Friday, 28 August 2009


Chapter One: Floating Weightlessly Above A Jazz Club

Throughout the entirety of the writing of this I have struggled with
how to begin. There's the once upon a time of fables, the starting
from the ending and working your way back to the beginning, the
how-I-got-here beginning as well as the piecemeal,
drop-you-in-the-middle-of-nowhere beginning that forces you to start
reading before you are even aware of what is going on and who is

This doesn't exhaust the possibility of beginnings of course but
simply samples the possibilities that have exhausted me in trying to
figure out where to start.

The way I look at it, you don't meet friends or even strangers from
the beginning but you meet them right in the middle of nothing
usually, somewhere in your life and theirs where the stories
intersect and if there's any kind of spark, any kind of adhesive
substance to that intersection then the stories come later, the
histories are unravelled with time.

Ernesto reminds me the Bible seems to begin from the beginning.

Fair enough but I'm here right now. Three of us, actually.

Two dozen bars or so into "Better Get It
in Your Soul," the band mossy with sweat,
May 1960 at The Half Note, the rain
on the black streets outside
dusted here and there by the pale pollen
of the streetlights.
William Matthews, from "Mingus At the Half Note"

Before you even open the door, you can hear the strains of music
leaking out and once it's opened, a blanket of sound and smoke and
promise shields you from the truths of the world outside, wraps you
in the womb of jazz.

As we descended the short stairway into the main room, the stage was immediately to the left, crammed with musicians like a rush hour
subway. In such close quarters you can smell the respect of one
musician for another. Competition reeks. It's humble but it's a
humble one-upmanship. Sacrifice for the development of initiative.

To the right, a row of booths all flanked with black and white
photos at crooked angles and dust-collected frames; the club's
highlights through the years, spelt out in haunting images as the
past so often is.

The interior smells of years embedded in the walls and the floor,
tobacco smoke, drinks spilled in 1957, the stale feet of Handsome
Eddie who played barefoot here throughout the 60s and whose photos are prominent in every corner, the breaths drawn and expelled through Rico Royal reeds, everywhere, the interminable hours of music, which unexpectedly, if collected throughout the years, would still have numbered less than a lifetime of a single one of the musicians themselves.

There is a tingle of perfume from a trio of women who stare up at
the stage like groupies, wet with excitement, lips parted
expectantly, dressed exuberantly for a big night out, coaxing,
preening, gawking. One of them, a redhead with nearly matching
lipstick, lit a match and held it against her cigarette whilst her
foot tapped to the syncopation.

In seeking out accommodation for the three of us, we spoke in
respectful whispers as though we'd arrived on camels to see the
magical Jesus baby in a crowded little tent. A tenor sax, which had
been giving birth as we approached the entrance, had hushed, its
holder's head bowed as the pianist went into a solo to subtle
applause for the saxophonist.

There was little conversation at other tables and even those
conversations were muted, respectful. The pianist, tall and lean
with age, was the only regular at this once-weekly jam and he was
not unlike a reverend speaking psalms through the keys he touched
with expertise. And jazz, at its most mournful is not unlike a place
of worship.

This outing had been conceived by Ernesto Zambrano, self-promoting pioneer of the modern guitar montage who, within a few weeks of our first meeting held an impromptu exhibition for me in his flat: chilling photographs of mothers holding dead babies, the rotting corpses of Frente Martí Liberación Nacional fighters on the dirt roads of the peasant underbrush, graphic imagery everywhere, life histories he'd constructed from dust and put to music, composing song after song, a Goyaesque concert to the capricious affairs of incessant human cruelty. Quite an introduction.

Now he was sat in front of me, anxiously fiddling with the sugar
packs in the condiment set on the table, waiting for the first beer
as though he were in a hospital waiting room expecting bad news.

Beside Ernesto was Lydia, his girlfriend, a non-cloying but powerful
presence of dark curls hiding all but the chin and the mouth and the
nose, symmetrical until the eyes, housing some spirit indelibly
powerful, shone through like beacons leaning you toward her. The
kind of girlfriend a boyfriend spent a lot of time fending off the
advances of other predators for, the kind of girlfriend everyone
else around the boyfriend was secretly in love with but never spoke
about, men and women. She could be lively, fiery, brutal and
persuasive all at once; dragging others in around her the way the a
whirlwind makes pieces of paper dance on a chilly autumn afternoon.

But more than anything, she was Ernesto's. Yes, Ernesto was talented
and handsome even without her presence but the fact of her presence,
the fact that he and he alone was immune to her, shall we say,
magnetic qualities, the fact that he could maintain at the worst of
times a sort of playful indifference to her made him artificially
seem even more so.

And to maintain his hold of her, the grip of the relationship firm,
not dissimilar to the way a horse is handled by its trainer in a
circus or a groom at a stable, he had the habit of taunting her when
he spoke in Spanish. He was a gentleman to her when he spoke in
English, cognisant of the ears of Americans and their politically
correct hypersensitivities, aware of what others might learn and
judge about him but in that labyrinth of Spanish which hid all the secrets of their relationship, he could be brutally indifferent.

Ours was an easy triangular friendship forged in the vertigo of
intoxication and smoke, laughter and creative tension, hidden
thoughts and secret glances. Playing at feeling.

They had initially arrived in New York by virtue of, and then far out-
stayed, their student visas both, from the same fishing port town in
the northern Spanish province of Asturias, called Llanes, intertwined
by history, love, language and experience, and had both clothed
themselves in the appropriate anonymity escaping both discovery by
the INS and, perhaps by virtue of the transient nature of their
immigration status, even themselves, neither of whom ever seemed
particularly destined to anonymity in the first place so mutually
exclusive were their personalities and characteristics, somewhere in
a Bronx we never bothered spoke much about.

To them the Bronx was a place of habit, of hiding, of housing. For me, a borough I avoided for years and took care to block out both in rare daylight hours and even in semi conscious thoughts in midnight bars with the sound dulled for reasons I might explain in greater depth a little later but for the purposes of describing these two accomplices in front of me without deviating too far from the course of the describing, I will say only that somewhere out there I was certain my mother still existed, somewhere there even though I hadn't seen her in years since she'd disappeared without a clue.

But there, I've deviated already and Ernesto is getting impatient.

As a means of survival, Ernesto is a photographer and guitarist. He
is classical enough with his fingers to find studio work with his
guitar and disturbing enough with the view of his camera that in
Spain, he had already published a pair of books photographing human suffering. Not that I'd ever heard of him before I met him. Coffee table books on human suffering was not a priority of mine before meeting Ernesto and whilst it still isn't, the knowing of Ernesto
has lent more credibility and poignancy that might have otherwise
escaped me had he remained an anonymous soul and traveller to me.

It makes you wonder at all the millions of things people have ever
written or created in the history of humanity, books, scraps of
paper with recipes, diaries of profoundly disturbing secrets,
unpublished chronicles of misery and delights, photographs taken and
lost in moves or in estate sales, poems that have never been read by
a single other person in history and have long since disappeared
like the papyrus they were written on, brittle and then dust.

For Ernesto, such endeavours were merely part of daily life, a
shrug in the face of complexity. He was talented and he was talented
in that nonchalant way that only artists and athletes can perfect
without appearing to give even the minimal effort in making it
happen, despite all the hours and years of practice hidden behind
the façade.

In her role, which Ernesto would say in Spanish to her, sotto voce,
as the human footnote to the life of Ernesto, Lydia appeared content
to revel in her dewy infatuation, her own talents like a child that
doesn't cry and attracts little attention.

She still struggled with shaping the English language like bashing
the dents out of a Mercury's body despite her best efforts. In a
sort of fitting rendition of the competitive struggle she endured in
their relationship, Ernesto, predictably, spoke a fluid, guttural
English and had mastered American idiomatic nuances with a flourish.

Whatever she endeavoured, he could outperform, wherever she went
he had been before, whatever words she spoke, he had already heard.
Ernesto was a competitive man and Lydia, perhaps inexplicably, was
content to be in his shadow. Perhaps she thought he was greater than
her, perhaps she loved and admired him, perhaps because her own
insecurities prevented her submitting a wilful personality of her
own, a proper competition to face Ernesto with, or perhaps just fear
of losing. You don't know these things about people when you know
them solely in a social drinking way. You can only guess, or make
assumptions. And whilst some of their personality will rise up like
a dead body in a water other elements of it will remain deep and
distant, unspoken, unknown, a human hieroglyphic which can be
interpreted only by the partner.

There was nothing to dislike about Lydia, she merely dulled in
comparison given how little she was willing to compete against him.
Ernesto often speculated aloud that she should have been with a much more usual man, a man she could outshine by merely remaining in repose. But it was up to the relationship gods that she should be
saddled with an overbearing bundle of inexhaustible achievement like
Ernesto as a lover.

They came as a matching set, his and hers illegal aliens,
multi-talented, infinite wells of surprising phrases, compelling
angles of observation and despite the distances they had travelled
carrying personalities stunted by a foreign language, they were
appealing to me from the first meeting, as much for the intrigue as
their capacity for drinking.

Our first meeting ever had been the Oblong Club. Albert and I and a guitar player we had hooked up with for the occasion named Ernie Lee stood on stage, between numbers, standing in postures that bled indifference and fatigue when I smelled the unmistakable black odour of Ducados wafting through the air. Through the crowd, I searched tables before spotting Ernesto sitting back calmly, exhaling Ducado smoke like a factory worker on mid morning break. I coughed into the microphone and requested the culprit come forward and donate a Ducado.

Ernesto obliged and as we chatted at the foot of the stage, Albert
and Ernie Lee pretended to tune up, act busy. And with the crowd,
shuffling and restlessly murmuring, it came to light that he was a
guitar player himself and although he wasn't so very well versed in
the blues, or really much in jazz either, well, he was sure he could
fake it if we wouldn't mind his joining us on stage for a song.

Of course it would not surprise me any longer, but then, I didn't
know this guy but for his Ducados and it was a shocking surprise
when he borrowed Ernie Lee's guitar, fumbled quickly with the
strings and then burst into a sort of flamenco version of Cry Me A
River, which bowled the crowd over and pretty much ruined any
semblance of being coherent musicians I and Albert and Ernie Lee had the rest of the night.

I didn't resent it of course. We knew we weren't very competent
musicians. Maybe we even took pride in it. But from that moment on,
Ernesto and Lydia were with us like mascots to our mediocrity.

In any case, here I was, months or perhaps years, it is sometimes
difficult to tell, back from the grand journey, one man's dust
scattered in the East River, another decomposing and the two
remaining friends sat here as we all pretended I hadn't been moping for weeks, that they had to nearly physically drag me out and bring me here, this once-favourite haunt of ours.

Adding to the tension was the revelation that they'd invited a date
for me to this meeting, a date who was running late already and who,
even if she did show, was not likely to be impressed with the speed
of my beer consumption, the ragged edginess of my discomposure and the rapidity of my frequent descents into quietude and drunken

She arrived in a rush, this Tamara, although despite the rush, the
outward presumption of regality of her entry was a dead give away to
me, straight away that Ernesto and Lydia had been overly optimistic
about our pairing, their matchmaking. I could sense like an animal
sensed fear that this meeting was going to be doomed and perhaps it
was fear and it was Tamara, not myself who sensed the fear and knew
at once we were not destined to be despite the matchmaking and we
would all simply have to hunker down for a socially acceptable
period of time before one of us made our excuses to leave.

I wasn't sure if I could like her at all no matter how much Ernesto
and Lydia genuinely wanted or pretended to want to believe that I
would like her at all but we all seated ourselves and listened to
the music as it gradually poured on to us like a spotlight, grateful
for the temporary distraction.

There had been others my two matchmakers had involved in the past,
and I, a somewhat willing albeit pessimistic participant, had
suffered them freely these matchmakees, perhaps eager for
affirmation once the minimal interest had flickered and faded as
quickly as it originally appeared.

Fortunately we had the music to transfix us for awhile after cursory
introductions allowed us all to seat ourselves at the same table
under the semblance of knowing one another before allowing the music to distract us.

I'd been briefed on her for days. Tamara would come along like an
unannounced song whose melody was familiar, rebounding from a bout of post-infatuation traumas emitting milongas which were as they say, pleasing to my ear. Mutual pain attracts and the assumption was we might get along well primarily because of our mutual yet secret pact never to bother spreading the miseries of our past relationships like a runny egg yolk ruining a perfectly good piece of dry rye toast.

The pianist's solo sutured seamlessly with a trumpet player who'd
suddenly stood from a chair on the stage having previously sat
motionless, head bowed, a mannequin springing to life, a flower's
petals opening.

Our rapture was broken by the waitress' long awaited arrival with
beers and even though we seemed entranced by the trumpeter, once the beer had made its appearance, gradually the humble sense of our
silence began to give way, the music a background rather than the
speck of sound the spotlight sprayed upon.

We were two couples, minutes into a binge without specific
purpose, two couples feeling their way through each other, trepid
syncopation as we fumbled through the chords of conversation
attempting to find one mutual note.

The talent was too sobering and the intoxication too fleeting.
None of us felt any particular compulsion to speak despite the auspices of this blind date sort-of gathering. We nestled, the four of us, at this table, clarifying our silences with taciturn sipping, as the musicians lifted us before gently bringing us back down.

Later there was a break. Even though the musicians from shadows were gradually replacing each other, taking turns to be spell-binding, the tall and lean pianist stood his full height at the end of one song, raised his arms above his head slowly, turned his head left and right. He slurped at his drink then mumbled a vague banter about taking a break, everyone taking a break.

And into this new silence came the suddenly oppressive need to address the issue before me, the blind date before me, Tamara who now, equally cogniscent, as were we all by this point, of the begging need for small talk, began a few tentative forays.

Lydia and Ernesto tell me you are also a musician, she urges. I am in the midst of rolling a cigarette but nod wordlessly until the roll-up is done and lit and I can speak between exhalations of smoke as though this action somehow lent me an unspoken credibility.

Yes. Not very well, of course. Not like Ernesto, for example. Not like any of the musicians assembled here for this jam. But yes, I play. Saxophone. Just back from a somewhat ramshackle tour of a few cities in Europe. Not sanctioned or official, mind you. You might even consider it a sort of glorified busking but with indoor venues. Or you might consider it a bunch of shit me and a friend or maybe two friends cobbled together on the run in the spare moments before the drinking set in. In any event, wow, there I’ve gone and not even taken a breath, in answer to your question again, yes, I am a musician. Of sorts.

This sort of long-winded reply was not going to help me at all. I saw out of the corner of my eye that Lydia and Ernesto had exchanged nervous glances while Tamara bravely feigned interest. Or perhaps it wasn’t feigned. Perhaps, at least for the first 30 seconds of explanation, it was interest but an interest which was fully capable of retracting, waning, shutting down and closing shop.

Naturally I allowed myself a silent self-castigation. Nothing was easy any more. Simple conversation with strangers.

But Tamara was up for the task, temporarily anyway.

Wow, she allowed herself to exclaim delicately balancing real interest with phoney over-exuberance. She attempted to move her head away from the stream of my cigarette smoke. Europe. I love Europe. Where were you then?

Holland and the Czech Republic, mainly. But a lot of other ridiculous and occasionally sublime places in between as well. Far too many places I think sometimes now in hindsight. But, there you go. I shrugged.

And now she was allowing herself, having completed her trepid toe-in-the-water line of questioning, to bring out both barrels of her powerful, powerful ability to talk. Ironically, I found myself amazed that I’d ever worried about my own verbosity, which now, in comparison, seemed like a miniscule little single chirp in the wake of her verbal onslaught.

It was a losing bet, I knew this. But I’ve mastered this little technique over time. You don’t have to listen to anyone, not the words anyway. Just the intonations which instinctively, you can pick out from the regular rambling sufficiently to discern where one juncture of the sentence or breathless run on required comment or acknowledgement. I see. Or uh huh. Or wow. Really? These kinds of fillers.

Worse still, the free time now allotted to me by virtue of Tamara’s extrapolative discourse on Europe and European culture and European anything, time for my mind to wander.

And wander it did.

It was as though no one was with me any more. As though I’d left my body and was floating not above this table observing me pretending to listen to Tamara or even floating above the city the bar was situated in. Just floating. Far and away, as I was prone to do lately. Away from the present. Hovering yet again over the past…

CHAPTER TWO: A Journal of Sustainability Gradually Sheds Its Pages

“I was raised with the strong of heart
But if you touch me wrong I fall apart
I found a woman who's soft but she's also hard
While I slept she nailed down my heart.”

-Morphine, All Your Way, from Yes, Rykodisc, 1995

I'd been underachieving for years.

There'd been a period of unemployment, a spotty record of warehouse
jobs at minimum wage and night after night alternating between
intoxication and hangovers.

Pervaded by a listlessness and lack of direction, punctuated by
lonely nights listening to jazz or blues in dark rooms lit only by
candles, chain-smoking, thinking about as little as possible until
the veil of drunk slowly eased over the eyes, through the pores,
numbing and transcendent yet all the while as though killing time
with the acupuncture of oblivion, bottle by bottle.

And perhaps just as inexplicably, what had seemed acceptable for the
better part of winter suddenly tasted like the bile of a bad meal
eaten too quickly.

I had to find something else, some other method of living, some
escape from the futureless present into a more tangible reality. I
needed a career.

Yet the two primary contributing factors to my DNA, namely two people whose antics I will detail more forensically later, consisted of two polar opposites, both of whom unintentionally affected my lack of upward mobility, motivation and general, all-around championship apathy.

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to play that age-old favourite of finger pointing and responsibility shirking called “Blame The Parents”:

Contestant One, My father, Zbiegniew, a second generation Pole who grew up in the Lower East Side and Contestant Two, my mother, Miranda, a first generation Puerto Rican living in Spanish Harlem, were not, at the onset of their little conspiracy to create then ruin my life, moving in
intersecting circles, either socially or culturally.

Compounding the improbability of their meeting, my father had two
great passions which dominated his life to the exclusion of most else: he
had been an electrician's apprentice by the age of 14, dropping out
of school to help his mother make ends meet (my grandfather had died
in a construction accident many years before forcing my grandmother
and father into early destitution.) and gradually building on his
experience to start his own small company, beginning with the wiring
and rewiring of his own building to that of several buildings owned
by the same landlord all over the city once he had proven himself.
One of the buildings happened to be the one on the Upper East Side
in Spanish Harlem, where my mother lived.

My father's other passion was Dixieland Jazz. Whenever he wasn't
working he was at home listening to recordings by trumpet player
Henryk Majewski, pianists Mieczyslaw Mazur, Wojciech Kaminski and of
course, Jan Boba. He bought his first trumpet when he was 12 and had
played both trumpet and piano ever since, sometimes for church
functions, sometimes for social gatherings, sometimes for street
fairs but with virtually every spare moment he had away from working
his lips were puckered, or his fingers were exercising the keyboard.

The day my father met my mother was one summer afternoon when he
happened to wiring a flat in my mother's apartment building and
overheard a bomba recording emanating from one of the adjacent
flats. So intrigued by the drum ensembles, the rum barrels, maraca
and the singer and chorus calls responding alternatively to one
another that he took the brazen step of actually knocking on the
door to ask what it was.

As it turned out, it was my mother who answered the door, just 16,
who knew little about the specifics or the history that my
father wanted to know about, but loved to dance to it and because
she was able to bridge the language barrier between her mother's
historical narrative and my father's inability to speak Spanish, she
acted both as an interpreter and demonstrator of some of the dance

Not to mention that Zbiegniew was astounded from the moment my
mother opened the door. Thus the historic meeting of contestants one and two.

Some days, many years later, my father would catch me off guard in the middle of a Saturday afternoon whilst he'd been seemingly, though not yet literally drown in his own thoughts propelled by whatever
symphony or jazz combo he was absorbed in whilst drinking one bottle
of beer after another, contemplating perhaps one of my mother‘s frequent, unexplained disappearances, he would suddenly stand up, pull the lone, tattered and barely populated photo album out of the closet and sit next to me in beery recollection, one photograph after another like precious and out of print baseball cards, collectors editions, black and white, sometimes colour Polaroid photos of Miranda, my mother, the 16 year old girl who'd invaded my father's up-to-then unblemished heart.

Look at how beautiful she was Witold, he would mutter. Imagine what
it was like to walk along 1st Avenue with her on my arm, by Christ,
the stares we'd get from passers-by made me imagine I was walking
with a movie star. You just didn't see beauty like that in this
neighbourhood. Not back then. It was all blonde and blue,
child-bearing hips and pinched immigrant faces. Miranda was like a
matinee of fireworks shooting off stars in everyone's eyes.

I often wonder about that afternoon, somewhere in some anonymously
massive apartment complex overlooking the East River on a warm June
afternoon, my father transfixed by a new sound he'd never come
across before and my mother, dancer and translator of music from her
native island. What an odd sight it might have made; the electrician
and the beauty school student, weaving a new history in the course
of an afternoon delicately balanced on a common interest in music.

Of course, it didn't end there. There wasn't anywhere in his own
neighbourhood where he could listen to such music live and he
certainly wasn't socially capable of making the leap to weekend
visits to Spanish Harlem on his own to watch live bomba dancing and
singing and so eventually, it was sorted out that he would join
Miranda, her family and friends one afternoon for a delicately
monitored social visit which would include an evening of local food,
music and dance.

And perhaps it's not such an amazing surprise that from those
twice-monthly visits, my father attempted boleros, started listening
to music like the Rafael Munoz and might have forgotten all about
his precious Dixieland Jazz musicians were it not for my abuela's
interest when he casually mentioned one day that he too played
musical instruments quite passionately.

This eventually led to an excursion of the Melendez family down to a late August Sunday afternoon of stifling Dixieland Jazz at the Ukrainian Street Fair where they formally met the Kazmirsky family (Zbiegniew and babcia) over kielbasas, pierogies, blintzes, bacalaitos, carne guisada and empanadillas washed down with cold Polish beer and rounds of Puerto Rican rum in a cultural summit of unprecedented proportion for ours or their neighbourhood.
Zbiegniew was swollen with some sort of love sick hangover for
months and this festival was the culmination of it all. Meeting by
meeting Miranda and he had been exchanging secret glances, passing
notes in mutually yet characteristically different broken English,
using music and family gatherings as excuses to sneak away when
nobody was looking.

And before anyone was the wiser, they were already hammering out the
fine print of their relationship across the front seat of
Zbiegniew's pick up, pushing away the tools, lying down on estimate
sheets and newspapers well after the light had escaped from the
afternoon and windows had steamed up enough, the rum was gone,
nothing but crumbs left and both families were approving of what was
no longer possible to disprove: Miranda and Zbiegniew were an item.

Sure, it was an unusual cultural stew, taking up with a white boy,
taking up with the Puerto Rican teenager, a West Side Story without the
gangs and knives, the choreographed dancing and well-rehearsed

Both families were compelled to agree: there was something
appealing and endearing about them – memories of their own past
passions sprang up in front of them and as though they were looking
at the children of others and remembering their own, the
cross-cultural romance of Zbiegniew and Miranda was compelling
enough for both families.

As things progress in natural causes, eventually, I became the next
bit of miraculous news to hit the two families.

It was a bit stressful of course, given that Miranda and Zbiegniew were not
married, but once that sticky situation was resolved with a ceremony
that covered two different Catholic churches, one on East 7th Street
near Tompkins Square park and the other near East 91st Street, the
only unresolved problem was whether I would grow up in Spanish
Harlem or in the East Village – as it turned out, a bit of both,
until the timely death of old lady Sadowicz in a building just
around the corner from my grandmother's flat provided an opening
which Miranda and Zbiegniew seized without much hesitation once it
was agreed there would be plenty of subway and bus rides back and
forth between the two neighbourhoods.


How does this explain my own shiftlessness and dead end career
choices? Well, as in many romances which begin with focused passion,
inexperience and closed quarters, reality gradually set in, almost
imperceptibly; nearly translucent cobwebs formulating in the corners
of each's heart, petty arguments over money and of course, the
constant nip and tug and pull of two distinct cultures grinding
against each other like sand in the gears. The ripples of that dysfunction,
like a rock dropped into the tranquillity of a midnight lake, survived long after them.

My mother's career as a beautician was in essence, ended upon
impregnation. My father was earning a decent living as an
electrician, we were in a rent-controlled flat and there was little
need for my mother to work. Nor did he, in a bit of impregnable old world stubbornness, permit her to work for that matter.

Thus their intentionally interwoven lives slowly began to strangle

For years weeks went on the same; my father off for work near dawn, my
mother trying desperately to find a means of idling away the hours –
housework in a small flat was no day-long episode and by noon, the
cleaning and shopping had been done, the boredom set in.

Some afternoons if the weather was bright, she'd drag me out to
Tompkins Square Park, mingling with the homeless and the junkies
just for a sniff of a few trees, a glance at the skies by staring
straight upwards. In my country, she liked to say, the sky is
everywhere. You don't have to break your neck to find it. Here we
live like rats in holes. Witold, she would agonise, look around you. Everywhere nothing but apartments, windows, brick and concrete. How can we live so trapped like this?

Other afternoons, she'd pack us up on the subway or the uptown bus
to the barrio and I would spend the afternoon lost in a word of
foreign sounds and smells. It was incredible that we could travel
such a short distance to find ourselves in another world. What was
this world? I often imagined it must have been similar to what it was like looking out at East Berlin from West Berlin in the 70s, whose image had so often fascinated me when growing up. My mother made that
commute as often as possible, from the black and white and drab to a
vibrating binge of colours, animation where stoicism had only hours
before, prevailed. My sky is here, she said, looking out over the
East River. It isn't pretty, but at least it's alive.

My mother often reminded me, in her occasionally bitter, nostalgic ways, of a fruit ripped from the familiarity of its tree, gathered by migrant worker on a bleak hourly wage barely above starvation level, placed into a box with other fruit the hungry labourer couldn’t eat, and transported to the
supermarket where it was then selected by someone who had a better paying job, and later, or perhaps right there on the spot, greedily consumed, juice dribbling down the chin.

Despite the consumption of her outer skin her seeds yearned to return to that same tree and begin the process all over again.

This was how we wiled away the hours of my childhood. Long walks
seeking clear views of the skies, subways and buses, leaving one
world for the next and then returning.

Later, we'd retire home to prepare dinner and begin the vigil of
waiting for my father. Depending on how business went that day he
might be home by 6 or 7, weary, but emotionally bouncy at the
thought of what he'd accomplished that day.

Other times, the harder days, the days with disagreements with customers or, more inevitably, other contractors and labourers, he'd stop somewhere on
the way back to wind down with a beer or two in one of several
neighbourhood Polish or Ukrainian watering holes. Some nights, after
particularly gruelling days, the socialising took a more deliberate
form and the drinking was more concerted and meaningful with
oblivion being the goal, shots of vodka with mugs of cold beer
chasers being the mode of transportation.

Those nights my mother and I would wait around for hours and then
gradually, she would acquiesce to allowing me to eat but would hold
off herself on the vague hope that any minute he would come bounding
up the stairs and through the front door.

Over the early years however, a pattern emerged, as it often does,
and as time went on, we ate every night at the same time, regardless
of whether or not my father was planning on being around, once a
silent, mental deadline had passed in my mother's mind, her eating a
distraction from the seething disappointment that wallowed in her
like a taxidermist's fluid.

Some nights, whenever my father did eventually make it home, it
was no longer fatigued but angry. Angry with the world, with the
contractors, with the crooked businessmen, with the fact that dinner was no longer
waiting, that neither I nor his wife were there at the doorstep to
great him. Those nights all hell would break loose – screaming,
yelling, threats, dishes shattering, bottles breaking – a world
within the walls of our flat of a slow breakdown of détente, a
renewed vigour for finger pointing and accusations.

And although most nights it didn't reach histrionic proportions; a
few minutes of hushed voices, the slam of a door and that was the
end of it, the pace was gradually set in stone. Eventually on those afternoon journeys to Spanish Harlem, rather than a few hours of cosy chat,
"we" would decide to spend the night with the abuelos. Rather, I
would, and my mother would disappear for hours at a time, sometimes not returning until dawn.

Sometimes, if my mother and I spent the night in Harlem, my father
would return home early the following afternoon with flowers and the
world's troubles long ago off his back, smiling and singing, playing
the trumpet whilst she prepared the evening meal. Those were
harmonious and happy nights which all of us recognised as being part
of a larger pattern of redemption – the ebb and flow of happiness at

My father worked Saturdays as well but usually much shorter days and
when he came home it was never with the same menace or venom he
returned with on the weekdays. Saturdays and evenings following
overnights my mother and I spent in Harlem, were always the happiest
times in our home.

On such Saturdays my parents would play records with teenage abandon all afternoon and evening, starting with Chopin and Debussy, moving on to the
avant-guard jazz of the Polish 60s, Kurylewicz and Trzaskowski's
hybrid of modern jazz and contemporary philharmonic hall music,
followed later by the Andrzej Trzaskowski Quartet and my father's
new favourite, "Ptaszyn" Wroblewski, the brilliant tenor sax and

While this went on they'd sit in the parlour drinking
rum or vodka or cold beers, smoking and talking like the two
youngsters they were as though they'd peeled off the thick skin of
adulthood for an afternoon and enjoyed themselves in precisely the
manner they'd have done if they'd had a longer youth together before
I'd come along to add the weight of parenthood and responsibility around their necks, that proverbial millstone. I would watch them quietly fascinated, only vaguely acknowledged and perpetually attempting to be as obsequious as possible.

When I was older, my father would try and teach me a few things with
the trumpet and although I was receptive, it was the tenor sax that
really tweaked my ear. The first inklings were of Lester Young and
his gentle manner I listened to within the Count Basie Band
recordings before unconsciously following the chronology, the
gawking aggressive sound of Coleman Hawkins, especially in those
days leading a combo with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Max
Roach, among others, as sidemen.

And then Coltrane swung into my hearing and whilst at one time I had
merely dabbled, it was Coltrane's mad spiralling; his out of
consciousness playing that hooked me once and for all on the

When the polkas and waltzes and jazz records had all been played, by
that time the room was thick with smoke and the careless, incessant
laughter and howling of late afternoon/early evening Saturday night
drunks and then my mother would insist they listen to jibaro
records, the cuatrom guitar and guiro ensembles, bongos and bass,
the old periódico cantaos of the plena, made up from old stories of
old neighbourhoods of my mother's former island, the seguidors,
segundos and requintos reverberating off the walls, shaking past
midnight with the boleros and danzas until the flat was magically
transformed by booze and music into a personal dance hall for my
parents – furniture shoved aside, yipping and clapping themselves
into a frenzy which would inevitably end with me being left sitting
in a room alone whilst they disappeared into their own for
mysterious yet equally noisy undertakings.

And of course, on Sundays, there was atonement. I, of course, had
nothing to be sorry for, nothing for which to ask forgiveness – sins
are few and far between until you first are aware that they are
possible and second, are willing to try them out.

Sunday usually alternated between St Stanislaus Church ,
followed by dinner at Babcia's of stuffed cabbage, kasha, peirogies,
blintzes and pickles, a quiet afternoon of dulled senses from the
church service to the heavy meal to the silent hours sat in the
front parlour listening to the condensed orchestras of Liszt's piano
and Chopin polonaises before Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were all
brought out in due course – music for remembering in that household,
dark, craven thoughts, not conversing as it was clear in my
household of my father's youth, little talking, unless absolutely
necessary, went on at all. My babcia would only stare morosely at
photographs of my father's father, showing my the black and white
albums, their youth in Poland, the countryside, the funny dress, the
world outside a world outside a world of memories and lost hopes.

It was depressing, even for someone as young as myself who hadn't even
started school yet, just to be sitting in such a heavy, stilted air
of musical harmony yet emotional distress. We could all feel it and
not a single one acknowledged it. Still, the flickering snatches of a past and a country and culture I didn’t know fascinated me, filled me with wonder, lent substance to dreamy afternoons of silence sitting, staring at nothing.

On alternate Sundays, we would dress up and all climb into father's
pickup truck with the words Kazmirsky Electricians painted on each
side door and we would drive up town to meet my mother's family for
the day, and afternoon invariably filled with contrasts, afternoons
which whetted my appetite for exotic day dreams and although we were
still on the same island of Manhattan, it was easily as though we
had transported ourselves to another world altogether.

Of course, my parents' translation skills were required in all these
endeavours – afternoons with babcia would require my father to
translate the Polish to English for my mother's sake. I was already
familiar with the language and the sounds yet owed to age, my
vocabulary in any language was strictly limited.

On the days in Spanish Harlem, my father would endeavour to muddle
through some of the phrases he picked up via my mother, via
labourers he came across, via the little islets of Hispanic culture
appearing on nearly every street corner, and of course, via the
lyrics of the music he'd become so fond of, but even then, for the
more serious conversations he required my mother's interventions for
dialectical phrases, specific questions requiring specific answers
rather than broad, philosophical strokes of whimsical speculation.

And in the early days especially, for its flavour, colour, beat and
sassiness, pure interest alone, I was growing up more Hispanic than
Polish and imperceptibly, as they'd likely intended, large weeds of
Americanism sprouting up through the cracks in the pavement of my
Puerto Rican/Polish heritage.

But more regularly, I was raised in a house of boredom that epitomised the
hopelessness, the gutted future of my mother since I spent so much
time around her and so little around my father.

Although only a 40 minute bus excursion through traffic back to her childhood home, my mother was in some ways, cut off from her own life, the life of security and familiarity, to be thrust in to a new role of motherhood in a neighbourhood of prying, fat babushkas who spoke in dialects she could not understand as they sniffed and pointed and mumbled whenever we entered a deli or stopped in somewhere for a egg cream.

