‘You’re Polish, aren’t you?’
There it is, wait for it.
‘Yeah,’ muttered Maciek, flustered, clumsily changing the lemonade nuzzle. She looked back at him with confusion. The nuzzle hung frozen in the air when the baritone “Polish” rested inches away from his neck in suspense.
Anything could happen from this point onwards.
‘I’ve always wanted to go to Krakow,’ could happen, to which Maciek would nod politely and sputter idly how beautiful Krakow was and how it was similar to Prague. “Just like Prague” always triggers universal approval. Everything’s clear when it’s just like Prague. If only other things were as simply beautiful as Prague.
The gentleman on the other side of the bar, born in Chelsea, now the smug resident of Clapham Common, could also say ‘Oh, I might be travelling to Krakow for business soon. Where’s best to go?’
Maciek would scratch the hazy teenage memories of what was out there in the Prague-like wilderness of Krakow that was worth the gentleman’s visit. There was always a castle knocking about in any given European city, and in Krakow, too, there was one. Maciek would pout, his eyes bulging out slightly, deep in thought that would feel like an uncomfortable brain stretch. There was Auschwitz. Local travel companies had mastered the schedule of a tight and neat concentration camp visit tucked in between cheese tasting on offer with two for one pints. Regular, non-discounted pints calculated at roughly one pound sterling each, a hot piece of information passionately shared amongst tourists. It’s the best thing about Eastern Europe. So cheap. Cheaper than Prague.
The gentleman’s reply could have a shorter alternative.
‘I’ve been to Krakow once, a lovely city. Just like Prague.’
Just like Prague, beautiful.
The other variant could cover the common link of common histories, landing unsafely amidst the turmoil of the 1980s.
‘Yeah, I visited once, long, long time ago, sometime in the 80s. You had nothing then. I remember,’ the gentleman could say with a long pause, or with a loud cluck, accentuating the dread of the memory. ‘So grey. Poor sods.’
To that, Maciek would frown, confused, unsure how to respond, as he wasn’t alive in the 1980s. His puzzled frown would be taken as a natural lack in his foreign vocabulary.
‘Poor sod, sods, you know, poor folk that lived there, you know, people.’
Maciek would yeah at him, slightly embarrassed, and hurriedly scramble early memories of his parents and grandparents. Things he had read and museums he had visited.
‘Yeah, my parents this, and my parents that,’ he would reply politely, reminding himself he was a barman serving a paying customer and was required to engage. The Clapham gentleman would nod, lost in thought, and here the response could go two ways.
He could add cheerfully, ‘Things must be looking up over there now. I bet I wouldn’t recognise it.’
Maciek would pause in an attempt to absorb and process the country’s independent lifespan of thirty years. He would let out a bemused ‘Oh yes’ as if he were suddenly surprised that anything could change in thirty years, that anything had changed at all and not stayed the way it should have stayed in the 1950s when everything had been right and simple and everyone nice and white and western.
He would add with a deeply rooted inferiority complex, an involuntary reaction to even glancing west, ‘It’s practically the same as Britain now,’ the comparison carrying the load and volume of “Just like Prague”.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland had always been the land of betterness in all Eastern European eyes. Both Great by name and desirably West by geography.
Eastern Europe had always treated the royal family like her own and watched all royal weddings. She carried a profound dislike for Camilla and an infinite fondness for William and Harry, the latter particularly strong amongst ladies of the pre-war generation.
Eastern Europe knew all the words to “Wonderwall” but limped at anything by Blur. She had repeated “thin” and “fin” on a loop until she got rid of her own throaty “f-sound”. Eastern Europe attempted to imitate Great Britain through every “thin” and “fin”, “beach” and “bitch”, “sheet” and “shit”. To no avail, all this effort, all the girls would always go for the boys with a native British accent, more rectangular heads and symmetric faces anyway.
Eastern Europe had always reminded herself that this land of wit and cool existed and was attainable. She had always somehow known that not only could she be in it, but if she tried hard enough, she could be it. Eastern Europe could eventually erase its easterness and immerse itself into westerness to the point where no one would be able to tell who was who. Bloody, bleeding hell would it try, as she cheered and she sodded it and as she salivated at Sunday roasts, cheering on Tottenham Hotspurs.
The Clapham gentleman could, however, say something along the lines of, ‘It can’t be all that better, all you lot coming over here.’
