“I am an Albanian,” the man said, and drew me out of a daydream. He looked at my face, which was trustworthy and kind, or so people had often said in their descriptions of me. I took in his sharp chin shaved blue, and his eyes the colour of keys. His ivory teeth presented an oddly unbroken front as he smiled. Maybe it was this that had stopped me, for when I think of the lunchtime crowds on Jerozolimskie Avenue in front of the Palace of Culture, smiles don’t come to mind, not in midwinter, anyway.
I said, “You what?”
“I am an Albanian,” he repeated brightly.
I put in, “I thought you said that.”
He acknowledged this with a patient nod. “And I want to tell you of my resolution. It’s a new year.” His voice held, just for a second, portent. “And therefore the time for such things.”
“It’s January the fifth,” I remembered.
He said, “Just so,” and I shone his grin back at him. He said, “I know what you’re thinking.”
It was unusual to meet an Albanian in Warsaw. Romanians we had by the score. We had plenty of Russians, and if they weren’t Russians they were Ukrainians and Lithuanians, Belorussians and central Asians, which was close enough. There were all manner of English speakers, too, Americans and Canadians, and the loud-voiced English themselves—what were they doing in Warsaw, of all places? Nevertheless, we had them, getting hot under the collar on buses about their peculiar team sports. It was indeed unusual, though, to meet an Albanian.
“Just so,” he agreed.
A group of giggling girls passed us, breathless and red-faced and supporting one another. They looked and sounded like geese, or turkeys. Girls of a certain age, from maybe twelve to twenty two, do that a lot here, and envy crosses your heart and you think, ‘What exciting, humorous lives they must lead, these girls, every minute a laugh.’ At twenty two they get married, then they stop walking around in gangs and giggling, just as the turkeys and the geese stop their row when their time comes. Just when you’re having some fun, it seems, tradition steps in, supply, demand, capital.
“So what’s the story?” I said, and the man paused as if wondering whether he liked the sound of the question or not, then said he’d tell me. Could we perhaps go somewhere a touch more civilised? Whatever Jerozolimskie Avenue was, it was no place to stop for a chinwag, not with the snow about to come down and all. “It’s all snowed-out,” I had heard. “No more snow till the weekend.” Still, even as I spoke, flakes the size of seagulls came wafting down, and I shrugged and nodded and giggled all in one motion, pointed a finger up and said stupidly, “Snow.”
I’m not sure who led whom where, but within five minutes I had with some aplomb deposited our coats in the obligatory care of the old baba on cloakroom duty, and we were on stools in the bar next to Jerozolimskie’s Polonia Hotel. The place was more or less empty. A villainous-looking chap wearing a mauve suit with sleeves rolled up sat in a corner making money talk to a brassy woman hunched inside a huge red jacket that looked like a child’s felt cut-out, who only occasionally poked her pale nose out to make an understanding nod.
I can’t remember who ordered the beer, and the vodka chasers, but I can easily be persuaded into both. Fingers went up in a blur, two more beers, two more vodkas. What about a smoke? “It’s bad for you.” I looked stern, gave a demonstrative cough and then ordered a packet of American cigarettes, and we puffed on them together. I watched the smoke curling up from mine as if I’d never seen one before, but I don’t know why, for it’s not unknown for me to have a puff or two, as long as there’s a beer or a vodka about, or both.
“Hey,” one of us said in a mother hen voice. “We should eat something, you know.” A huge platter of open sandwiches arrived not long afterwards, colourfully and attractively arrayed. “Turkey and pineapple with redcurrant jelly,” I explained to the Albanian, whose name, he had told me by then, was Niko. “Rollmops with horseradish, salami with pickled cucumber, ham with Russian salad. And that looks like two more beers and two more vodkas, and . . . Yes, down the hatch with them—you’re quite right.”
Albania had been an interesting place, it seemed, as long as you weren’t actually living there; to appreciate it fully, you had to make the trek across the Adriatic to Brindisi, then schlep your way up through Mediterranean Europe to the North. Niko told me about Tiräne in the darkness, and I thought at first he was being poetic and metaphorical, but he was talking about power-cuts.
“Candle-lit dinner,” I suggested.
He looked at me patiently, and said, “Hah—dinner. If only.” He said about how quiet the city had been—“No cars, you see.” I said that didn’t sound quite so bad. “Not so bad,” he agreed, except on the days the buses weren’t running for want of petrol. He recalled for me Enver Hoxha, the great teacher and leader, and how they couldn’t afford to pull down the statues of him, not yet. He tutted over the staggering amount of material printed with the leader’s words—the big man had written more books than he’d actually read—which sat in warehouses destined to be mouse food. He sketched out the great mosque in Tirane, dwarfed by brutal socialist buildings, and King Zog’s mansion, used to store fire-fighting equipment. He told me more, about folk customs, and music, of a people who’d forgotten how to dance, and that was kind of sad.
“Tiräne will boogie again,” I assured him. “The free market promotes dancing. Capital will make it shimmy.”