She was ostracized from social circles outside of my father and
grandmother by those who bled jealously at her steamy beauty, her
flamboyant personality and the loud salsa that emanated from our

When I was growing up, sure despite the burden, I was the source of immense pride to her. She took me everywhere, bragged to her friends and family what a bright and promising boy I was, taught me to be a gentleman to ladies, light
their cigarettes, open doors for them, flatter them about their
beauty and worship them.

But eventually, who knows what age exactly, 5 or 6 or 8, somewhere
along the line I began to resemble my father too much perhaps. I
asked too many pointed questions which were unanswerable perhaps,
but anyway, I became less important, less a source of pride, more of
a burden, more of a reminder of what she couldn't have as long as I was tagging around.

In any event, she stopped bringing me anywhere she went. If I stayed
in she'd look over at me and ask me why I wasn't outside. Sometimes she'd
demand it, go out and play with the other kids. Why do you sit at
home all the time reading, dreaming your time away? What's wrong
with you? Why don't you have any friends? Get outside, it's
beautiful out, GO play. Leave me alone. Leave me in peace for
crissakes. Get out of my hair. I don't care what you do, just go,
get out. Here, take a few dollars, just get out.

And frankly, it was easier being away. All the theatrics would be
concluded by the time I'd gotten home. Usually after midnight. Yeah, the library closed at 8 or 9 and I'd just wander the streets, never really getting in
trouble - sometimes I'd go to the movies, sometimes I'd just wander
around Times Square watching all the strange people doing weird
things to themselves and others, sometimes I'd just wander along on
main avenues where it was safest, away from gangs and troublemakers,
just another anonymous figure in the darkness. I'd learned from
boyhood beatings to sort of blend into the background as though I
didn't really exist or as though I were invisible. And I preferred
it that way.

As for my father, the sentence of his demise was carried out the opposite of my mother’s. Instead of idle boredom he forced himself, thinking of our futures, to take on more and more work which in turn led to being home less and less frequently and even when he was home, he was tired, overworked, grumpy, no longer the hard-working yet simultaneously carefree Pole with a passion for
Dixieland Jazz but simply greying in flesh, tiring in spirit, dying
in soul.

Then there were those quarrels which intensified with the years – many of them in fact, some weeks, nearly every night so that I grew up with the impression that the two people who were meant to mean the most to me simply hated each other outright, tolerating one another's existence simply out of a sense of duty to me, as if I'd had any say in the matter at all, as if I
were the collective anchor weighing around their necks, as if it
weren't for me, Miranda would be working as a beautician somewhere
in Spanish Harlem, surrounded by her culture, surrounded by her
family and friends, surrounded by boys who chased her and praised
her beauty knowing it was not being disassembled daily by the
existence of a half-breed son neither Puerto Rican nor Polish,
simply existing somewhere on a plain of foreign American neither
here nor there.

No one came right out and said this of course, but it was there,
palpable, for all someone who spent the entirety of their day with
another, to begin to allow to sink in. My father resented me for I'd
meant more work, driven a barrier between himself and the sexual
passion of his wife, not to mention, taking away any semblance of
free time to practice his beloved music. And my mother, although at
first enthusiastically carrying me from place to place with her like
an adult pacifier, gradually began to lose interest. She was too
young to be so old and it was too early to have packed in a
promising future so early.

Here's how I'd hear about it: a favoured theme I'd overhear in drunken
arguments in the bedroom late at night- it'd be muffled of course
but eventually, if you hear the same phrases enough times, even
muffled, you begin to get the gist. You begin to decipher, to
translate, to read between the lines.

My father would be complaining about the injustices of it all, the responsibilities of work and fatherhood, how his life was ripped from him and logically, my mother would feel offended and hurt, would scream in Spanish at him until he'd slap her quiet and then you'd hear that angry, hard cold
voice asking snidely and rhetorically, what - should I be like
people in your neighbourhood and just forget about it, shirk my
responsibilities, run away, abandon them for my own freedom? Should
I go on welfare like your father? Then he would snort in disgust, a
few more slaps would ensue and more often than not he'd go back out,
doors slamming everywhere, somewhere into the night to drown his
sorrows even deeper and find other drunks to drown them with. Drunks
who understood exactly what he was talking about.

In some ways I'd have expected my father to have been a little more romantic, a little less pragmatic considering his early love of music. It's
probably the main thing I wondered about him as I grew up in my late
teens and watched others. What event had caused him to forsake the
music and get down to business, to become so focused not just on his
trade but on making money from it.

Sure, I felt the resentment - it was brought up often enough to
stick in my memory, the idea that if I hadn't come along when I did, or if I'd been aborted, there'd have been plenty more good times in the years ahead to squeeze in before parenthood for both of them.

I read enough immigrant stories in my time to realise how many
parents sacrificed their own futures for the sake of their children and certainly from all appearances that was the noble business my father was carrying on with. But perhaps it was tinged ever so slightly by the unnerving feeling that even though he was doing it, he did so grudgingly, resentfully, maybe even angrily.

Adults would ask me stupid questions when I was a kid like, what do
I want to be when I grew up. I want my youth to end abruptly,
caesura by parenthood, to adopt a profession that I might well have
cared about but was forced out of a sense of responsibility to take
far more seriously and far earlier than I'd ever expected. I wanted to resent my life, my child, my spouse, all anchors, millstones around my neck so that at least even if I hated every second of my life I could shroud myself with a sense of chivalric justice that I'd done the right thing.

So naturally I was curious: what would my father's life had been like had I not been born? What would he have been doing?

I asked him this once when we were out walking along the
piers on the West Side looking out over the Hudson River at Jersey
when he'd spat out some incomprehensible hatred he'd been mulling
over in his head unspoken for days but for monosyllabic grunting.

He smacked me in the head. Not hard, mind you. Not out of anger,
more out of some barbaric form of loving denial. What kind of stupid
question is that Witold?

I shrugged. It was a Sunday, early in the morning and we were on one
of the walks he would go on every Sunday morning, usually alone only
this time he'd dragged me along for some reason and clearly seemed all the more annoyed for having done so.

I don't know. I was just curious.

It was his turn to shrug. In his world an honest question deserved
an honest answer. Or maybe he was just still a little drunk from the
night before. I didn't know. I didn't inhabit his world, just a satellite around it.

Well I don't know Witold. I don't waste my time thinking about things like
that. Nor should you. You are my son and that's that. Why would I
waste time thinking about if you weren't my son? What would be the

I dunno. Sometimes I think about what if I'd been born with one leg instead of two or if I'd been born in another country instead of America or if we lived on the West side instead of the East side. I don't know why.

Well, it's a stupid way to think. You are what you are. You have two legs,
not one, you live in America, not Russia or Poland, for which, I
would add you should be very grateful for on both counts. So don't
waste your time thinking about what could be or could have been or
might be. Just deal with what is. You should be happy that you are
in the situation you are in. Do you know what kind of life I had as
a boy? Nothing but work. You don't have to work at all. You will
eventually, but you don't now. It's a luxury I didn't have. My
father made me work when I was 8 years old, helping him with his
deliveries, helping him try to make ends meet so we didn't starve to
death. And you know what Witold? As crummy as my childhood was it
was a million times better than my father's, just like yours is a
million times better than mine. Don't be an idiot. Enjoy it. Soon
enough you'll be a man of your own with your own real problems, not
fantasy problems. You'll have your own responsibilities and then you
won't have time to worry about what if. Only about what is.

So rather than a prize in a game of tug of war, I became the object
of mutual resentment and blame, the cause of unhappiness, the ending
of potentials and futures. Or so it seemed. Sometimes it doesn't
take a complicated thought process or a license in psychotherapy to
draw simple conclusions.

Don't think it wasn't a relief to get out of the flat and finally
start school. It meant freedom for us all.

Well, not exactly freedom. True, I was free from being toted from
place to place and let out of the environment that was suffocating
me with it's resentment and blame, but I wasn't exactly free, just
a furlough.

For my mother, there was first the relief of not having to take a
kid around with her everywhere she went, but also the freedom in
there not being me around to report on our comings and goings to my
father when he came home. This in turn led to some rather strange and flagrant
behaviour on the part of my mother who discovered a vicarious
excitement in affairs of all sorts which might pop up from anywhere,
any street corner outside of our or her neighbourhood, any chance
propositions, any furtive glances of lust in her direction for
regardless of being burdened with motherhood, my mother was still
quite young and still quite attractive.

Eventually her disappearances became more frequent and lasted longer.

Some times my father would come home from work, find me buried in
books and command me to come along with him, driving up to Spanish Harlem, riding in silence up and down the streets in search of Miranda, a
habit I would later undertake myself, albeit without the pick up
truck and a lower quotient of anger boiling inside of me.

Like watching water swirling down the drain after uncorking the
bathtub so was it to watch the disappearances eating away at my
father, so it was like watching the marriage flounder, Miranda's
sudden appearances at home, drunken or remorseful, bursts of passion
flowing between them as though they both knew the legacy was ending
for both of them and I was forced to stand witness to it.

Years went by like this – it's remarkable to think how normal it all
seemed somehow. Day after day turned into year after year, schooling
continued, dinners were burned, arguments erupted but were quickly
placated by my father who, although resigned to my mother's
scattered disappearances, knew there always existed the possibility
of avoiding them just like the arguments – by keeping silent,
seething within as if she wouldn't notice the resentment, as if she
were impervious to being ignored, she would remain faithful, not at
his side but not utterly abandoning the two of us either.

You wonder what goes on in two peoples' minds and hearts, linked by
a sentence of marriage with occasional furloughs of genial grace,
walls dripping with polite interaction, please, sorry, excuse me,
might I…etc.

And then as if by silent, mutual accord the incessant bickering and
the wild, drunken arguments ceased. I would often wonder for years
what precipitated this truce – if they had in fact conspired
together in the interests of their lone son's sanity or perhaps
their own, to put a definitive end to the hostilities and carry on
quietly with their lives together, yet apart. It also occurred to me that perhaps it had been precipitated by one, perhaps my father was having an affair to
counterbalance those my mother was most certainly if not openly
engaging in herself, but in any event, over time, with fatigue, a
change came over the both of them.


Perhaps it was at the point when the arguments ceased entirely that
whatever lingering passion was extinguished forever.

To me and perhaps to my father it was clear my mother was merely biding her
time. She argued for the chance to go to night school and finish her High School diploma. She started taking up interests completely outside the
realm of our household; palm reading, bowling, jogging, drinking and
smoking less, calm, collected, cleaning on schedule, putting dinner
on the table like clockwork, agreeing to everything my father said
much in the way he agreed with any suggestion she made. A truce of
magnificent emotional retraction, two icebergs passing in the night.

CHAPTER THREE: The Disappeances
“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”
---Mark Twain

It was early in my 16th April of having played the unpleasant role of family millstone with this accumulated and uncomfortable truce of silence and impeccable politeness that an evening arrived and my father did not make it home for dinner.

As I said, these disappeances by my mother or father happened once or sometimes twice a week. The primary difference between the early years
and those last several months being that although my father would arrive back
to the flat late, he did not reek of alcohol, did not come home
shouting his displeasure or swaying with one hand on the kitchen
table, rather he would return meekly, quietly on tip toes in the
darkened room so as not to wake me and then push open the bedroom
door for whatever silent fate awaited him inside. It was on these
nights the atmosphere was almost feral and their lovemaking, no
matter how discrete they believed themselves to be, was enough to
keep me awake until the early hours of morning.

And because this was almost like clockwork, these once or twice a
week midnight returns to the flat I did not grow concerned until
one day dawn had begun to rub the black from the night and I had still not
witnessed his return. By five in the morning I was out of sofa bed
and ritualistically having removed the sheets and pushed the
mattress back down into the recesses of the sofa quietly, having
folded and put away those same sheets in the storage space just
above the sofa thinking in the back of my mind perhaps he had
arrived with even more stealth than usual and I had simply missed
his return or slept more heavily than normal, when I had set about
making the coffee as I did most mornings so that it would be ready
for my father when he slipped out to go to work I had convinced
myself by then that this must have been the case, I must have simply
slept through his return.

But hearing the rustling in the kitchen, the bedroom door opened as
if on cue only this time, instead of my father's weary face it was
my mother's, tepidly poking out and I watched as she took the scene
in quickly, myself standing there alone, and the recognition in her
face, like mine that the convincing it had taken our minds to
entertain explanations for this figment of imagination, that Zbiegniew
had somehow arrived without our knowing and perhaps left just as
stealthily, was a fabrication the light of day would not allow us to
continue believing.

And as my mother sat at the kitchen table in her nightgown slowly
sipping the coffee I could see the wheels of imagination turning in
her mind contemplating all the possible explanations. And being
privy to a not-so-secret secret regarding Zbiegniew's affairs we both
allowed ourselves to believe, albeit fleetingly so, that perhaps rather than
simply stopping off for a few hours of blissful infidelity, my father
had decided to spend the entire night this time and would arrive
through the door at any minute, sheepishly and fighting off the
accusations with the excuse that he had no time to discuss things,
he was running late for work,

I could see my mother seething silently at this possibility. I could
almost see in her eyes the scenario she imagined for him upon his
return, how this would be the last straw, how this indiscretion
would invoke the final argument and all hell would break loose
either this morning or by evening.

And just as easily I could see as 5 became 6 and then nearly 7, this
seething was replaced by uncertainty and as though we were of one mind
we turned over the idea that perhaps he had in fact decided to leave
us, had taken the initiative to decide our fates for us without
further discussion and perhaps had simply moved in with his mistress
without further preamble and there would be some word, a telephone
call, some explanation of the decision taken, regardless of the

Whilst my mother continued busying herself with these possibilities
I got ready for school and before leaving, kissed her once upon the
cheek and took my books along with the silent acknowledgement in
both our eyes of what had transpired and the confused state this
left us both in.

I couldn't concentrate that day in school. I secretly entertained
the hope that magically my father would appear at my school either
to pick me up and take me to this new imaginary place of his or to offer an
explanation of what had happened the night before as a preamble to
explaining the same to my mother. But he did not magically appear. I
felt every hour passing with excruciating anticipation for that
evening's meal both dreading the consequences of my father's
decision and the arguing and fighting that would be the hallmarks of
this final showdown between he and my mother.

I ran home after the final class and found my mother still sitting
there at the kitchen table still in her nightgown and accompanying
her at the table an ashtray filled with finished butts and a bottle
of rum slowly inching its way down to its conclusion. No music
played and nothing was said between us. There would be no dinner.
There would only be the waiting for this grand finale which was
certain to kick off in grandiose, apocalyptic fashion now that my mother had
lubricated herself against all possible scenarios, plotting the
details of her revenge in silent fury.

I decided then that rather than try and occupy this space with my
presence, intruding yet again on their private turmoil, I would
instead take my books to the public library and spend the late
afternoon and early evening until closing time at 9 at first
feigning study and later simply sitting by myself at a table staring
blankly at pages of a book I was pretending to read.

And at 9, as they were turning the lights on and off signalling the
close of library hours I gathered up the books and made the 35 block
walk back to my neighbourhood, back to the apartment where I had no
idea what would or would have transpired. As I made it down the
street I stopped meekly looking up to the windows of our flat and
saw that no lights were on.

I entered the apartment expecting at the very least some remnants of
the carnage but instead there was nothing. No sounds coming from the
bedroom, the air stale with cigarette smoke and no one inside. I
even pushed open the bedroom door after knocking twice and getting
no response and finding only my mother lying there still in her
nightgown, splayed across the unmade bed, snoring comfortably to

Unbeknownst to me whilst my mother had sat at the at the kitchen
table in her nightgown slowly washing down a bottle of rum with her
cigarettes, the phone had been ringing off the hook. At first she
ignored it believing it was only him, checking to see if she were
there, if it might be safe for him to slink back to the apartment
and gather up a few clothes for the secret move. She waited with
great anticipation for that moment, surprising him at the door as he
crept in slowly reeking of guilt but he did not arrive at all and by
early evening she allowed herself to answer the phone whose ringing,
in combination with the rum was beginning to drive her to the brink
of madness she believed.

But every time she answered it was someone different. A contractor,
a customer, his employees, friends all asking the same question of
where the hell was Zbiegniew, why hadn't he shown up at this job
site or that one, why hadn't he picked up his employees as he did
every morning before work with a few donuts and several cups of

Having no explanation herself and finding herself increasingly
embarrassed to play the role of the wife who had no idea of the
whereabouts of her husband, she stopped answering the phone the rest
of the afternoon and concentrated fully on her bottle of rum trying
not to reflect too deeply on what it meant that not only had
Zbiegniew failed to come home the evening before, not only had he
not dropped in to pick up his clothing or his shaving kit, but that
he had shirked the responsibilities of his work equally and

She didn't want to contemplate what it might have meant. She had
never known him to be anything but industrious. No matter how much
he'd had to drink the night before, no matter how enthralling their
lovemaking or hatemaking had been the night before he was always
awake the following morning by dawn ready to start the day again,
eager to begin work. He was machine-like in his ability to shake off hangovers, a trait I would later discover unfortunately, that I had inherited

The following morning I repeated the ritual of making the coffee and
waiting but there was still no arrival of my father, sheepishly or
otherwise and this time my mother did not stir from her slumber and
I spent my breakfast with my heart in my mouth no longer capable of
imagining scenarios simply wishing something might return to
whatever might be construed as normal.

On that afternoon when I returned from school, launching
myself up the stairs with eager desperation for news, I found my
mother dressed this time, still seated at the kitchen table and
drinking coffee this time instead of rum although the pile of
finished cigarette butts was at least as high as the day before.
I've had to notify the police, she stated in an even voice without
looking up at me.

What do you mean?
Your father has disappeared.

Just because he hasn't come home for a few days…it went unspoken the
accusation that given all that had happened over the last few years, her
infidelities and his, it wasn't so odd in hindsight that he would
fail to come home – this was the speech I had rehearsed so often in
my head over the last several days convincing myself that the
abnormal should in fact, have been expected - but I let the sentence
die there without saying another word until my mother lit another
cigarette and finally looked up at me with what I mistook for

So you think that this is all my doing, do you, she accused,
exhaling. Her eyes were not playful at all rather sealed with a deep
seeded hatred I had never seen focused on myself before, only my
father. Would I now become the target?

I'm not saying it's anyone's fault, I'm just saying that perhaps he
hasn't disappeared but…

Your father has not shown up for work for the last two days, she
interrupted triumphantly as though in revealing this she could grind
my argument into the dirt as quickly as the suggestion had arisen.

And of course, we both new what this meant. We both understood
without stating so that whilst his not coming home for a few days
might have been folly the fact that he hadn't shown up for work was
a darker sign indeed.

What did the police say?

They took the details. I don't know if they took it very seriously,
of course. Men leave their families quite often apparently, she
laughed bitterly. They took the details and said they would look
into it.

And although my mother hadn't quite brought herself to believe in
their sincerity, let alone their professionalism, two days later
they reported that his pick up had been located on the corner of
Avenue C and 4th Street, not very far from home in fact, but there
was no one in it and no sign of where he'd gone or why he'd
abandoned it.

Perhaps the police themselves began to take the disappearance a
little more seriously thereafter because it appeared that after a
few more days, they had canvassed the neighbourhood near the
abandoned pick up and had found a person or two who could vaguely
recall having seen a man plunge himself from the East River Park off
the banks into the East River and begin swimming toward Brooklyn on
the other side.

No one could be certain of course if this was my father. As those
sightings had appeared after midnight, the few witnesses having
thought little of it, a madman swimming across the East River in the
middle of a Spring night perhaps drunk, perhaps encouraged by
whatever inner evil they could not imagine springing forth, none had
considered notifying the police. Not in that neighbourhood whose
residents were more concerned with turf wars and gang stabbings to be
preoccupied with a man swimming across the river.

What he did or did not reckon for was that the Atlantic tides that run
through the narrow channel of the East river make it the most
turbulent in the area and were famed for the problems they gave to
sailors in the 17th century, so much so the midway point was
nicknamed, because of its deadly whirlpools and rocks, Hell Gate.

My mother didn't make it to the memorial service.

Once the idea that my father had drown himself, either intentionally
or accidentally, began to sink in, she appeared to see the light.

As I said, was 16 by then, old enough to know the time was drawing near and
sure enough, within days, I came home from school one afternoon to
find the house empty.

Well, the furniture was all there, there were foodstuffs in the
cupboards, the laundry and dishes had been done. One less chore for
the guilty conscience. But she was gone, I could smell it the moment
I opened the door. This wasn't a disappearance to aggravate my
father, my father was dead. This was a disappearance to liberate
herself entirely from the memory of her life.

I checked the closets for her clothing and found a great deal of
them gone. All the shoes, all the dresses, all the hats and scarves.
A few winter coats remained, a few drabber styles and retired
undergarments stayed behind but all else, toothbrush, mascara,
deodorants, perfumes and soaps, shampoo and the essentials for
running away for good were gone.

And there I spent my entire afternoon, morbidly sorting through all their private stuff neither had wanted to take with them, wherever they ended up.

There were some bits of correspondence in my mother’s boxes; letters in Spanish back and forth from Puerto Rico, little scraps of paper pledging love in my father’s careful script, notes she kept to herself on mundane miscellanea, bits and pieces torn from magazines with tips on hairstyles, skin care, love- making, fulfilling dreams, get-aways.

Odd, I thought. My father was gone yet all of his personal effects,
all his clothes, all his documents and papers, auld tax returns,
business statements, photographs, music – all of it were still here
lingering like a foul odour. On the other hand, my mother had left
little behind but the shell of the skin she had shed, free for the
first time in her life.

On the kitchen table, which I had somehow missed in my investigative
rummaging, was what I thought was a letter but as it turned out,
merely bank statements, account numbers and passwords. Their legacy
to me.

She'd put the bank accounts into hers and my name jointly so that I
could take money whenever I needed it. I never really knew if she
trusted me not to simply empty it out, if she had another stash off
a life insurance policy she planned to cash in or if she simply
didn't care, had another source of income to draw from, hell, maybe
even another man. Or a series of them. I didn't know
and yes of course I was curious but more than curious I was hurt,
abandoned and very busy turning my emotions and my soul into a
tempered steel I presumed would be strong and durable enough to
withstand any future such abandonment.

Not that I had any intention of drawing close to anyone. I had never
been that close to anyone to begin with. Having spent as much time
as I did growing up either on my own or in the company of a quasi
catatonic grandmother who didn't speak a word of English anyway, I was rather accustomed to entertaining myself. Games, fantasies, books, finding little niches in the cityscape that would allow me to watch people from a secluded vantage point.

I can't really say that I was ever lonely. No, I didn't have many, or
perhaps on reflection, any friends to speak of. There were a few
Polish boys in my neighbourhood about my age who went to my school
but mostly they targeted me for spare change or verbal or physical
abuse rather than friendship.

There were a few kids who were about my age in the barrio my mother
took me to during her family visits when she was utterly sick of the
East Village.. Those kids in Spanish Harlem seemed to despise me even more than the kids in my own neighbourhood. What was my mother doing with that white kid. What was that white kid doing in their barrio, on their turf.

They didn't want to befriend me, they wanted to beat me. They wanted to abuse me for being different or for even being some impurity between white
and Puerto Rican, having a foot in both worlds but a foot hold in

So I’d already learned from the start to stay away from them and everybody else. My mother was quite satisfied that I left her to her own whims. When I was younger, and probably only because I was too young to be left alone or my mother had serious doubts my grandmother was capable of caring for me, she
had no choice, but it didn't take much cajoling from me, once I'd reached 10 or 11 to convince her I could be trusted to stay in the flat on my own content with my instruments or my books and when I told her I wanted to spend the
day in the library, sure, even she looked at me a little disdainfully but agreed without much protest.

People tell you that usual bullshit about not feeling loved but the truth is, I
don't think I was ever really aware of what that was. I wasn't
cogniscent of missing out on anything because frankly between what I
saw in my own household and what I saw or heard of or about those
around me, it didn't seem like I was really missing out on much
anyway. For the most part life was pretty much a self-contained
world of wonder at that around me, the greatest city in the world,
and the strangers in it, wondering who they were but not wanting to
know the truth, just imagining what their own daily lives were like.

Despite the fact it was still somewhat shocking, the duel events,
formative perhaps but still, when it happens to you it's as though you're dreaming it anyway, there isn't the distance to judge it by or really even the wisdom to perceive it either from up close and inside or further away, the situation never felt as traumatising as I would later read others believed it was when they told me or I read about their own experiences. A bunch of excuses
not to get on with it, or get on with it in some shitty way that made you miserable instead of feeling lucky.

I admit, even though the majority of the time was spent getting on with it in a desultory, disinterested fashion, I did feel lucky.

The Blame Game was officially over.

CHAPTER FOUR: The Contiguousness Of Solitude And Acquiecence

Without solitude
You bang your head
Against the Walls
That other people built

--From The Diaries of Witold Kazmersky, notebook three, somewhere
between pages 113-117.

Of course, this put me in a bit of a bind yet also afforded me my
own inherited flat, a luxury not many schoolmates could brag about.

I told no one of my mother's disappearance, insisting instead that
she was in bed suffering from the depression of my father's death
and some sort of intestinal flu when she missed the wake.

Given the heavy pall that had nearly suffocated me in that flat, I
can't deny it was a little more than liberating to realise that I
had the place to myself, that there was no reason to keep any of
their memories sitting around me like uncollected rubbish.

I had to make diurnal visits to babcia simply because she was still
in the neighbourhood but by god, it was stifling. The unrelenting
tears and babbling away in Polish that I kept insisting to her I
didn't understand, the foods she cooked for me whilst making little
croaking noises about the no good mother of mine rotting away with
some sickness in bed whilst I was left to fend on my own. I didn't
have the heart to tell her my mother had already disappeared and
frankly, I was worried what babcia would have insisted upon had she
known, so I kept mum about it and as she never really left her own
flat very often to begin with, it was a secret that lasted until she
finally gave in to the end of life herself several months later,
still believing my father, her son, was still out there somewhere, alive. She died believing it.

And although I still had the number and address, the Puerto Rican
side of my family who had once caressed me with unadulterated
fascination, vanished as though I had only imagined them all along,
perhaps conspiring guiltily with my mother or perhaps simply not
caring or even forgetting I'd ever existed in the first place. They
had their own troubles and didn't need me adding to them.
So I was alone and I didn't waste much time to relish in it after
all these years cramped into that one bedroom flat with my parents,
stifled into reclusion.

Oh, I kept the hi-fi, the records, and the few photographs. I kept the
things that mattered to me about their existence. Month by month, in
secret rubbish sacks, I assembled bits and pieces of the past and
left them out by the kerbside for the homeless and the scavengers
and eventually, the garbage men. The bed and the sofa and the
kitchen table were all disassembled hacked to manageable pieces with
a hatchet I purchased from the hardware store on the corner and
carried out in the middle of the night to the kerb.

There wasn't much money left but I calculated roughly rent and
utilities, the cost of pedestrian meals on a monthly basis and how
long I could last on the remaining savings in between. Approximately
two years. My father had been quite industrious after all.

I stopped going to school of course. What was the point? I had
entire days, week after week into months with nothing to do, no
obligations, no one stifling their hatred and arguments for my
benefit, for the benefit of peace. It was everywhere this peace. I
started hanging out in the Public Library on 42nd Street, liberated
from strict curriculum to read what I saw fit as I saw fit, whenever
and wherever to educate myself as the desire arose testing myself
only against myself and how much I wanted to learn.
It had been a lonely existence when they'd been there yet somehow,
in their absences, I felt a comfort I had never known – relying on
myself was no novelty – not having to feign normalcy, was. But this
loneliness was no longer as palatable because there was nothing to
contrast it. Order needs chaos to be order by comparison. Now I was
without the chaos. Order no longer seemed like order. Chaos seemed
naturally internal now instead of external. It liberated an entirely
side of me I had barely known existed.

Alone there are no toes to step on. You are free to walk as you

Unfortunately, not every memory of them had been removed from the
house. There were two bottles of vodka and a crate of beer which I
finished off in the first week. In seven days I experienced every
degree of euphoria, desperate despair, boredom, excitement, lucidity
and fog imaginable. I played their records day and night, drinking
without few breaks but for to pass out, vomit, wake up and start
again. This was my mourning and my toast to their lives, discovering
the path to alcoholism. It's not like they hadn't left plenty of
markers along the path to guide me to their legacy.

So the money didn't last as long as the Two Year Plan would have
indicated. And eventually the reality of needing to find some sort
of gainful employment began creeping in. I'd lost the only job I'd
ever had working for my father as an after-school and weekend
electrician's apprentice still several years short of competency,
and was rather stuck then for something to do.

What followed was a transient tide of part time jobs requiring no
skills and paying even less, jobs in restaurants as a dishwasher, as
a busboy, as a waiter eventually all the way up to a bartender
although even this was done with great mediocrity and depressing
incompetence, miserable Ukrainian dumps and delis, third world and
Old World juxtapositions in a workaday world of one uneventful week
after another.

And so on it went, year after year, futureless vista after
futureless vista, drowning my sorrows in my dead father's flat,
reading books bought from street vendors, mincing around in
Ukrainian and Polish pubs between worlds, listening nostalgically to
fading salsa records that mother had never bothered to take with
her, biding my time until one day perhaps I too would follow my
father's legacy into the East River.

But something happened along the way to give me a little kick, a
slight start.

I somehow happened across Albert through these myriad fluctuations
and pointless meandering from point to point in no discernable

So what are you reading? He eyed me suspiciously. He let me know he thought anyone who read in a bar was highly suspect, an attention-seeker.
What do you mean, attention-seeker? I wanted to get out, it’s cold, the library is closed, I’m a little drunk, bored and socially inept. The book is my companion. It’s a collection of Donne I’m ready, by the way. I held it up for inspection.

He ignored it for the moment, snorting with derision. Your companion? What, your date? Hrrrph. Metaphysical poet. Look at you; watery Polish lager, 17th century poet….who let you out like that anyway? I’ll tell you what - I’ll loan you my copy of Ecrits sur l’art, this series of essays by Breton I’ve been reading, it’ll get your head out of the clouds. And in addition, I’ll buy you a short of proper scotch whiskey instead of that headache and gas- inducing Polish lager. But only if you hand over the Donne right now and allow me the pleasure of a sacrificial burning later on.

I have to admit, I was somewhat intimidated by him. Especially as I’d been planning on a quiet, solitary drunk punctuated later by a slice of pizza and a short walk home.

He stood there expectantly, slouching in his porkpie hat, a Winston hanging from his lip as he stared at some point in the wall in deep meditation over my head as though he‘d never spoken a word to me. He had a scraggly greying
beard and the appearance of a man who had just been pulled out of a
spider hole after 6 months on the lam.

My name’s Albert, he said suddenly, shrugging his shoulders when it appeared I wasn’t going to be capable of replying to his offer and extending a shot glass toward me, pulling a thin book from inside his coat pocket , setting it in front of me and slowly slid the Donne book from my hands across the table and slipping it into his coat pocket before seating himself across from me.

Now, he coughed into a clenched hand. Let’s get you sorted…

I stood next to him, sipping the beer and taking particular notice
of the labels of every bottle on the shelf in front of me, becoming
intimate with the names, memorising them and the order in which they
ran, right to left. There was music playing from the jukebox,
familiar music. Have you ever seen a dog watching you whilst
pretending not to watch you? That's how I stood beside Albert.

There was another guy to my left who had been drinking quietly and
smoking with fever who suddenly began muttering to himself, sparked
apparently by the song on the jukebox which he found, he stammered,
beneath us all, an insult to humanity. It was some catchy Motown
song which elicited a barely familiar melody in my ear but filled
this guy next to me with revulsion. Albert looked up from his dead
stare into his ashtray when the guy croaked a few bars of Ein
Deutsches Requiem by Brahms.

That was my father's favourite, Albert admitted unprompted. But I
always hated it. Nietzsche accused Brahms of making a fool of
himself by trying to pass himself off as the heir of Beethoven.
Delusional, false. He falls back lazily on the past, fooling himself
with the familiar rather than fooling the crowd into believing he is
uniquely the great modern style, like Wagner, false and fooling the
crowd rather than himself with this myth of modernity.

Albert's eyes are closed as he speaks. The smoke from his Winston
curls around his head, wafting upwards. When he opens them again, he
points to the bartender, signalling another beer for himself.

The guy to my left appears uncertain of how to proceed. You could
see his eyes, one second filled with the lust of a great monologue
building, the next second, puzzled. He shrugs inwardly, almost
imperceptively and looks down at his beer, deflated. There was no
bark left in him as he busily tried to address the idea of the
delusional and the delusionist. Brahms and Wagner. He was like a man
enmeshed in a crossword puzzle, cranking out the words, one line
after another until finally, stumped, he puts the crossword down and
goes back to his beer.

The song was over and another began. There was no further
commentary, both back to their neutral corners.

Albert rocked back and forth on his heels, lighting another Winston
once the previous one had been ground out and took a victorious,
smirking sip of beer.

"Ridendo dicere severum",

The man to my left finally and suddenly erupted. Through what is
laughable say what is sombre. German composers are too serious
anyway. I used to teach Nietzsche at Manhattan City College. I
remembered reading that rubbish aloud, forcing those poor bastards
to memorise chunks of texts like Talmud students.

Albert stopped rocking, took a long puff off the Winston.

It is the ethereal we are looking for, he cackled uncertain for a
moment perhaps if he was even serious himself but pushing onward
anyway, carelessly tossing provocative statements in the air like a
bored baton twirler.

Like Chopin's Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 53? I had cleared my
throat to make sure I wouldn't be misunderstood, looking first to
the man on my left and then Albert.

Precisely! Albert proclaims, finger in the air.

