I went to Gdansk and all I got was this lousy short story

Actually, the story isn’t all I got – I also got a ton of good memories.

I’ve just come back from Gdansk, in Poland, where I was doing Once Upon A Deadline – a writing event run by Hungry Arts as part of the Polish Arts Festival. It was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had, and I’m extremely grateful to Alex Gilly (@getalex) for mentioning my name to Robert Mac, the creator of the event – and also to Robert for including me and to Ros Green for making me welcome.

On the Saturday, each of the five writers involved was taken separately by a Polish guide to five different places: the Library of Gdansk, the shipyard where Solidarity began, a children’s playground, the Academy of Music, and St John’s Church. We spent about 90 minutes in each place, looking around and writing. The event began at about 9am, and by 8.30pm we had to have written a story of 2,000 words or less. The next day the stories were translated into Polish and read by their translators (mine was the excellent Polish prince, Piotr Ivansky) to an audience at the Gunter Grass Gallery.

My story was 2,250 words, cut down from the 3,500-word story below. The full set of stories will be published by Off_Press, and videos, photos and sound recordings from the day will be edited together in various forms, including an iPad app. A group of Polish writers will be doing the same thing in reverse in Southend this Sunday (2 September).

I’ll be writing a proper account of my weekend, so that I don’t forget it. In the meantime, here’s my story. It’s a bit odd, but here we go…

Free City

Have you ever walked into a room and realised that you have no idea why you are there? You stop, scratch your head, and then wander about, making vaguely purposeful gestures with your hands, hoping to remember what brought you there. It’s disconcerting.

Imagine then how much more disconcerting it is to stride out into a city, as George September did, and realise with a jolt that not only have you no idea why you are there, but also that you have no idea which city you are in. Or, indeed, who you are.

George looked around him in alarm. He was standing in a crowded shopping street. On both sides rose tall, thin houses with slim windows. Each house was different – some faced with brick, some with plaster painted in bright and elegant colours, like up-market children’s toys. At the end of the street a colossal church stretched up its tower like a finger to God.

George brought his eyes back to street level. Lining the streets were stalls selling jewellery. He moved closer to one, seeking its shelter. The jewellery was made of amber, glowing red-brown as though lit from within, rather than by the bright grey sky above. Behind the stall he glimpsed a model ship, also made of amber, in a window. And in that same window he met a pair of eyes. A man was staring at him: a man in his fifties, bald except for a little wisp of hair above each ear, and wearing neatly pressed trousers, a v-necked sleeveless jumper and a striped shirt – the clothes of a man who is trying not to be noticed. Growing self-conscious, George put his hand to his face, and – as the man in the window made the same gesture – he realised with a sudden pang that the man was not standing inside the shop, but was only reflected in its window, and that the man was George. ‘Oh,’ he thought. ‘I’m bald. And much older than I expected.’

Putting a hand in his pocket, George found a wallet containing a British driving licence. That was how he discovered that his name was George September. The wallet contained some money in a language he didn’t know, and no other clues whatsoever.

‘Brz bezinska-rodney vadny hodny lod?’ said the lady who owned the stall. Or at least that was what she seemed to say: he didn’t understand the language. She had obviously misinterpreted his reason for taking out his wallet and was eagerly pulling an amber necklace from the display case in front of him. He cast his eyes down. His instinct was to be silent, or possibly to run away. And then, unexpectedly, he looked shyly up at her. He smiled, pulled out his wallet and gave her some money. She smiled more enthusiastically, and gave him the necklace.

He walked on, bashful and afraid again. He needed a place to gather his thoughts, not to mention his identity, and work out how he was going to deal with this odd situation.

At that moment his eye caught the welcome sight, through a window, of books on a shelf. The building was light and clean and simultaneously new and very old. The sign above the doorway said ‘Bibliotek’. A library. He felt a rush of relief, almost of homecoming.

He climbed the stairs, pushed the door open and stepped inside. A white-haired man, dressed all in beige and sitting behind a large desk, looked up from the book he was reading and greeted George with a polite smile and a string of unintelligible words. George jumped, and only narrowly prevailed over his urge to claw open the door and run away.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘D-do you speak English?’

‘Of course. A little. How can I help you?’

‘I … I don’t know who or where I am.’

The man did his polite smile again. ‘I am Piotr – Peter. And this is special library dedicated to Gdansk – and the wider Pomeranian region.’

‘So I’m in Gdansk,’ said George. ‘And my name is George September.’

‘Yes,’ said Piotr. ‘So your problem is solved: you know who and where you are.’

‘But I don’t know why I’m here.’

‘This is something for each man to discover for himself.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Do you want to know why you are here?’

George was taken aback by the question. Did he? After all, the place seemed beautiful and he seemed to have money. Perhaps he had come here to forget. Then again, what if he had a family? Someone might be worried about him.

Piotr smiled at George again. ‘Perhaps you do not want to know why you are here.’

George hesitated. ‘I do,’ he said at length. ‘I do want to know. What if I have family looking for me?’

