absence of a father. Later on, as many women do, Ina devised an elaborate mechanism for going unnoticed: an attention-proof cocoon. Some call her ordinary. Others with big egos settle for trivial. To keen readers, she is "the woman without qualities”. Short, faded blonde hair forms a Parisian bob. Big eyes of diluted blue watercolor. Medium height and average silhouette compose a feminine cloud of a person.
But without people like Ina, nothing in this Eastern European city would work properly. The secret is to know your humble role and provide a background for ostentatious types. The secret is to be polite to those who enjoy having their presence acknowledged and those who worship their titles and connections. Ina knows most of the bookstore customers very well and has also developed an eye for strangers. A tall man enters the store and starts browsing vigorously through the art section. He asks politely if he is allowed to open the foil-wrapped Taschen edition of "Gustav Klimt. Complete paintings". The soft wisp of an English accent curls in the warm bookstore air. Having received a shy reassurance, he brings the heavy volume to a table and sinks into it, requesting frequent cups of tea with fragrant bergamot, the least popular infusion. After a few more customers, a few more sales, many more cups of coffee and a first pang of back ache, Ina notices the tall man collecting his possessions and proceeding to the counter. She smiles faintly, embarrassed by her slightly faded black dress with its conspicuously tattered lace. The feeling intensifies as a slender wrist bearing a sleek watch turns over, exposing the vulnerable inside of a hand where coins are lying shamelessly. Ina reaches for the money and touches Henry for the first time. She does not yet expect him to become her map, her crystal light, her story and her language.
Bloody orange patches reflect ominously in smudged windows. A tattered sticker warns: “Nie wychylać się! Nicht hinasuslehnen! не высовываться! Ne pas se pencher au dehors!” Cylindrical carriages are escaping from the darkest hour into the uncertain light of the morning of this Polish spring with its botanic confusion and human error. Only just arrived, Henry cannot form an opinion on the seasonal attributes of the city. Back at his home university, however, students of literature have formed a certain opinion of Henry. They find him a little peculiar, like many in his academic profession; he is easily distracted and slightly detached from trajectory of stabilization. Some mistake his bouts of silence for arrogance. He finds very little time to abandon the Institute, libraries, seminars, conferences and the fortress of his study. When he reads Joseph Conrad's passage about crossing the line of shadow, it evokes an aggressive consternation: even though he has almost reached the age of forty, no particular life event has marked his existence. No dramas, no great heart breaks, merely a few relationships which leave a lingering sense of unpleasant loneliness, effectively replaced with reading. His eyes, fed on a black diet of ink, are marked by circles and puffiness. A few students, driven by vivid imagination, create legends about Henry's nightlife as a beguiling bachelor. Had they known, all he ever valued was a state of mental equilibrium. He finds the structure of the XIX century English novel strangely comforting, and it lends his lectures a gentle disposition, enabling his voice to float clearly and soothingly in the musty English classrooms. He was very surprised to be offered a position in the Literature Department of a distinguished Polish university for a year. Tempted by the change of surroundings, and despite his exceptional attachment to habits, Henry made the long journey by train to the core of Mitteleuropa.
The Foreign Titles bookstore, a short walk from the station, draws him in with its English language displays and earl grey tea. The dark wood furnishings, the massive selection of books and the cracks on the floor all reassure him after the long journey. He returns the next day, and is handed a particularly handsome book by a young woman. Henry gazes at her properly as he approaches the counter. She takes money from his palm and he notices her illuminated fingernails, her skin with traces of anxiety and dust, as if black wounds were the features of every bookseller.
Later that day he writes in a neat notebook: Maybe she will be my wound caused by bitten words, maybe she will make me unbreakable. She might be inaccessible and that is what attracts me to her in an odd way. I can only imagine how she smells. Fresh and soapy. Warm light dripping off her fingertips when she says the final rustling and creaking “'Dziękuję”. I want to see her again.