My father played that song every Sunday, during breakfast, for

Interesting. My father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic,
Albert exhaled, looking at me through smoke-squinted eyes in

My father was an electrician, I replied with the straight line.

My father was a Trotskyite! The man to my left exclaimed as if
releasing the secret of his life out of his hands to fly away.
I signalled the barman – another three beers, the first round of
solidarity purchased in a night wavy with empty proclamations and
beery toasts.


By the time last orders were called, the man to my left, Gifford, as
it turned out, was swaying unequivocally like a man on a ferry
crossing across a choppy and disturbed sea. The jukebox was playing
Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit.

I've got to go, he muttered, feeling around his pockets for
unidentifiable objects, hanging his coat over his shoulders.

Wunnerful. Unexpected.

Albert and I were left contemplating last orders and what to do

Of course, what to do next was a simple manner, in many ways. More
beer. More beer as though there was nothing else going on in the
world but the distance between this bar, the corner bodega and my
flat. Why? Why, you can ask yourself night after night wondering
when enough is enough, if it is ever enough. It never is. Just
around the corner, after the next brain cell has desisted, lies
peace. Numb and fluid.


After that first night , which after hours of desultory poking into
one another's business, sharing histories; in my case, abrupt and
brief, in his, spiralling into core values, important books and
philosophical bends, political diatribes and hateful harangues on
fellow humanity which, even in the fog of drinking, seemed to convey
a bitterness so refined, so enmeshed that I wondered why in the
world he'd ever begun speaking to me to begin with, why he'd left
his own flat to venture into the herd, ended with what seemed
notification by him that I'd passed some unspoken examination and
looking back on it, perhaps the examination was more the artesian of
his potential protégé than mutual strangers venturing into a rare
air of grudging friendship, that is, not equals but symbiotic – for
him, the ego of finding an appropriate and willing student, for me,
the opportunity to latch on to someone not only sparing me an
indefinite sentence of continued solitude but providing me with the
materials with which to paint my masterpiece.

It was through Albert and only commencing from a period of time
shortly after meeting Albert that I began to sit up and take notice
of myself because of his excoriations on my listlessness and
pointless existence. He summoned me to take pride in myself, dazzle
myself with underdeveloped possibilities, tending to me daily like a
botanist discovering an unknown form of weed. He provoked me to
wonder if there wasn't something more to my life than this endless
series of dead end jobs and sweet memories of meringue music mixed
with Polish waltzes.

It was Albert, through his cunning and encouragement that compelled
me finally to try and figure out a method of moving forward, forget
all about the past and reconstruct a future out of the present
beginning with now.

Dropping out is just another form of mourning, he told me one night
when we had spent the afternoon smouldering in dark, dank bars whose
only populations were morose, intoxicated and hopeless. The
intellect is the remedy, one of the few. The intellect stimulated by
music. We are two musicians with one bass and one saxophone.
Certainly, regardless of the parameters of talent we possess,
between us we should be able to find some modicum of releasing the
mourning and embracing the feel of it.

You've got to have self respect to have confidence and to have self
respect you've got to have a reason, he went on, his beard speckled
with beer. Pride. So have some pride in yourself, stimulate
yourself, and get out of this rut, this cycle of dead end jobs and
emotionless drifting. And in the meantime, we'll begin our band.
That will be the release of the mourning. Work for self respect,
like your father did and just as he did, find your haven in your

Are you crazy? Why would I want to emulate someone who drowned
himself in the East River? And what about you, I countered? You have
no job.

And this was in fact one of the many pieces of the puzzle of Albert,
not only the air of self sufficiency, but the fact of it. Indeed, he
was unemployed and when I questioned as to whether he had ever
worked at all, in moments of brazenness when I asked how he managed
to live this life of seeming self-reliance with his own flat,
apparently endless financial resources and few constraints save for
his fear of allowing his self-described original thoughts to be
suffocated by the collective of society, he would only frown as
though I had violated an unspoken etiquette and indeed, had he been
a stranger I would never have imagined asking such a question, but
since we were spending so much time together and since so much of
that time spent together bordered on manic intoxication, such inner
protocols seemed ambivalent at best, unnecessary at worse.

Ah, but I've had a career, he dismissed one evening, the arm
attached to the hand which held the ever-burning cigarette falling
to the table like an uncontrollable twitch. It's necessary to give
perspective to a life of listlessness. Of course in my own eyes,
this sort of existence is quite the inverse of listlessness, it is
the damning reassurance of a regular, numbing profession which is in
fact the listlessness, the demands of working to the benefit of the
employer whilst simultaneously subjugating your own needs to that
employer, all for the purpose of having a sense of belonging, for
the purpose of some misery pay which you will scrape together a
living with, all conspiring equally to suffocate the soul, erode
desire that isn't desire for material goods assimilated through
thousands of hours of not-so-subtle advertising convincing
somnambulists to want to purchase goods they don't even know they
wanted in the first place. Listlessness is doing things simply
because you're told to do them. Report at 9 am in a shirt and tie
and sober, ready to do whatever tasks assigned to you. Leave when
you are told. Eat the foods you are told to eat because they are
good for you or because one company's food product has more
advertising revenue than another's. The list goes on and on but the
gist is you are not your own. You cannot think for yourself unless
you wish to think about ways to improve yourself which are
professionally and socially appropriate.

And yes, I'm quite fortunate in that respect. But I did at one time
subjugate myself similarly and I can say the experience, Witold, is
worth it. Because it is important to couch such knowledge in
empirical evidence – you should not take my word for it or anyone
else's and certainly it will have little basis solely by thinking to
yourself that you don't like the idea of putting on a noose and
hanging your life from the scaffolds of corporate brainwashing. For
it to matter, for it to compel you to revulsion strong enough to
reject the notion entirely, you have to learn to hate it yourself,
first hand and thus, understand why you hate it.

As for your employment history, these have all been jobs that were
simply menial labour. There is in fact, not enough demoralising
environment to drown in, the existence itself is more demoralising
than any environment can overcome. But place yourself in a corporate
environment, Witold, and you will see the true nature and soul of
the enemy be that it external or internal and you will know for sure
whether or not you hate it enough to reject it.

And as you have asked countless times, how do I, with no apparent
method of supporting myself, continue to exist a life more
comfortable than a person leashed to the corporate mentality, the
answer is that I do not. With the exception of music, books, tobacco
and alcohol, I spend very little money at all. The flat is rent
controlled, which is a key element to my dyspeptic aversion to constant
employment, minimising unnecessary expenditures, and yes, I believe
housing, given the obscene amount of revenue landlords generate
simply by owning real estate to be unnecessary, and as for my
sources of revenue, it was clever investment of stolen goods, a
rather nefarious past I will admit to only vaguely but the truth is,
I took what needed to be taken, not necessarily what I needed but
what needed to be taken from others, excesses which bordered on the

Yes, I targeted expensive automobiles but some were targeted solely
because they were popular and easy to sell on the stolen car market
or were targeted because they HAD been popular once and thus their
parts were worth more. Sometimes these were not even the most
expensive cars. But there are many levels of criminal
ostentatiousness and yes, you might find it ironic that I would use
the word "criminal" to describe a person's ostentatiousness but not
an act considered by society to be criminal and you would be correct
but inaccurate, but briefly and at its very basic there are two
within the car market – those expensive enough those purchasing them
are doing so to announce their wealth thus, the owners' importance
and the other being the popular car which is never popular because
it is cheap but because society has trained them to believe it is
popular. I won't bore you with my analysis of advertising for
automobiles, perhaps another time, but for the purposes of revealing
a portion of my past to you and in explanation as to how I came to
have the resources to sustain myself without working, I took other
peoples' cars on a fairly mass scale in a city with unlimited
resources of expensive automobiles and used such actions for my own

It is viewed by society as a criminal act or in my case, a series of
criminal acts and yet, I feel no remorse for one because I don't
believe there is need for cars in a city with such expansive and
reliable public transportation and thus, those driving cars when
they could just as easily use such public transportation are
inevitably contributing to the darkening of the air I breath, again
an irony coming from a man who chain smokes but for those who don't,
the air is already choked with pollutants so why add to it more
simply out of laziness or a sense of entitlement when all those
millions of working class people themselves are subjected to the
trials and tribulations of a seemingly expansive and reliable public
transportation system.

Owning a car in this city is in fact, mocking those who either chose
not to own one or who cannot afford to own one and that sense of
superiority in my code of regulations is as criminal if not more
criminal than my stealing such cars and turning them into my own
profit. Perhaps had I given the profits away to charity I would have
been able to make a better argument, based upon the nobility of the
action, that I was not in fact a criminal, but the fact that I did
not and used such profits to enable myself to avoid the same
drudgery as my fellow citizens, if anything, THAT makes me criminal
but I am willing to live with that. I am hurting those I wish to
hurt and my motives were purely selfish and yet I feel no remorse.

What does that say of my character? It says that I will do that
which is necessary to avoid that which I find unnecessary or
distasteful. All very convoluted, I assure you and as you will have
already noted by the irony first of describing those from whom I was
stealing as being more criminal than myself and the issue of added
pollutants in the air I breath when I myself am a chain smoker but
not all of life is logic, Witold, no matter how much the
rationalists would like you to believe it.

Despite immodesty and his drinking, Albert was in fact, quite
diligent in his pursuits. He would spend hours alternating between
reading and practicing his double bass which loomed in his spare
bedroom study like lover waking up from under the covers.

Whereas Albert had once been my drinking buddy, chess companion,
mentor in matters of literature and music, the older brother I never
had, as if he had rehearsed the same song my father and mother had
played, the departure theme, he too would one day be gone and when
he was gone I'd been busy making amends.

From him I'd learned to drink Guinness instead of gassy Polish
lagers, roll and smoke my own cigarettes, read and listen not to the
classics, but those writers and composers falling between the cracks
of the classics who often escape notice save by those who find it
compelling to stretch themselves beyond the classics or whose
interest brings them, perhaps like a scuba diver donning a wet suit
as opposed to a person sticking their toe in a body of water and
finding it too cold, retracting the toe with an embarrassed giggle
and never knowing the creatures existing beneath the surface. And
each day I would feel as though these unknown heroes of the sublime
were walking throughout his apartment, room to room. The walls would
shake with their compositions, books were spread open to key
passages, highlighted and underlined for my edification. Another
world opened up that I scarcely knew existed.

There was a lot I learned about him in the interim and I would have
imagined by comparison there was very little he was learning about
me simply for the fact that I was undeveloped and thus, beyond a
brief history, there was little to know, much to learn. It was true
for example, that some of his teeth were rotting and I knew this not
because I had looked inside of his mouth but solely because on those
rare occasions when his breath was not masked in a camouflage of
alcohol and stale tobacco, the breath of rotting teeth was palpable.
It was true that he wasn't the most conscientious groomer. Not that
he didn't bathe or that he smelled foul – but he was consistently
dishevelled and I got the idea at whatever I might have appeared at
his flat, regardless of whether the visit was planned or
unannounced, that I had just woken him from a long sleep. His eyes
were alternately dreamy and intense, depending on the subject
matter. As you progressed through his flat the smell gradually
metabolised into stale beer and cigarette smoke clinging to every
fabric, deep in the years of abuse. There were tropical fish,
televisions set at different angles throughout the sitting room,
loud music at all hours which his neighbours came to express their
dissatisfaction for in torrents of abusive language and slamming
doors, beer everywhere, stained on the counters, in the cushions,
across album and CD covers, soaked in the rugs – a virtual
laboratory of misjudged beer.

The funny thing was no matter how much he drank he never seemed
visibly intoxicated. Certainly this was an illusion woven by years
of public drinking and functional alcoholism, but it was an
impressive trick he performed for me as my own head grew more and
more muddled by the hour.

Albert was a man of the Classics hidden in a drunkard's life.

And I, until he decided he wanted to experience some
fantasy of trans-American highway adventure, his prodigy.


The experiment in finding a career was naturally, given my
disinclination for bowing to societal pressures and social mores, an
absolute failure.

I entered on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, the copy
machine. I choked a tie on every morning, ate a disgusting diner
lunch every afternoon and came home at night, salivating with the
thought of drinking beer to quench the tireless boredom.

We rehearsed sporadically. Usually we were at Albert's flat simply
so he wouldn't have to drag the bass to mine. We both worked on
compositions in our free time, compositions which bordered on being
rip offs of other with extended improvisations. The extended
improvisations weren't the progressions of ego but more lack of
discipline and they also allowed us time to practice without
practicing together.

We didn't have a particular philosophy of the music although we
usually followed a pattern wherein I would produce a melodic sort of
lead line, Albert would allow for some elaboration and then
introduce his own bass line. It made for a very mellow and lonely
linear sound. It was in short, as Albert coined, "thinking music".
After a few months we established the regime, Albert free to carry on as
he had before meeting me and I going to the copyist's job in the
corporate world to add depth to a thus-far shallow series of
experiences, none of which once my mother disappeared, had been
anything but avoidance of such miserable experiences, and the two of
us meeting with the excuse of rehearsing to drink.

On weekends, after particularly raucous Friday Nights, Saturday was
spent lying in bed with the hi-fi droning out melancholic blues and
jazz, sometimes sombre chamber music. Usually the relief of washing
the grime of that hideous suit and tie world where I was nothing but
a person treated with the simultaneous disdain and civility one
treats a retarded person in public, was a half day's work in and of

I didn't hate the work, mind you. It was simple. Document
duplication. Nothing duplicitous, like shredding documents. Just
reproducing them. And not in a Kinko's-style entity in the global
juggernaut matrix with a name tag and a saccharine collegiate
how-can-I-help-you pasted-on smile but on the 37th floor of a
massive office building housed on Park Avenue just a short walk to
Grand Central Station.

Multiple page documents fed into a feeder, sometimes just a stack
left and pulled through on their own through the miracle of
technology. Then it was just the watching of the LCD digital display
panel counting off the copies made in a room lit adequately enough
to allow the reading of brief snatches of the newspaper pages folded
to wallet size and hand held, listening to patterns in the operation
of the copier, the click as one page fed into another, the
electricity formulating positive charges in the air above the
photoreceptor, then the purr of the machine as the beam of light
hits the photoreceptor and where that light doesn't hit the
photoreceptor, voila, the positive charges remain to produce the
desired pattern , feeling the low vibrations of the machine,
sniffing in the vague vapour and dust emitted from the paper and ink
cartridges as the negatively-charged toner is shaken over the
photoreceptor and the blank sheet is pressed against the

Sometimes I would revel in these patterns wishing I was allowed to
practice my saxophone at work to harmonise with the machine and
although I'd asked and the request had been denied presumably
because work is work, work is not fun, fun is fun and fun is not
working, and it's best for the work-minded not to confuse the issues
lest productivity suffer as a result, the first several weeks of the
job would send me home with haunting lead lines in my head based on
a mixture of the copy machine noises and the vast idleness of the
mind attempting to compensate for the Zen-like enlightenment in this life of menial service.

Of course, there would always be something to fuck up these smooth
harmonics. Papers would jam, the cartridge would run low or run out
of ink, the entire process would be stopped until the issue was
resolved and then begun anew.

At lunch I would go outside, removing my tie on the elevator ride
down to the ground floor to feel free and spend an hour wandering
the streets of mid town watching the go-go chaos of thousands and
thousands of people converging simultaneously upon already congested
and over-squeezed streets and restaurants. It reminded me of a video
I once watched about the wildebeest's clockwise migration from the
Serengeti plains to Kenya's Masai Mara, amassing on the
crocodile-invested Mara River and making a maddening crossing, some
surviving, some eaten, some drowning. The metaphors were singularly
and consistently crushed in the Spring once winter coats were
discarded and leggy secretaries and assorted office personnel in all
shapes, colours and sizes began to populate the streets when it
became impossible to steer myself to the Public Library and instead
ventured for strolls along Bryant Park watching the momentarily
listless stretched out for impromptu picnics in the sun before
trudging back gloomily to their florescent honeycombs of

This pattern went on for months although rather than developing my
disgust for all things corporate, rather than encountering the
nature and soul of my mortal enemy Albert had insisted I would
discover once that shirt and tie were worn, I found myself growing
comfortable within the role. Sure, I disliked being treated like the
office idiot simply because I hadn't wasted eighty grand on an
undergraduate degree, or, as the interview for the job had failed to
uncover, I hadn't even finished high school or bothered to obtain an

Instead I was amused that these poor little robots with human-like
qualities who had been spoon-fed their educations for years almost
longer than they could remember only to find themselves admitted
into a prestigious race against time to find quality before death or
before the effects of the anaesthetic drip of consumerist tripe wore
off and left them writhing in existentialist agony.

And when that five o'clock hour kicked off and I was out the door,
bursting like a handful of Chinese fireworks for the chance to find
the alternative; either out for a neighbourhood pub crawl on my
lonesome, fishing with a variety of lines, apnoeic and unoriginal,
for what passed itself off to the casual ear as hieroglyphic banter,
or recovering from the night before in the confines of the flat
listening to variations of Miles Davis' Blue in Green, double time
solos and Mozart's Divertimento in E Flat whilst reading with one
hand, Hesiodus or Kant or Kundera or Coelho and feeding chilli
burritos or fried noodles and fried pancakes into my hung-over mouth
with the other, I knew, in the barren outposts of reflection that
either alternative was better than herding on to another train with
all those superior-feeling colleagues who loved looking down their
noses at me who were ground down to chuck meat in a suburban
hamburger palace in New Jersey or Long Island.

My apathy at my plight vexed Albert to no end some nights. During
those evenings of rehearsal he would be monitoring me, secretly he
thought at first, for signs that my embrace of this dehumanising
corporate culture was weakening and the doldrums of discontent were
wearing thin my complacency. This was one element of his presumed
experiment that wasn't going to plan. He wouldn't reveal what
conditions he himself had been exposed to that had led to his own
satori of hatred of the corporate world or what specifically had
turned him from working for a living to working for himself stealing cars for a living to a premature retirement pickling himself in alcohol whilst
simultaneously attempting to stimulate his brain with music and
literature in a cocoon of complacency in his own semi-contained

And so it might have remained for uncountable years. Perhaps we
would have developed from rehearsing in his flat to playing on
stage, perhaps we would have taken the neighbourhood by storm with
our conveniently unscripted lack of talent. Perhaps I would have
continued on indefinitely in this vein, going to this same job,
pretending, like Albert, to flush the numbness from my skin with a
potent cocktail of alcoholism and music and literature. We weren't
going anywhere and like most else around me, I couldn't quite bring
myself awake enough to care.

Not until one weekend when Albert announced we were going to
Washington, DC.

Why the fuck would we go there, I wanted to know, with the world's
greatest city beckoning like Gustave Caillebotte's Nude Woman
Stretched Out On A Sofa from every street corner?

Two reasons, he sang patiently. First of all, change of venue. Changing
your venue can be as refreshing as a hot shower after a week without bathing.
But change for change's sake is a futile and meaningless effort.

Thus there is another, more pertinent reason. The other reason is
because I met Gato Barbieri last night in the lounge of the
Buckingham Hotel and after a rather awkward beginning, he confided
to me he was headed to there for a gig at Blues Alley in DC this
weekend. We chatted for nearly thirty minutes. Fascinating guy. Soft
speaking stream of consciousness sort of conversation. You know me,
my favourite kind of conversation. And some good stories. About
Argentina, Buenos Aires, how there were no instruments to buy when
he was growing up and had to wait for someone to die to get one.

Anyway, Albert continued breathlessly, I think he was jealous of my
irrevocable consumption. Reminded him of the good ole days, perhaps.
He told me how he used to take a lot of coke and drink too much. Wore him
away, he claims. You wear away anyway, I corrected him. But he's like a
child with a new toy, him and this sobriety. He says he's stopped drinking,
started exercising and eating healthy. It would have been repulsive
but for the stories and the histories.

Anyway, Albert carries on, exhaling and sipping an espresso, staring
out at the leggy pedestrians on a warm spring afternoon near
Tompkins Square Park, he seemed to like me for some reason. I lied
and said I was going to be in DC this weekend anyway. He says he'll
put me and a guest on the list. So there you go. You and I to DC, to
Blues Alley, Gato Barbieri. Should be fantastic.

So Saturday morning we get up and catch the bus down to DC. It's an
odd city. A museum of French government architecture in the middle
of a ghetto. We were due to catch the 8pm show but Albert had
brought a flask with him on the bus and we passed it between us with
such religious fervour we stunk of it by the time we got off,
already swaying.

There was no false pretension at playing tourists in the Capital of the United States of America. No sir. We could spot them from a mile off, cameras hung around their necks like ornithologists, Midwestern fat erupted from beneath their shits, fat flowing like lava over their waistbands. Baseball caps, stupid remarks about casual sightings. It wasn’t for us. We weren’t one of them.

I say we splurge, he says as we hop into a cab and ask to be taken
to Georgetown. I've been here once before. Let's get a nice hotel,
fuck it. Dressing pigs up in tuxedos. We'll stay at the Georgetown
Four Seasons. Imagine their disgust and imagine our pleasure in
stinking of this cognac, dressed like slobs, flippant at their gaudy

And so that's precisely what we do. We don't have any luggage. One
duffel bag between us. Change of clothes? Forget it. Clothes cannot
change what we are. We'll flaunt our arrogance with our apathy in
our appearance. Who cares? These people love clothes. It's a big
fuck you to their pretensions that they won't mistake.

And why make such a production of pissing people off? Why dress like
slobs when we are presented with an opportunity to dress out of
character, like cultured adults rather than subculture experiments?

Because we are desperate to prove our apathy about outward
appearances. We are determined to enunciate our disgust for false
pretences and to illuminate the value of the character within those
outward appearances.

We spend only a few minutes in the room before leaving, stopping in
the first place we could find that was open, a Brazilian café. We
drank Caipirinhas, entertaining the barman with our incessant,
meaningless banter, word associations – the kind of stunted dialogue
produced by tired minds, drunken minds. We mixed Brahma beers with
the Caipirinhas, as though trying to prove some obscure point. When
we mentioned going to see Gato Barbieri at Blues Alley, he asks,
offhandedly, if we were going to the matinee show.

And this is what became our downfall, what began our plunge in the
absurd. The matinee show.


We arrived by cab, dropped at the alley and stumbled up to the front
door demanding to see Gato.

There was no mistaking our potential hooliganism; we certainly weren't the typical matinee crowd. The door man listened to Albert's wind up patiently, indulgently waiting for a long sputtering spiel of off colour ramblings to come to a merciful end before politely informing that we were not on the guest
list of the afternoon show and we would not be getting in. It helped
not one iota that Albert became slightly abusive at that point,
demanding credentials, demanding justice, demanding again to see
Gato personally for discussion on this slender point. Another
doorman approached cautiously and soon we were surrounded by linemen
sized men who took us in at first as a curiosity but once the
curiosity had been exhausted, quickly began losing all patience with

One of them took me aside whilst Albert continued his harangue to
another. Listen, he hissed, the two of you are disgusting. You're
drunk, you're loud and obnoxious and frankly, unless you're both
members of Gato's family, you wouldn't get in here even if you were
on the list for the matinee show. My advice is that the two of you
go sleep it off. You won't be welcomed here, not this afternoon, not
this evening, not ever, frankly.

And when the doorway was shut tight leaving us standing there
swaying in the alley with a gentle breeze, Albert suddenly slumped
as though the life had been kicked out of him. He leaned against the
side of the building and lit a Winston. Fuck 'em. We don't need
these bastards anyway. I've got a better idea.

And those next few minutes would prove to be well fateful for as he
spoke to me, pork pie hat twisted in his hand, he spotted a cab
driver on the lower end of Wisconsin Avenue getting out of his cab
to talk to another cabbie who was leaning against the hood of his
car reading a newspaper. I watched with interest as Albert pushed
himself up from the side of the building and sauntered over towards
the idling cab.

Then, without warning, he suddenly jumped into the driver's side of
the cab just as the other two took notice and as they leapt,
shouting after him, Albert threw the car into gear and sped off,
wheels squealing, up to M Street, hung a right and mingled into
traffic at speed. The two cabbies shouted after him before stopping,
noticing me standing there and vaguely recalling my presence next to
Albert only moments before, approached me cursing.

I don't know anything about it, I protested. I'm just as surprised
as you.

They weren't in the mood to debate and I could see the thought
pattern in their brains tumbling between grabbing me and chasing
after the stolen cab. They waved me off with foreign curses and hand
gestures, hopping into the others' cab and taking off down M Street
in pursuit leaving me there wondering what the hell had just
happened and what my next move was going to be.

Albert would later tell me that endlessly that he hadn't actually
"stolen" the cab perse. He was just bored and wanted a little
excitement. The kind of dysfunctional excitement bred out of
intoxication; senseless, without preamble, without premeditation. I
just wanted to pick up one fare, just to see the look on their faces
when they got in and I tore off from the kerb like a mad man. Just
one fare.

But he didn't make it that far. Naturally his driving skills weren't
very lucid given his consumption and before long, instead of a fare,
he'd run straight into a parked car, jumped out of the cab bloodied,
only to be overtaken by the two cabbies who between the two of them
and the help of another passer-by, managed to hold him down in the
street long enough, dazed and wounded, a burning Winston still
perched on his lips, until the cops duly arrived about three minutes
later, the moment of madness punctuated like the fluttering dropkick
of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35.


Two years later, Albert says the judge was lenient. We had a little
joke in the court room. Either that or she was trying to find the
motivation for my seemingly random anarchistic and criminal act.
What are your dreams, she asks me at the sentencing. I gave her
several different scenarios. To tread water until my limbs grow too
tired to tread anymore and I drown. I thought I was being clever.
She shook her head. Are you still finding this a joke, she asks me,
incredulous. No, it isn't funny at all your honour, I sincerely
don't have any dreams. Not dreams that would be rendered coherent in
an incoherent society anyway, your honour.

You said that? I took another swig of the pint, these repetitive
motions were all part of communication in the world Albert and I
were sitting in. He nodded his head enthusiastically. So what did
she say?

Nothing for a minute. Silence. Summing me up in her head. Clearly
she was impressed by me in some indefinitive way she was quickly
trying to calculate. Would it be more helpful if I told you it was
my dream to be the guy who assembles display furniture all day long
at an Ikea factory outlet mall? Then her eyes were like little
slits, comprehending I wasn't taking my sentencing seriously at all.
What did I care anyway. I know the maximum sentencing guidelines. I
wasn't a murderer, I hadn't committed a violent felony. Four years
maximum, free food, regardless of how shitty it might be, the
experience of prison, time to work on my book, I could have gone on
all afternoon about the exciting possibilities a small prison
sentence would have afforded me.

By then, the judge wasn't interested in any of my answers. She'd
tried a tact, tried to be humane. Inexplicably, while my public
defender turned white with incredulity, she became
almost jocular, leaned over the front of the bench. Too ambiguous,
she stated, nearly inaudible and very slowly as though I had some
sort of learning disability rather than genius.

How about an interpretive dance, done with feeling and emotion, I
offered. But the game was over. She slammed the gavel down, suddenly
impatient and poof, sentencing was on. Do you know how many times I
told that fucking story to my cell mate? How many variations, how
many different tenses, different languages, different angles I've
created that story into, solely out of boredom?

He pinched out his cigarette with an annoyed look on his face. I'll
tell you something Witold. It wasn't as bad as you might imagine
jail to be. No rapings, no beatings from prison guards. A lot of
long hours with nothing to do. It drives some people crazy but for
me, it was two years to think.

CHAPTER FIVE: The Cash Cow Gets Milked All The Way To Europe
“Sometimes I just get tired of thinking of all the things that I don't wanna do. All the things that I don't wanna be. Places I don't wanna go, like India, like getting my teeth cleaned. Save the whale, all that, I don't understand that.”

Henry, in Barfly (1987)

With Albert serving out his sentence in a prison just outside of DC I was left
again to the daily disconnection of events which seemed, on the surface, to
have meaning and connection yet substantively accumulated as nothing more
than a series of motions.

From the outside I was simply alone. Of course that manifest difference
between being alone and being lonely cannot be determined from the outside,
only by that silent judge on the inside, determining perhaps on pain scale
measurements that indecipherable spot where alone meets lonely and breeds
little animals of paralysing depression. But I never allowed this magical

Instead, as had been the case when Miranda left on the tail of my father
disappearing, I rather welcomed the solitude that Albert's stint in prison
afforded. Not that I had anything particularly profound to accomplish in this
solitude. The simple countermanding of the predominant culture was a
definition I comforted myself with in reading that no definition of reality can
substitute reality itself.

I realised in hindsight that Albert's appearance had lent a background to my
reality, gave a depth to my own consciousness which I hadn't experienced in
years and in his absence, rather than struggle to find a replacement I simply
reverted back to the solitude which begat me.

For several months after Albert was forced off I continued working the same job as a corporate copyist simply out of habit, I suppose. Although the job had
initially given me a vague sense of belonging to something, a sense of
belonging I’d imagined I cold have learned to crave, eventually whatever misguided satisfaction I thought I was deriving from it dissipated, the milk soured, the stomach turned. Instead I began to feel more and more out of place, swimming back and forth in this sea of humanity I found no
connection with.

Albert’s departure and my subsequent resubmergence into the cult of the
solitary replaced satisfaction with restlessness. Once those several months
gave way I began to crave something more stimulating than a mindless dead
end copy boy job, something with even a vague promise of explosive
upwardly movement. Something not even apathy or abnegation could hide behind.

My existence as corporate copy boy might have gone on indefinitely
were it not for these subtle internal abstractions.

At first there were small nuances in my appearance. The shirts were no
longer pressed and instead were flung on to my body with a wrinkled
indifference. The tie I’d choked around my neck now loosened as far from
the collar as possible without actually taking it off.

In this dishevelled state I took to wearing the same pair of pants every day –
the same pair I spent nights out drinking in, slept in, and took off only to shower. Unbeknownst to me, I began to smell somewhat like a vagrant and
although most of my working hours were spent in a room alone, those brief
moments when people came in to drop off documents to be copied were
sufficient to render a series of unusual complaints.

I'd spoken to my "boss", Mr Claymore, less than a half dozen times since
I'd started. There was that first day of work wherein he described to
me to me in excruciating detail, the duties of the job itself, the
functioning and maintenance of the machine, how to order more
supplies, the lunch hour and a few other human resource details such
as holidays and pay days. Other than that, he had little to say to
me and more often than not, I'd simply forgotten he'd existed at all
until one morning when he summoned me to his office for a

I didn't have to know much about Mr Claymore that couldn't be sussed
by spending a few moments with him in his office. He was every bit
the corporate sycophant, from his hairstyle to his tie to his facial
expressions and manner of speaking. On his walls were the prototypes
of slogans I'd often glance at hung from the walls of the hallways
of the office; slogans about productivity, team work, common goals,
etc. He spoke in the language of the robot, the brainwashed, the
self-important cog in an unimportant machine. I neither loathed nor
disrespected him in any fashion. He existed, perhaps in the mind of
some, to some utility, but as far as I could tell without knowing
the details of his personal life or his facility with spreadsheets,
he was in short, a man without a soul, a parasitic vulture with
sagging facial features, the jowls and paunch of middle age
self-satisfaction entombed in an existence consumed by numbers which
meant nothing outside of their walls, a marriage that had produced
the requisite number of offspring to no specific conclusion, a man
who took his holidays with his family to the same places every year
at precisely the same time. A man who lived by the book whose pages
he read without ever comprehending.

In short, after a rather embarrassed and hesitant beginning prefaced
with the obligatory niceties and sterile questions about how I was
finding it, he revealed to me after the antipasto of pleasantries that there
had been several complaints about my hygiene of late and that whilst he
would have been willing to ignore these complaints as minor indiscretions
had they been sporadic, whilst capable of turning a blind eye to the stray
complaint since there had never been a complaint about the quality
of my work, the fact was it had become such a problem that
colleagues sent subordinates to deliver the documents to me because
they couldn't stand the smell that had accumulated in my little copy
room over the last weeks.

And then as if on cue the officiousness disappeared, melted away in
a sudden reflux of employee manual compassion and he compelled
himself to enquire of me, this unhygienic little cog occupying a
stale and smelly room within the office he presided over, if there
were any personal problems that needed addressing, if I'd had a
recently traumatic experience, if I were suffering from trouble at
home, etc. As if wanting to found this line of questioning on a new
reality, he couched it carefully with the observation that it wasn't merely
hygiene but complaints that I stunk of booze most days more often
than not. I could tell he was reaching out this olive branch with
great discomfort knowing that he had no casual interest in my
personal life and this unsavoury matter of discussing hygiene and
personal problems with a lowly copy machinist as though we were
discussing philosophy or politics over dinner and an appropriate
wine in the comfortable confines of his family home in suburbia. I
could tell that this was even for him and his vast experience an
unusual set of circumstances he'd been confronted with and whilst
his concern about my personal plight was not genuine he was in fact,
vaguely perplexed with how to go about resolving it short of handing
me a bar of soap, a dry cleaners business card and the date and time
of the nearest AA meeting.

I was equally confused by these sudden turn of events. Those people who
had entered the room I occupied solely to copy their documents, those people
who had smiled passively at me, who had acted civil if not occasionally
friendly, dropping casual lines about the weather or sports, had in fact been
whispering behind my back not only speculating about my character but
openly complaining about my sense of hygiene and that I reeked of the drink
from the night before.

In a sense, it was an unwitting but absurd contradiction to be dressed in
corporate clothing, the very symbols of enslavement and conformity
yet stink as though I were homeless, like those who came in off the
street to bath in the bathrooms of the public library or sleep in
peace in reading rooms and cubby holes. Where was my sheen of
invulnerability? Was it not sufficient to come in on time, do the
job and do it well and leave when expected I wondered with a
self-satisfied smirk.

