The Wall

3.

One day, out of the blue, an Arab appeared in our hall of residence. He had hooked a girl from the third floor. I overheard her talking on the payphone by the reception a couple of times. Shaking with excitement, she was telling someone that she was going to drop out of university and move to the West. He had impressed her with his curly hair, slim body, parachute pants and silk windcheater.

Then there was Nabil from Iraq. He also lived in our hall and behaved as if he’d never left his homeland. He would play plaintive Arab music on his cassette player all day long, standing in the open door to his room and greeting passers-by. He never went to lectures. He got his Master’s in the first year, after a considerable sum of money landed in the university’s bank account. All he had to do now was stick it out in Poland for five years. His life would have been quite happy if it hadn’t been for Barbara from Łódź. She would turn up in Poznań once every six months, driving him crazy. He hadn’t registered their marriage at the embassy and she was blackmailing him. He’d fallen in love before he got to Poznań and now he had to pay the price.

Nabil found out that the Arab Lothario had relatives in West Berlin, including an uncle who owned a camera shop. This made me hope that we might be able to leave our spousal room in a few months’ time and start living like human beings. The condition was that the Lothario would come with us. I was to pay for the tickets. Everything would go like clockwork, with Nabil and the other guy posing as owners of the other two cameras.

I opened my eyes and saw Nabil standing over me. In a voice shaking with excitement, he anounced that the Wall had fallen… I tapped my forehead to indicate he was imagining things.
The Lothario gently hugged and kissed his beloved goodbye, promising to be back and shower her with the most expensive beauty products. The Moscow-Paris train via Berlin Zoo arrived on time. We shared a second-class compartment with a bunch of petty vodka and cigarette smugglers. As soon as they saw us they asked if we would mind taking on a bottle of vodka and a carton of cigarettes each for the duration of the journey. At Rzepin station Polish border guards and customs officers boarded the train and immediately set to work with screwdrivers, looking for God knows what. Passports were checked, a few routine questions asked. We crossed the River Odra. In Frankfurt German officers got on. However, on that day they just walked the length of the train without entering the compartments. – Shit, if I’d known this — one of the cigarette men shouted. — Fuck it, all the money lost… Our passports were not stamped until East Berlin. At Bahnhof Zoo the Arab Lothario started explaining something to Nabil, looking uneasy. He tore out a page from a notebook and scribbled some mysterious characters on it. Then he kissed Nabil, shook my hand and ran down the stairs. When he was gone I realized he’d taken one of the cameras. Panicking, I screamed: — I’ve got to dash, the camera! — Calm down, don’t go anywhere, he’s given me his uncle’s address, we’ll meet him in two hours. He’ll be there with the camera, don’t worry. He told me he had some urgent business to attend to, that’s why he left, just for a moment. We hailed a taxi. We found the street and the house all right but instead of a camera shop there were funeral directors. Everyone we met and asked about a camera shop just shrugged and said there wasn’t one and never had been one around there. We waited for the Adonis. We might have stayed there waiting until the end of the time and perhaps he might have turned up for the Last Judgment. I went back to the same black marketeer on Ku’damm I had bought the jamboxes from, and asked if he’d buy something from me for a change. He offered half the amount I’d been hoping for. Tears welling up in my eyes, I shook my head and he added two hundred deutschmarks. I took the money, bitter and crestfallen. I decided not to buy a nice pushchair for my son, I couldn’t afford it now. Instead I bought a litre of vodka to drown my sorrows. I opened the bottle in my cheap hotel room. After two shots Nabil’s power of speech returned. He asked forgiveness on behalf of the Adonis.

Evening fell. I was getting ready to go to bed but Nabil didn’t feel like sleeping. I was already in bed, trying to go to sleep when he told me he was going out to a phone box, to call a cousin in Sweden. All these people have cousins somewhere and they all take one another for a ride, I thought as I closed my eyes. I dreamt that someone was shouting, poking me in the ribs and trying to rouse me from sleep. I dreamt of Marian the vet, his head covered by a towel with the Aeroflot logo. I also dreamt of my wife and my child in a market place, selling apples wrapped in Pampers. At some point I opened my eyes and saw Nabil standing over me. In a voice shaking with excitement, he anounced that the Wall had fallen. His cousin had told him over the phone. I tapped my forehead to indicate he was imagining things. – Nabil, you shouldn’t drink, this is all my fault, I’m so sorry. Just go to sleep, don’t worry about the Wall, it’ll be with us for a while. And I went back to sleep. In the morning I got up and opened the window. I leaned out. The pavement was teeming with people. And the streets were awash with hooting East German Wartburgs and Trabants.

 

Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki is a Polish writer and poet, author of several collections of short stories and short novels as well as two volumes of poetry and a children’s book. After studying theology and philosophy and travelling around Europe, he spent 10 years living in Reykjavík, studying Icelandic language and literature. Before turning to full-time writing, he tried his hand at a variety of jobs, including short order cook, strawberry picker, clown, and orderly in an old-people’s home. He currently lives in Vienna with his family.

Julia Sherwood is a freelance translator. She grew up in Czechoslovakia and is now based in London. Her book-length translations include ‘Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book’ by Daniela Kapitáňová,‘Freshta’ by Petra Procházková, and —jointly with Peter Sherwood— ‘The House of the Deaf Man’ by Peter Krištúfek and ‘Ilona. My Life with the Bard’ by Jana Juráňová. She is Asymptote’s Editor-at-large for Slovakia and chairs the NGO Rights in Russia.

Peter Sherwood is emeritus Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has translated the novels ‘The Book of Fathers’ by Miklós Vámos and ‘The Finno-Ugrian Vampire’ by Noémi Szécsi, as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.

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