‘A good point. This may seem a strange question, but tell me, did you chance to buy anything here in Gdansk?’

Thinking of his fumble with the necklace, George felt embarrassed. ‘No,’ he said.

Piotr’s face fell. ‘I’m sorry. All I can do is tell you where to find the nearest police station, so that you can declare yourself a missing person.’

‘Wait, no. Sorry. I was afraid you’d laugh at me. I bought an amber necklace. I don’t know why.’

‘Ah. This changes things. In this case, I advise you to put on this necklace and go to Mariacka – the very large church at the end of the street. I think you will find someone there who will guide you.’

‘But this is a woman’s necklace. People will laugh at me.’

‘They will not laugh. They will just look at you and think that you are …’

‘Strange?’ suggested George.

‘Yes, strange,’ Piotr agreed amiably.

 

George found himself back out among the jumble of people in the amber market. The library had not cleared his head, as he had hoped, but only made him more confused. Was Piotr playing a practical joke on him? George felt the necklace in his pocket, cold against his sweating palm. He could feel his face reddening just at the idea of putting it on. It would look absurd, a normally-dressed man like himself wearing a woman’s amber necklace. He imagined all these big German tourists around him, standing in a circle, pointing at him and laughing. He left it in his pocket.

Inside the church he stopped and gaped. The white-domed ceiling was so far away. The paintings were so old, so carefully wrought. The organ, massive and ornate, seemed to hover above his head as though suspended there solely by the word of God. George was insignificant. And this feeling was compounded by the German tour guide who absent-mindedly moved George out of the way so that he could explain the organ to his flock. George found himself standing next to a table where was moored an old man with a genial moustache who was selling tickets to the tower. George paid the ten zloty. He had no idea how much this was, whether the price of a piece of a chewing gum or a house, but he did it anyway.

George climbed innumerable stairs, at length passing beyond the ceiling and climbing up among the rafters and great steel beams, until eventually he arrived at a viewing platform. The city was laid out all around him, clustering near and neat around the church, with areas of green and trees further out, and then, in a distant dockyard, steel cranes stretched up, sniffing the air for signs of spring.

George remained there, alone with the sky and the city, for some minutes. ‘I’m so lonely,’ he thought. Blushing, he took out the necklace and put it on. After a while, his fear subsided a little. Nonetheless, when the staircase creaked, his hand flew to cover the amber bead that hung over his heart. He saw someone’s head, dark-golden hair, like the amber bead, and then he turned away. He put his hands in his pockets and stared self-consciously out at the cranes.

‘Excuse me. Are you George?’

He hadn’t noticed that she was standing next to him.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Yes. That is, I think so.’

‘I’m Maria.’ She paused nervously. ‘I’ll be your … guide.’

‘But I don’t know who I am.’

‘That is why you need a guide.’

 

Twenty minutes later, they emerged from a train onto an empty platform.

‘Up here,’ she said.

The bridge was steel, painted grey and blistered with rust. He followed her up the steps.

‘There is the shipyard,’ she said.

Beyond the end of the bridge stood two huge green cranes. The two great steel structures looked like birds standing over their young, feeding them. And in fact, at the foot of each of the cranes nestled a ship – almost complete, looking plump, contented and well-looked-after, surrounded by the comforting shouts of workers and buzz of machinery.

‘Twenty years ago, there were many, many more ships and cranes,’ said Maria.

‘What happened?’

‘I will show you.’

She led him along a road, past a gate guarded by a man with a white moustache, whose job seemed to be to bestow a smile, twinkle and kind word upon each visitor to this place – this place that seemed busy and abandoned at the same time. They passed a long building in the process of being demolished, which terminated suddenly in rags of torn timbers and frayed brickwork. They passed another with a sign saying that it had been the workshop of Lech Walesa when he had been an electrician ministering to the ships. And then, among a rank of warehouses, there was one with a smart glass front.

‘This is a gallery,’ said Maria.

They climbed some stairs and emerged in a huge room of brick and white concrete pillars. Through the large, grimy windows they could see the ships and cranes. She led him among the exhibits until they came to a white screen, on which a film was being silently projected.

‘It’s the destruction of the shipyard,’ said Maria.

He watched. He saw men cutting through a steel sign marked Stocznia Gdańska. He saw a huge machine grazing lazily on brick walls. He saw the giant cranes being cut loose from the docks and towed off to sea, no doubt to their deaths.

‘It was in these shipyards that people threw off their fear and set Poland free,’ said Maria.

‘And then the shipyards were destroyed,’ said George.

‘Yes, but not Gdansk. It always survives. It was completely destroyed in the war, you know, but it rebuilt itself. All those old buildings you saw around Mariacka were rebuilt from the rubble lying on the ground.’

They moved on to another exhibit. A rectangular metal block lay on the floor. Above it was suspended another metal block, hoisted up by a chain on each corner, fastened to the concrete pillars. From a distance it had looked ugly. But up close George saw that the two metal blocks were magnets, that between them was a black mass of iron filings, and that the iron filings had built themselves up into elaborate structures, gothic spires and towers. A beautiful and intricate city had formed naturally, of itself.