We drank to that, and Niko said, “Just so,” and went on unravelling stories with the practiced ease of a teller of tales. He was a pleasure to watch.
The girl behind the bar was slow-eyed and big-shouldered, wore her blouse and skirt like a suit of armour. She sent us a look that told us lunchtime ought to be finishing. “No instinct for capital, you see,” I explained to Niko, who agreed gravely, said that capital was a thing that ought to be carefully reconsidered in the light of the New World Order. “I like a man who knows what’s what,” I told him. “And what’s not.”
More vulgar types had invaded the inner reaches of the bar. All had haircuts like English footballers, wore pastel suits with the sleeves rolled up, and sported shoes that showed too much sock. All talked impressively with the self-consciousness of capital, in the voices of indiscreet crows. Money was mentioned, was shown, and hairy hands made high handshakes studiously copied from American films. One or two of them sent me looks I didn’t much like, but I stared them out stonily, and they licked their chops and went back to their business.
“Thirsty work,” I said to Niko, and I ordered some more to drink, a bowl each of tripe soup, and some bread. The girl behind the bar looked as if she didn’t want to be associated with a place that served tripe soup, but who was stuck with it. “With plenty of tripe,” I reminded her, and she gave me the curt nod of the old regime, before capital. Her nose wrinkled, and her almost-white teeth showed for seconds, and I thought she was about to lean over and bite me, but she restrained herself, turned away, and, using a pen like a scalpel, made entries on our bill.
“She suffers too,” I said to Niko. “It isn’t just we people who know what’s what, and what’s not.”
“Eyeless in Gaza.” He made punctuation with a dignified burp. “At the mill with slaves. Milton,” he added. I liked that, and said so. Niko waited as I tried to think of a suitable riposte. All I could find was We are living in a material world. “Madonna,” I would have had to add, and in my mind I could hear it plummeting.
I saw Niko looking at his watch, and he grinned at me as if caught out. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
He didn’t. Nobody ever knew what I was thinking. Even I didn’t know, sometimes. I made a smile people remembered as understanding, and indulgent, and said, “What’s that, then?”
“Time.” His nose was in his beer. “Late.”
“But early in the year,” I protested. I remembered our earlier talk of the time of year, and said, “Hey, tell me then, what was that you said?” I found a frown. “All that time ago, about your resolution.”
“My resolution.” He blinked up at me, then swallowed. “It was to stop spending my time drinking.” He gestured at the bottles that faced us with their temptations. “My wife.” He made wide eyes. “My children.” He held four fingers up in case I wasn’t good at numbers. “I solemnly promised them all, my hand on my heart.” As if I’d been crass enough to ask, he spelt out, “Yes, to stop drinking beer, and vodka, to stop smoking these foul cigarettes. And what have you done?” His tone was jocular, and though he waved a friendly finger at me, his eyes were earnest. “They wait at home for me.” He raised his glass and looked at me through the amber light it guarded. “What have you done to my resolution?” He drained his beer and saw it off with his vodka, and as his soup was placed under his nose he stubbed out his cigarette. As he unwrapped his spoon from its serviette he said, “And this foul soup, too—a thing not to be faced.” I stopped nodding and joined him, and we tucked in. Between slurps, he went on, “What’s to be done? What a strong will you have over a fellow like me, a stranger in your country—see how easily you’ve broken a man’s resolution. I don’t know what the answer is. We’ll have to think about that.”
“We can do that,” I said.
More beers appeared as if by magic, more vodkas. We sipped at them and made a show of thinking. Suddenly Niko had the wise face of a philosopher—he’d told me a little about ancient Albania and its tradition of thinking and letters, and of the sages who’d rubbed shoulders with their great and giddy neighbours, the Greeks. I knew he’d already found an answer.
“Our bill will be what?” He put a dignified cast into his features, and looked like a man whose interest in capital didn’t extend to gaudy talking about it. He obviously had no idea what such a debauch could come to in terms of capital. I did a quick calculation, and told him, and he began to scrabble discreetly in pockets and to pull out crumpled notes from here and there. “I think it’s only fair,” he said softly, “that I pay for the sandwiches,” and he put a hand on my arm. “No,” he said modestly, “I insist—the sandwiches are on me.”
“You’re a kind fellow,” I said.
He nodded, said, “Just so.”
“Hey.” I sounded divinely inspired, although it’s fair to say that men, once they’ve reached a certain stage of such an afternoon, are really quite bereft of a single original thought. “I say let’s have another drink—you know, one for the road. It’s a tradition,” I pressed him.
“Well, tradition is undoubtedly a fine thing.”
“Just so, eh?”
Niko looked a little askance at my use of the phrase.
“Tradition and capital,” I said. “They go together.”
We were all out of talk, it seemed. Our drinks arrived, and Niko said, a little wearily, “To tradition.” We knocked the vodkas straight down. Mine tasted like lighter fuel.
We grabbed our beers, and I said, “To capital.”
“Uh-hmm,” he said into his beer. His eyes went this way and that, everywhere except at my face. “Well, look at the time.” He checked an awkward laugh as it to disappeared down his throat. “Time to get the bill.”