Ina and Henry
So they meet again. And again. And again. Even though it takes Henry numerous visits, over a dozen purchases of tea or paperbacks, and a significant amount of time devoted to learning Polish phrases. A pattern of voyeuristic observations follows Ina’s shifts and lunch breaks are carefully observed, with some uncertainty noted when brewing coffee. He enjoys the spectacle of her work while spending a couple of hours browsing, writing and ordering aromatic infusions. But the reality is: he knows nothing. Nothing at all. Ina is partially aware of Henry's frequent visits, but it never occurs to her that this brown haired stranger, lowering his black rimmed glasses at a gentle pace when looking at her, would come here for a more personal reason. As if this presumably untroubled young woman had to reassure the rest of us, disguising the sombre stone in her soul with kindness and quiet reserve. Henry thinks she resembles some of his more earnest students, respectful of literature and scholarship. Would she accept a suggestion to meet for a winter drink? Had he known, she would agree because of his bizarre charm, a wave of great puzzlement would stir him up. Henry has never attempted to flirt with a stranger. Why Ina? The women he is most fascinated with are aggressively brilliant and confident: red cinematic lipsticks and dramatic black mascaras. And when a relationship ended, barely a disappointment smudged their pretty faces. Henry was easily replaced by someone less complicated, and less peculiar. He has overheard the name a few times. Immediate, concrete, a soft mixture of sounds that seem to come from another sphere, loosening the emotional threads that had drawn him to other women. The bookstore girl seems to be so different, awakening an instinct to circle her surroundings. Everything is unfamiliar, so unfamiliar that it hurts like a dull sensation of a persistent headache.
That winter evening Henry has a generous and courageous sip of ginger flavoured vodka in a bar around the corner from the Foreign Titles. The taste of thinly cut strips of sunny root tingles his tongue leaving a lingering taste of thrilling anticipation. He pulls himself together, grateful for the gift of calmness he has been blessed with. It is thirty minutes past six when Ina finishes and finally leaves, making a circle on the pavement layered in a monochrome mosaic of snow and dirt. Henry fastens his pace of walking.
“Dobry wiecioor,” the man's voice sounds pure and strong and his hands prove stable.
“Dobry wieczór,” Ina looks up. Surprisingly no wave of emergency hits her. She recognizes him as a regular, and simply expects him to greet her and then walk away promptly (for that is what polite and reserved Englishmen do).
“Przeproszam, jeszeli problem z rabat dla mnie dzysiaj,” despite having practiced the words, Henry struggles with their pronunciation. It feels like digging through vast sands of linguistic desert. “I'm sorry and I hope I haven't caused you any trouble when you gave me a discount today,” the narrow stream of words reclines into the safety of his native tongue.
“Nie, nie, I mean no, no trouble at all,” Ina's head already starts to adapt to this kaleidoscope of bilingual phrases. A few seconds of provoking silence follow. The January hum of snow and noises on the Old Town street. Grotesque smudged window displays, mannequins of trees, skeletons of street lamps and people made of mist and smog.
“I'm glad, then. I hope you don't find it impertinent (Henry carefully chooses this phrase as it has a handsome twin in Polish), but would you like to go for a drink with me?”
Then unforeseen confusion strikes her with the power of a pure spirit. The paleness of her face changes into two blossoming poppies. She firmly grasps an oversized bag she carries every day to work. Is she as pliant and agreeable as Henry had hoped?
“Oh, drink? Tak, yes, sure, I'd love to,” Ina responds, processing quickly and still not knowing what is happening to her. She does not make him up, she does not imagine him. He is here to see her. Like a frozen figure, she waits motionless, expecting Henry to know the way even though she has been living in this city all of her life.
So he leads her away confidently (after all, this is no coincidence). They enter a café, sunken in subtle darkness and lit with random candles. Converted from an old XIX century apartment, it had once provided a place for those unfortunate inhabitants who could not afford to live somewhere else. Now it is home to a different social scene, Kraków’s many unfulfilled artists, aspiring writers and odd academics. Henry enjoys it despite being occasionally bothered by a fake Gypsy fortune-teller. He carries the drinks from the bar (two glasses with gentle waves of Chardonnay), and when he places them on the table, stretching out his arm, Ina again notices the modern wrist watch. An unusual design, with a daring colour scheme and sombre ambiguity of the face (it shows only nine and three figures, between them is the unknown).
“I like your watch. Like fashion, but different, very different,” she bravely initiates the conversation.
“Thank you! It is actually a Philip Starck.”
“I didn't know he was designing watches, I mean is designing… Designs,” Ina extracts the phrase out of the pandemonium of English grammar.