This was not like the openings discussed in the 150-page book on chess
called Libro del Ajedrez written in 1561 by a Spanish priest called Ruy
López de Segura. This was more akin to his unsporting suggestion that the
pieces be arranged on the board so that the sun would shine in the opponent's
face. And before I would answer Mr Claymore I'd have to determine who
was more uncomfortable with this sudden dissection, myself or him.

I considered a variety of defences; the time-consuming Norwegian
defence wherein my goal would be to eliminate the white bishop or in
this case engage in a long and protracted discourse on the nature of
the fallibility of human kind generally, the Steinitz Defence which
would have surrendered, although not fatally, the all-important
middle of the board such as admitting it was all true and without
proper reason pleading for the moment another chance at hygiene and
sober living or, as I finally decided in the end, the Bird Defence,
the uncommon variation with which I could hope to surprise Mr
Claymore into making uncharacteristic moves, or making a mistake
that would leave him in a vulnerable position.

What I didn’t bother trying to consider was the true motivation for
transforming myself into this unsavoury adaptation, this stinking paen to
impurity, even if I’d been certain of it, was never an option to consider.
Forget the insult burning me like a fraternity brand, that his suburban
sterilised mind could have possibly fathomed the inexplicable vortex that
had swallowed me. I simply didn’t know the true reason. And had I
known, had I regurgitated this knowledge faithfully back into Mr Claymore’s
face, I’d have only made things more confusing. As I was now, a simple
employee with an unusual problem. I sensed we would both prefer a simple
Redaction of previous behaviour with a promise to correct it immediately.

But I wasn't even certain that I cared about the outcome either tactic would
have on my future employment. I became more interested in the kind of
reaction I could extract from this man before me feigning paternal concern, how I might turn the tables, switch sides as the moment suited.

Do you mind if I'm absolutely candid with you Mr Claymore, I began,
inhaling profoundly and wishing I'd had a cigarette prop with which
to aid my performance.

He fell all over himself with platitudes of course, eager to assist
if he could, prepared to refer me to human resources for counselling
if necessary. He was a father after all and I perhaps young enough
to be his wayward son. Whatever ailed me it could certainly be
ironed out, this difficulty will have passed and I, with my
unsavoury smells would be out of his office leaving him to dance
again alone with his spreadsheets, statistics and motivational

The truth is Mr Claymore, that my offending smells are a form of

His eyebrows rose, as the eyebrows are wont to do when the ears are
confronted with a perplexing reality they don‘t want to hear. I'm not entirely sure what you mean, Witold, he began with an uncertainty revealed both in
the sudden nervous gestures of moving papers from one side of his desk
blotter to another and making sure to avoid eye contact whilst
sensing like an animal instinct that what he'd hoped to be a simple
conversation with a simple resolution was suddenly going to go off
the rails into unexplored territory. Protest against what exactly, he asked

Here I hesitated, uncertain myself of the direction I planned to
take with this. But rather than giving away the fact I would be
making this up as I went along, my hesitation seemed to reveal my
own apprehension at discussing the matter in detail.

Mr Claymore, for months I have been an anonymous person employed here.
I'm separated from all the other employees in a little window-less room,
I'm never invited to office functions or happy hour festivities with
the other employees, and don't think not only that I don't notice
this slight but that I'm unaffected by it – on the contrary, it has
had a devastating effect on my moral and on my daily living. I feel
utterly worthless and unnoticed in this office, Mr Claymore and I
assure you, there is nothing worse than being left out when all the
others, from the lowliest, fattest, ugliest secretary to the most acne-scarred
post room staff, are included.

This social exclusion has ruined my confidence in myself and the work I do
and although I’ve tried to carry on with my work, I find myself doing so with
increasing difficulty. It is almost too much some days to drag myself here
knowing, day after day, the humiliation of being ignored. I’m nothing here and every day I’m reminded of that. So, I've come to reason, if no one cares about me, why should I care about them? Why should my personal hygiene
matter when I am so insignificant?

I haven't done this maliciously. I’ve done it simply to make myself noticed
because it is unbearably demoralising to spend 8 hours a day in a place where
nobody bothers to notice I even exist.
Oh, these words carried a weight of some kind, I could tell by the
whitening of Mr Claymore's face as he digested them. Now we are
getting somewhere, I thought to myself, something humane, some
degree of revelation that hasn't been prescribed in simple textbook
management formulas.

Or perhaps they were. He played absently with a pen as he nodded his
head in paternal recognition of this ongoing yet unconscious slight.

I'm surprised by what you've told me, Witold. Of course there is no
policy in place to exclude you. Just the opposite, we try to foster
an environment here where everyone feels included and where everyone
feels as though they are part of the team which is working together
to achieve the goals we have set out. I feel terrible that you might
have somehow slipped through the cracks, so to speak, of this
concept of teamwork and inclusion but first of all let me say this
with the caveat that the more appropriate method of addressing your
concerns would have been addressing them to me as they arose rather
than choosing your own, how shall we say it, unorthodox methods.
That is why we have a system in place for addressing grievances so
that such grievances are not allowed to escalate unfettered. On the
one hand I empathise with your feelings of exclusion yet certainly
do not condone the method you've chosen to address those feelings
with. However, that said, I'm glad that we've been able to discover
the root of the problem, so to speak and on behalf of the company
and its staff, allow me first to apologise for any inadvertent sense
of exclusion that was placed upon you.

He exhaled with the exhaustion of a man who thought he'd encountered
every potential problem in the course of his career and knew the
appropriate means of dissecting and resolving it only to discover on
this day a different nuance – one which he would carry home with him
on the commute home, one which he would still mull over even after
he had swallowed his dinner, left his kids to their homework and his
wife to her sitcoms.

Fortunately for all of us, Witold, tomorrow is another day. For my
part, I will have a word with the staff generally, not revealing of
course that the purpose of a refresher speech on employee inclusion
is based solely upon the case of yourself, and then meet with you in
two week's time to discuss the progress of this matter.

For your part Witold, you have to end this protest, by whatever method.
You have to resume acceptable hygienic practices and that if any problems,
similar or otherwise, arise in the interim between tomorrow and our
next meeting, you bring them to my attention before they grow to
unmanageable proportions not only so we can work to resolve the
matter before it worsens but also because frankly, that is the
philosophy by which I'd like to think I manage.

He stood from behind his desk. For today, I would suggest you take
the rest of the afternoon off as personal time and tomorrow morning,
let's say that you will arrive refreshed, so to speak, in all
possible ways. Is that fair, Witold?

I nodded, smiling with the appreciative employee smile as depicted
in the employee manual, and held out my hand for shaking as to test
the limits of his endurance considering, as he must have when
regarding that outstretched hand of mine, where a person who smelled
as badly as I did, might have allowed that hand to roam.

In the end, he pushed his hand forward allowing it to brush briefly against
mine in some effete gesture of completing the deal and I left, free for
the afternoon, which I took as an unscheduled opportunity to drink,
hour after hour, giggling to myself over the absurdity of the entire
experience, imagining the regurgitation of another faux-enthusiastic
speech from Mr Claymore the employees would have to suffer, on the
need for employee inclusion in all social events.


Thereafter, I tried a different tact. Considering that it was no
great mystery why those assistants arriving with their bundles of
documents for me to copy suddenly effused cheerleader-like
enthusiasm for the day, taking care to greet me and ask how my day
was going, the changing weather patterns and minor complaints about
their work loads which was meant to be inclusionary, I made the
added effort myself at not smelling badly albeit moving only one extreme
to the other.

The day after our discussion I brought with me a 4.2 ounce bottle of
cologne, the cheapest I could find in the drugstore and liberally
doused myself and my clothes with it to the point where even I had
trouble breathing comfortably in the copy room. I wanted Mr Claymore
to hear from others the overcompensation with which I had treated
the complaints, much in the same way the other employees
overcompensated for their earlier disregard by plying me with boring
tales of their daily lives.

I patently refused all invitations to go out with others that were
offered, making a face when they offered as though the mere idea of
socialising with them revolted me. I already have plans, I would say
to each and every offer without apology or explanation.

This path of course, was only leading to another meeting in Mr
Claymore's office, which is precisely the next step in this social
experiment that I wanted to take. By now I so loathed the officious
compliance of textbook manual to human behaviour that it was all
I could do to quit on my own, prematurely. What I wanted was nothing
less than to be sacked. I didn't want to resign meekly as
anonymously as I had been taken on to begin with. I wanted stories
to be told about me long after I was gone. I wanted my memory to
linger in theirs as an appropriate epitaph to my career on Park
Avenue because there would be other jobs somewhere down the road, I
knew it, jobs which would bear equal hallmarks of mindlessness and
futility and to endure them, I too wanted a memory to leave with.

So when the appointed meeting with Mr Claymore was scheduled to take
place I was rather disappointed that he was accompanied by the human
resources representative to bear witness to my sacking thereby
eliminating all prospects of yet another shocking yet engaging
conversation with the man himself, to delve into the inner recesses
of his thought process, shock it from regularity into confusion.

Instead, it was a brief and cordial meeting wherein I was informed,
not even by Mr Claymore himself, that we had come to an unfortunate
breach in my career with the company and with two weeks severance
pay in my pocket, I was advised to seek employment elsewhere.


Although true, it had only been on Albert’s suggestion that I sought work in
the belly of the corporate beast to begin with and Albert was of course, in jail,
in the course of the two weeks that followed my dismissal I found myself
inexplicably drawn to taking another stab at the nine to five farce.

You might wonder why, given my adiaphoristic departure from the last
experience, yet I found myself, even in the two week haze that followed
belching out my severance allotment, vaguely viewing want ads in an effort
to stabilise myself.

I rationalised that my desultory efforts under Mr Claymore had never been a
true test of my mettle. After all, despite no tangible experience, I did possess,
thanks to my bilingual parents, a capacity in Spanish and in Polish, something
I became aware in the perusing the want ads, that almost amounted to
marketable skill.

So when I saw an ad for a bilingual paralegal for the Law Offices of Richard
Pennymaker I decided to give it a swing even if my qualifications were solely
the linguistic skills. I knew nothing about law of course and as luck would
have it, I didn’t need to.

Personal injury law was possibly the least demanding of any other area of law.
It required, from the standpoint of a paralegal, a facility for greed, for seeing
the financial possibilities in accidents and the injuries that resulted from them.
Handling such a case was a simple step-by-step process, clearly outlined, that
even a chimp could perform, particularly given that the process itself was
already laid out in simple steps; accident, injury, insurance, treatment and
money. All that was required in between was hand-holding clients and making
sure they sought the treatment their settlements were based upon.

It was ingenious, really. Capitalising on misfortune and compounding it with
exaggeration. All you really required were the accidents themselves.
Thereafter it was only a matter of maintaining the illusion until fruition; the

Compared to the insipidity of my last place of employment, my interview with
Richard Pennymaker was from the onset, nothing short of a three-ring circus.
You’d have thought even in my fragile state of uncertainty and inexperience
I’d have seen through it all straight away for what it was; a turbid burlesque of
employment but I was desperate to ignore the truth, fascinated instead by the
sheer delirium of it all.

The interview began innocently enough. Yes, it was apparent from the onset
that Pennymaker was deranged in a not-so-subtle yet still socially acceptable
fashion. It was apparent in his vanity – a pathetic state of denial; the comb-
over of greasy, dandruff-ridden greying hair, the belt around the pants so tight
that the fat would seem to explode in all directions if he dared inhale deeply,
the generally vagrant look to his appearance – pleated corduroy pants,
oversized NYU sweatshirt, psychotically shifting eyes, all warning signals
that I chose to ignore.

Instead, we toyed with normalcy, discussing my background, or lack of
background as it were, in matters of personal injury before quickly moving
on to a wide range of topics which had nothing to do with the job or law at
all but more with his manic desire to impress upon me the goodliness of his
nature, the selfless, fading 60s hippy ideologies and the somewhat
incredible admission that he fancied himself some sort of modern day
Robin Hood, taking from the big, bad corporate insurance companies
who were, as he described them, the worst kind of thieves imaginable, and
giving back to the indigenous, the poor, the needy, a tiny pocket of wealth to
help them back on their feet; his beatific destiny.

The interview went on for hours as he told me the history of his crusade, the
indignities he'd suffered at the hands of corporate buffoons and political
tyrants, the dreams which had been snuffed out by the callous indifference
of a controlling society of greedy, lecherous types, all of whom flew the
same sort of corporate flags again and again of indifference for the plight of
the less fortunate. That he profited more than his clients was no roadblock to
this portrayal of selflessness, a token detail which had nothing to do with the
bigger picture.

We were interrupted frequently – the receptionist for important
calls from insurance adjusters, witnesses, new potential clients,
existing clients, doctor's offices, reconstruction experts and
plastic surgeons. A pattern of clients, all of whom had been
scheduled more or less around the same time, brought in, cases
dissected, medical treatments diagnosed, advises dispensed like a
neighbourhood guru to the parasitic.

It didn’t seem to bother him or his clients that they were brought in for these
meetings in the middle of my interview as I was introduced over and over
as a prospective employee, invited to ask questions on cases, all without the
benefit of knowing anything about the legal system whatsoever, save for
what I was trying to digest in between clients.

When one particularly important client arrived unannounced, he
excused himself and brought the receptionist in to replace him.
Alicia was my competency exam, a political refugee from El Salvador
who had been in his employ for a few months. Pennymaker merely
introduced us in his own broken and brackish version of Spanish and
invited the two of us to sit alone in the conference room for a chat
to flesh out my abilities in Spanish.

It wasn't difficult. Frankly, Alicia was one of those barely
literate immigrants of Central Indian descent who had somehow
managed to escape the village she was from and land on her feet in
America. She was terrified of Pennymaker, that much was clear and
had no tangible idea of how or what was expected of her in the
conversation so I took it over myself, pigeon holing her about her
past, the village she was from, her musical tastes, her favourite
foods, what she thought of New York City and America in general,
whether she had a boyfriend (no) or any children (two already),
where she lived, how long she had been working for Pennymaker.

I told her about my mother, romanticised the days excluding the
drinking and the disappearances, the affairs and general neglect with a
zealotry that one might have deemed Pennymakeresque. I was clearly cut
out for this job.

In the end, I befriended her because I thought it would be the
easiest way to win her approval. I flattered her unnecessarily and
ruthlessly, pouring it on thick, relying heavily on a combination of
lyrics from Julio Iglesias to Mercedes Sosa, which were the
backbones of my vocabulary in post-Miranda Spanish, the lovesick
months over women I had never met. In fact, I was quite adept at
spouting beautiful, philosophical phrases about love gone wrong and
heartsickness in general and although it had nothing to do with law
or personal injury, by the time Pennymaker had finally returned some
thirty minutes later, Alicia was like putty in my hands. She gave a
glowing review of my incredible Spanish to Pennymaker as I sat there
admiring my handiwork, not the slightest bit embarrassed or disgusted by
what I had just done. Desperate times after all.

And so this was how I embarked on my odyssey of personal injury law
paralegal slash translator.


Many months later I was content to assess that it was all going quite well, all
things considered. I had steady, disposable income. I had some vague sense of
self-esteem that bordered on self-importance when asked what I did for a
living, no longer mumbling none of your business or what the fuck do you
think I do. I had yet another skin to cover that of the alcoholic, that of
the struggling and hopelessly untalented musician, enough money to
set up the flat in the Lower East Side, go out and try and impress
unimpressionable women, find a group of people to start a band with
and wow the unwowable city with whatever it was I imagined I

That is, until Albert showed up again.


Although I'd often sent him odd packages with collections of
non-sequential, unrelated miscellanea discovered in nocturnal walks
through city streets, we hadn't seen one another in nearly two years
since he'd left to pay his debt to society before an early release for what
he called not only good, but exemplary behaviour, teaching the inmates
to read, teaching the guards to appreciate jazz and classical, making his
mark with the best and most efficient laundry press work of anybody
on the block, so he said anyway, in his sporadic yet voluminous
letters to me.

So I was rather surprised as I strode home in my monkey suit
swinging my briefcase which contained nothing but old newspapers, a
flask of vodka, and several emergency packs of Drum, at passers-by
in menacing fashion drawing occasionally hostile stares, when I
spotted Albert sat on the stoop in front of my apartment building, a
Winston dangling from his lip, a pork pie hat perched on his head, a
yellowing neck brace and a cast on his right arm.

What the fuck, I managed to blurt out loudly, stopping in my tracks,
the briefcase hitting me in the back of the knee.

Long story, he muttered, standing up from the stoop and snubbing the
Winston into the side of the sculpted three foot high lion beside
the steps. The lion's head had long since taken on a Dadaesque
melting quality by virtue of years and acid rain and god knows
whatever other kind of abuse it withstood over the years.

I got into a car wreck, riding in a cab in DC, ironically enough. Hit by a
drunk driver, he laughed, half-snorted, looking up at an old woman who was
shaking a rug from a window several stories above the sidewalk.

As it happened, the story spun out over a night of the kind of
debaucheries perfected only by long-lost, beer-swilling mates in a
time of utter black-out.

He had, sure enough, been involved in a car accident not long before
and had suffered a series of minor albeit financially lucrative
injuries as a result.

It's the cash cow – I could almost hear Pennymaker's horrific Jersey
accent grinding into my ears – the cash cow is the knee, he liked to
Pontificate, sitting back in one of his grandiose moments of self-delusion
in his office, hands behind his head and unbearably philosophical -
once you get the knee injury, the torn cartilage, or better, the meniscal tear,
oh, then we've got them.

It was convenient to ignore that because his law firm of two lawyers and a
half dozen paralegals was built upon the worst nickel and dime sorts of
claims; the overblown cervical and lumbar strain, the whiplash, the
headaches, the inability to work, etc., he could only dream about a cash
cow like the knee. He could aspire to the accidental deaths on job sites or
horrific car accidents resulting in permanent disabilities because that kind
of lottery ticket was never going to drop in his lap no matter how many
ambulances we chased, no matter how many ads were done on Spanish
language television stations, how many pink business cards that were
handed out, the big break was not going to happen to a man whose law firm
was a constant threat to collapse entirely from the burden of stupidity and
mismanagement that evolved out of it.

So you've got to take the knee if you can, I explained to Albert
later that night. You've got crap knees already, don't you? Aren't
you always complaining about them aching? Well, here's your chance –
perhaps they'll find some previously undiagnosed tear, some
arthritic change brought on by the vicious impact of the collision.
In any event, you're looking at thousands, maybe tens of thousands.

Albert squinted up at the ceiling, exhaling a draft of smoke from
the back of his mouth and watching it be shot in frenzied directions
by the overhead fan. How long is all of this going to take, he
wondered sceptically, schooled in the no something for nothing
academy. Still, you could see his brain working out the variety of
implications a sudden thrust of income would have on his liver.

Regardless of how long it takes, so long as you play the role
properly and to the hilt, you will get rewarded. And If you need income
before then, well, they're certain to be able to work out some kind
of loan based on your potential settlement as collateral.

Well, my flat is still being sublet so I’ve got no place to stay and yes, my
income has dried out a bit after prison but yes, this sounds like an interesting
development indeed, he mused, rubbing his beard distractedly.

So just like that, it was sealed.

The following morning, I brought Albert with me into the office.
Pennymaker's eyes lit up to see Albert coming in behind me with a limp, a
cast and a neck brace. You couldn't actually see the dollar signs ringing up
in his eyes, but perhaps a fleck of saliva watering his lips appeared like a
miracle vision of jesus on a wall in some third world pueblo.

This is my friend Albert, I began. Hit in a taxi by a drunk driver. No liability
issues, I droned in my now well-practiced facility with the personal injury
world. The only real issue I can see for us to speculate on Richard, are policy
limits. The magic words: policy limits. Otherwise, the sky's the limit.

We went to work immediately, ringing the insurance company with the
policy number, gradually filtered to the claim number. And yes
indeed, broken wrist, cervical and lumbar strain, possible knee
injury. Music to Pennymaker's ears who listened greedily as I spoke
to the adjuster.

The three of us talked numbers in Pennymaker's office as my colleagues filtered in gradually, curious about this new casualty.

Let's say, conservatively, $2,000 for the whiplash, another few
grand for the wrist and the knee…he shouted out to the paralegals
gathered on the edges of the office: Somebody get Dr. Shoenshoin on
the phone, get Albert an appointment, right away.

Dr Shoenshoin was the orthopaedic surgeon we often used for
potential knee injuries.

My god, we could be looking at anywhere between 5-10 grand for the
knee, at least. Policy limits Witold! We've got to get the policy
limits somehow. See how much we can soak these bastids for. He
rubbed his hands over the top of the desk as though caressing a
woman's breasts whilst leaning over her supine, writing body
beneath. Oh, it's the cash cow, he muttered to himself before
snapping out of his reverie and looking up, his eyes glistening with
giddiness, shimmering.

Well boys, Witold's got it from here now. The rest of you, standing
there? What the hell is this? C'mon, c'mon. He clapped his hands
together. Every one out and working! What the hell is this? He
turned to me, shrugging his shoulders. Albert looked at me, grinning
evilly, shrugging his shoulders. I shrugged my shoulders as well.
Now I was the goose that laid the golden egg.

Albert, man – this is the ticket, I murmur as we went outside to the
parking lot for a cigarette before he was off to his appointment
with the orthopaedic surgeon. Not only are you going to make some
good money but you've elevated me in the eyes of that pederast, I

And sure enough, within a few days, once the initial prognosis of
Albert's knee by Dr Shoenshoin was spectacularly successful –
possible torn meniscus. Possible surgery, months of paid therapy,
ching, ching, ching.

Pennymaker was effusive in his mothering of me thereafter. I was
moved into my own office. A few weeks later, complaining of the
conditions bitterly, having it out in a tirade of ranting bile for
every one to hear. Spoiled and pampered and demanding attention like
an open wound. Admittedly, I was hung over, skittish and anxious to
jump over the edge.

But Pennymaker, grateful for this unexpected windfall that held his
focus day in and out ever since Albert's arrival, silenced me
quickly and conspiratorially with his rodent voice – We're just
going to have to get you a secretary…

Pennymaker had a knack for creating turnover. Employees came and
went in cameo employment appearances. Half of his days were spent
just interviewing new perspective employees. He fired people at
the drop of a hat, humiliated anyone showing the vaguest sign of
weakness, habitually hired people after hours and hours of interviews that
interloped with client meetings, telephone calls, newspaper reading,
speechmaking, autobiographying.

Rumours had long gone around the office that Pennymaker preferred younger
men to women, despite the number of women he hired and fired, who he
barely noticed other than to berate them. It was his interviews with the young
male graduates beecame embarrassing at times, little more than extended
dates. The air was thick with a fetid sort of sexual harassment as Pennymaker
hired certain younglings, barely out of college and those of us still around the
next day were left to watch a stumblingly untalented neophyte delicately fend
off the advances of Pennymaker who would spend days with the new boy,
"training" him closely, until inevitably, by the end of the day, he'd raise his
arms in frustration and say ah hell, you're too goddamned stupid to work
here. Get out! Get the fuck out!

And then Pennymaker would sulk for a few days in his office, refuse
to see clients, showing up for only half days, sometimes looking as
though he'd just rolled out of bed into the office, slipping on the
same mangy corduroys tightly belted so the rolls of fat pinched out
underneath some grease stained sweatshirt or a dress shirt that was
two sizes too small and clung to him like a baby – all the fat
oozing out from every direction.

You had to wonder about a guy like him. Something sinister and dark.


Pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox Bruma recurrit iners." –
Horace Odes, Book IV: Autumn, bringer of fruit, has poured out her
riches, and soon sluggish winter returns…
From the Diaries of Witold Kazmersky, cahier one, p 100

The excitement of Albert's arrival, the elevation of my status in
the Law Offices of Richard Pennymaker and even night after night
going out to see jazz bands and hone our visions, hear poets give
open readings and rehearsals with my saxophone and Albert's newly
acquired bass were all conspiring to dull my nerves.

The first issue of course, was Albert himself, who did nothing for
months but attend physiotherapy sessions, limp back to the apartment
and drink the cases of beer I lugged back on his suggestion most
nights after sweaty subway rides with the armpits of humanity stuffed in my
nose and a full day of work under my belt. From the onset I’d offered to
share my flat with his since he was subletting, if only to keep an eye on his
and my investment, to keep him from doing anything to fuck up our payday.

It didn't bother me that he brought little or no money in precisely because
this was an investment – splitting the proceeds of what was bound to be in
the neighbourhood of 25 grand, even after Pennymaker took his cut, once
the case was settled. It didn't bother me that his knee was still too prone to
go out and lug a case or two of beer back on his own or drop a bag of
garbage out the window on to the street curb with steady aim at three in the
morning when there were few passers-by along the sidewalk. It didn't bother
me that he didn't cook or clean – I wasn't much in the habit of myself quite

Nor did it bother me that every evening upon my return there was a heavy
pall of smoke in the living room, CDs lying around in a disc jockey chaos,
newspapers and magazines strewn over every available empty space
between seat cushions, overflowing in the bathroom, on top the television
and the stereo – because that's how Albert spent his free time, reading,
plucking at the bass as he leaned, using it like a crutch for his gimpy knee,
chain smoking, inventing new expressions like “Hey Witold, we’re out of
beer”, or “Hey Witold, maybe you might go out and grab me a few packs of
smokes? Put it on my tab….“ that, and of course, drinking beer.

The elevated status at Pennymakers grew dull once the excitement of
Albert's case wore off and it was back to the every day soap operas
unfolding with Pennymaker's ever-fluctuating and evolving obsession
with young male graduates flowed in and out of the office and his
knowledge that secretaries and receptionists were equally
replaceable, all birdbrains in his repertoire, flushing them out of
existence almost as soon as we'd become accustomed or even sometimes
enamoured with.

And while it had been little more than a year squired away under the
constant scrutiny and back-stabbing, I no longer felt that itch of
working to scratch, especially knowing that once Albert's pay day
spilled forth, so did mine and that it was unlikely in any event
that I could withstand the daily uncertainties and chaos for much
longer without seeing it ooze like untreated sewage through the
streets of my subconscious, invading my nightly rituals and sullying
everything else being constructed around it.

I knew instinctively that once that payday had been cashed in there
was little else left to keep me there under such primitive
circumstances although what I planned on doing in lieu of it –
returning to hit and miss jobs with contractors, dead end temporary
assignments or bartending in pockets of hovel humanity – was left
unassigned for later duty where I was busy imagining any number of
possible scenarios that inevitably involved kicking up a great storm
and leaving.

What bothered me in the end was simply the lack of space.

Although the flat had once been sufficient for the likes of my
parents and myself despite my having to sleep on the pull-out sofa
in the living room growing up and study at the kitchen table with
the distraction of my mother preparing dinner around me, both Albert
and his double bass were too big a presence in the room once he had
taken it over.

In The Odd Couple, one guy is a slob and the other has a cleaning
fetish. In The Even Couple, the sitcom Albert and I were playing out
every night, I would arrive home flush with the spoils of the liquor
store, pick up the empty tins of takeaway and deliveries stuffing
them all into a bin heaving with empty beer bottles and crushed
empty packets of former cigarettes, knock off the ridiculous shirt
and tie act and the two of us would head out for the evening with
the laugh track roaring in our ears.

It doesn't matter who you're with whether it's a long time mate, partner,
girlfriend, lover, relative, Wall Street financial advisor, whatever, if you
spend every waking hour in their presence and half of those waking hours
are further spent nailed away in some dodgy dive bar peeling away beer
after beer to find intoxication waiting underneath, eventually you tire of the
presence. Eventually you begin to notice the habits and the quirks
of the other and while you were once intrigued by the novelty of
discovery, once they'd been discovered, they seemed to play over and
over relentlessly repetitive, repeated annoyances growing to
grievances to too much truth talking in too many loud bars in
between laying bad lines on princesses sipping cocktails who
couldn't hear you over the music if they wanted to anyway.

Once the annoyances begin piling on they become like an inner city
grime you can never fully wash from the windows that cloud your
vision of the view as though you were suddenly suffering a mild form
of cataracts and knowing you were gradually going blind.

Gradually, the hints were dropped like carpet-bombing silences
afterwards. Instead of coming home I'd stop off directly after work
still caked in my suit and tie loosened then pissed then stumbling
home with a takeaway, the lights and smoke blinding once in the
flat, stumbling further into bed with the takeaway perched on my
chest, snoring fitfully into the morning. Other times I'd come home
and he'd already be out, sometimes a note of where he might be
headed, sometimes a nothing which was meant as a message of

Either way, we began to avoid one another as many days as possible,
endeavouring to create space between us before eventually filling it
back up again with consecutive nights rehearsing in the flat, the
banging on the walls from neighbours until gradually relenting, back
to sitting in the living room, drinking more beer, eating more
takeaway, reading passages from magazines and library books which
were never returned.

We were waiting out the end of a prison sentence. We both knew that
the settlement which was to come would liberate us and it was all we
could do to mark off the days on the calendar in black circles
filled in with sinister dollar signs, waiting, purgatory.

Gradually we got around to talking about the spoils as though it
were some dirty, unspoken truth between us that had to be gotten off
our chests.

The rehearsing going on hadn't been entirely in vain or delirious. I
felt like I owed to my father and this particular flat and all those
nights he and my mother had listened to records or my mother sat
quietly sipping rum whilst my father played private concertos for
the two of us.

I dreamt often of being in clubs – perhaps because Albert and I were
in so many of them night after night showing up in cheap jazz clubs,
Playing the jazz of students and unknowns, up and comers, fading
downers and never would be's. I dreamt of playing alongside my father
on stages all over the city, polkas and jazz blending in with calypsos and
salsas, spinning into bottles and spinning back out again into the faces of
my mother over the years, hair up, hair down, with and without mascara,
in happiness and in health, sadness and poverty, emptiness and sullen and
later like the fat peasant woman in Diego Rivera's La Molendera, before
finally disappearing altogether and my father no longer beside me on stage,
playing to the fishes in the East River or swept out into the
Atlantic and then Albert with his stand up base, pork pie hat, head
down in concentration, unlit Winston perched on his lip, loud
Hawaiian shirt with camouflage pants and jack boots and there I was
beside him back in the flat going line over line again, stopping and
starting, snorting and laughing through rehearsals as though living
out a piece of what this flat and my father never lived long enough.

No matter where or in what state we played in over those months, one thing
we could tell ourselves is that we weren't very good in particular although in
the abstract we were almost plausible.

And because the last month had been one long cold spell and we were
cooped up in my little flat breathing in each other's chain smoking and viruses, it was Albert's idea, once he sensed he was wearing out his welcome,
that the two of us should take out musical act on the road,
somewhere in the distant spectacle of Europe.

Why not indeed, he liked to stammer. We don’t need some cross country
porno film cabinet masturbation of the great American dream bustling
through the urban sprawl and dull poetic landscapes of Midwestern

What we need, Witold, is a completely different venue, a new dream, a
makeshift reality of ever-fluctuating backgrounds we can never be trapped in,
a series of random places where no one will know us, however good or bad
we become. What we need is Europe, Witold. A place we can run and hide,
a place we can discover our roots, some of them anyway. A place enthusiastic and curious about our strange musical compositions.

And I’ll tell you, the timing couldn’t be better. The Euro 2000, the championship of European football, is being co-hosted this summer by Holland and Belgium, home of my own ancestors. We’ll absorb the mania of a football tournament for a few weeks as a background study and then,
conquer Europe with our mesmorising tribut to the audacity of musical

I had to admit, it seemed like an appealing plan at the time. We often roused ourselves early on Saturday mornings just to go to a pub that showed English football league matches, we knew how football went hand in hand with
drinking beer, a lovely subliminal excuse, and we could use the tournament as
a whirlwind to toss ourselves from before embarking on a great European
musical tour. Sponsored of course, by the settlement of a personal injury

CHAPTER SIX: Quick Lessons In Dutch

“While the rate of violent crime in the Netherlands is low, tourists are often targets of thieves. Visitors frequently fall prey to pickpockets, bag snatchers and other petty burglars, who may target automobiles and hotel rooms. Room or hotel safes should be used and baggage locked and secured when away from hotel rooms.”

- excerpt on travel advice to the Netherlands from the Bureau of Consular Affairs

Albert begins a slow whine about his creaking knees, fresh out of
the train from Amsterdam,, stopping in the middle of Utrecht station's
tides of passers-by to mewl and set down his bag for a moment.

It's almost too much for me to bear. Here we have finally arrived in what is
to be our adopted city home away from home and a middle aged ache cripples him as if he’d been kicked in the balls. I make a rotten cabbage face, set
down my bag and roll a cigarette, clenching it between my digits
with unquenchable agitation before firing up the butane and touching
it to the cigarette tip. I exhale a mind suddenly dull for its lack
of curiosity. Will this be requiring immediate surgery I ask sarcastically, my
eyes begin to race around with annoyance registering the minor circus of food peddlers, discount record stores, blaring video screens and this tiring
chatter of humanity around me. Should I be concerned? Shall I
consult the phrase book for the appropriate words dealing
with emergencies like; will this require a thrombectomy? This food
disagrees with my digestive system and is planning an uprising?

I spatter these questions out to Albert who already has the Winston in
the yap, wincing from his knee pains and searching out a cafe or a
pub to dull the aches with medicinal quantities of beer.

Fuck you. He says this matter-of-factly, as though he'd just wished
gesundheit to an old lady following a sneeze.

He stares at me a moment as though I were a sort of flying, buzzing insect around his face and ears but instead of swatting, he picks up his bag again, nodding in the direction of the station cafe where a gang of stragglers putter around their little round tables, pushing cigarettes into ashtrays, glasses to
lips, weakly attempting to prop up the jowls with a feigned interest at every
item of human flotsam floating past in a vaguely intoxicated dream.