“An excellent idea,” I agreed, though, of course, it was a fundamentally dispiriting one in the reality that lay outside any bar. I woke the girl behind the bar out of her coma with a gesture. She compressed her lips into a pale smile, then pulled out various slips of paper. “While she’s consulting with her accountant,” I told Niko, “I think I’ll go and bleed the radiators.”
“I think I’ll do that, too,” he said quickly.
I heard myself saying, “Just so.”
All the same, once out in the toilet area the idea of radiators slipped my mind entirely, and Niko wasn’t there to remind me, so I went instead to the cloakroom baba and gave her the tickets for our coats. I paid her, and told her to hang on to the other gentleman’s outdoor wear. He’d be out soon, I assured her, probably accompanied, as a mere formality, of course, by the manager, as I knew he’d left his wallet in his coat, and he had his bill to settle, after all.
“Can’t be sure,” I thought out loud, “but I think he was caught in a sudden crush at the bar, all those villainous-looking types in there all wanting a drink at the same time—would you believe it, aunty?” She would, her eyes told me, and, shaking her grey old head, she grinned widely and alarmingly, showing a tiny cemetery in her mouth, and reminded me to say hallo to my mother. She reached up and pinched one of my cheeks, which smarted and glowed as I made my way out to a snow-covered Jerozolimskie Avenue, the evening rush-hour crowds there to swallow me up and ease me back into the world from the dark space in which I’d hidden and, like a hibernating animal, filled my face.
I was walking down Jerozolimskie a month or so later, coat over my arm, a spring in my step, minding some of my own business, when I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“You’re an Albanian,” I remembered. Like old friends, we stood awhile and dismissed the weather, commented on the well-heeled people who passed us without seeing us, made the briefest of sketches of what we’d both been up to. “No place to stand and chinwag,” I managed at last. “How about a drink?”
“A drink?” His sorry sort of grin told me that he’d become philosophical about our previous outing, which was good, I thought.
“I think not,” he decided.
I said a cool, “Just so,” but really thought it would have been good to get together with him again, chew the fat a bit. Maybe then I’d be able to stop him saying, just so with such frequency, and call him by the rather stiff old-fashioned Polish name my aunt saw the time she looked in his wallet in the cloakroom of the bar next to the Polonia.
A group of giggly girls passed us, arms linked, their lives the biggest fun you could have in Warsaw in the spring. “Geese,” I said. We watched them as the subway swallowed them down, and looked up at each other.
“Turkeys,” he sort of agreed.
“Your haircut is interesting,” he observed suddenly, though I could tell he’d been thinking about it for some time. I said he was very kind, and admitted, “In fact, a lot of footballers have this haircut—you know, famous ones, in England.”
He considered this. “Just so,” he said softly, and nodded for what seemed like a long time. “Why,” he ventured, “do you roll up your sleeves in such a way?” He reached out and took some of the powder blue material of my jacket between thumb and forefinger. “It’s not good for it.” He had the frown of a father on.
“I guess it’s the fashion,” I said, just a little sheepishly.
“Your shoes,” he began.
I stuck one out, said, “You like them?” He inspected them rather critically, I thought. “Too much sock?” I wondered. “But anyway, what about that drink?”
He took a long, slow look at me, and I saw pain cross his eyes for seconds, and I knew that was his pride, dying inside him the way pride is always doomed to die. He said only, “Well, I really don’t know about that.”
Outside the Marriot, a group of early tourists were gathered in a gaggle. In their weatherproof primary colours, they had a look about them of oversized children. They talked, sealed agreements with solemn nods, and glanced back at the bulk of the hotel above them, the reassurance of capital, looked over towards the foreign country represented by the central station’s grubby concrete, and the looming Palace of Culture. They contemplated the roaring road next to them, and the yawn offered by the subway. A woman got lost in her map. Another got her hood tangled up in her umbrella. An old fellow looked down anxiously at his big blue trainers, maybe hoping they’d make him skip down the road like a five year old.
A young man was itching to say goodbyes, and he said them over his shoulder. Map in hand, he detached himself from the group and began walking in the direction of the Polonia. I’d spotted him straight away. He was the spirit of adventure: it was men like him who’d opened up continents to capital, but even so, they still needed a bit of friendly company every once in a while.
“See that fellow there?” I called my companion by the diminutive of his name, used the familiar form of the verb and pulled at his arm, and, in this way, we were friends. “The one in the blue Gore-Tex?”
“Just so,” he said, then added hurriedly, “You mean the plastic jacket? What about him?”
“He looks to me,” I let the cheery thought out, “like a chap who could do with a drink.”
(Originally published in Ambit Magazine)
Nick Sweeney’s stories are scattered around the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his novel about friendship, Poland, vodka, snow and getting the train for the hell of it, was published by UK independent publisher Unthank Books in 2011. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives in Kent. His supernatural novelette, The Exploding Elephant, is out at the moment with Bards and Sages. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found on his website The Last Thing the Author Said.