On the tram on their way back to the city, they passed a tall building, its front covered by a banner that said, ‘We will win anyway.’

When they had got off the tram, he turned to her and said, ‘Can’t you tell me where we’re going?’

‘What use is a tour guide if she spoils the surprise?’

‘But…’

‘Do you trust me?’

‘I want to. But I also keep wanting to run away.’

‘I can tell you how to run away, if you want. It’s very easy. Or I can help you to find out who you are. Will you trust me?’

She stopped to say this, and he stopped too and looked into her eyes. She was short and slight, in her early twenties, and dressed in jeans and a black sweater, her dark-golden hair tied up at the back. Her eyes were the colour of an angry sea. Despite her slightness, there was something strong and determined in her face.

They had stopped beside a playground, built between two tower-blocks of ordinary-looking flats. In the playground was a little house on stilts, with an orange pitched roof. Its picture-book perfection was only added to by its lack of walls and the bright-red slide that led from where its front door should be. Beside it a tyre hung from a chain, and a little girl sat in this swing, holding a solemn conference with two colleagues. A little distance away, a boy stood in the middle of a seesaw, operating it alone. And at the side of the playground, two adults sat in companiable silence on either side of another little girl.

‘All right then. Sorry,’ he said.

They walked on, past a church, until they reached a huge yellow-brick palace.

‘In here,’ she said. ‘This is the Academy of Music, where I study.’

The corridors that she led him along were quiet, almost deserted.

She ushered him into a darkened auditorium. A black piano stood in the middle of a stage, lit by a single spotlight.

‘Sit here,’ she said, directing him towards a chair that was off to one side of the stage. The chair was also lit by a single spotlight, which poured over it a soft and warm glow.

‘But shouldn’t I sit down there?’ He pointed at the rows of darkened seats in front of the stage, where a few people sat.

She said nothing, but went and sat down at the piano. She began to play. Quietly at first, constant and patient as raindrops.

‘Shouldn’t I sit down there in the dark?’ he asked.

She said nothing, only glancing at him, telling him with her eyes to sit and listen, continuing to play.

He hesitated, then sat in the spotlit chair and listened. Slowly, something new joined the music – something darker and louder, telling of fear and sadness, something impending, something happening, a disaster, and its passage into memory and regret. Behind it ran forever the constant flow of the piano’s raindrops, patient and consoling. A drip of rain landed on his shirt collar. His cheeks were wet. And he was crying. He didn’t know why. Only that he was sad, and he was hopeful, and that the hope made the sadness a little sharper, but also more bearable.

 

Later, they sat together in a church.

‘This is the last church in Gdansk to be restored. It is still not finished,’ Maria said.

‘Why did they wait so long?’

‘Some things take a long time.’

‘If it stood for so long without being restored, maybe it didn’t need it.’

‘Is that what you think? That if something has gone a long time without being changed, it doesn’t need it?’

‘I don’t know. No.’

She smiled.

‘Who am I?’ he asked.

‘You are a man who wanted very much to change, but found it very hard.’

‘Oh.’

‘Do you still want to know who you are? I was told to say that you won’t like what you find out.’

‘I do want to know.’

She handed him an envelope. He tore it open.

‘If you are reading this, then there’s hope for you – for me. I’m you, you see. I’m you and I am crippled with fear and timidity. I am afraid to reach out to people, afraid to live. I’ve been working in the same library for twenty-one years now, ever since I did that terrible thing. Once, years ago, I met a woman, Eve. It was the first time I had opened up to anyone. We got married and moved in together. I should have been happy. Then she got pregnant. All through her pregnancy, my fear grew – I was terrified of being a bad father. And then, before the child was even born, I couldn’t stand it any more and I left. I was too afraid of real life, so I went and got a job in a library and buried myself in books. I wanted to go back to Eve, but I was too ashamed and embarrassed. And so I never did. She went back to Poland, to Gdansk, and our daughter grew up there.

‘About a year ago I received a letter from my daughter. Eve, her mother had died of cancer. She wanted to meet her father for the first time. I wanted to see her too, desperately. But I knew that my fear and timidity would get the better of me – it took me six months just to reply to her letter – and that if we arranged to meet, I wouldn’t be there. In desperation, I had myself hypnotised. All I had to do was get on the plane. (I have had four attempts at this so far.) Once I arrived in Gdansk I’d forget everything, so that I could meet my daughter without fear. Isn’t that ridiculous? I set up a series of tests, little steps to prove that I had changed, that I could overcome fear and be a real person. Buying the necklace was the first test, wearing it was the second, sitting on a chair in public and crying was the third, and so on. Now we’ve come to the final test. I hope I don’t need to tell you what to do – after all, you are a much braver person than I am. Please do the right thing. My future is in your hands.’

George looked up. Maria was sitting there, her expression tense, the eyes that were the colour of an angry sea looked sad. What was he supposed to do? What could he say to her?

‘You’re my daughter,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ she replied.

‘I’m sorry I’m not the father you wanted.’

‘You still can be, Dad.’

 

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