I'm going to have a beer he announces and he sets off to cross the main terminal floor to find a table to unload himself, peel off the sport jacket and pork pie hat, loosen the knot of the tie and swallow some of the local
brew. When he travels, he dresses like an old Southern Baptist
dressing for Sunday sermons. Dignity distinguishes, he often

We’ve been through all this before.

Two blurry days of it already in Amsterdam without respite. For Albert, it appears this experience of travelling to a new land is simply a baptism in beer. For the moment he is utterly disinterested in being a tourist. Who wants to be
a tourist, he bellowed rhetorically the first morning as we sniffed the air
outside Centraal Station in Amsterdam, standing there with his double bass case beside him, tourists all around him. We aren’t here to see museums and eat pannekoeken. We’re here to play music. Even if we don’t have a gig. And to play music, we need beer!

You might think such a motto was bound to have the effect of diminishing our already questionable music skills and certainly you‘d be right but the truth is those first few days in Amsterdam were simply an exorcism for Albert. There was no intention to play music. His intention was to drink.

From Schiphol to Centraal Station to the first pub we spotted across the tram, taxi and bus strangled entryway outside the station where crowds of a wide array of freaks were assembled for various causes to the only intended direction all along.

Why a pub? Why a goddamned pub when an entire city awaited us, an entirely new and different country, another continent, for crissakes? Why when just ahead of me I stared transfixed at barkers in bright orange jumpsuits preaching Jesus with megaphones and off to another side a trio consisting of a slide guitarist, a tin can drummer and vocalist were battering out a horrible rendition of Roadhouse Blues, to the right of me hordes of backpacking sheep and further to the left whilst to the left lie in wait the hungry wolves with dirt in their eyes and beneath their fingernails ready to pounce? Why when having finally arrived, standing on the precipice of every ecstatic possibility

Because Albert was in charge, that's why.

How many hours since we left Kennedy, he mumbles in scruffy
justification, scratching his chin. I Haven't had a proper beer, haven't been able
to sit down and enjoy a cigarette, haven't had a second of time to just sit
and absorb toxins as if they were my closest relatives and this was
a family reunion. Amsterdam's been here what, fourteen hundred,
fifteen hundred years? It isn't going anywhere while I sit having a
few quiet beers and a few smokes and get my bearings, now is it?

Well, I corrected with a degree of annoyance, finding myself chafing at this sudden subservience, they say it was settled by two Frisian fishermen. The beginning of the 14th century or the very end of the 13th century, depending on whose book you read.

Two Frisian fishermen and a dog on the Amstel River, they say.

That makes it about seven hundred years, not fourteen hundred or fifteen hundred years that it's been around. And no, I'm not worried about it disappearing while you drink yourself into an inertia of overindulgence but I am worried about where we might sleep at least.

I cringed hearing the sound of a recalcitrant spouse in my voice. Or is it your
plan to wait until you’ve had so much to drink you can barely stand and use
the stench of beer reeking from every pore as a sort of passkey into the first
inn you find? I want to drink beer as much as you do but think about it: don’t
we want a place to drop off our instruments and bags? Don’t we want to know
that for the first night at least we have a bed arranged to plunge face first into?

Albert shrugged as we marched resolutely across a road with a pack
of pedestrians and cyclists and trams and cars and buses all passing
back and forth in front of us, around us, between us as though every
step taken risked collision.

If you're bothered by it, he sneered over his shoulder as the smell
of greasy Belgian frites smothered with a dollop of mayonnaise
lingered in my nostrils. Go and find a place yourself, it doesn't
matter to me where we sleep. I just got here. There are welcoming
drinks to consume with the natives. It's tradition, in travelling.
Welcoming drinks, chat with the locals, get a lay of the land from
inside a pub before you dare venture outside.

Whilst he carried on his empty palaver and our seemingly aimless walk
continued, we were suddenly in front of a place. He opened the door and
marched in. Like a dog fearless following his master, I was close behind him.

Light is the focus of many Dutch artists. Painters as Rembrandt,
Vermeer, Jongkind, Dibbets etc. are famous for their use of light. I
was muttering this to myself like a mantra hoping beyond hope at the last
minute to achieve a stay in the proceedings, to swing wide of the
door and back out again with the sudden satori that we could've
gotten drunk just as easily in Manhattan and there was no reason to
come this far simply to try another brand of beer with so much waiting to be
discovered by us outside.

But there was no last minute stay of execution. Albert was determined.

So we went into the oldest brown café in Amsterdam, Karpershoek, walls
stained with years of tobacco smoke, maybe almost 400 years worth of
smoke and all the accompanying tales ground beneath the silver sand
tossed upon the wooden floor to make cleaning all the easier, the
floor with the sand acting as a sort of ashtray. A place, I correctly
suspected, with little to no light.

This used to be a sailor's pub back in the days when about 10% of
the Dutch adult males were sailors. So the barman tells us when
Albert asked, trying to fend off my reluctance with a local's history. We are
immediately muzzled with a few beers and take a seat as I noticed indeed, even here the pale light filtering through a window as we carried on a stunted debate on the origins of lager.

Someone overhears the debate and leans into our conversation to talk
about brandy instead. The lager conversations have long ago bored
him. It's Dutch, you know, he says proudly, rolling a cigarette with
one already tucked behind his right ear. He looks to be in his 30s,
skin glistening with the night before still clinging to him like an
influenza. He is drinking a half glass of beer, dressed in a sport
coat over a tee shirt and a pair of torn jeans. A pair of reading
glasses is perched atop his head which he'd been using before our
entry to read De Telegraaf.

Comes from the Dutch for "burnt wine," he states matter-of-factly,
flipping the rolled cigarette into his mouth, perched between his
lips and lighting it with a match scratched across the floor.

Brandewijn. You see, fermentation doesn't yield a high enough
alcohol. It needs distillation and then a boiling of the resultant
ferment, capturing the vapour which is richer in alcohol than the

He gathers us in, sitting back in his chair which he'd pulled up to
our table without invitation, regarding our bags and instruments.
Are you here to play? Another band of gypsy musicians to assault the
already overblown air? To drown us in mediocrity?

We're here to get drunk, Albert corrects, standing to get another
round of beers noting their diminutive size and enquiring about
pint-sized glasses.

But certainly those instruments mean…

Consider us like gypsies if you wish, Albert continues across the
room whilst waiting for the beers to be poured. We'll be playing in
the streets such an improvised ruckus that people will pay us to stop playing.
It's anti music really, our protest against order. In fact, playing badly should
an underappreciated art form.

But I always considering pop music to be anti music, the stranger counters,
nodding to a patron who entered only to turn around and exit again
as though he'd just realised he'd forgotten his wallet.

Well let’s simply call it improvised music, Albert offers, unconcerned about
the technicalities of the merits or points of the debate and more enamoured
with the sound of his authoritarian voice filling his ears musically. Improvised
music is often described as a form of dialogue he continues, wherein one musician is communicating with another via instruments. It is during this
conversation that the identity is negotiated and the commonality is formed.
Our ruckus of course, is still no atavistic charm but we are prepared to accept
the curses of passers-by and their indignant stares. We have no egos to be
wounded. We are simple workmen, labourers of music with no appreciable

I'm Wim, the stranger rebuts suddenly, perhaps stumped, pulling his glasses
down over his eyes and sticking his paint-spackled hand in front of my chest.
I shake it reluctantly wondering all the places it had been, all the things it
had touched since last being washed. He wasn't filthy but he wasn't
clean either. Somewhere between junkie and alcoholic, lonely and
bored, head still reeling from the night's party stilled only
momentarily by the further investment of beer coursing through his
nervous system. You find people like this all over the world in the early opening hours of pubs. They are their own citizenry. The citizenry of drunk and desperate and struggling to regain their charm. The citizenry who are blurring their edges, hanging on by their dirty fingernails. Deluded into believing they are on some mystical path to adventure and truth. If only they or we could have seen it from the outside, far uglier even than from the inside.

Hours later none of us had moved other than shifting in our seats,
standing to walk to the toilet or to order more beer.

We were engaging ourselves in historical discussions about the settlement of Amsterdam, or Aemstelledamme, as Wim corrected pointedly. Dam on the Amstel was the original meaning - you see, the Amstel river was dammed to keep the settlement of huts on the banks of the river from flooding over at
inopportune moments. The history of this city, like the history of this country
is above all, avoiding floods.

That was the extent of our cultural immersion.

Thereafter only the tinny noise of remembrance played in the back of the
head, the hours spun a blur. Faces appeared in and out, cameos in this avant garde drinking film we were acting in. The first day spent crashing downward into a miraculous sea of debauchery, pilgrims seeking a new religion, the new holy trinity in the name of the pub, the beer and the holy obliteration.

Museums? Cultural tours? Forget it. We were not tourist landing with feathery ideals, Albert reminded. We were celebrating our arrival, defending against jet lag, conducting research and ground work. All this in a glass of beer which took an afternoon and evening of emptying to find.


A day later, or perhaps it wasn't a full day, 18 or 20 hours later,
I was waking from a bench in front of the train station, my bags
tied around my ankles to prevent thieves while I slept.

As I raised my head, in the grass about 20 yards away, I saw that
Albert was fast asleep, snoring even, with the double bass like a
mistress lying beside him still in it's ominous looking white
Kolstein Uni-Air Bass Carrier. His duffel bag was underneath his
head, the strap tied around his neck. No need for a hotel room. Perhaps it was an annotation for the old tourist’s guidebook. Budget for beer, sleep in the rough. Accommodations were for loiterers. For a few early morning hours this was our land, not spat out freshly showered to hop aboard another tour bus with the nattering of semi-literate tourists. Waking on the ground, head in a vice with no concept of where or how.

And now here we have arrived in the station in Utrecht two days later having hit the rewind button and finger poised over the play button ready to set
the nihilism back in motion. This was some preview of Albert's
Europe Tour – dead of liver poisoning in the first two months.
Hospitalised with exhaustion. Accidental drowning in the Oude

So far, the plan was working with precision.

It was like a business, Albert had preached in New York.

We had to be serious if we wanted to be taken seriously.

He’d insisted we even go to the expense of hiring out a small recording studio to do a few demos of songs we made up as we went along, predicated on a few random notes we’d half-rehearsed in the middle of a drinking session in the flat.

It wasn’t a bad idea but unfortunately in either celebration or anxiety about recording we’d so lubricated ourselves with drink that the end result was too disappointingly shoddy to bother bringing with us to Europe. We’d not impress any local club managers with this piffle, we decided.

Clearly we had no promotional capacity other than playing. If that meant playing in parks or on bridges, if it meant open mic venues, or if it meant just knocking door to door looking for desperation to seal our fate, we weren't going to be taken very seriously, incapable of pulling ourselves out of the
first pub we came across. Not unless we stumbled across a wedding
looking for two drunks with thick tongues pasty with
drink and abilities rendered still-borne by a fog of apathy, to act
as a sort of wedding reception sideshow

Albert waved off my concerns. Called me too tense. Too future tense,
more specifically.

How can you imagine having a feel for the people if you're rushing around tsking and multi-tasking about where we'll end up playing? We haven't really learned any songs. What do you suppose we're going to play at all these magical recitals? Once we have a feel for the people, have a feel for their local drink, their local food, their language, the music on the radio, the jazz they
play in a few nightclubs, then we'll have a better grasp of where we
need to head next. This is all an experiment; we are the vanguard of
our own shadows. Calm down, have a beer.

As we entered the station café I pushed a few orange banners hanging from
the ceiling, away from my head. The entire country was done up in orange.
Orange banners, orange flags, orange t-shirts, orange bunting, orange
underwear, orange beer. This was patriotism exacerbated by the anticipation
of co-hosting the European Football Championships and what it did to a
society's subconscious. I tapped the guy next to me on the shoulder.

What's the deal with all the orange anyway, I asked impatiently, my eyes
riddled with two days of orange before the first match had even been played.
Was it always drenched in orange like this or was this some temporary

The man turned, bristle-chinned, pipe hanging off his bottom lip and
regarded me with curiosity. He removed the pipe from his lips and
exhaled a cherry tobacco scented plume in my direction.

We are celebrating the House of Orange, not just patriotism. Orange, in the
likely event you don't already know, is in France, the warmest, temperature-
wise anyway, city in France. But that's neither here nor there. You see,
Charles the V, Holy Roman Emperor, was born in Ghent, a Belgian city
several hours south of here, and raised in the Netherlands. Part of
the booty of the Empire was the Burgundian lands which contained Orange
and the Spanish kingdom. But it's all a bit confusing to visitors with no grasp
of history, I can tell from the blank stare in your eyes.

It wasn't a blank stare, I corrected, offering to buy his beer
anyway like putting more coins in the jukebox to hear another song.
I'm mesmerised by a chance encounter with an historian. Think of all
the reading you're saving me.

Albert swayed in between us, eyeing the stranger and pulling on his
own spackled beard, days of roughage sprouting little barbed hairs,
splotchy with tobacco stains and greying whiskers. We're going to
Belgium in a few days for the Euros, he coughed, dribbling his drink
against his lips and buying the guy yet another beer. Let's hear all
about it, he barked with sudden, inappropriate enthusiasm.

Well, considering you've now given me two extra beers, I suppose I
can reveal that the Holy Roman Emperor passed on these lands to his
son, Phillip, who was Spanish. The Protestants and Calvinists
chaffed under Catholic rule and little outbreaks started happening.

One day the Calvinists went a little crazy in Brussels, destroying Catholic
statues and calling them heretical, like false icons. Spain sent troops in response, to quash the rebellion and defend Catholicism. They smashed the city and the Calvinists up, scored high marks in repression and chopped off
the heads of some big characters, thereby starting the fire of our full scale revolution for independence.

Oh, isn't that typical, Albert bellowed, drawing a few looks from
around the bar before placing his beer softly on the bar and smiling
gently. Everyone's little religious fumblings ending in mass murder.
Why can't we just get on with answering the simple question, why is
everything in Holland covered in orange? Witold and I are well
familiar with the history of human cruelty. We were looking for
inspiration not lectures.

Naturally the man who had been patiently laying the groundwork for
an elaborate reply to my single, innocent question was more than a
bit taken aback by Albert's rude directness. It was one of the
reasons Albert had so few friends to begin with, his impatience, his
lack of tact, his utter disregard for diplomacy. And why? Because,
as he explained quite often in the early days of our knowing each
other when I would ask him why he was such an opinionated asshole
sometimes and why he couldn't give people the benefit of the doubt,
time is short. Suffering fools is a full time addiction for some but
the less time I spend listening to what I'm not interested in, the more time
I can spend finding people who are saying something worth listening to.
Our time on earth is limited and I'm not going to waste it politely listening
to someone with an undisciplined sense of communication imprison me
with their lack of focus.

After a moment's pause, the man who one moment ago had been warming
up to his topic grimaced as though someone had given his nuts a
pinch. He wasn't quite certain how to approach Albert's insouciance.
Take it as a challenge, like a heckler in a crowd? Walk away in a
huff? Albert would tell me later it is how to get an instant gauge
of one's character. Throw them some confusion and observe how they dealt with it. His mind had clearly surmised, ignore it and it will go away. European pacifism at its best.

In the end, he chose to carry on as though Albert had said nothing. Besides,
there was still the matter of one and a half beers to drink and so
on the one hand, since he couldn't bring himself to turn away from
free beers, he couldn't very well turn his back and continue
drinking them, he was stuck with the choice of staying and drinking
the beers or surrendering them and walking away.

Eventually, he continued his historical narrative up to the elder Protestant
prince, William the Silent, who was assassinated ironically for talking too much about independence from Spain, He brought us through the royal family
photo album; the younger brother, Maurice of Nassau, who became the Prince
of Orange after William was killed and who carried on the fight against Spain.
He was killed in battle against Spanish Forces and his son later became King
of England.
Eventually the beers had been drained, the narrative concluded. He wiped
his lip gently with a cocktail napkin and leaned over to Albert, tapping him
gently on the forehead. I sure hope, he said, taking his coat, that you
communicate better with that bass than with those lips.


Perhaps because after nearly two days of debauchery in Amsterdam Albert’s
resolve had weakened ever so slightly, this time I was able to persuade him from drinking long enough to arrange accommodation through a little B & B booking agent inside the train station and less than an hour later we were stretching our legs through the streets of Utrecht.

As we are walking Albert began to recount a story he’d read once about
Descartes’ own initial arrival in Holland four hundred years earlier after
joining the army of Prince Maurice of Orange, then at Breda. As Descartes
was, like us, walking through these streets for the first time, Albert divulged, he saw a placard in Dutch and curious as to what it meant, stopped the first
passer by and asking him to translate it into his language, French,
or into Latin. As it turns out, the first passer by was Isaac Beeckman, the head
of the Dutch College at Dort. Beeckman agreed to translate it but only if
Descartes would answer the placard once it had been translated for him. That
is, the placard itself was a challenge to the entire world to solve a certain
geometrical problem. After Beeckman translated it for him, Descartes worked
it out within a few hours, and he and Beeckman went on to become good friends.

Moral of the story, Albert ruminated, use your ignorance in one area to promote your talent in another. As neither you nor I are Descartes nor
mathematicians but musicians and are walking through the streets of Utrecht
with no tangible cognition of the language, why don't you find yourself
suddenly curious and excited at some seemingly benevolent sign in Dutch outside some music venue, and stop the first girl with a pearl earring you see, and ask her for the translation. She will no doubt notice our musical
instruments, thereby promoting further discourse, an invitation to elaborate over coffee or beer and voila, our problem of the lack of female escorts on our first night is resolved. And better still we don’t have to waste time solving any complex geometrical equations. Brilliant, isn’t it?

He isn't serious, he can’t be. He is sweating, perhaps hallucinating. It's
unbearably warm outside; the humidity is peeling layers of water out of him
beneath the bags.

Utrecht is a city with a small town feel. Een stad met het gevoel van een dorptje. In a few weeks time I will feel clever when I repeat this phrase in
Dutch night after night in a variety of pubs and cafes: It is one of the few
phrases I will learn straight away and memorise from a crumbled piece of
paper and from each person that I recite it, I will be rewarded with the
gratitude of a simple person understanding a simple observation. Like a child
in a pub making precocious comments. They are impressed. They will think I
am clever. So little is required of a tourist.

One thing you will come to know straight away is that a great deal of the
day to day experience in Utrecht or anywhere else in Holland is about the
weather. Your days are a steady diet of overcast skies, grey days, mist,
sometimes driving rain, gusting winds, damp streets and waterlogged outdoor
café seats which conspire to wear away the resolve over time.

You bend to the will of the weather. You suffer silently as people have always
done, making little comments about the weather, staring out the window at the
changing cloudscapes viewed from inside a café through a large window. And
when you're in such an environment, when you've resigned yourself to the
weather, you will no longer care about the weather's mendacity or its
sometimes cruel and disappointing nature. What you will learn to appreciate
instead is the appearance of the sun. The appearance of the sun will become an
event, a happening during which the dispositions of those around you will
visibly brighten, your step will lighten and all the burdens of daily living
seem almost magically transformed.

It was hot and sunny that first day in Utrecht and thus, without the
hindsight of weeks of unbroken cloudy hangover days to balance our
enthusiasm, it immediately became an outdoor summer concert of
faces, a circus of smiling and big horse Dutch-toothed mouths, a
shuddering orgasm of activity and all around us, the small town
Bristling with the vibrancy of unusually good weather.


As we strode down the Voorstraat after crossing the Oudegracht and turning left from Neude, sweating out hangovers in stultifying heat and humidity,
beneath backpacks and dragging suitcases by the nape of the neck, I could
only hear Albert bitching and complaining behind me about my impatience
for finding taxis and because I wanted this experience to be on the ground,
inhaled, exhaled and with great exertion.

This is supposed to be my great grandparents' tongue, Albert spat
with disappointment listening to the indecipherable, gutteral utterances coming out of the mouths of passersby, sweat pouring over every stretch of skin and
darkening his shirt as he paused to shake out a Winston and lit it to his lips. It
sounds like people are vomiting all around me for crissakes. How can a
country that drinks so much beer speak a language that sounds so thirsty?

Thereafter we carried on to the B&B with only the thought of the beer we
would regale ourselves with once we’d shed our belongings and had eluded
the miserable heat.


Less than an hour later we made our way back to Neude, past
the statue of the rabbit-thinker and turning from the clatter of the
Potterstraat right to Loeff Berchmakerstraat, cobbled together
sometime around 1393, where we were afforded, by turning around, the
sight of the Dom as we faced south and then gradually, making our
way up this narrow domain of cyclists and pedestrians as few cars
can comfortably pass through it, a view opening onto the corner of
Breedstraat, and beyond that, the sight of the water tower, which
had been built in the late 1890s. This little spread of land was to
become our province, our waking and intoxicated realm, our ground
zero, so to speak.

We couldn’t know it at the time but this particular café was destined to become our watering hole extraordinaire, our centre of information, gossip,
conversation, friends and in essence, our living room and front yard for
many months to come.

Perhaps it was the intriguing Oranjeboom sign hanging outside it that made Café Marktzicht impossible for us to avoid seeing refuge in that first heat-
swollen day. We couldn’t have noticed the three 17th century facades
at the corner of Loeff Berchmakerstraat which would fixate us for
hours and months not particularly for any fascination with the
restoration rather because when you sat on the terrace of Café
Marktzicht, it was impossible to avoid staring at if you weren't
engaged in some nagging conversation before you.

As the humidity remained oppressive, rather than jostling for a spot on the
café’s terrace we plunged ourselves into the quasi-cool darkness of the
interior, nearly barren save those with similar thoughts of escaping sun and
heat. One head raised when we entered, another head or two when we spoke to the barman and by the time we’d finished emphasising we were more interested in satisfying our thirst with atypical pints rather than the traditional amsterdametje half-pints we’d attracted open stares.
The Dutch are notorious busybodies, always sticking their noses in other peoples’ business whether their noses were welcomed or not so naturally
the arrival of two foreigners in an otherwise quiet, stultifying June afternoon
café would raise heads and questions. We supposed that’s just how it became
over time in a country cramped with people without much open space. You
didn’t have a choice but to take an interest in what the others around you
were doing.

Before we’d made our way halfway through our first pint, despite nearly chugging it in thirst, the first Dutchman made his way towards us tentatively, trying to overhear our conversation about our tickets to the Euro 2000 whilst simultaneously pretending to wait for the barman to deliver another beer.

That was Cees, who you could tell at first glance spent the majority of his
free time in this very same café, holding court with a fluctuating collection
of regulars who varied in shape and form from documentary producer to
builder to computer programmer to bicycle shop owner to carpenters to
ploughman and muckrakers.

Like most of the Dutch Cees was a master of English, immediately
transfixing on his first approach swooping down on us – we were unable to
take our eyes and ears away from him, a sometimes sputtering, wildly
gesticulating, maddening cacophonous force of inner-connected
phraseologies as though blown throw several horns simultaneously all in
different notes.

Almost at once the three of us were like long lost brothers – Cees
expressing shock and amazement that two Americans had travelled all the way
to Holland to watch a football tournament Americans weren’t even playing in,
was a twittering butterfly in our ears and before Albert had even mentioned his
Dutch background, Cees was in another tail spinning uproar about what are
two Americans doing here from the heat pounding down pints and talking
about football all the while hands flicking inward and outward, fingers twirling
the grips of his handlebar moustache and slapping his leg simultaneously.

Before long Henk emerged from another lonesome table, ambling up to the
bar on the pretext of change for the cigarette machine, overheard Cees and
Albert's conversation and proceeded to ante in his opinion, catching
my eye a time or two as he attempted to ejaculate himself into the
conversation. But eventually defeat slumping in his shoulders as he
could not out shout Cees, he turned to me, looking me up and down –
ugh, another tourist in the café! And then he guffawed slapping my
shoulder lightly to reassure me it was all in good fun, the hilarity
of the circumstances.

He ordered himself a beer and flicked a finger over towards me
before sliding in closer. So what are your impressions of our city
so far?

There isn't much to be fair – we’ve been drunk nearly two straight days in
Amsterdam and only just arrived in Utrecht a few hours ago.

Yes, we know all about the coffee shops stinking of skunk, the
whores flexing in front of windows in scant, alluring outfits.
Window after window of sexually sculptured bodies preening and
advertising. We know about the bicycles and the cheese, the Drum and the food automats dispensing Frinkandels. But beyond the clichés, it's pretty
much a clean slate.

What you should notice, should you venture outside of the city, is
the landscape, the moods that nature effects on trees, canals, and
shop windows…I myself am an artist. I've just been working on a
painting in which we, rather than the landscape, are the giants. I
have not drawn the horizon low on the canvas but rather only as a
sliver at the very top. Beneath it, humanity, eating, gobbling up
the landscape. Actually, I'm planning it as a triptych, wherein in
the first painting would mirror something like Ruisdael's Wheat
Fields gradually giving way in the subsequent paintings, to What

He gave me a tap on the arm again – you see? Understand?

Yeah, I mutter ungenerously, sipping the beer quickly. The usual
patter about man destroying nature…what about nature killing man?
What about volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, that sort of thing.
What has that to do with human control? I think man is often the
forgotten victim here…I sneer into the beer, tapping him on the arm
to reassure him. All in good fun, the hilarity of the circumstances,
like you said.

Uh huh, he pondered. His mind was already leaning back towards the
conversation continuing to unravel between Cees and Albert – Albert was in
mid-explanation of how we'd gotten here, our intention to stay here
– for the time being anyway until we headed back out for Belgium to
watch the football matches whose tickets we'd purchased via the
internet months before.

The café was getting more crowded. So what do you know of Dutch
painting, then, Henk returned to me, decided to ask, returning his attention to
me, stammering for a topical venue, clearly uninterested in football.

The Golden Age, I recited dutifully. Great artistic production
brought on by the capitalism awoken by the bourgeois power after the
war with Spain…that's about it and even that I only just read on the
train here from Amsterdam. He pretended to listen for a moment but it was clear his question was meant more as a precursor for his own tiresome ramble rather than the prelude to an answer.

Well you see, he began to pontificate, going back to the idea behind
my painting, the inverse of the earlier Dutch enchantment with their
newly formed homeland following that war, the celebration of the
landscape in 17th century enthusiasm, I am remarking not only on as
social commentary about destruction of the environment but also the
effect of the population explosion in Holland on the landscape. We
have very little space here and yet we revere space so fully. Space
and shapes and object – tangible things. All of it, like the
landscape, is slipping away. I envision one day we will be nothing
but a series of high rises all across the land, housed much in the
same way of the high rise containers of pigs or chickens to conserve
precious space…

He went on in this vein for quite a spell. I felt myself fading in
and out of focus, drinking faster, smoking more; simple distractions
that helped keep me rooted in front of him, a smile frozen on my
face, nodding and hmmmming where appropriate.

You never know quite what to do in these situations, utterly
trapped. I couldn't very well break off and stick my head back into
the Albert and Cees' conversation without appearing rude. I couldn't
make the excuse that I had to leave, as Albert was still there. I
wanted to just squirm and mumble enough! with verve, to make him
stop in some way. I was powerless to change the course of the
conversation or the converser. People who appeared far more
interesting butted in and out of the human barrier beside the bar,
only to disappear again once they'd retrieved a drink. Lucky people
who could escape.

…..once artists were out from under the rock of the wealthy and powerful,
like the Church, they were free to cater to the wider tastes of the growing
middle class, Henk continued self-indulgently without bothering to notice
whether or not I was still listening, and even though there was a guild
in place to attempt to limit the amount of painters and paintings
and to each have their niche, well, even then actually, by guild
definition, even house painters were considered painters simply
because they used a brush – can you believe that!

Henk was barely drawing a breath by then. I'd already bought him two
beers and one still stood full on the bar so busy he was with
talking and filling my ears with the sound of his voice. I stared at
the lines in his face, along his brow, in the corners of the eyes
when he smiled, wondered where they derived from more, a life of
tobacco smoke and beer or the years of holidays getting burnt
beneath the sun of Portugal or Spain.

Beyond Henk, I could see the café filled to capacity, conversations
everywhere, laughter erupting in pockets all around the room, Drum
smoke forming a bluish haze overhead. I tried imagining what an
equivalent café here in Utrecht might have seemed like in the 17th century.
On the outside of the café was carved 1678 in the edifice. The name,
Marktzicht, meant Market View in deference to the open air fabric market
which had been given its charter all the way back in 1597 for the linen
weaver's guild to hold a twice per year linen market. It had grown in that
time to a weekly open air market not only of fabrics, the largest in Holland,
but as a rag market in general, a place to wander with a head full of Friday
night, mystifying yet comforting.

The façade of Markzicht was dominated by the large ground floor window,
opening to the terrace in warm weather, overlooking the small square and
outside, even with the light beginning to fade slightly, you could see the
streetscape outside. And such a source of entertainment for punters sat on the
terrace sipping Duvel or the regular groups of workers at tables near that front
window, fascinated by every little weird nuance of life moving through.

They commented on the parking jobs of women who might nearly reverse
into other cars, chuckled over someone struggling with a large package, amused themselves with the sight of kafirs wandering starry-eyed from the
coffee shop on the corner, waving their mobile phones and stinking of weed.
Beneath their idle gazes no act was too minute to merit attention and
Comment and nothing escaped their greedy observations

So were painters back then knocking back beers and talking about
their new found source of wealth, the middle classes, gibbering on
about their theories of the future of their art? Were they worried
the Spanish would fight back again, seize Dutch independence, reduce
them back to decorating church organs in the name of The Reformed

As it turned out, Henk corrected, it was the war with France that
killed off the art market in the 17th century. The economy was
Diverted to the war effort, art became a luxury, not a necessity and of
course, after a half century of paintings being produced en masse, the
market was already glutted to begin with…by the mid 17th century or so,
Utrecht's art market, in fact all over Holland, the art market was already in

Eventually, Cees had begun to lose himself, having already spent
the better part of four hours drinking beer prior to our arrival,
he announced his departure loudly but regretfully, intervening between Henk
and I to shake my hand, twitching in my face, demanding Albert and I
return here the following evening to watch a football match on the bar telly in
“special guest“ seats.

Once Cees was gone we made our excuses, our own heads swollen with heat
and alcohol, escaping back out into the street, back out to find a different

Eventually it could become a disaster of solitude, of stunted
conversations, drunken poetic waxing which have meaning only in the
embryo of the brain and die still borne once they are uttered aloud,
in public. In search of a confidante, a brother in calculated misery
and introspection, you realize instead that you are merely
drunk, getting in people's pointless and meandering conversations,
infused with the pettiness that comes in a small town of gossips
where everyone knows each others' business and exploits it to the is then you realize you've missed the transitional
phase of the evening when the prematurely drunk have already
returned to their beds and the nocturnal gibberish that follows is
all a temporary illusion in which every utterance is forgotten almost the moment it is spoken. You tour the bubble of cafe life along Loeff Berchmaker and Voorstraat with the same lack of success, the curse of learning a language only so you can realize no one has anything of interest to say and it was
better off being incomprehensible and mysterious. It is within that
bubble you realize that you are still a stranger, still the outsider
attempting to assimilate a lifetime of experiences in matter of
ragged months. But that would be much later.

That's what it's like crawling from bar to bar, a moving picture
with changing backgrounds yet inside, fantastically enough, similar
scenes were being played out everywhere. Not just all along Utrecht,
but all along Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Maastricht,
in every mind bending corner. It was incomprehensible to ponder the
amount of beer being consumed in Holland at that very hour.


We didn't have long. As we’d explained to our new comrades in Café Marktzicht, part of the rationale behind stopping off first
in Amsterdam and then Utrecht before we'd departed for the Belgian
phase of the European Championships was to scale the rather
difficult proposition of deciphering

A.) if we liked the place well enough, if Albert's historical links
were important enough, to choose Holland as the beginning point once
the championships were over and

B.) if so, then attempting to find articulation of our music would
become the next point, whether there were sufficient venues,
sufficient interest by those venues and sufficient motivation on our
own part for staying.

And of course, to do it all under the thumb of beer, the lifeblood of our adventure.

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Birth of The Deadbeat Conspiracy

“One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?”
---Bix Beiderbecke

This is where we should make our base for the next several months,
Albert croaked on the third morning over his eighth Winston of the
day, a man who wouldn't get out of bed for a cup of coffee before he'd had
three cigarettes, ordering a beer in the café as soon as he'd drained his koffie
verkeert. I've got a feeling about this place, he cooed, that it's the sort of place
with enough going on we can find a place to play – big university life will
swallow our eccentric sort of jazz with a confusion they will attach both to
our creativity and the collective mistranslation of intent.

And so began our first foray into seeking a place to live, finding local clubs to
play, establish our sound as it were, and settling in to a new culture.

Among other things about Utrecht you might notice if you were in our
position looking for housing is that very little suitable housing exists. Well,
the estate agents had plenty of ridiculously priced luxury-style flats which
we would have lived like furniture-less kings in, but because of the influx of
homeless students coming in a few months before the new semester was to begin, in order to find realistic housing, we would have to sign up for
something before we were even off for our fortnight of meandering through
Belgium for the European Championships.

When the B&B became prohibitively expensive, we switched to a youth
hostel near the water tower off of Amsterdamsestraatweg and
continued half-hearted efforts of finding a more permanent place. It
seemed ridiculous to pay rent for a place we wouldn't be living in for
another month but the idea of not having our own place when we got back
from Belgium seemed even more ridiculous. After all, once the fun and
madness of the Euros were over, it would finally be time to get down to
business and we weren't going to get much done without a rehearsal
space, packed into bunk beds in a youth hostel. But the odds were stacked
against us.