There was never a good comeback to that if you were halfway through changing a lemonade nuzzle in a pub where three of your colleagues were also Eastern European. Sure, Maciek could go into a usually convoluted discussion on the many paradoxes of a national identity, its evolving definition and fluid nature. Maciek could also venture into the myriad complexities of post-Soviet economy or even dilute the topic into individual regions. He could stagger into depths of personal plans and dreams and his very own economic situation, leading him to this part-time job at Bar 49 on Clapham High Street. Maciek could open up about his plans of world wandering. He could tell the gentleman about his photographs of shop window displays in Chile he’d taken and exhibited earlier this year, but time was against him and this particular tangent of the conversation was against him, too, as soon as “all you lot” had dropped on him like a bird dropped an unexpected spatter of shit on a jacket you’d just picked up. Struggling with the lemonade nuzzle, he would mumble, ‘Yeah I guess,’ because the gentleman’s statement could perhaps be true to some people in some situations somewhere, as most things are perhaps true somewhere to someone.
The Clapham gentleman was an old-fashioned kind of fellow, a real gentleman of his day. It hadn’t even crossed his mind that Maciek ought to go back to where he’d come from. If he let himself ponder, however, why, in theory, he would like Maciek to stay, he could, in fact, produce a list solidly built on friendly facts.
‘If you all left,’ the gentleman would say, his welcoming heart on his Ede & Ravenscroft sleeve, ‘the NHS would collapse, all building work would halt, pubs would shut down, everyone would die in care homes, the offices would drown in rubbish, one piece of single use plastic at a time that would end our country and our planet,’ he would spit out under one breath, pleading with Maciek to stay. ‘You useful immigrants,’ the gentleman would never say out loud, for he was not a xenophobe and certainly not a racist. He dated one black girl in Brixton back in the 1960s. She was the best fun he had ever had and, he sometimes thought, the actual greatest love of his life, something his wife Cynthia would never know about.
The other practical consideration that would never cross the gentleman’s mind, for he was not a xenophobe and certainly not a racist, would come out of concern for his children and their welfare. What if his son was forced to deep clean those very bar premises, starting his shift at 2am, piles of rubbish rising all around him at the speed of tons per minute in the immigrantless land? His son could not, as he currently did, write advertising copy, sipping on a craft ale in his mid-century modern Soho office, his latest carpet imported directly from Tokyo, his lunch delivered by an army of minimum waged runners. His son could not, as he’d just done last week, come up with an idea for the visual effects strategy in a chocolate commercial he was currently producing. He’d lost six nights of sleep, his poor boy, working out what exact shade of brown the advertised chocolate should be in order to sell better. He’d almost gone brown colour blind but he’d cracked it yet again by the seventh day. He had picked soft umber, and soft umber had won, and the advert had won and the Clapham gentleman’s son had won, ‘Some Golden Animal’ at some advertising awards somewhere. None of this would’ve happened last week, the awarded coronation of soft umber, had he had to scrub the bar’s toilet at dawn in the immigrantless land. All this quite definitely wouldn’t have been said and quite possibly not even thought on the gentleman’s part.
What if the gentleman didn’t know? What if ‘Polish,’ the word that stopped lemonade from flowing in the plastic pipes and blood in Maciek’s brian, had never been uttered? Instead, the accent had been merely detected as a bit off, just a little off the scale, like a false note in the otherwise harmonious choir, half a tone enough for any predator to wake up and have a sniff around the room. The gentleman would now raise the wrinkled finger on the elderly, wrinkled hand, point in the air awaiting inspiration, point at Maciek and fire.
‘Let me guess.’ The gentleman’s eyes would narrow and widen like a radiating piece of machinery. The extraordinarily bushy eyebrows would shoot up and the guessing game would begin, starting with a confident bellow.
‘Russia!’ the gentleman would roar, like the king of lions approaching his prey.
Everything in a way starts with Russia, for as the urban legend on the post-soviet Polish streets goes, Russia is not merely a country. It is a human condition, a state of mind, the nemesis and yang to ying. Russia is still in all of us. Russia is Eastern Europe’s constant shadow.
The lava of issues would flood Maciek’s brain as ‘Russia’ would ring and ring mercilessly in his ears, bludgeoning through brain tissues, destroying everything on its way, the gentleman’s pointed finger still hanging in the air, still calling him Russian. The finger and ‘Russian!’ could’ve lasted his lifetime and outlived him as Russia will outlive us all. It could’ve been a few seconds, the gentleman could’ve suffered a stroke and thus remained for eternity, unable to move.
Maciek ran out of time to respond.
Maciek shifted his head to the left. The orange face of ‘Mate!’ shouting individual pushed in front of the Clapham gentleman, just like Russia tore him away from where he was standing safe and west only seconds earlier.
‘Pint of stella, please, will ya?’
Anna Card is a London-based film producer, event producer, and writer. Her short films have been screened at East End Film Festival and UK Asian Film Festival amongst others, and she’s currently in post-production for her first feature film. Her reviews and essays have been published on PopMatters, Brighton Source and Joyzine. Follow her on Twitter.
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