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Selected Writings 1990-2011

Sara Wheeler

North Point Press

The End of the Bolster: Romance in Poland
In 1981, I purchased a round-trip ticket to Warsaw on LOT airlines. I was twenty, with a year of university behind me. Why Poland? I can’t remember, except that the country had been in the papers a lot that year. I had been waitressing throughout the holidays and accrued the absurdly small sum required to buy, in addition to the plane ticket, a monthlong Polish rail pass.
It was already dark when I arrived in Warsaw, but I had the address of a government accommodation office and managed to get there on a tram. There was throughout the Soviet bloc at that time a scheme under which visitors could stay in people’s homes. It was cheap, and I thought it would be a good way of getting to know Poles.
The office had a full-length glass frontage, behind which a poorly stuffed eagle molted kapok. A heavy revolving door scraped through its revolution like an orchestra tuning up. Two gorgons swathed in black behind a Formica desk looked up, briefly. I could see that they found the interruption to their knitting an irritation.
A double room, it quickly emerged, was all that was available. I said I’d take it. It was against the rules, snapped Gorgon One, revealing a row of gold teeth, for a single person to take a double room. She returned to her knitting with a triumphant clack of needles. I said I was prepared to pay double rates. “Also illegal,” chipped in Gorgon Two, eager not to miss out on the opportunity to ruin someone’s day. In addition, they alleged there was not one hotel room available in the entire city.
I deployed a range of tactics, including tears. No dice. It was dark, and I was in a strange city without a word of Polish.
At that moment the revolving door spluttered to tuneless life once more. All three of us looked up. The crones muttered darkly, no doubt about the damnable inconvenience of a second customer. A tall, blond man with marble-blue eyes and a rucksack sauntered athletically into the room.
“We’ll take the double room,” I said to the crones.
One looked at the other. So it was all true.
The blond man put down his rucksack and held out his hand to shake mine. A Band-Aid covered his right thumbnail. I knew from the first syllable that he was Australian. It turned out that he had already been on the road in the Eastern bloc for a month, so when I explained the non-accommodation situation, he found it perfectly normal that we should share a room.
We stayed in a high-rise in the industrial suburbs, guests of a saturnine family who had been instructed not to speak to us. (In those days, Poland was still a boiling sea of suspicion, and people who rented out rooms were vetted. So much for meeting Poles.) Once we had settled into our chilly billet, my new friend took up the cylindrical bolster that lay at the head of the double bed and placed it down the middle. “No need to worry,” he said. “This is my half,” and he pointed to the left side of the bed, “and that’s yours.”
*   *   *
The Security Service had been busy that year, doing what it most liked to do—shutting up everyone else, brutally if possible. Millions of Poles naturally reacted with anger, and in March Solidarity activists had coordinated an extraordinary general strike unique in the Eastern bloc. Tension had subsided somewhat, but the economy was a car crash. Even though every food shop was empty, a queue snaked outside, the people waiting for some tiny rationed bit of something to be doled out from behind the counter. A Solidarity poster on the telegraph poles showed a black skull with a crossed knife and fork under it.
As for Teddy, following in the footsteps of so many of his compatriots, he had taken six months out to have a look at the world. His mother was a Pole who had arrived in Western Australia as a twenty-four-year-old refugee. She had married Teddy’s father, a wood turner from Perth, and they had worked hard and made good. Teddy, who was twenty-three, was the youngest of seven. He turned out to be a fine companion, with a relaxed antipodean attitude to everything that the Polish system tossed in our path. We decided to travel together. But before leaving Warsaw, we paid twenty pence for opera tickets in Teatr Wielki, installing ourselves in the magnificently restored Moniuszko Auditorium to listen to a fine coloratura soprano sliding up and down Amina’s arias in La sonnambula. Afterward we sat in bars kippered with smoke, downing tiny glasses of vodka. We left the capital to wander through the mildewed rooms of baroque castles and tore our jeans climbing to hermitages teetering on Gothic outcrops. We visited Teddy’s mother’s birthplace, where I took his photograph, and traveled to the Tatra Mountains, where we swam in Lake Morskie Oko, climbed Mount Kosciele, and ate spicy wild boar sausages.
One day, at the end of our second week together, we took an overnight train to Wroclaw. Early in the morning Teddy procured a cup of acorn coffee from a vendor through the train window and brought it to me, waking me by stroking my arm. When I opened my eyes, I felt a rush of emotion. Despite all Poland’s exotic unfamiliarity, I learned then that the most foreign country is within.
We visited Chopin’s birthplace, a modest manor in Zelazowa Wola, a hamlet nestled in the Mazovian heartland. A group of musicians from the Warsaw Conservatory were giving Chopin piano recitals in the grounds; as we approached, they were belting out mazurkas, but when we took our seats, a young man began to play the C-sharp minor Scherzo. The fierce opening octaves uncoiled over forest, glades, and the willowed hills behind the fast-flowing Utrata: a perfect setting for the music of an ardent patriot. But Chopin finished the piece at George Sand’s summer house in Nohant, on the northern rim of the Massif Central. He was twenty-nine, consumptive, and guilty at his self-imposed exile in Louis Philippe’s France. Folded into the devotion, a betrayal. But one forgot all that, and one even forgot Poland as the genius of the music took hold. The small amphitheater of chairs gave onto a clearing infused with the butterscotch light of late summer, and the intense final harmonies of the incomparable Scherzo—a climax of desire and longing—drifted away over the silver beeches. We sat there in the checkered shadow of the trees, Teddy rested his fingers on the nape of my neck, and that was the end of the bolster.
The story rolled on for some years, the highlight, at least in retrospect, an extended camping tour up the west coast of Australia. One saw Teddy as he was made to be seen: wading into the ocean to spear supper. We both loved the open road. Every two or three days a gas station emerged from the red dust of the distance. Each had a bar and a shop. We stood at one bar on our way to the Ningaloo Reef, and I asked Teddy about the gutter at our feet, running along the wooden partition.
“Blokes used to piss in it,” he said. “So they didn’t waste time going to the toilet round the back.”
Writers have compared a love affair to the mapping of an unexplored land; it seems a good analogy. If it is seen through to its logical conclusion, the lover does less well than the cartographer. That, too, has a truthful ring.
*   *   *
As a writer, I have learned to see the past as a friend. What else is there? The present is never around for long enough. I chose this next piece as it illustrates—rather clunkily, it now seems—the way landscape can work as a mirror to history. In these lines I can also see, dimly, the notion that I was working to keep the shadows at bay; what we all do, all the time. The grope for redemption, or at the very least respite, recurs throughout these pages, in different disguises.

Copyright © 2011, 2013 by Sara Wheeler