Cees found great amusement in our search. Do you know that every year
hundreds of first year students stream through the streets looking
for tiny flats, three by five meters for five hundred a month,
anything – they search advertisements in newspapers and little
advertisements on the street and all the while, long, long waiting
lists - and imagine yourselves looking, not as students, for cheap
housing but foreigners, adult foreigners, surely no students anyway, and
you'll begin to realise your chances are quite slim indeed, he revelled with schadenfreudistic passion. The locals were quite happy to bemoan the lack
of housing to us, emphasising there were tragically few leads.

Every afternoon we'd stroll into Marktzicht and every afternoon we’d be
greeted by how's the search coming along, and every afternoon,
empty-handed, we'd sidle up to the bar or take a seat at a window
table if it were free and drink away our frustration with little comment.

Locals had just as much trouble. Gert had been looking for three
months. Pieter was another one who had been living on a sofa for half a
year. They got a kick out of our futile searching. It bonded us all. American
money couldn’t buy everything and certainly not housing in Utrecht.

Worse still was that staying in the hostel meant we had to no place to rehearse. For one, the outskirt location of the hostel from the centre meant, due to the
size, weight and encumbrance of Albert's bass we couldn't venture very
far. There wasn't a single venue suitable for practice or play nearby. The
hostel owner, although sympathetic, was no masochist, and warned us
that any rehearsals we wanted to undertake within the premises would
have to be sporadic and short. It's not that I don't like jazz, she
explained with a shrug of her shoulders. I admire it in some ways.
It's just that the other guests….and her voice trailed off leaving us to infer what great riots and disasters would ensue if we rehearsed on the premises.

We might as well have left our instruments behind in New York for all the
good they'd done us to that point. For all we'd struggled carrying them first
from New York and all the hassles involved with customs, dragging them
around Amsterdam and then leaving them to gather dust in the hostel, Albert
had yet to even take his bass out of the casing nor I my saxophone even once
and not wanting to carry either around aimlessly we went out each day leaving
the instruments behind, wandering around futility seeking housing and when
not seeking housing, more often than not, hanging around like vagrants at Café
Marktzicht where we were fast becoming causes célèbres for our prolific, daily
consumption of beer and toasties, outrageous banter and the looming voyage
to Belgium, two Yanks in search of football. But not for our music.

We tried vainly to sort out some semblance of a scheme but given the
temporal nature of our existence prior to leaving again, there
seemed little point. We wandered from estate agent to estate agent,
looking at flats which were situated in the most expensive
neighbourhoods simply because that was all they had to offer. We
wanted to find a dump, anything that wouldn't drain our coffers
quickly and a place where the noise of our rehearsals wouldn't
bother anyone but it wasn't easy. We dropped hints everywhere we
went, every pub and café and falafel house we stopped in. We pried
and poked, questioned and demanded, all with equal futility. And by
lunch or mid afternoon, having exhausted ourselves and whatever
cryptic leads we had followed that day, we headed invariably back to
Café Marktzicht.

One afternoon, having finally lugged our instruments to the Café on the half-wit notion that we’d find a place in the park to at least rehearse for a
little while busking, we were instead seated outdoors, failures, languidly sipping Belgian Trappist beer, bemoaning our failure to rehearse or find a
flat yet, when a guy named Jan came along to our table.

Jan had spotted Albert's double bass carrier in particular, hard as it was to
miss, and invited himself to our table, ordering another round in the process.

So, he concluded after we'd chatted aimlessly but amiably for a half hour
and had established, as we did with nearly everyone we came across, the
dignity of our goal, to establish ourselves here as jazz musicians
with our own delicate and unique sound, just after the Euros were
over and we'd sated ourselves with hedonism, I'm in a band myself and
while we aren't looking for musicians, we are playing in a small little festival
not far from Utrecht in a few nights and I'm sure the people running the
festival would be happy to add some kind of jazz act to the bill. At the
moment it's mostly rock and pop but yes, the more I think about it, the more
I believe this would work out perfectly for you, your first gig, your first
chance at getting heard someplace other than in your minds, he added with
typical Dutch subtle yet direct derisiveness.

But we haven't really developed any real play list or really any
songs of our own, Albert explained. We play in the tradition of
spontaneous jazz musicians, making it up as we go along more or

Jan assured us it wouldn't be a problem. The festival wasn't going to be very
professional. A neighbourhood hell raising fundraiser is all – you
wouldn't be critically judged, I can assure you. Not to mention the
fact you are not Dutch but hoping to live here and establish yourself as jazz
musicians, well, we don't get much of that even though we have such a
vibrant blues music scene here with all of our festivals coming this summer
it would be a chance for you to enhance your résumé so to speak.

And so it was agreed, rather suddenly, with little time to rehearse.
We would invite those among the clans in the cafés we habituated, we
would invite people by word of mouth and in a few days time, just
before leaving for Belgium, we would at least have our first gig, even if
we had yet to find a place to live.


It’s noted that we’re not hideous to listen to. I often think the amount of ocular cringing people do when listening somehow prevents them from understanding that we’re not just bad, we’re beautiful…
from the Diaries of Witold Kazmerski, cahier 1, page 81

Around 11 a few nights later, we began the subtle gesticulations at
preparing ourselves to go on stage. Albert, exhausted by a combination of
beer and the heavy ride trying to balance his stand up bass on the bicycle
on the way to the festival, was leaning up against one of the pillars in front
of the stage, a Winston unmoving between his lips save for an occasional
labial twitch and puff of smoke. His eyes opened when I got nearer.

All I know is that I'm not pedalling that fucking bass all the way
back into town when this nightmare has finally concluded he hissed
with the cigarette bobbing up and down in his mouth. You won’t have to, I
reassured. I've already spoken with Jan about the bass riding back
in their van with them. We'll be meeting with them at Fabriekzicht
afterwards. Albert snorted and removed the cigarette to replace it
with his mug of beer. A little late now, eh? I'm so exhausted
already I'll need another half dozen beers before I can stand

The band ahead of us, electric violin, screeching guitars and a
belchy, subterranean growl from the lead singer, were winding up
their last song, building a crescendo, sweating beneath the lights
while an overly enthusiastic group of junior high aged girls swung
their arms and shook their legs, wild, tangled hair in every direction. The
crowd was diverse enough in this informal setting but following music like
this was a bizarre mix, an embarrassing fart of jazz to let leak out on their
uninitiated ears.

As usual, we had tried to prepare those musically in the know for the fact that we were talent-less, inept, embarrassing. But the more we said that, the more convinced they became that we were only being modest and shy and it merely
heightened their expectation that we’d be somthing special. Something unique out of America, an unspeakable hipness that would blind them all with
its profound exuberance.

Holding the sax, I looked through the crowd at familiar, expectant faces. Our friends of the last few weeks, complete strangers in other lives a month ago and now we were going to humiliate ourselves with an unmatched zeal.

Once on stage, we'd planned on an elaborate verbal waste of time to
get us through the early expectations. A note hit here and there for
emphasis, but basically, a ridiculously elaborate history of the
song piece, a virtual encyclopaedia of liner notes on a song we'd
just rehearsed only two days before for the first time. By lulling
them to sleep with the vocabularies and translations, the sheer
enormity of the words and sentences to the point of
incomprehensibility, the strange and unequally timed jazz number,
completely original and completely without skill, would be an almost
welcomed respite, no matter how bad it was.

Billing ourselves as avant garde lent itself an automatic elasticity where this sort of performance art jazz was concerned. Simple chords, in a chaotic
enough fashion, sufficed.

I could tell, a few minutes into the second number, that we had them
right where we wanted them:

Uncertain as to whether we sucked or we were great.

Albert and I were only too privy to the inside joke our music would unravel but this poor audience, unaccustomed to us, murmured a vague approval.

Fortunately, Albert and I had worked with this incompetence long
enough to have learned how to dress it up a little, enough to create
that uncertainty. They sound like they suck, we could hear them wonder silently, but they look like they know what they're doing. Of course we did.
We'd perfected that illusion through watching years of talent-less musicians
performing on MTV. While we lacked the pyrotechnics of talent, we were
quite capable of miming competence, able to create enough sparks to get
people to believe the burning was only a matter of time.

The last number involved getting the audience to participate, making
noises that ran, more or less, in tune with Albert's thumping bass
notes over and over again. There's no doubt if we'd had a talented
drummer, we could have really sounded like we knew what we were
doing, but lacking the drummer, we used the audience. And of course,
being one of the last bands to play, everyone was pretty drunk by
the time we'd gone on. My vacant preambles on music history only
made them drink faster. So by the end of the last number, we were
all in on the conspiracy, the conspiracy that we'd created together.

That's how Albert and I had come up with the name to begin with: The
Deadbeat Conspiracy.

When it was over completely, we were such a hit, Jan embraced us and
pulled us and our instruments into his van along with the other guys in his
band, thereby confirming we‘d been accepted, for whatever
delusion they sponsored. People were everywhere, crawling on top of
one another, laughing, singing loudly over the stereo as we rattled
along the canal in the van back into town.


I woke up to a Fiat giving birth to painful horn honking, a determined
bastard on the road outside pressing down on the horn with the kind of
persistent hand motion he could only have mastered in his pimply teenage
years staring and drooling over back issues of garage sale Playboys. I raised
my head and peered over the sprawl of bodies and limbs, the snores of
hedonism so entrenched in the subconscious that even the dreams were
haunted by strobe light scattered images of the previous night's piecemeal
memory. No one else's sleep was even faintly disturbed by the honking. With
a strychnine-jointed grimace, I gathered myself off of the floor, reassembled
in a standing position, and took a sniper's peak out the front window at the
annoyances below.

A very disturbed sophomore twitched and fiddled with varying degrees
of urgency at his coat lapel, his nose, the side of his face, right pant leg,
greasy hair. He looked like a fidgety third base coach giving bunt signals to
a batter who had just stepped out of the box to adjust his cup. He looked
hung-over, or like a cat who had just escaped from a washing machine. I
could feel the fraying of his nerves from the window and the honking had
only grown more urgent.

I opened the front door and edged my head out, feeling the cool morning air
tweezer its way through my nostrils giving me a mild headache like
the kind you get from eating ice cream too fast. Hey! I yelled
inventively, gesturing an empty stab of malice. What the fuck is
going on?

The honking stopped immediately and the Fiat guy fixed his desperate,
bugging eyeballs in my direction. He rushed across the space between the
road and the house I’d found myself in as though he’d been tossed from a
moving vehicle and quickly arrived in front of me, reeking with the urgency
of a man with overactive bowels. He flailed out a sentence, which I couldn’t
understand because it wasn't in English and looked at me expectantly. I
shrugged my shoulders. Agneta he clarified suddenly as though speaking to
an embassy bureaucrat. Where is Agneta?

Agneta was probably half clad under a pile of parkas somewhere left of the
kitchen, perhaps under the dining room table but I wasn’t going to
tell this guy that unless I knew a little more about him. The fact that he used
a car horn as a means of communication was not a good starting point. I
squinted at him suddenly, my memory coming back to me at high speed
from around a sharp curve on two wheels and his face became vaguely
evocative of some idiot's conversation I’d stumbled over somewhere in the
post-twister trailer park of the previous night’s celebration. Agneta's face
had parked itself somewhere in that memory, seated at a table where a half
dozen of us had congealed, braying over each other with intoxicated
opinions on over valued art and the rise of the Euro. This guy had played a
large role in the braying, his foreign service accented English constructing
sentences of non-sequiturs and mangled inferences with such a lack of charm
and dexterity that I couldn't now see how it were possible I'd have
forgotten him, even for a few moments.

But I had, and whilst I waited patiently as he went on rehashing his life story
from the last month and a half forward in excruciating detail, it began to
dawn on me that he was leaving and he wanted to wish Agneta goodbye.

And on it went further, more explications and disentanglements, deeper
detail until I, now reaching in the dark for the light switch, begin to realise
that he was leaving Utrecht, had been living in Utrecht and wanted to say
goodbye to Agneta.

What have you done with your flat, I huff without preamble and
without divulging the whereabouts of Agneta. I haven't done anything
with it, he admitted, sheepishly. I haven't paid rent in several weeks and I've
got a job offer in Rome, so I'm leaving, the hell with it, I don't care what
they do with it.

Where is this place, we'll take it, I say simultaneously, as he
tried to look around me, over my shoulder, somewhere through the
house where Agneta was alleged to have been crashing. What do you
mean, he stammered suddenly flustered simultaneously by my refusal
to divulge the secret location of Agneta and my insistence on
knowing and having his former flat.

Look, here are the keys, he throbbed aloud, pulling them out of his
pocket and dropping them into my palm. They'll be angry about my
not having paid the rent but if maybe you offer to compensate them,
they'll probably just let you take over the broken lease. It's on
Amsterdamsestraatweg, see, just down the road a pace – just stop in,
it's above a Somalian and take away place – ask for Belay and it's probably yours.

Agneta, I stood back and swung my arm laboriously sweeping behind
me, is underneath a pile of parkas beneath the dining room table, just to the left of the kitchen.


As we assembled in various stages of vulgarity and stumble out into a
fortunately clouded sky which eased escaping the bright sunlight in
little shells underneath covers over mattresses, I informed Albert
we've found a flat. Well, we haven't seen it yet of course, I amended,
but we are going to this afternoon.

Naturally, once setting upon the Somalian take away we had plenty of
explaining to do. It took two stabs and a few glasses of tepid tea
to meet the proprietor who arrived with the self-important airs of a
business man on the make, double parking his Mercedes in front, a
handful of keys jangling in his hand as he barked out orders to a
languid aide busy shuffling through calling cards in one breath and
turned to greet our shaggy countenances in another.

I understand you are friends with the man who was renting this place
from me and left two months arrears in rent he opened the bargaining
perhaps hoping to weasel extra money from us in the process.

On the contrary, I corrected, sniffing again the tempting aromas
that wafted down from the kitchen above before straightening to
embark on a course of enthusiasm and explanation that the person in
question had only been someone we'd met at a party to whom we'd
explained our situation and from whom we'd received this rather
miraculous solution.

There was no telling what background Belay was reconvening us from.

His eyes were full of delighted expression considering on the one
hand the rent in arrears to be paid and on the other, two more
borders of questionable character. The brief orders he barked to
aides were in fact given with the voice of authority yet not
authoritative, more like a loud suggestion than a command. The aide
hopped to it nonetheless and as languid as the other workers
appeared, they weren't relying on third world custom, loitering and
shiftless but were all agreeable and efficient. Men at work yet men
simultaneously relaxing.

Belay's expression waned replaced by calculations no doubt – one
could see an adding machine in his head, reminding himself that the
estate agent down the street who'd set up the last tenant had cost
him two months rent already not to mention the commission and here
were two more in place of the last one having arrived without invitation,
no less unsavoury but musicians to boot. Still, we had quickly
offered two months rent in advance as a deposit and there was the
factor after all, of not having to pay the estate agent's

So what do you play? Please, sit down, he suddenly said, emerging
from whatever torpor had precluded his manners to begin with and
realising even if these were prospective tenants they were still
guests. He barked out a few more commands and several more cups of
tea were in front of us all, seated at the desk he'd brushed another
assistant away from, two chairs pulled up to join him, a chance to

We play jazz, Albert without the usual preamble or elaborations. It
had been a late night with plenty of excitement and at the moment,
he just wanted to get the flat sorted out once and for all, collapse
onto a mattress or floor and sleep a few hours uninterrupted.

Ah, he noted, preparing to launch upon a long discursive about the
history of Somali music. We have some jazz-infused versions of our
own native music, well Somali and Islamic influences. Perhaps you
have heard of Maryam Mursal? He barked out a few more commands and
out of nowhere, as both Albert and I were confessing our ignorance,
as though we weren't even proper musicians if we hadn't come across
such music before, a boom box appeared and we were suddenly being
coached through the first opening bars of Somali's once famous
female vocalist, who, Belay patiently explained, because of some
criticism of Somalia's then-president Mohammed Siad Barre for his
murdering ways, was forced to give up her career and ended up driving
taxis for a living before eventually being rediscovered by none other than
Peter Gabriel.

Albert scoffed, sipping his tea, the irritation of his sleeplessness
showing in the lines of his face like electricity coursing through
live wires, mumbling aloud - who hadn't Peter Gabriel and Paul
Simon exploited amongst unknown third world musicians between them?

This is wonderful music; I interjected quickly and diplomatically
before Belay could fully digest Albert's words. You must be quite
proud, I suggested. Belay's eyes glistened, likely more from the
sudden memories of civil war in Somalia than the music, but
glistening nonetheless and appreciative that I appeared at least to
grasp the impact of her singing with sufficient levity. He wasn't
measuring us any more, I could tell. It doesn't take much sometimes
and more fortunate still he spared us both the humble rectitude of
lecturing us or congratulating us on our own government's foreign
policy amid his recollections and merely stood up suddenly. So,
would you like to see it?

As we made it up the first flight of stairs he explained the
intricacies of the flat itself. The second floor was a kitchen area
which we were welcome to use as we needed although during the
afternoons, as was evident, the sole chef, a large elderly dark
women with a tooth-missing grin, was busy at work preparing the
evening's take away food. The entire kitchen smelled of spices and
heaven. At the back of the kitchen was an entryway door which opened
into the courtyard used by all the neighbouring houses and flats and
which we would have a key both for the gate and the door and of
course, the toilet with a small shower. The shower was filled with
the remnants of vegetable stalks and shavings, clearly used for
other purposes in the absence of tenants and the toilet, although
functional, didn't appear to have been cleaned in months. Nor did
the light bulbs in either the shower or the toilet work although we
were assured of hot water.

And then he invited us through another door which again had its own
lock and the tall, narrow stairway leading to the landing which was
the floor of the flat itself. Evidentially the last tenant had left
a few articles of clothing, a mattress and a broken stereo in his
haste, all of which, Belay assured us, we were welcome to use or
throw out as we saw fit. He admitted there was a table from the
downstairs that we could bring up ourselves and use for own purposes
but beyond that, we were on our own. There was a small kitchenette
and sink area within a smaller area that doubled as both dining area
and storage space. To the left, a small ladder leading to an alcove
which he helpfully suggested could be used for either storage or
sleeping, large enough as it was for either and then of course, the
main uncarpeted studio area with sufficient space for another bed or
sofa or whatever we might see fit to use it for. All in all it was
neither a hole nor a middle class dwelling. Simply a flat. Just what
we needed.

What about our rehearsing? Albert brought himself to ponder aloud
still anticipating having to lug the bass up and down the narrow
staircase. Would there be a problem with our rehearsing?

Oh nothing, no problems, Belay assured us. Of course, best not to do
so during our socialising hours, depending on your skills, ha-ha, he
added, but we are closed up by 11 and after that, you are free to do
as you wish.

There was really no question as to which path we were headed. This
was everything or would be in time, we were looking for even though a bit
cramped. It was a decent price with a perfect location; 10 minutes
to either the train station or to Marktzicht, the only two places we
would imagine having to leave for.

We paid our rent in cash after very subtle negotiation on price for
our being two rather than one tenant and by the early evening, we
had moved what few belongings we had inside.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Not All Destinations Are Final

We were freaks of a sort. Americans meandering through a mad herd of European football fanatics and everywhere we went, people would double- take, ask us if we were sure we knew what we and they were here for. The European Football Championship, of course.
--from the Diaries of Witold Kazmirsky, cahier 11, page 18

We got into Charleroi a few weeks later on a morning train from Brussels.

Charleroi was a fetid, fleeting industrial town, devoid of anything of interest, years removed from refined humanity, a prison-like town far enough away from the main cities to hold a match between the countries whose rivalry extended beyond simple football, but historical hatred.

Perhaps it’s true that the English didn’t hate the Germans as emphatically as the Dutch did but for a football match you’d have been hard pressed to find two countries whose supporters disliked each other more. There was no geniality - the chanting was meant to be bitter and hurtful both in the context of historical humanity and of football itself. The kind of rivalry the media hyped incessantly with ridiculous absurdist abandon. In fact of any first round match, this was the one, when people saw it on the schedule, that they all pointed to. “The” match. Blood lust.

It was primarily for the English and German supporters out of the supporters of all the other countries involved that throughout Belgium that special measures had been taken to control the masses; a rare opportunity for Belgian police to exhibit whatever latent fascist tendencies they may have secretly harboured.

The riot police were out in number. Like any potentially volatile gathering anywhere in the world, the police tried to look as ominous and foreboding as possible; the head to toe black riot gear, the combative stances, the weaponry. They were accompanied in some cases by what one presumed would be attack dogs, if unleashed, yet somehow, in the context of Belgium’s historically passive military history, the effect was somewhat less convincing. These weren’t Bull Connor’s Birmingham Alabama police forces fighting civil rights demonstrators with attack dogs, after all. And only a few weeks prior to the tournament they’d been threatening to go on strike against plans to reform the service So their presence served as little deterrent. If anything their presence was incentive. If the hooligans weren’t clubbing each other, they’d be combining forces to take on the riot police.

Most of the host cities had restricted the sale of beer to watery, weak cousins of the usually strident and delicious kind Belgium was renowned for in the vain hope of controlling mass intoxication and the resultant violence which sprung from mass intoxication but such efforts were predictably and easily thwarted by sheer volume of consumption and the end result, as with the intentions of any bureaucracy, was symbolic only, hindered by the realities on the ground.

But in Charleroi unlike the rest of the host cities, taking advantage of the opportunity of thousands and thousands of drunken celebrants far outweighed any consideration of the resultant, inherent danger of allowing potentially violent people drink as much as they wanted.

Their economy was so depressed, the local proprietors didn't care about hooligans. They just knew les hooligans drank a lot of beer and would spend a lot of money doing it.

The June sun was already bearing down us heavily by early morning. As people began to arrive, the old town square, Place Charles II opened to
numerous cafes and outdoor terraces which, of course, with nothing
else of interest to do in such a dump such as Charleroi, was the first place everyone headed once out of the train station.

Supporters on both sides arrived and immediately commenced drinking as
though the world were about to end. The Germans and the English aligned
themselves on opposite sides of the square, staking out their respective
territories, content to swill trough-levels of Belgian beer in plastic cups
under the Belgian sun with the football match still another 10 hours away.

Albert and I nabbed a pair of seats on the English side, the sunny
side of the square, eager to watch the unravelling as two countries
with the most notorious hooligan problems were assembled, as though
fate had requested their presence merely to watch a riot play out.

The beer consumption wasn't a gradual swell either. It began suddenly and
swiftly, as soon as the overwhelmed cafe staff had been able to
organise themselves into the sort of assembly line service required for
sudden and instant beer gratification that was demanded with the
pounding of plastic tables and empty bottles.

By the afternoon however, with the dehydrating sun enhancing the results of steady drinking, the singing began, somewhere in synch with
the level of intoxication on each side. Before long both sides were
singing and chanting with equal passion, snarling and screaming with
the sort of red-faced relish that they seemed so accustomed to under
the conditions. In the midst of this a few young girls skipped in
and out of the fountain in the square as though oblivious to the
debauchery going on around them whilst English screamed out clever
little chants like, Hitler, Hitler, what's the score? And shouting
we hate the Germans at the top of their raspy voices.

At one point, an English fan held up a German flag and set it alight before the
Belgian police stepped in to douse the fire but the damage was done. The opening salvo had been fired.

A German supporter made his way to the fountain where the girls were playing and as the parents of the girls watched, unconcerned, oblivious or transfixed as the German began making gestures toward the English side, the inevitability of an explosion was suddenly transparent.

Just as both sides began rushing forward, crowding into the fountain and ready to clash, the Belgian police stepped in, at least to rescue the girls. They weren‘t as confident about obviating the inevitable eruption and it was clear, for a few moments anyway that it was the drunken supporters rather than the riot police who were in control.

We were certain it was all going to kick off, it was simply a matter of time. We were watching the explorative jabs into each sides’ defences; not as though the football match were being performed before us rather a bizarre, barbaric ritual fuelled by passion and alcohol.

We waited, almost holding our breath in anticipation but before the confrontation reached the point of irrevocability, magically and without warning, a beautiful Belgian women materialised, juggling a football for several minutes at a time, transfixing the savages. It was surreal. One minute the air was charged with hatred and violence and drink and the next they were lulled by this woman appearing like a spectre on the battlefield.

But the lull was only temporary.

Hitler, Hitler, what's the score, the English began chanting again as the woman eventually abandoned her plot, realising the futility of entertaining beasts.
The singing only heightened the tensions and not long after, someone
tossed the first plastic chair in the direction of the other. It was
impossible to tell from whence it came since the first thing anyone
noticed was a plastic chair whistling towards and coming to rest in
the no man's land part of the square between us. It didn't matter
really. The act itself was sufficient provocation. Soon chairs were flying across the square from all directions, followed in short order by the plastic tables and the Carlsberg umbrellas. The Belgian riot police, who for hours had been poised with some degree of anxiety but also excitement at the prospect of trouble, didn't hesitate to jump into the fray with their riot clubs and mace. Following them close behind was the water cannon.

The water cannon kind of snuck up on everyone. How that’s possible, I’m not sure but the battle was transfixing and perhaps in the heat of it, it is difficult to maintain a focus on the surroundings. I found myself staring at individuals, wondering which direction they would take, who they might punch or kick or where they might themselves receive their blow.

One minute there was chaos, with both German and English alike turning their assault on the riot police, fending off the wallops and delivering their own.

The burst of activity had come so suddenly that the best Albert and I could
do in response was to stand up, holding our beers and watching as
the water cannon aimed and unleashed its potent force, blowing
people off of the pavement, flying in the air, smashing into tables
and chairs, scraping along the ground. Despite the fact we merely
observed from the vantage point of our beers, the eye of the storm
rising around us, the riot police grabbed us as well, dragging us
away from our beers like jailors and demanding to know whether or
not we were English. Apparently, their orders had specifically been
to sort out the English. Fortunately, we were able to produce
passports proving we weren't and were released in time to have a few
more beers once everything had settled down and the realization that
the match was still to be played had settled in.


It was after riding the wave of football madness that we decided to head
back to Utrecht finally, exhausted by the ordeal, running low on our
monthly stipend of cash we'd tried to strictly adhere to, ready to
return to our new flat, ready to begin the business at hand finally.

Two consecutive weeks of binge drinking, football hooligans,
nationalistic songs and chanting, two consecutive weeks of
mosquito-invested slums in Antwerp and Turk-dominated neighbourhoods in Brussels, two consecutive weeks of train-hopping, watching matches in great detail on to forget the details later in pubs throughout Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp were more than enough to calm our voracious souls for at least long enough to find a place to call our beds, hose down our clothing, shower properly and get back out into the sweltering afternoon of Utrecht.


Over the next few weeks our lives began to take some semblance of
shape. That which we had subliminally craved, namely domesticity,
familiarity and most importantly, an end to the indecisiveness
brought on by living in a state of constant temporality was suddenly
before us without further preamble. We woke the first morning
without coffee, the first indication of an abject lack of planning
and the recidivist's familiarity with an apathetic future. The
showers were ice cold and following much fumbling we managed to make
it out into civilisation again to Café le Journal in the Neude
where we hunkered down over koffie verkeerd and opened newspapers
whose headlines we tried incomprehensibly to decipher.

So we've got to get a lot of stuff for that flat, Albert mentioned
off hand, flipping the pages of the Volkskrant without interest. The
odd thing is that other than those last few months in New York neither of us
had lived with anyone in many, many years and we weren't sure how to
approach things. A female, he reminded me, would have had the lists drawn
up the night before but being two drunks without a plan, we'd have to
improvise. A female would have had the place cleaned and decorated he
added for emphasis, perhaps fatigued already with what seemed the enormity
of the planning given that we'd spent the better part of the month on the fly
with the most difficult dilemmas being which beers to order, which cities to
visit, which train to catch.

We were, it might have appeared to the outsider's eye, two road-weary men
of indiscernible age but old enough to have settled these scores long ago,
somewhat puzzled by the possibilities and scenarios ahead. Neither of us
had much facility with planning, worn as we were by the drinking and the
spontaneity of movement suddenly coming to a halt.

There was a twofold problem based on practicality when it came to
furniture. One, transporting whatever we bought from A to B without
any form of transportation save for our legs and the local bus. And
two, once we brought it to the flat, how to negotiate those
staircases with awkwardly sized furniture.

I wonder what they'd suggest at Marktzicht, I ventured knowing it
was far too early for the first beer but knowing as well that its
patrons were often a useful source of practical information which we were
none too keen or capable of disseminating ourselves.

Albert grumbled incoherently. The waitress brought two more coffees and little cookies that went with them that I bit into hungrily.

For the first time since the movement had begun, now that it had temporarily ceased, I was feeling homesick.

Homesick for simplicity without practical decisions confronting me,
without having to feel like an odd couple of non-tethered people on
the brink of insanity fuelled by alcoholism and futility. At least
at home I knew where everything was and how to get it from Point A
to Point B.

By the early afternoon we'd made our way out of Café Le Journal and
had taken to wandering vacantly from one shop to another without
anything in particular in mind to purchase. What we really needed
was a pair of beds or mattresses at the very least, a sofa, a table, perhaps
a chair or two and these were just the most obvious things. The smaller
details mattered less but would loom important with time – music, books,
something to play the music with and shelves to store the books on. These
were, after all, our bread and butter but after weeks on the road we needed
at least to make the place seem bearable.

So instead of furniture we spent the morning listening to and buying
CDs. We still had nothing to play them on except the broken stereo
left by the previous tenant but at least we felt as though we were
accomplishing something by making an accumulation of something. We
needed collections to give home a feeling of home even if the
collections were arbitrary and perhaps non-representative of
anything other than the whim of the moment.

By the afternoon we were in fact back in Marktzicht having a few
beers and having convinced the barman to play Miles' Birth of Cool,
a few Shostakovich String Quartets, Joe Turner, Dexter Gordon and
Lester Young, were blissfully ignorant that we’d accomplished, in typical fashion, nothing at all but the selection of a handful of Cds we wouldn't even be able to listen to at home.

There were of course, plenty of suggestions on the dilemma of the
furniture - labourers' trucks and vans could be borrowed or procured
for the price of a few beers for a few hours with the added labour
thrown in for free, a pulley system could be rigged (failing the
fact that the windows would have to be removed and then reattached as well as the absence of a pulley to begin with), and several mentioned the idea of Ikea of other similar assemble at-home furniture which would solve both the problem of transport and stairways at once.

And so by the end of a week's time we had the semblance of home


For the first time in months our lives had descended from the peaks of madness thrust upward by the violent ground tremors, the thirst for alcohol.
It wasn’t just being in Albert’s company that made it so, Christ knows I drank enough solo before I’d ever met him and further still when he’d been off doing his time in jail bu ever since he’d returned with that bum knee to New York and we’d been stuck in the same quarters together, the litany of excuses for a drink was in essence, insatiable.

And certainly upon our initial arrival to Holland, followed by the blurry chaos of a fortnight in Belgium following the football, the level of drinking had not abated one iota, in fact, grew almost disproportionate to the intake of anything else at the time.

But now, here, a blissfully domesticated pair of virtually talent-less, wandering musicians, we were finally capable of drawing a breath and exhaling, settling in quietly with relief, reduced to merely maintenance drinking and finally finding the space and the time to begin rehearsing.

Albert was content to sleep in most days, get up, buy an English paper or the USA Today or the International Herald, those innocuous rags that sopped up expat homesickness and kept those speaking only English in tune with the goings on of the world.

For a few weeks I spent my mornings as though in deep study trying to learn the language. I had a thick Dutch-English dictionary, listened to Dutch talk radio for the background noise to immerse myself in the sound and diligently set about translating articles from the Volkskrant which I thought looked

Gradually I began picking up phrases and attempted using them in the pubs and cafes, nearly always swept back into my own language by the English-infatuated Dutch.

And as more time went on, since I’d gotten only a cut of Albert’s settlement and wasn’t charging over the top to sublet my flat back in New York like Albert was, my concerns mounted about finances although I kept such concerns to myself.

Eventually, I decided I’d be best off, both as a means of managing my time during the lulls of the non-drinking hours and in order to augment my dwindling savings, finding some sort of work. Work where I could be paid under the table, black, as they called it, considering I had no legal right to work in the country, and at the very least earn the cost of my meagre rent and massive drinking tabs.

Through the trapeze of café to café, pub to pub, meeting locals and gaining their confidences, I eventually came across a few builders in the business of tearing up housing and redoing interiors, found a ready black market for employment and commenced getting up early mornings and setting off on my bike to a variety of work sites, performing a variety of jobs, mostly menial and low paying but income nonetheless, sufficient to keep me both busy and in beer.

Evenings were dedicated either to being out in the pub or the café embarking further delirious endeavours of intoxication, or staying in with a crate of Grolsch and Albert, working on a variety of songs we picked at like angry sores, over and over again until the irritation began to resemble in some fashion, a minor set list we could play if we were ever able to land another gig.

This went on for weeks, into the late summer, a routine that began to feel almost natural yet simultaneously foreign. There was no forgetting ever, that we weren’t a part of the scene, just shadows in the back ground although we were no doubt, there, drinking and socialising, we weren’t them, we weren’t always privy to their jokes and their culture, the conversations weren’t always, sometimes rarely about music or literature or art and in those moments even Albert and I together would occasionally feel as though we were standing on the outside looking in at the party.


One night in early August I dreamt that I’d died.

