Last week I was in Gdansk, Poland to take part in a literary project called 'Once upon a deadline'. Five British writers including me were taken to five different city locations in turn. Those five places were the Academy of Music, the local cathedral, the city library, the shipyard where the Solidarność movement started and a playground.
While were in those locations we were writing short stories, so by that evening we were able to deliver them to an audience. Overnight five short stories were translated into Polish and there was another reading for a wider public. Here's my contribution to this exciting project.
A Study in A-moll: Red Brick
Poland was always a magnetic country for him... Or has he just understood it now, coming for the first time to the Polish city of Gdansk?
It started in his Uzbek childhood - he used to live in Tashkent on Adam Mitzkevich Street. Down this street there were ruins of a strange, non-Uzbek red-brick building which the locals called 'kostyol', an unfamiliar word to him.
Boys in Tashkent used to play in red-brick ruins like these ones
Going for a swim under the unbearable sun in the muddy Salar River next to this 'kostyol', children loved to explore the ruins, while trying to guess what this word 'kostyol' might mean. Some would say: it's to do with the Russian word 'kostyor', fire, and, to justify this, they would reminisce about the fires they made to bake potatoes in hot ashes, and draw attention to the very shape of the building with its red columns, arches and walls, but no roof. Others would disagree and argue that this word was similar to 'kosti', bones, and must refer either to the skeleton of the building or to the real bones scattered among stones and dust.
But once, when they were playing their usual game of 'World War II', for which this mysterious red-brick building was ideal, they were caught by a blond man who spoke a strange broken Russian.
They were dead scared of being reported, if not to the police then at least to their school and parents, but that strange man in a long black coat gathered them in the middle of the ruins of that red-brick building with glassless ogival windows and asked:
'Do you know what this place is?'
'Kostyol' - said one of the boys.
'Do you know what 'kostyol' means?'
The man with the long blond locks said:
'It's a Polish church.' And then added, 'My family is buried here.'
They all went silent.
That mysterious man must have told them the story of his family, but what that story was about, nobody remembered.
Though maybe the story was too frightening, for they never went to that 'kostyol' again - ever.
He recalled that man again later, while serving in the Soviet Army (he nearly thought 'Red Army'). His regiment was based in Bagrationovsk, a town in former Prussia, on the border with Poland. Looking from the attic of their Prussian red-brick building to the other side of the border, to 'the West', he used to see blond Polish farmers in their fields, and every woman, be it a farmer's wife or a daughter bringing him his lunch or water, looked like a fairy, like Barbara Brylska or Pola Raksa, Polish cinema stars from Andrzej Wajda's films which they clandestinely watched on Polish TV when their commanders were asleep...
Later, when he married, the Polish theme of his life continued. His wife was a student of Tashkent Conservatory and for hours and hours she used to play her favourite Chopin études. But most of all he loved Ogińsky's polonaise, Farewell to the Motherland - again, unable to put this wonderfully powerful music into any context.
It was the same with the musicology books his wife had. He never know why, but sometimes, going to the loo he used to take down from his wife's bookshelves two volumes of Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński. Maybe just because of his majestic and strange name...
And again, he can't remember what those two red-brick volumes were about.
By that time the kostyol, refurbished and renovated, was given to the Conservatory as their concert hall, which had the only organ in Tashkent. There were no professional organists in Tashkent, and his wife as a leading pianist was asked to play something from her piano repertoire, something she could easily adapt for the organ.
He was invited to a rehearsal, where his wife decided to play the same polonaise, Farewell to the Motherland, and though the Conservatory party secretary said to her, 'You played the piece for three minutes - could you do the same, but for a minute and a half?', much to everyone's laughter, the music turned out to be truly prophetic. The same year they left Uzbekistan, their motherland, for good.
So that 'kostyol', that music is still aching and reverberating inside of him...
Poland has always been a magnetic and strange place in his life. Or has he just understood it now, coming for the fist time to the Polish city of Gdansk?
The shipyard where the Solidarity movement started
He tries to speak a deliberately broken Russian, bending it with extra hissing consonants towards faux Polish - with little success. In the canteen he asks for 'grechka', buckwheat, but the 'Pani' serves him carrots instead. No wonder, because the Polish word for shop, 'sklep', in fact, means 'tomb' in Russian.
However, the subliminal music still goes on.
So what was the story told by that blond dishevelled man in the long black coat? He tries to revive it with associations.
German speech is coming from a little old street, where a guide leads a tour, apparently talking about Gunter Grass, who was born here. Would Grass help in calling back that forgotten story?
He looks around and sees 'Wojewódzkiej i Miejskiej Biblioteki ', which translates into Russian as 'The library of the local troops commander'. So it must be about the Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass. It turns out to be a county library, but there is a thick red-brick volume by Grass on its shelves. He opens the book and guess what he finds there? 'Der Weite Rock', 'The White Rock'. So is it always about something missing in your life, about something distant and dreamy?
The nearest mountain range to Tashkent is called 'Aktash', The White Rock...
In a minute a most gentle and intelligent librarian shows him the rarities of his library. 'This book,' he says, 'is a reprint of Chopin's études, and that one, called 'Narratio Prima', is a reprint of Nicolaj Kopernik's work'. Kopernik, who first told the world that the earth was round? And what did you say, 'Narratio Prima'? The first narration?
He came to Poland, which was 'the West' for him in his youth, from further West, from London. 'Are we wandering the world before ultimately coming home?' he thinks momentarily. The first narration of that old blond man in the black coat among the ruins of the red-brick Tashkenti 'kostyol', is it - was it - about this?
An old red tram with scarlet seats takes him to a train station, where he changes for a local train with worn-out purple seats. He listens to people talking. Small talk of a big city. One wave after another. Like an orchestra murmuring before the piano solo... 'Kocam jarkak alik', he reads the untranslatable graffiti on a red-brick wall. He comes to a station called 'Stocznia Gdańska', which in Russian means 'Sewage of Gdansk'. But again, that's wide of the mark. The place's name in Polish turns out to be 'Shipyard'.
Poland has always been a mysterious country to him. But is it just Poland? Or, perhaps, any country where he finds himself becomes that centre of the world where all threads of his mind, all memories of his past, all notes of his inner music, all bricks of his unconstructed building gather at once?
The most depressing red-brick warehouses of Gdansk, where Solidarność started and ended its own existence with its main adversary, Red Communism (only workers' rusted bicycles, still chained there after all these years, are left as a reminder), are hosting an exhibition of modern art. One thing shown there is the process of making red bricks out of paper pulp. Aren't his vain attempts at reminiscing about the same thing? Red bricks out of pulp...
So what was the story that old blond Pole told them among the red-brick and eternal dust of his roofless home? But does it even matter?
The red bricks of Gdansk
The red tram which brought him here will take him back. One wave after another. He will look at the crossed cigarette sign, 'Zakaz Palenia', and give up. What's the point of trying so hard to bring together things which are so far apart? Is there anything in common between 'Smoking Is Prohibited' and 'Arson Booking'?
Enough is enough. He should go somewhere down the road, somewhere near the river, where kids are playing in a modern playground.
And all of a sudden everything comes together. A blond boy with curly locks, all dressed in red and with a logo across his chest, which reads 'Urban Runner', will tell him the ultimate story of Scooby Doo, the dog chasing ghosts...
That is the story, that is him, that is his life...
The famous Polish writer Stanislav Lem describes in 'Solaris' a human mission to another planet, where a thinking ocean recreates, revives, embodies their thoughts, feelings, memories. Aren't we all islands in the same ocean, echoing one another with intangible sounds, indescribable memories, indiscriminate words?
Stepping stones of red brick...