“He does indeed and I've had this for years,” he leans back on the uncomfortable chair and she touches the wine glass nervously with her reddish.
They both find it difficult to engage in small talk, for there is an immediate tension, as if they are destined to release something kept away in the depths of their past. She is uncertain what to say and how to say it. The presence of Henry is thrilling, and so unfamiliar. That he does not speak much Polish paradoxically makes her feel more secure. All the things which have been bothering her do not matter so much as the impact of a foreign language destroys some of the emotions. At times, the inability to express herself resembles a silent scream: a reoccurring dream she has been suffering from since teenage years. She bites her lip and opens her mouth and hates the sound of her own uncertain voice: “What made you invite me for a drink?”
“Well, Ina...” and he suddenly runs his hand across the surface of her ribs, feeling the curved bones and the texture of a silky blouse. That is all he does. Electrifying. The glass she is holding burst and Ina bursts. The infinite holes of other people's eyes are on her, and so she just stands up rapidly and runs away defensibly. Snowflakes fall and swarm densely, blinding her sensitive eyes. Her right hand is soaked. Ina looks behind and feels a pain for the first time. Snow is red as ripe cherries.
I do not really know how to start this letter. I do sincerely hope you are ok. I came out after you run away but could not find you anywhere in these labyrinthine narrow streets covered in snow. If only I could tell you how sorry I am for what happened and how I did not intend to intimidate you. I only wanted to tell you how delightful were those past few months when I kept seeing you in the bookstore. I only wanted to celebrate our evening as I see so much in you and you intrigued me greatly. Your disposition, your thrilling inaccessibility and your hermetic ways of being appeal to me like never before.
I will not stalk you at work or outside work, you have my (stranger and faithful customer's) word. I am leaving next week for London. I would hate to impose on you, but... could you give me another chance to talk to you? If not, I will completely understand and can only wish you all the best in this crude world. Delicate and sensitive people like you need a lot of strength and I hope you will remain fierce.
Henry Rey, Felicjanek 22, 31-104 Kraków
A heavy mahogany desk is a central feature of the study. Along with a substantial Victorian chair (very appropriate in this Dickensian metropolis) upholstered in succulent green fabric, it appears to be a well looked after piece of furniture. On the desk is the shining, slightly curved back of an apple computer which reflects the raw light of morning. Three pens, auspicious patches of hand written notes (tar black ink, small letters perfected to an extreme extent, with a peculiar prolonged shape of the letter "d”), "Against nature” by Huysmans, a porcelain cup with some internal dark circles and shrivelled tea bag resting on the bottom. She smiles remembering the countless cups of tea she made for him and caresses the edges of his cup, gripping the handle firmly so her nails go pale and then release carefully. In the corner an old wooden dental cabinet shelters unknown artefacts and documents. Mountains of books are imprisoned on the floating shelves finished with black metal bookends. Volumes and tomes, beloved and protected from intruders' hands and minds. Limited editions, fine bindings, collectable items overflow the space burdened with two matt amber curtains which seemed to have collapsed on the floor. The study is autumnal: green book covers mixed with red and a familiar smell of warm dust, crisp leather, meaty canvas and dry paper. Charmed by the solid, old furniture, far from shabby chic absurdity, she also notices a collection of sepia prints: people enclosed in happy times, but their faces bruised with distrust towards the sinister power of an early XX century camera. Only one fairly contemporary photograph featuring a couple and a young boy bearing a slight resemblance to him, dressed in an old-fashioned monochrome sailor's suit. Years later, the masculine glamour is symbolised by ghostly white shirts hanging on solid wooden hangers. Such a gentleman, despite the horrendous beginning! This could pose as the most distinguished room she had ever stepped into. It is like the soil spreading between his literary existence and the prose of life behind the flesh of his front door.
She turns away. Unaware of the woman's awakening, he is still on the edge of a dream. Half of his body is covered with a luminous white sheet exposing the structure of his bones. From the not too thin, not too wide wrist through the pale, delicate skin on a strong arm and finally reaching a vulnerable bridge of his collar bone, so subtly prominent when stroked. A spacious bedroom features high windows, completely disguised by blinds. It is almost empty. Except for a lonely double mattress Henry is resting on, breathing slowly with that comforting reassurance of detachment from the beginning of the day.