In the dream I had somehow managed to find myself in what appeared to be heaven or purgatory and at the entranceway I was met by a pudgy Mexican woman with a silently proud Mayan face. She appeared in the dream as my guide and she took me through each level of this place, dead musicians from various decades on different floors appeared as though they were merely convalescing in a boarding house, just hanging around talking and drinking; Hendrix with Benny Goodman, Beethoven struggling to listen to Lennon,
Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious engaged in a drinking game, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson laughing and so on and in each room I passed through I searched for a sign of my father, holding his horn casually as he stood in a corner watching everyone with amusement or seeking out people like Fats Navarro and Tommy Dorsey.

This Mexican woman, who needed no name for my recognition of
her was immediate, as though she were the mother of all mothers, led
me from room to room, knowing who I was looking for but not
acknowledging whether my search was in vain.

I stopped in a room that was empty. Must be the future, I tried to
laugh. The Mexican woman was gone, the wall slid open revealing the
streets of Paris. I could tell it was Paris of course because of the Eiffel Tower
in the background. I could even hear the faint echo of an accordion and what
sounded like the voice of Edith Piaf. It was almost too clichéd to be real
until I realised that it was all a dream anyway.

Now I wouldn't be any more likely than you would to just rush off to
Paris in search of my father, primarily because I'd come to believe
that he was dead. I mean, you don't hold a thought like that for so
long and then suddenly come to disbelieve it simply because of a
dream that you‘ve decided to interpret as meaning something symbolic and
profound about your father or your future.

But just as Albert had discovered what he'd hoped were the roots of
his soul in Holland, so I allowed myself to believe that perhaps my
roots, inexplicably, were somewhere in Paris, or perhaps a hint or a
sign of them were somewhere there, waiting to be discovered. Perhaps
the image of my father in the dream I’d been searching for was merely a subliminal sign I’d wanted to see. Or perhaps I was just tired of Utrecht.

Deep down I didn’t believe it of course. But once the idea had planted
itself, there was no reason not to just have a look. A few days. Just a look.

Albert was sitting in his bathrobe having a coffee, smoking with a
distant look in his eyes as he stared at the wall.

I'm going to go to Paris for a few days, I announced, pouring a cup
for myself and leaning against the kitchen counter. Albert didn't
say anything at all, blowing smoke rings patiently. What's going on
in Paris?

Nothing in particular. It's just that we've been here for several
months and I feel like I should at least get out for a few days,
make an effort to see someplace else for a few days. That, and the
fact of this weird dream I had last night which seemed to summon me
to Paris.

More smoke rings.

So you had a dream about Paris and now you're going to go there?
This morning? He smiled to himself. How very faithful of you…

Well, it's not like I believe the dream or anything; it's just a
good excuse as any to go I suppose. Certainly the City of Light must
be somewhere there on that tiny agenda hidden underneath the beer
and Winstons…I mean hell, I imagined we'd be barnstorming across
Europe by now and yet I feel as though I'm only here to listen to
the ticking of the clock, drink more beer and forget I'm alive.
Well, at least the venue is different.

Indeed and so shall the venue be different again. I'd be back
before it' even registered that I'd gone.

CHAPTER NINE: Refugees Without Photographs

“As far as I’m concerned, love means fighting, big fat lies, and a couple of slaps across the face.”
-- Edith Piaf

It was a few nights later, after the epiphanous dream, lost in the Pigalle's
old, hilly and curvy cobblestone streets, ash cement buildings, cracked paint
and steep lamp-lit stairways, that I wandered into the basement of a
candlelit club and seated myself at the first available table, never
once allowing my eyes to leave the girl I'd been following.

I’d followed her walking through the red light district in full swing
and with everything; the burlesque shows, sex shops and prostitutes
all gashed in neon, all clamouring for attention, all equally ignored
as I followed single-mindedly.

From Place Blanche I'd followed her down Boulevard Rochechouart until
she took a right on Rue des Martyrs and appeared to lose me near St Georges until I spotted her again on Rue St Lazare. I stopped when she did, to light a cigarette beneath a light late summer mist and when she entered, so did I.

I hadn't bothered once whilst I followed to wonder why I was doing
so. Perhaps it started simply as a little game at first. Sure, she'd
caught my eye but so had many others in so few hours since I‘d arrived in
Gare du Nord; the mystery in their exotic faces their hidden histories, the allure of curiosity and foreign culture converging and secretly conspiring and
out of them all it was this diminutive figure I finally myself incapable of

Yet as I settled in at an even pace a half block behind her I didn't imagine
that I was following her as much as I was following an instinct or perhaps
just following to have something to do, a break in an otherwise monotonous series of drifting movements from one café to the next as the afternoon
hours blurred into the evening and almost imperceptively into a nocturnal
lagoon of listlessness that neither the casual drinking, fastidiously applied
for just such reason, nor the languid pace, were able to overshadow.

And of course gradually, perhaps just after I'd become aware that I'd made
a left when she'd made a left and I’d made a right after she'd made a right, after I'd slowed when she stopped to peruse a shop window, gradually, I began to realise that there was a purpose to my movements. That I was
in fact following her and this wasn’t simply a series of random coincidences.

Sure, buried in the subconscious, it might have even started as a little game.
Like seeing how long I could follow until she disappeared somewhere I
could not follow. And in that game, fate would determine how long the
following would continue.

Yet once I was aware I was following her I considered that instead of
simply following, I was actually engaged in the deeper purpose of finding
a little opening in a stranger’s anonymous existence and tearing it open
wider until I could see myself what was inside.

But let’s forget for a moment the little game which was nothing more than
a pretence, the pretence of a man desperately bored, vulnerable and lonely.
Was it mere coincidence that I’d been in the red light district of La Pigalle to
begin with? Mere coincidence that once I was there I’d started following a
female, tailing her like a suspicious flic

No, of course not.

Despite what I tried pretending to make the act of following her seem less
seedy, the fact was I was following what I’d thought at first glance was an
attractive ephemeral Edith Piaf. If I’d caught more than glance perhaps I’d
have even considered her striking but in the opening moments of following I
would have only remarked, let’s say if I were describing her to Albert, that in addition to looking remarkably like the Edith Piaf I’d seen in pictures, she
was also almost unforgettably small.

Not in a freakish way that might strike you had she been a modern, real life
Thumbelina but small enough that she made me consider she might have
been a miniature of her real self, like one of Matryoska dolls, a figurine
inside a figurine inside a figurine.

But more than anything her attractive features, those I could spot from
varying angles of disparate lighting, those which I might have caught
from her reflection in a shop window as she passed, played some role in piquing my interest to begin with.

I could suss this out even from watching the back of her, watching her
move from behind. Her steps purposeful yet light, a confident cat walk,
the ringlets of her dusky hair bouncing with each demure stride against
the back of that black halter braided summer dress.

A scarf set strategically around her neck modestly covered the bare of her
back where the dress with the torn sleeve opened just enough to reel in the
gaze but never enough to allow any tantalising views and of course,
breathlessly I might have taken in her curves as they realigned with each step,
figuring and refiguring yet never in a lurid manner, simply watching with

Even from behind at my discreet distance I noticed a seemingly imperceptible grace in her movements. Not precisely those of a dancer, a ballerina, but perhaps of a woman accustomed to being watched. Someone conscious of her every move under observation, a conditioned self consciousness of sorts, someone who might have even practiced in mirrors how she looked to
passers-by or how she might appear to paparazzi.

No, the more I considered her as I followed the more I was certain there was
something special about her, something more than could be described simply
following at a distance, something bizarre and compelling that would only
be revealed if I continued following, if I continued this extemporaneous stalking.

And once I knew, having realised I was following and yet continued to
follow anyway, that there was some purpose to my following, some means
to this end, I then allowed myself the luxury of imagination.

As I ambled casually behind her at a safe distance I began drafting opening lines I thought might be useful to try and pry a smile or a spark of interest
from her before realising that knowing nothing about her personal history,
her personality, her likes and dislikes, I might well handicap my chances
with transparent clichés So in lieu of predictable come-ons I tried to
imagine as many scenarios as possible which might appear obvious once
she’d tuned and I found myself looking into her eyes. Clichés need no rehearsal, time and humanity has done that for us already. Preparation, on
the other hand, required seeing as many possibilities as I could imagine.

I imagined her replies even before I‘d imagined my questions. I imagined
her in innumerable different versions of her own life before my having
stumbled into her, of her routines and schedules, the estimable heartbreaks such routines arose from, the defences and built-in obstacles to approaching her. And although it seemed ludicrous even at the time, I racked my brain
trying to remember what, if anything, I remembered about Edith Piaf’s life

Oh it was quite an elaborate amount of daydreaming passing between
my eyes to the back of her as she walked, quite a pastiche of scenarios and possibilities before without warning, it came to an abrupt end as she stopped
in front of the club, glanced at her reflection gleaned from some indiscernible location, lit her cigarette and went inside.

Confronted with the sudden end of movement, this urgent need for a next step decision, I panicked.

I continued walking past the club, my heart racing, continued on as though
some further direction had been my intention all along, taking a few deep drags of air to calm myself, and then stopped, turning back to the club as though I’d suddenly remembered an appointment, silently urging myself forward, fighting off fear, internally stomping out every fiery little outbreak
of doubt as though my life suddenly depended on it.

Inside the club, the first floor was a fog of smoke and bad lighting. Tables were filled with people, shadowy faces emitting conversations in unintelligible languages, laughter and drinking. I attempted with great concentration to
unite myself with her again yet amongst all these anonymous faces I could make out in the shadows at these tables or standing idly impervious to the smoking and laughing of others I could not find hers.

Again I was seized by an inexplicable panic although whereas the first had overcome me outdoors in attempting decide the next step to take, to carry
on walking or to turn back and continue following, this second wave of
panic was one of potential loss, an opportunity extinguished as quickly as
it had been lit.

I became aware of the thought that people seemed to me to be staring at me
somewhat openly, sometimes out of the corner of their eye as people do in the middle of conversations they're only listening to one side of, but staring at me
nonetheless as though they knew I didn‘t belong in here, had no business in
here, had only entered for some nefarious purpose.

Yet no one approached me and I could only approach shadows. These people were like props set up as camouflage. I walked in what I’d hoped were casual circles around the tables. Perhaps appearing to some who chanced a glance in my direction like a poorly cloaked undercover cop seeking a fugitive, a lost suspect.

I had almost given up hope yet incredulous that she could have simply disappeared into thin albeit smoke-choking air, before I spotted a passage, followed, and cautiously made my way down the narrow stairway which led down into a cavernous sort of opening with another stage and a still-smokier area.

And there I spotted her once again, this time standing alone at the far side of the bar, her back to the wall as though she were standing look out, a sentinel protecting herself. Having fixed my sight on her only for a second, I turned to try and find an empty table.

Once seated, and down here the vacant tables were in more ready supply, I attempted take in as much of her as well as decency, decorum and the dim light would allow without overtly staring.

I imagined that the shadows muffled her beauty or imagined beauty where I could see no details. I could make out her head and the shape of her face at the
other end of that bar but the details were entirely inaccessible.

It became important to not simply sit there paralysed because failing to communicate or even attempt to communicate with her after following her over that time and distance would be not merely wasteful but humiliating.

I rolled a cigarette with the nagging half-expectation that any moment another man would emerge from the shadows, her man, and they would embrace or perhaps kiss lightly on the lips and that would be the end of it,
the end of this ridiculous charade once and for all, before I had even gotten
up from the seat or begun screwing up some courage to speak to her.

My mind purred with possibilities while my body remained in neutral, seated. Should I wait for table service and continue my distant spying or should I simply drop all pretence and stand, amble casually to the bar, angled as close to her as possible and order my drink? If I stood beside her waiting for my
drink would I know the appropriate thing to say or would I stand there like an
idiot, tongue-tied and silent? Would she understand me if I spoke in
English, (as if I had a choice) or would she simply look at me, her eyes
dull with impassive incomprehension?

Finally, I stood back up from the seat after the private, subliminal pep talk
I'd given myself about seizing the moment and taking the bull by the
horns and a half dozen similar clichés recited like a rosary litany.

During the course of all this internal turmoil of indecisiveness she had
been speaking briefly with the bartender but once another patron had
arrived she then stood alone again, comfortably alone, and looked off into
the general direction of the stage, entirely oblivious to my intentions.

As I walked towards her in what in movies would have been slow motion
but in reality was simply small, cautious steps forward, careful not to
angle too far in her direction yet still angle in her general direction despite
the relative emptiness of the space around her, the square footage of choice
of anywhere I could stand other than next to her, I imagined what it might be like to be moving with the intention of ordering a drink and then suddenly pretend to discover her as though I hadn't just followed her all that way into this place to begin with.

Ah, it all seemed so transparent; my awkwardness, my indecision and then finally, some half-baked scheme, feigning nonchalance as though she were some rube just in from the countryside, first night out in the big city, naïve as a child. Who was I kidding? It was going to be a bad acting job.

What could I possibly say to excuse my intrusion on her private thoughts? What pretext could I give whilst waiting to order my drink that would not appear immediately contrived, that might engage her in polite conversation?

To try and relax I considered my potential opening lines as though instead of
some desperate pick-up line this was a simple game of chess and my opening line would be my opening move as White, a variation known as the
Staunton Gambit which I recalled, to calm my nerves, had been named
after Howard Staunton who played it against Bernhard Horwitz in a match
in London in 1846 and which had been included in his famous Chess-Players Handbook published a year later.

You see, I hear myself telling myself again, to exude calm in the face of the
coming storm of nerves, the Gambit attempts boldly, by giving away White's central pawn, to expose Black's king and here, in the instant case, by giving myself away, walking slowly towards her, taking the initiative, I would hopefully expose her vulnerability rather than my own.

Still, as I approached, I debated the merits of establishing early pawn control of the centre, to allow myself to linger at the bar with a glass of house red
wine pretending that I hadn't come there all along with the explicit intention
of chatting her up.

Dozens of ideas ran through my brain before I'd even considered how
to order the wine: to contemplate if while waiting, whether to simply address her in English in the hope that she wasn't solely a Francophile or muster
up some mangled mixture of what few French phrases I had attempted
to memorise on the train to Paris earlier that morning.

In the end, I said nothing, muttering red wine please to the barman in
plain English and standing there staring at the bottles arrayed along the
back of the bar, whistling in the dark to a mindless tune and before I could
even kick myself for my inaction she was beside me with an unlit
cigarette between her fingers, wordlessly requesting a light.

Oh, I fumbled with the lighter at first but after the second try and
trying to laugh off the embarrassment, I regained some sense of verbal
clarity and before she could edge away again I blurted out a
breathless and disconnected dictum in English about "Le Bel Indifferent",
Cocteau's play written for and starring Edith Piaf, perhaps still
dreaming in a foggy, alcoholic trance that this woman in front of me
was somehow Edith Piaf, or her ghost. Had my casual afternoon of sidewalk drinks and delusional strolls rendered me into an unmistakable incoherency?

My sudden unravelling seemed to catch her off guard.. Perhaps she had
expected more sophistication from a man who had followed her over many
city blocks for nearly an hour. She regarded me with a look of vague
amusement, a carnival in her eyes, engaged, then disengaged,
considering the rapid development of her own pieces on this imaginary
chess board between us

I will be going soon on stage to sing, she explained in heavily accented English, nodding towards the tiny stage where currently sat an experimentational jazz trio who were still, it appeared to me anyway,
tuning up their instruments. In all likelihood, what I mistook for tuning up
was the actual performance. I feigned interest for a moment but suddenly extinguished any look of interest in the trio when it appeared she was inhaling again, preparing to finish a thought, it was difficult to discern.

Perhaps you will like to speak with me at a more opportune time, for example, when I have finished singing? Perhaps in one hour's time, or so? Her voice
was almost indiscernible in the noise of the band yet as if my life depended on it, I was able to tune in, ignore the ice water shock of her speaking to me to begin with, and stand back, nodding slowly and wordless as if in fact this was
the result I had expected all along, as though we’d known each other all along
or that in fact, she had been expecting me.

But the reality that it had all been too easy, too sudden, crept in like a cat burglar to rob me of any satisfaction I might have allowed myself. Certainly, even though I couldn't even remember my words, I hadn't said anything particularly profound – I was confused and instead of catching her off guard she had made a move I hadn't seen coming in staring at those imaginary pieces assembled on the chess board in my mind I‘d set up to distract me from my
fear. I'd expected a polite brush off perhaps or a slight flicker of interest at best. Certainly not an appointment.

Sure, I said finally, hesitantly, watching her out of the corner of my eye. I
didn't realise you'd be singing, I found myself apologising. I'll just take a
seat and…well, watch the performance, I shrugged.

But she shook her head lightly as though I'd lost myself in the translation.
In my confusion I noted that I could not discern the colour of her eyes which were somehow lost anyway in the shadows.

I must explain…she began, angling closer to my ear, leaning in so that I could
hear her over the music, smell her perfume. I cannot bear singing for the first
time in front of people that I know. I can only sing for strangers. Otherwise I
get too nervous.

I found myself mental-noting that although yes, she had a heavy accent, her
English was certainly and easily understandable. And of course, that she hadn’t referred to me as a stranger, but someone she knew! More games?

But I will meet you instead. Later. After I’m finished singing. There's a little café at the corner, one street over from here called Café Saint Amant. Why
don't you wait for me there? It's just a short distance from here. I can meet you inside or just outside the entryway between one and one and a half hours from now...

Well, sure…I answered in the voice of a man pretending he didn't
realise he was being brushed off. Her voice had the effect of
intoxicating me with expectation, the room felt unbalanced and out of focus. I'll meet you at Café Saint Amant, I repeated as though it was something we
did on a regular basis. In an hour or two.

Sure, I thought to myself. I'll sit there. I'll wait and wait and
wait. I shall place myself in the trust of her sincerity. I will beat
back the voices of derision in my head and wait patiently as though
doing so would be enough to guarantee her appearance.

Ok, I'll see you there? Her eyes did not hide from me even though it
was apparent her thoughts were already moving from me to thinking of
the set she would perform. It was the possibility of meeting her
where she suggested, when she suggested, that compelled me into
compliance even though I doubted the outcome. I was curious to hear
her sing yet the facility with which she had first allowed me in,
then made arrangements for later, then turned back to the business
at hand of the stage with barely a second thought, was unnerving and
I convinced myself that I'd be better off leaving before my nerves
got the better of me.

Yeah. See you in a bit, I confirmed again, half aloud, backing off and
leaning in the direction of the entrance. I wanted to look back to catch her
looking at me but instead I imagined her gaze stayed fixed to the
stage, focused without giving me a second thought.

I'll wait until you get there, I noted, suddenly enthusiastic. The
experimental jazz trio had morphed into one tune together, at the
same time, something vaguely familiar before it hit me: The "West
End Blues" 1928 recording performed by Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines,
Fred Robinson, Jimmy Strong, Mancy Cara and Zutty Singleton. Or
perhaps it was the jukebox. The room was far too smoky to discern
the stage any longer.

She was smiling at me blankly as though she knew I was already supposed
to have turned around and left but in seeing me still standing there she had
no idea what sort of smile to leave me with and had decided, at the last minute, to remain neutral. Had I remained standing there, I imagined there was quite a
good chance her smile would melt, her eyes would seethe and a few
strong-arms would grab me and dump me outside the door without
further notice, back out into the spattering rain and the cold and
the strangers.

See you then... I waved, turned on my heel in an effort at
careless optimism and headed for the exit. Fate indeed. Whether our
conversation went any further or not was entirely her decision.


It wasn't too difficult to find the Café Saint Amant. Especially
considering I only half-expected it to exist at all. I knew there could
have been a myriad of potential road blocks. Was it the corner one
street over to the left or to the right, one street further down before
being on the left or right? Did it exist at all or would I just wander the
rest of the night in search of it?

But there it was, as soon as I'd reached the corner, one block over
to the right, lights on, a few people scattered around the outdoor
tables, fewer still inside. I took a seat outside, nearest to the sidewalk
and waited, taking in the neighbourhood around me.

Toulouse-Lautrec had once painted the surrounding area into a
district of cabarets, circus freaks, and prostitutes and at this hour, with
the remaining stragglers lurking and leering and drooling a dazed sort
of enthusiasm as they passed and bumped into me and threw up in the alleyways, I imagined I could see what he'd have seen, the nocturnal circus
of haphazard humanity.

I'd read somewhere that Toulouse-Lautrec had broken both of his legs
in his early teens, and because neither had ever properly healed, both had stopped growing. It could have simply been urban legend but I couldn't
help wondering that this Tom Thumb genius had abnormally short legs
as an adult and was less than five feet tall. I'd read that he'd been a heavy
drinker in Montmartre and that because of his heavy drinking he was eventually confined to a sanatorium, battling the drink, battling his
insecurities and his pain, despite his talent, or perhaps because of it.

I spent my waiting time in the café in a variety of fashions. First, the effort
of waiting for the waiter. I tried looking at and listening to other customers
sat around me, trying to decipher their conversations; a pair of middle aged women speaking to one another in secretive tones, laying out, no doubt, the case against the lover of the other. Another lone man sipping a wine and engrossed in a book whose title I could not make out. A pair of young
students speaking to each other in German, battling philosophies.

With no one to speak to for some reason my mind wandered to the things
I'd lost forever due to my own carelessness or apathy, or by virtue of
someone else's fuck up. I began to sketch a list of them, a dispassionate
list because you had to become dispassionate about such losses in order
not to let them gradually destroy you like the slow leak of air from the
pinprick of a rubber inner tube. In the end, I concluded rather randomly, it is
about denial and the acts and losses which deny you are like angry, self- loathing little people who derive great pleasure from denying you over and over again.

The list grew impossibly longer as I thought about it further and stared past people seated around me as though they were ethereal, temporary visions.
As I choked down an Anise aperitif served with water that I'd ordered
solely to appear as though I knew what I was doing, I began to feel
sickened at the losses and resolved to make up for the losses with gains. Monumental gains that dwarfed the world. Explosions of personal insights
and epiphanies.

The list I'd begun to sketch had become a doodle, an incomprehensible, unhinged triptych growing darker and darker with each subsequent swoop
of my recollection: childhood toys destroyed in fits of rage, writings and drawings ripped to shreds in frustration, musical instruments bent and
dented beyond repair at the most subtle, corrective hints from strangers
when I played on street corners, acquaintances discarded because of
distance or because they'd grown intolerant of appeasing me, lovers, dead
in the heart, wilted, ashed and forgotten. An entire gawking collective of
memories and strangers mocking me. My blood pressure was rising, I
was sure of it. The anise tasted terrible and the water was as warm as piss. However intrigued by this girl, I didn't know if I could bear it even another minute of sitting alone in bitter recollections that stormed in from out of nowhere.

So there, you've found your spot and look, you've even begun to sketch the customers!

She seemed delighted to see me, far more delighted than a stranger would
be meeting another stranger after a few seconds of introduction and a completely blank history of conversation.

But the cloud which had stuffed my head and my ears and was adumbrating everything around me passed suddenly and quickly as she removed an imitation velvet cloth coat with a fake fur collar and shook the mist from it before setting it down along the back of her chair. May I have a look? She attempted to remove the sketch from beneath my hands as she seated herself across from me but I kept my palms flat on the table, the paper snug inside.

I cannot bear to allow strangers see my drawings, I teased, trying to poke fun at having to leave the club for her, relegated to this table alone for nearly two hours yet immediately feeling guilty for not simply rejoicing in the fact of her arrival, which I’d secretly doubted all along, I simply restated by admitting I wasn’t very good and didn’t want to ruin her eyes.

Do you know that Toulouse-Lautrec used to sit like you in this
neighbourhood, in crowded nightclubs, drinking and laughing with
patrons and drawing sketches. Then he would take those sketches with
him to his studio and work on them as bright-coloured paintings. Is
that what you're going to do, take these sketches of yours back to
your studio and turn them into paintings?

I scoffed. Hardly worth the bother. Besides, I don't have a studio.
I don't even have a room for the night.

Oh, she said quietly. I didn't mean to pry. I didn't realise…you are
without shelter?

I suppose, in a way, yes. But not in the way you're imagining. I've
just arrived here this morning and in the excitement of being here,
I guess I just sort of forgot to look for a place to stay. I don't
really mind actually. There's something romantic about going to a
place without a plan, not knowing where you will end up when it's
all said and done, wandering around a new place without a specific

Ah, but you seem to have had a specific purpose, haven't you? After
all, you followed me for quite a distance, yes, I knew it, but I
wasn't sure why and then when you appeared again in the club, well,
I was rather curious to know why you'd been following me. I thought
perhaps you knew me and in the club, as dark as it is, well, it was
difficult to tell whether or not your face was familiar and yet now
that I see you here it seems quite apparent that I don't know you at
all, so still, I am curious. Why were you following me earlier?

I marvelled again that her English was spoken with a heavy, nearly
caricatured accent yet she spoke with few grammatical flaws as though she were nearly as comfortable in the language as I was.

I didn't realise you'd been aware I was following you, I began with
embarrassment. I guess I wouldn't make much of an undercover cop,
would I? But the truth is, odd as this may sound, you look remarkably
like Edith Piaf.

She laughed nervously and I imagined I could sense her reassessment
of having agreed to meet me at all in the first place. Any minute I
expected her to realise the business of solving the mystery of my
having followed her was no mystery at all, merely one lonesome man
prowling the streets who happened upon her and decided to see where
she was headed for lack of anything better to do. I expected her to
allow the mistake to sink in for only a few moments before politely
excusing herself mentioning the lateness of the hour and
disappearing back into the night she'd emerged from, gone forever.
But for some reason she didn't appear eager to go anywhere.

So tell me, stranger, she asked, touching my hand lightly, why have
you come to Paris then and why did you chose to follow me?

For the same reason you agreed to meet me here, I replied easily,
relief in the knowledge that she wouldn't be taking her leave of me
just yet, that the interview wasn't quite concluded, I was curious.

Her eyebrows were raised remarkably, the habitual, beaten path lines
of comers-on etched in the cynicism of her expectations.

And so tell me then, stranger, what precisely were you curious

Unfortunately, I had no good answer. I suppose in the world of
flirtation, male bravado and self-confidence there are answers that
lend momentum to a snappy, comfortable rapport which would have
fallen from my lips as effortlessly as the tongue of a panting dog, But
in this world I inhabited, there were no well-honed comebacks. I was
like a heckled comedian who had lost his nerve on stage. I rejected
the idea of repeating the Edith Piaf vision again having seen it
pointedly ignored the first time. Better not to make casual mention
of what appeared to be my growing insanity.

She must have sensed my unease because her hand returned to mine
again with reassurance and she smiled, turning her head slightly as
though seeing me from a different angle might provide some clue.

You could begin by telling me your name….mine is Anastasia.

And so it began, the stuttering lack of timing and grace gradually
succumbing to an unexpected outpouring of detail beginning with
Albert's arrival on my door step, flowing into the personal injury
claim, the departure for Utrecht to discover ourselves, the success
of one gig that made us believe we might actually be able to
subsidise ourselves through a combination of guile and music, waking
up the other morning suddenly with that dream still lingering and
deciding to take the train, just on the whim of the dream, finding
myself here almost as suddenly as I'd decided to come, wandering
aimlessly all afternoon in expectation that something unexpected
would happen to justify my having come at all.

It's funny. At one point in the early evening I’d been readying myself to
pack it in for the night, find a room and start again the next day in a different arrondisement, wander more until that inexplicable something would reveal itself to me. I mean, it's odd because I had faith in it, faith that it was bound to
happen, bound to be discovered, if only I were patient and diligent…
and then, I spotted you.

So, she said cautiously, am I to infer then that I was the dream?
She laughed to herself softly, amused by me in a way that a mother
is amused by some unexpected expression uttered by her child.

Well, not entirely…certainly if I wandered long enough, something
was bound to grab my attention, fulfil the expectation of finding
something, whatever it was. For all I know it could have been a
painting or the view as I turned down a particular side street. As
it turns out it was you. Not the dream of course and not even
necessarily the purpose of being here. But when I saw you, I wanted
to know where you were going because perhaps where you were going
held some answer…

And as it turned about, a jazz club, she inserted. How ironic, for a
jazz musician.

Well, not that I got to hear any of it, I answered shyly.

Perhaps there is some sort of internal yet cosmological magnet
between musician and singer that brought you to this point? I could
discern in her engaging eyes, whether she was teasing or sarcastic - her
accent somehow hid the nuances and vocal inflections you might normally
use to detect.

I can't deny that Albert and I would certainly be aided by a chanteuse but somehow I have the feeling there's more to it.

Her cheeks pinkened and her pupils dilated slightly, perhaps a reaction to
the fatigue of the evening or perhaps out of the game of the curiosity, I
wasn't in a position to tell.

Strands of mist still lightly tinged her eyebrows and even the nape
of her neck was damp. I wondered what her singing voice had sounded
like. I wondered what those other dark and anonymous faces had
registered as she sang.

Well, there's always a chance of almost anything happened, if you're
in the right position, she teased, smirking, took a cigarette from
the pack she'd tossed down next to the ashtray and lit it quickly
before the act registered in my brain and my hands could reach for
my own lighter. She exhaled quickly, tracing an absent circle with
her index finger in a small pile of salt that had spilled several
diners before.

I felt certain that she wanted to witness me squirm from the discomfort
of having been misinterpreted. I felt certain this was a little game she
was playing to amuse herself, but I wasn't feeling charitable enough
to push these certainties to the background and ignore them.

The train ride had disembowelled a section of the dream yet again,
reality had crept back.

So as the waiter approached finally, the waiter who no doubt knew her,
greeted her uncharacteristically with a kiss on each cheek, who spoke her
name with a reverence that betrayed his infatuation with her, fumbling
around her as though she were royalty before regarding me with thinly
disguised scepticism as in, what are you doing with him, I realised she
must simply be humouring me, perhaps out of pity or perhaps because she
had some deeper, more deviant plot to take me back to her apartment,
finish me off with a bottle of Absinthe back in her rent-by-the-week
abode in some still seedier section of town, take off enough clothes for
the later dream sequence to appear as though we'd actually fucked, then
allow me to pass out before stealing my wallet, grabbing what few personal
belongings she had in the room that she wanted to keep and then
disappearing forever into the buxom night of Paris. I felt sick and
lonely all at once, a wave of self-pitying nausea.

I shook my head, perhaps shocked at the vivid absurdism of my imagination
and stood quickly, clearing my throat.

Well, I suppose we've had our fun…your curiosity is satisfied, I
know where I can find a jazz club and perhaps I should be pushing
on…I mean, I’d really like to go for a walk, see more of the city…

Both she and the waiter were puzzled by the sudden change of heart,
the random shifting of gears, and looked at me, I believed, with the
disappointment of a conspiracy gone sour.

I'll go with you, she volunteered suddenly, perhaps surprising even
herself, dropping the cigarette to the ground and grinding it out with
the toe of her shoe before standing.

The top of her head barely reached my stomach. Suddenly she seemed

The three of us were suspended in eternity it seemed. I almost sat down
again in my embarrassment before she continued; Besides, what do you
know of the city? You don't know what neighbourhoods to steer clear of,
you don't speak the language and you have no place to stay. I couldn't very well just leave you to wander through the mysterious night of your Parisian dream without a guide, could I?

The waiter seemed to nod, standing there, as though they were coaxing me down from a ledge.

Besides, as Guillaume can confirm, I'm always too wound up when I finish singing at this club. I usually come here to wind down.. I can't sleep for hours. So if you want to stretch your legs, walk for awhile, I’d be happy to
accompany you. Usually I just go home alone and sit quietly in the dark, drinking wine and listening to music. It would be interesting to try something different. After all, you’ve made the effort, why shouldn’t I?

Don’t you think it’s odd, I thought to myself, having ingested the ease with which she’d invited herself along, ignoring my sudden paranoia with the cool confidence of a woman accustomed to getting her way.

Of course she would get her way, but why did she want it that way to begin with, I wondered, my brain suddenly scurrying to keep pace with the events unfolding. I’m a complete stranger. Nothing striking or exotic; life’s experiences had made that quite clear. So what was in it for her? Even as the bill was being sorted, chairs pushed back in, this question turned in my head again and again, each time pushed back down like a jack-in-the-box by my curiosity and natural need to see this through, irrespective of the let down that would surely rear its ugly head eventually.

Her questions ran along with her trying to keep up with me as I pushed out into the night air which I gulped with great relief and satisfaction, the dyspeptic dread finally departing as though I'd already showered and changed and was seated on a living room sofa with my feet up on the coffee table, a pipe in my mouth and the evening paper beside me.

You were magnificent I exclaimed in a sudden fit of manic euphoria, taking her by her tiny shoulders and looking down at her as stood in the middle of the street.

How? What do you mean? Did you spy on me, stay for my singing this evening?

Nothing of the kind. I meant to say, you are magnificent, a tonic. I feel
better already. Maybe I won't even bother with the train back to Utrecht
after all. What would you say if I told you that? What would you say if I
said I wanted to stay a few days, or a week even? Would you let me hear
you sing?

I began walking again without waiting for her reply. The night air had suddenly filled me with unassailable buoyancy. I kicked myself inwardly nevertheless for having made the decision back in Utrecht to leave the horn behind.

Now would have been the most appropriate time! I could have
latched onto the banks of the Seine just as the dawn began and lent
my own dissonant blaring to bounce off the hours and airs of Paris.

All the while these incessant fluctuations of doubt with euphoria flashed, Anastasia followed behind, or as closely to my side as possible, double
timing her half steps to my determined yet absent-minded strides as we
went in no particular direction, street corner after street corner until she
finally begged, in exhaustion, that we stop, that the incessant marching

I could see myself enjoying her company. Not just because she was
attractive and I was alone in a foreign city. I was drawn to her paradoxical qualities often seeming to sway unintentionally between bitterness and
naiveté that had revealed itself even in our brief walking conversation.
She seemed at times to have come to know too much too soon and clutched
at a past tightly as if by relinquishing her hold of it she would lose
her grip entirely and plunge forever into some unknown abyss.

I didn’t pry. What could I have said? I understand? Surely I didn’t. If
she was indeed struggling to hold on she was experiencing her past in precisely the opposite manner that I repressed mine, the one I’d released, extinguished forever.

And even as we walked and talked, stopped occasionally on benches, I couldn’t help but hear an inner voice asking me all the while - you know
what YOU are doing with her but what is SHE doing with you? After all,
she must have had some sort of life before you fumbled your way into it.

She seemed to pretend there was nothing, as though she’d been a simple drawing waiting for more drawings and a hand from the outside to turn all those drawings rapidly in an animation loop to give her the appearance of living.

Yet I waited all the while we were walking and talking for the other shoe to drop; for the casual mention of a boyfriend or girlfriend, for the admission she’d only recently been released from prison or a mental hospital, anything really, that flaw which she was certain to have which would finally explain why she was spending this time with me to begin with.

It was late, the sky was littered with traces of dawn.

So if you are a horn player, why have you no horn, she asked somewhat winded, as though just making the observation tired her as she pushed open the vaulted front door of an apartment building. I had no idea where we were.
She had led me through a labyrinth of winding, ascending streets,
alleyways and across sudden boulevards to get here.

I left it behind in Utrecht. I didn't see the point of bringing it. I wasn’t particularly interested in that point of answering the question, my curiosity piqued of course by our direction, our destination, but small-talk or not as she attempted to ignore that she was bringing me home, or as I pretended to ignore she was bringing me home, I answered.

I hadn't been intending on performing any serenades although in
hindsight, that lack of foresight seemed crippling. Not that I'd
have impressed you with my playing anyway, I admitted as we ascended
the stairs leading to her flat.

She opened the door, flicked on the light and tossed her keys on the
table beside the door which was already overflowing with things
having been tossed on that same table without having been picked up. I imagined build ups of things tossed to this table for days or weeks at a time before in one ambitious afternoon of flat-cleaning she‘d have finally swept it clear again.

There was smallish front parlour and to the left a kitchen nook that
further led down a slight hallway. In the very front of the parlour,
facing the door was a television set which had been gutted and then
stuffed with as many teddy bears as could possible fit inside, all
crammed in against the inside of the screen facing outwards, all with the
same blank expression of teddy bear enlightenment, despite the cramped quarters.

What do you think about strangers when entering their flats?

A quick glance at the wall coverings before making a beeline for the

That's what Albert taught. Nothing reveals more about a person than
their books.

In Anastasia's case, there was no book shelf. But the studio reflected
a passion for collecting, certainly. The teddy bears stuffed into the empty television screen, a few posters on the wall announcing gigs in cafes
I'd never heard of by musicians I was utterly unaware of and then, the photographs, everywhere, spread out on tables, on the floor, clipped and cropped, pasted on boards, everywhere little scraps of lives and even
glancing at them casually it was apparent that none of those pictured were Anastasia.

Shall we have wine or coffee she asked, already moving into the
kitchen and taking a bottle from the cupboard.

As it transpired, as the predawn wine flowed, we spent a great deal of time looking at photo albums, scrapbooks of people she didn’t know, people
she’d never met, photographs from piles of postcards with 50 year old postmarks.

It was an interesting assortment and yet I couldn’t help turning over in
my mind what a display of anonymity; histories of strangers connected only
by her having plucked them from a multitude of sources and her having
placed them all together, much like the teddy bears in the gutted television.
A vision of a grander scale she was formulating, a random, disjointed display? A road map to her own personal place of connectivity, a statement about herself or who knew, perhaps nothing more relevant than a simple hobby?
I collect photos, she admitted sheepishly but without further
elaboration when she noticed my expression, sensed the questions rolling around in my head, contemplating the significance of one collecting and showing random photos of strangers to strangers. Photos of anyone other
Than herself, her friends or her family. As though she had no history and constructed her own based on those of others.

There are so many of these lives I imagine, she attempted to explain. Maybe I’m completely wrong about all of most of them, but I look at their expressions like pieces of a puzzle of each of their humanities whose final form can be known only to themselves and those who knew them. It isn’t insight precisely, more guess work or imagination, but I try to see into these photos something about each person without knowing anything about them.

I read somewhere, she said finally, that there are two types of refugees. Those with photographs and those without. Which one are you?

What makes you think I am a refugee?

Well, you’ve fled your country for another, or a series of others, perhaps not to escape danger or persecution but to escape something, perhaps even yourself. But you are a refugee nonetheless, even if it is only yourself you are trying to escape. So. Are you with photographs or without?

I am without photographs, I admitted quickly and without much further elaboration. I’d been considering myself more an immigrant and this reflection that I was escaping something instead of simply moving in a random, chaotic fashion made me pause - was she reading me or reading too much into me?

You don’t have one photograph, she asked, her voice registering an off key disbelief. Not one? Not even in your wallet?

No. The meaningful moments, the life-shifting instances, were never photographed. Only the before and after. Only in unnatural poses attempting to look natural. How often do photographs ever capture the precise moment anyway? Yeah, a moment is captured, but not the moment. Sure, when it comes to something like world news; ongoing tragic theatre like the starvation of other humans or that blotch of human blood on the ground after a gun shot, photographs capture some certain profundity but as far
as my own life, no. I’ve never even owned a camera, have you?

No, I don’t actually take my own photographs. I recycle those of others. Perhaps I feel sad thinking about discarded photographs of people as though there’s no one around any more to want to see them and if no one is around who cares about seeing them, perhaps their very existence fades as well as though they were never here to begin with. I find that thought disturbing. So probably not just because I like to imagine some insight about these people or these places or moments in time captured by a photograph but also because they shouldn’t fade forever simply because no one cares about the photograph or the person it is of or the person it was taken by or the thoughts behind someone who reached out communication to another in the form of something as mundane as a postcard. All of it was real once and the thought that not only they would be forgotten but unimportant, ignored forever, well, sometimes it makes me sad. I know, I know. Probably ridiculous, right? Childish perhaps. Especially to someone like you who sits there perhaps proudly revealing you have no photographs, not of yourself, not of your friends or your family. I don’t either. I am the refugee without photographs and whether you wish to admit it at this point or not, I can sense, so are you.

She stared at me a long time in an unnerving way, without a word, her brown eyes through which I imagined I could see the neighbouring candlelight flicker, focused on my face as though looking for a hint of a break in the
stoic poker player's face. My defences were taut, disciplined for
even then there was something about Anastasia that told you to keep
up your guard. Perhaps it was simply the mystery of why. Or that
lack of trust in why. It wasn't as though I didn't believe I belonged with her – it could just as easily be me as anyone. More a question of why she had
chosen me when just as easily, I could have failed to advance past the initial introduction.

I shrugged and stood up to pour us both another glass of wine.

I, on the other hand, had merely shown up, having followed her
without any particular reason or purpose. I never considered she might have asked similar questions herself as to why I’d chosen to follow her. I felt certain it wasn't as simple as a matter of timing – well, perhaps timing in that she was between relationships rather in the middle of one, but certainly
not that if I had arrived through the doors of the café a day
earlier or five weeks later all chance would have evaporated.

Well yes then, I admitted shamelessly carrying both glasses back. She was still seated on the sofa and I returned to my position at the foot of it on the floor, back against an armchair beside the sofa. Perhaps I too am a refugee without photographs.

CHAPTER TEN: Paris Radio and the Dream Sequence Beat
“Perception is nine tenths of reality. The other tenth is the pain.”

From the Diaries of Witold Kazmirsky, Book 11, page 103

How often I stared with placid imagination at buildings, hundreds and thousands of windows and the goings on going on behind them.

Have you ever wondered, I asked her, stopping for a second in mid-pace to
stare up and down a building of Haussmannistic flats, admiring the locally
quarried pierre de taille facades under Mansard roofs, dressed with iron-
worked balconies one floor above another above another, ever wonder what
goes on behind each of those tall windows? Ever think about the scenes of
domesticity or violence or love or boredom playing out, the undusted corners
of lifetimes playing out to silence without recognition?

Yes, she said, her voice trailing. But what about the prying eyes outside on
the streets below? What if I were to step fresh from the bath, fully naked and
wander just for a moment, lingering, not with the idea of exposing myself to
some pervert just on the opposite side of the street waiting on the off-hand
chance for some light to go on, for some unscheduled show to commence,
but with a sense of personal freedom, a sense that there aren't thousands of
pairs of eyes straining at any given moment…just for a moment so I could
stand naked and free in the light of the window and watch pedestrians scurrying by too preoccupied by their own inner conflicts to even give my window a glance.

We were having a drink at the Lux Bar on the corner of Rue Lepic and Rue Coustou far enough from the Pathe cinema at Place Clichy to digest a
somewhat forgettable film we'd just seen (forgettable of course, the name
has already left my memory and yet what if for her it was a significant,
transitional moment? What if for her it was a night never to be forgotten?)
without the predictable palaver of pedestrians ejaculated from the same
cinema, discussing the same film with the same stunted background of a
crippled culture to carry them or the same pompous yet false erudity
clinging to their words like a stinking sweat to the underarms.

What I meant, I start in again as if the conversation about the
humanity behind the windows we'd had prior to entering the cinema
had never ended and instead had been carrying on continuously
throughout the film in the back of our minds, was about those lives
and what fascinates me about them - not the collectiveness of their
existence but the individuality.

She frowned, having perhaps been thinking of something else or else
digesting some forgotten fragment of dialogue from the film turning
it over and over in her mind only to be intruded upon again with
this talk about what goes on in buildings, behind windows.

Individuality? Whatever do you mean? The lives of identical
people with identical cultures, identical thoughts, who watch the
same television shows laughing at the same time behind the canned
laughter, or crying on cue with the crescendo of the music? Or do you
mean those flipping through the same magazines and photographs of
celebrities, those same dull minds covered in some undulating film
of repetition, watching the news broadcast the same story or slight
variations thereof over and over? What is so individual about them?
This collective humanity? This mindless beast in a mindless herd?

She has worked herself up into a minor froth. I place my hand gently
on her wrist and then run the tip of my index finger from her wrist,
tracing the outline of each finger.

Of course I didn't mean those people, I scoff with a palatable albeit feigned
contempt because it was her hand, not the collective hand of humanity that I
was touching. I meant, for example, the woman standing in the kitchen
worried about whether or not the man who she thinks she is falling
in love with is thinking about her at that same moment as she's
stirring a couscous mix into boiling water on the hob.

I meant the undersexed 20-something still suffering the remnants of
a devastating case of acne, awkward and skinny, silent and shy
amongst his colleagues in some office building stuffed full with attractive,
available women, almost unfathomably sexy in tight skirts and opened
suggestive blouses, anonymous but for the jokes others snicker about him around him, just out of earshot, who comes home at night to some flat
alone and surfs the internet sated with photographs and movie samples of
pornography, maybe even violent pornography and indulges himself in
fantasies about what it would be to be noticed and recognised, to
have any one of those women talking about him sotto voce to each
other adjoined with half phrases about getting him into bed or doing
him in the elevator, atop the copy machine…

I meant the man and the woman, one visiting the other's flat for the
first time, the gentle music in the background, the studio filled
with 50 or 60 candles, the pullout bed, the silk or satin sheets,
the meal that will be cooked but go uneaten, the inaugural sex, the
romancing, the beginning - the things that happen between two people
at the start of something, all going on behind those windows
somewhere as we walk past a building oblivious.

And then we were talking louder, both to ourselves and to others, an
impromptu performance art of sorts, ordering another litre of red
wine from the waiter with recklessness observing even his eyes, the
flicker of something; amusement, disgust, befuddlement, we aren't
sure and we'd never ask to find out but the second litre arrived
and Anastasia had found the syncopation of the idea, delighted
with a little game of imagination, thinking in the back of her mind
perhaps that the others sat around us might have abandoned their own
dull conversations and are now eavesdropping or listening
clandestinely whilst still formulating the sentences they are
speaking half in and half out of the game…

Do you mean also the heartbroken teenage girl who cries herself to
sleep at night, hidden under the covers waiting for her stepfather
to make some excuse to come in?

Or perhaps the single mother of three, scratching out an existence
without pleasure, the joy of these three once-beautiful children now
deformed by the insistence of realistic choices; new dresses for
that one, a new flow of teenage tears for that one, worried to
death the third is hanging out with the wrong crowd and any night
there will be that call from the police…all the while squeezing
meals out of such a tight budget like a fat woman into a dress two
sizes too small, worrying whether she will have enough to last the
week and wow, never once contemplating her old fantasies of life
sitting there in the kitchen with a glass of wine and a cigarette,
feet up, children asleep or away, suddenly discovering she is now
too old, her stretch marks too wide, the lines beneath her eyes to
deep, the jowls sagging too far gone to ever return to youth before
she was ever a mother and dreams were a possibility not some city
she’d just departed from an aeroplane she knows she will never
return to again?

I nod my head, pouring us both generous cups of wine in reward,
indeed. There are all sorts behind those windows…a man whose wife
has recently died who must now sit in the flat they shared an entire
life in, suffocated by memories and waiting out each day like a
lifetime prison sentence waiting for his own execution, the release
by death from misery, having long ago forgotten what life had been
capable of without her and not caring anymore as he had moored his
boat of adventure to her so long ago for so many years there never
was another lifetime to have contemplated.

And we carried on in this vein for some time, sipping our wine,
trying to out-imagine one another, forgetting there were others
around us at all, at ease that none of the lives we described or
imagined were ours at the moment, no prisons, no death sentences,
no slow crawl of endurance.

We were free!

And we left the café laughing, leaving money behind which could have
fed the poor or given another drink to the homeless man who was
always sat on a cardboard box around the corner with his head bowed
and a little can in front of him wearing a sign that might have
proclaimed he didn't drink or do drugs but needed money for food.


Do you believe in fate, she asked me a few afternoons later when we were
sprawled out on the mattress which had been taken off the bed frame and dragged out into the main room where the lighting was better, or at least
more interesting, limb in limb, tracing the outline of each other's skin, watching the shadows lengthen through the windows.

Why do you ask – do you have us in mind? I stood up then to have a
cigarette and pace but she pulled me back down again, nonono, she
whispered, I just mean in the sense of where any of us are heading, the direction you choose, the direction I choose, why certain strangers walk
past you on certain days but never again, why some are born in one
country where there is poverty and starvation yet others in a market
economy perfectly adept at handling the possibility of that
individual's economic potential, you know – in a vague yet not too
general way…she laughed, perhaps amused by herself or her silliness.

I could quote Emerson, for example, I said, growing more uncomfortable
and making another, more successful effort at releasing myself from the
floor and the mattress and getting up to the table to roll a cigarette. Emerson
said that fate was just deeds committed in a prior existence.

That doesn't answer the question of whether you do or don't believe
in fate, Witold. What made you choose to leave New York? And once you
left, why Utrecht and once in Utrecht why did you leave your friend
behind to come here and once here, why did you decide on entering the
club I was going to be singing in and even then, why were we placed in
the same place at the same time? Something gave you the nerve, the verve,
the desire to approach me and even though you couldn’t know I was or
wouldn’t be the most receptive target, just calculatedly mysterious, you
were eager to see the possibilities through without worrying what disappointment might lie ahead. Was it fate, partially fate, partially choice,
or just stubbornness, confidence and dumb luck?

There's no such thing as dumb luck, I wanted to set the record straight.
Only good and bad luck. In the instance of meeting you, I think it was more
a matter of chance than of fate or choice. Is chance considered fate when chance is created in part at least, by your own choices? Are your choices
made at the behest of fate or chance or desire? I’ve often heard
them say to athletes that you create your own luck; hard work and
persistence are in essence, the main factors of luck, of chance. I think
believing in fate by itself implies a belief that it’s absolutely, utterly out
of our hands – like the weather, perhaps. You can dress up for the cold
or for rain, let’s say, but you cannot control if it rains or becomes cold. I cannot control that I met you however, the circumstances were in part,
created by my own actions – unknowingly at first, let's say up to the
point when I'd first moved next to you in the club – but even then, it
took your initiative, your unlit cigarette and let’s face it, both of us were
perhaps engineering this fate, if you were to call it fate, both of us had
an equal hand in deciding. Thereafter, it is less a matter of chance or
of fate than of two people with somewhat similar goals, even as broad
and simple as getting to know each other.

Well let’s just say, for argument’s sake, humour me please Witold,
that it is a matter of fate or for destiny, she said as her hand ran along
her left shin bone and stopped at her knee.

Let’s think of it in the sense that fate would have been determined by something beyond our control, I mean after all, it takes a steady series
of coincidental circumstances to bring one anonymous human being from
a neighbourhood in New York City all the way to another neighbourhood
in Paris, I mean, one out of millions and millions finding another among
millions and millions and not even in the same city, not even in the same
country for that matter, as though some higher power brought them
together for a reason.

Don’t look at me like I’m mad, Witold, please. It’s just that I wonder,
not just in this case of you and I, but in the case of everyone, could it be
the fate of souls perhaps, souls which are destined, in the course of living
one life and then another, to meet again and again through various stages
of existence perhaps.

You know, like perhaps in another life, if you believe such things
of course, we knew each other very dearly and even though the lives
that were the vessels of our souls had long expired, once new
vessels were found, like this life we are living now, our souls were
bound to be reunited.

Smoke tapered upwards from her cigarette left burning in the ashtray
as she sipped at her wine. Fate, on the other hand, might be much
similar in that those souls are still meant to be reunited but we
too are participating. Perhaps we are doing so knowingly or
unknowingly. You coming to Paris, my being on the street I was on
when you first started following me.

I rubbed my eyes, as if to avoid hers. If we did not follow this destiny,
it would have been fate. One way or the other. A choice. You could
have ignored me. I could have ignored you. We ignore so many others
in life.

But if it’s not fate, we ignore it, don’t you see? It isn’t our actions that
decide it, it’s fate that decides our actions, no?

So what if I could imagine an entire lifetime before her, however meaningless to this point. There is the pre-period and the post-period.
I was no longer in the pre-period of my life. I was definitely somewhere
else. The strange sensation of a female’s presence. A old panoply against
this very moment worn thin leaving the wearer vulnerable.

Then I exhaled and stared out the window of her flat down Rue Coustou
towards Boulevard de Clichy where all sorts of unimaginable fates were playing out. She stood as well, changing the disc from a sombre yet unknown jazz pianist to a wild and incomprehensible Ornette Coleman as though the cacophony might release us both out of the cocoon of the fledgling comfort of roads still on the horizon, yet untaken.

Well, most of the photographs I keep are of people I don't even know, she
belaboured, reminding me of that first night of meeting, the hundreds of photographs of strangers, postcards of places she’d never been. She was
back up again, returning only after she’d retrieved a new set of photos as though they somehow held an answer. A key to knowing her, these photos?
A recurrent theme which might become predictable, boring, stale in the coming months? Who knew? But Ornette Coleman’s rattling lent an
almost surreal edge to the discussion and when she’d returned with a
handful of photographs again, stood in her panties in a brazen display of
either self confidence or apathy, I was not with her.

Her words, as I focused unflinchingly on the bulb of her buttocks the
fabric of the panties couldn't quite cover and then downward to the arc
of her calves into her ankles, as much as those words were to have been cherished, were somehow lost in that moment, as though they weren't
being spoken at all, merely forming a background symphony to a visual presentation.

But as suddenly as I’d faded off I faded back in time to catch her continuing: Sometimes, she elaborated as though I'd been paying attention all along
yet somehow sensed the impossibility of my concentration and hence her stance there in the twilight of the flat standing in only her panties, lighting
a new cigarette of her own, it's more interesting trying to interpret the lives
of others through the memories represented by their photographs than it is reliving your own…

And without an introductory preamble she suddenly changed discs
again and the Chet Baker River was flowing between the walls,
carrying us on a fool's errand.


Nothing of grave significance happened, other than our meeting.

I’d stayed for two weeks in that flat with her and on the second morning
I took the keys with her building code already memorised, crept out in secret
although secretly she was likely not such heavy sleeper and listened
wordlessly as I was heading out wondering silently to herself where I was
going, what I was intending but trusting that it was no deviant purpose and
allowed herself to fall back asleep.

She wouldn’t know why and I didn’t either but I was heading out, and
got out into the streets of morning Paris.

Regardless of the last day and twelve hours, I'd had a yet unperformed desire
to walk the streets alone. Especially at this particular moment when you need
the space to reflect on all that was taking place inside the walls of Anastasia's
flat in that time frame from which we hadn't left since entering.

Without wanting to break the yolk, the rhythm, the syncopation of
bonding, I still felt compelled to get out - the air, the smells,
the foreign language until now had consisted primarily of everything
inside her flat and little of the world outside. Not that I minded,
but it was getting unnerving as though without a backdrop of some
sort of reality to add dimension, the entire encounter might well
have been some sort of dream, a prolonged stare out the window in a
moving train letting my idle thoughts wander into the woods, flat
farmlands of Holland, the Belgium on to the mystery of arriving in Paris.

I wasn't gone long, mind you. I wanted to stretch my mind, like my
legs, to ascertain what I was thinking – my thoughts had not been my
own for the last day and a half. It was as though I had been sitting
for a painting and now wanted to see what it looked like.

At first, it was just a roll up and a coffee in the first café I came across.
But there was no real concentrating. Every fabric in my skin breathed her.
I could smell her perfume, her hair conditioner, her bed sheets, her voice lingered in my ears, a new and beautiful sound – everything that had been
in that flat had come with me in scented form and it was after all,
impossible to escape.

And there was no real walking. Yes, the movements were similar but
inside, I was floating – as though watching myself walk without
having to actually perform the act, or incapable of it. This is what
it must be like in the last milliseconds of life, I thought – the
experience often recounted of rising above the body, above the room,
the earth beneath you eventually growing so distant it is but a
speck as you are drawn to a greater light. This was infatuation in

The barman was saying something to me – no idea what – I had been
speaking aloud to myself, muttering as though completely alone and
now, caught in mid speech, I stamped out my cigarette, shrugged to
the barman and headed back out of the café into the street again.

I was able to accumulate a few provisions before returning to the
flat. Some eggs, several different cheeses, none of which were
familiar and so like gambling, just as with the wine, placing bets
based on the colour of a label or the way the words were assembled.
Bread was easy enough and ham I was well familiar with, as were the
smoked sausages and fruit.

When I returned to the flat it was as though we'd been living together
for years. There was an air of familiarity which only a short period
of time had woven yet a familiarity untinged by boredom or fatigue.
These two lives were affixed, however provisionally, to one another,
slapped together like a sandwich constructed from the remnants of the
fridge until one of us would allow a larger hunger to gnaw at us and it
would all be consumed. Was it prophetic or merely inevitable that one
or the other would eventually wear this relationship like a stringy sinew snapped and twisted, a meniscus tear or rotator cuff gone off its wheels.

Already she had assembled herself prior to my return, fatigued with
dreaming, too excited to lie still in contemplation, fidgety with
the temporality of my disappearance. This is how it was at first –
those first few drinks were just settling into the bloodstream and
you could feel the effect of the alcohol in the head yet the vision
was still clear, the speech, unslurred.

There was a hot bath running whilst she went about picking up the
clutter of accumulation the last few days had assembled.

What did you bring me, she asked impatiently, reflexively leaving
the sink and the dishes to greet me at the door as though we'd been
doing this already for years. Proudly, I emptied the contents of the
sacks – feasts for lovers, enough wine to set us into days of
oblivion – on to the table for approval. The contents said all I
cared to say: let us not leave this flat, not now, not ever, let us
maintain this clean oblivion and nest herein forever.

Her reaction was mixed.

It wasn't as though she didn't necessarily share the enthusiasm but
perhaps the enthusiasm, in hindsight, was tempered by reality – the
reality of knowing her own life rather than flinging herself
recklessly into this ritual as I was willing to do.

That's a lot of cheese and wine, she noted, picking through the
selection with expertise, rubbing labels with her thumb and
forefinger as though hoping to peel away a more sublime quality.
Starving artists, she shrugged to herself without further comment.
But it did not escape her that this appeared to be a survival kit
assembled to last for days, rather than hours. She didn’t seem sure yet
how that felt.

We shared meals although eventually, as though realising a hidden
crime in spending the entirety of my time in Paris in her flat,
Anastasia was able to lure me outside when the sun was brightest and
the flat was growing stale.

Out we went for walks on clichéd tours of the bookstalls of the
Quay, sifting through paperbacks and manuscripts, art histories,
bartering prices when one struck either of us. We spent hours in
museum cafés yet visited no museums, walked along the Seine, one
bank to another, crisscrossing bridges with reckless abandon and
spent token gestures sitting for hours in cafés, before eventually
touring bars and allowing a different form of intoxication to
overcome us.

Other days we would simply stay in doors if the weather was crap. We’d
lie out together on the rugs of the living room floor perhaps because it was
less suggestive than lying out together in bed. She’d recite poetry in French
to me in the afternoons, pieces she’d been made to memorise as a school girl which had stuck there in her mind year after year. Sometimes she’d recite
the lyrics of a song and if she let her guard down ever so slightly, I’d catch a snatch or two of her humming a tune.

Or she’d read books to me in French. I began to get the funny idea that if I stayed there in that flat long enough with her I’d learn French through simple osmosis. I’d never take a class, never pick up a book, just listen to her voice purring softly in that language, luring me in.

And so it went most days and nights. Mornings, incapable of sleep
once the repetition of traffic began outside the windows like the
breaking of waves on the beach and before long I'd be standing,
already accustomed to the reality that Anastasia would sleep well
beyond the stirrings of civilisation outside the flat and there
would be long hours alone for myself, these sort of moments I once
longed for until I began waking up in her flat. Then it was simply a matter
of killing time.

I killed time by walking as though boredom were a bomb waiting to go
off once the motion stopped.

I began with short forays, circles around neighbourhoods, up and down the hills of Montmartre with the spirals outward growing gradually. You could
be utterly ignorant of history and still wander through timeless unfamiliarity,
overcome by the senses – Albert would've had to page through a myriad of
history books and start each jaunt knowing precisely where he planned on
ending up simply because that's how he went about travelling. But I
was content to move in a dreamlike sequence, imagining history
without the facts, piecing it together in from the stories I
imagined overhearing in conversations I couldn't understand in
family-run cafés, butchers, cheese mongers and tobacconist shops.

Infatuation has a way of weaving its way into every moment, every
sight and sound, every impression and no matter how far I walked, I was always dreaming in this web of a future with Anastasia spent here – that I barely knew her or her habits made little difference as I tiled together
a mosaic of future moments walking those same streets; the moments
and sights and experiences conjured up from an imaginary future with
no basis in reality.

I tried to rationalise that this was simply a temporary experience,
following temptation, morsels of Anastasia left like crumbs
throughout the day to nibble on. I knew at the bottom of the barrel
there would nothing left eventually – how did I know this? I don’t know.
Some things you know instinctively. Good things ending badly, for
example. I had no contextual precedents, no history of good relationships
gone bad, no history of relationships at all to speak of. But that didn’t
matter. Innately I knew something so good would have to end badly.
Isn’t that what everyone else was always whining about?

Regardless, there was no stemming this benevolent rush of water overwhelming the emotional levy built in time to prevent precisely this
sort of infatuation from drowning me. There was only the walking and
the dreaming and once noon had come and gone I knew it would be time
to head back to her flat, that she'd already be awake, drawn gradually back
to consciousness, a dream kissed to life by coffee with a tiny shot of anisette.

And when I returned, there was no cause for further dreaming because
there I was, living the very dream I'd been walking through – a
punctual kiss and back to the business of waking because already I was
learning that nothing could be forced upon her and it was better
still to leave the hints and suggestions to her lest those dreams
start leaking from my head out of my mouth and into her ears and the
entire hideous charade was exposed.

In the first few days after we’d agreed silently but mutually, unspoken that
I would continue staying with her, by early afternoon, on my return from
those daily day dreaming walks we’d go back out in the streets for a small meal followed by another walk through one of many parks she so seemed
attached to, a history of places of refuge and solitude she shared that had
been accumulated over a lifetime. It was by no means solitude but there
was still a unique intimacy that must surely have been apparent to
strangers who might happen to have watched us from a distance.

I wanted to convince myself that we were like other couples we came
across but there was little evidence – you sensed that those people
around us had already had lengthy histories, had gone up and down a
hundred different times, had loved and spat bile at one another on occasion
to wound. My parents‘ relationship was my own real barometer. I
could not have known, didn’t ask, how she measured us against others.
We were neophytes, tentative, hardly ourselves but the best impressions
of ourselves.

And always it was me poking and prodding into her past getting
desultory answers which made the piecing together all the more
impossible. She showed occasional interest in my own background but
she appeared to prefer finding out it via tactical philosophical questions,
the kind of questions you might encounter on computer programmes
designed to evaluate your answers into a psychological profile.

She didn't like talking much about the past. Not that I did either but
if I delved into hers with a seemingly innocent question she'd quiet
immediately and between us it would seem as though a storm had
suddenly blown in on what had moments before been perfect weather –
sometimes she'd just change the subject abruptly, other times refuse
outright to delve any deeper – in either case, I didn't get much out
of her save for observations of things going on around us or little
historical miscellanea prompted by a turn around a corner, a
building's face, a street sign where a resistance member had fallen
in the liberation of Paris, impassive histories.

In so many ways it was an odd experience that I should have either
just broken away and returned to Utrecht before I'd become any more
pathetic with a lack of emotional control like a premature
ejaculator or should have somehow managed not to allow the emotion
to pervade me, to deflect it one moment after another like swatting
gnats around the head on a late summer afternoon.

And thus I was in the position of being in a constantly fluctuating
state between joy and melancholy, my nerves jumbled by too many
quirky stops and starts, too much caffeine or wine, emotion on the
fingertips like a match held too long and in some ways, when she
would make her inevitable departure for a gig at night, I'd be in some
ways, relieved to be alone again.

On the frequent nights she had gigs, she always demurred my
self-invitations to come along in audience. You would be too distracting,
she'd deflect. I would forget the lyrics of songs and lose a note or two.
This is my profession, Witold. Can you imagine me hanging
around with you in that law firm you worked in or staring you down
at a gig you and Albert were playing? Of course not, she answered
herself before I could interject with the truth, and so it is with me in
my work place, that’s what these places are, even if it is just a dingy
nightclub, just a work place, a job.

Of course I never bothered contradicting her. I’d have loved the
distraction of her presence when Albert and I were on stage. I think
I’d even have enjoyed having her sitting next to me in that law firm.
But that, I rationalised, was the difference between an amateur and professional performer. The difference between someone who was
becoming hopelessly infatuated and someone who was merely with
someone for the company, for the change of pace.

The enigmas of Anastasia were partly woven by odd phrases which I
could never quite decipher were meant to portray a deeper meaning
than a twisted phrase in English, or were merely grammatical errors
or nuances with no hidden agenda. How can you tell with a
woman around whose every corner another unsettling inability to
pinpoint lurked?

One afternoon we were walking and as we walked she started telling
me a story about this Parisian girl named Amélie Hélie, a singer who had
lived sometime around the beginning of the 1900s. Anastasia told me
she’d been given the nickname the Casque d'Or for her lengthy, golden hair.

She told me how the leaders of two rival bands or gangs in the
neighbourhood we were at that moment walking through, a Corsican by
the name of Leca and his rival, Manda, had both fallen in love with Amelie, madly, brutally.

Their competition for her eventually grew into a big battle that one day
on this very street, rue de Haies, blew up into a confrontation with knives
and guns. Both leaders were arrested and later had to appear before the
Magistrate to answer the charges against them.

The magistrate keeps badgering Manda about why the battle had broken
out in the first place, refusing to believe their original confessions,
that it hadn’t been over neighbourhood territory, but a girl. Manda said
something to the magistrate like, we fought each other, the Corsican
and me, because we love the same girl. We're crazy about her. Don't
you know what it is to love a girl?

So what happened I asked, thinking the magistrate must have seen the
logic of love and jealousy drawing two men to battle and, realising their
noble purposes, had let them free to fight some knightly battle for
the girl's hand.

Anastasia and I had stopped walking and were simply standing off to the
side of the street as passers-by dodged us.

After a pause, she answered; I think Manda got a life sentence and Leca got 20 years or something and they were both deported off to hard labour.

Hmmm. The magistrate wasn't swayed toward violent demonstrations of
love? Romanticism thrown to the wolves of justice?

Something like that, Anastasia answered, suddenly distracted.

But worse still, she continued before pausing again, waiting dramatically for me to light her cigarette. A friend of Leca, seeking revenge for his comrade, found Amélie one night in the club where she sang and stabbed her. She
didn't die, but she could no longer perform as a singer. Never again.
She's buried at Bagnolet now. Sometimes, Witold, it isn't sufficient in
life not to let yourself fall in love because letting someone else
fall in love with you instead can have equally damning consequences.


Instead of ripping my fingers into her soil and digging further, the
foreboding facial expressions, the slight change in pitch of vocal
chords, which she must in any case, as a singer been a master of,
all conspired to convince me to be satisfied with not knowing
more, about her, about these stories, about her own history, to accept
without further innuendo, whatever was presented.


So tell me a weakness of yours, she purred as we shuffled along the
perimeter of the Bois du Boulogne one afternoon. We’d been walking
silently for a distance when she asked this and then, as to give me encouragement or strength, she took hold of my hand, the first real
gesture she’d ever made of affection in public to me.

I didn’t say anything at first; in part out of surprise at the question itself
and in part because caught off guard, I was a little stumped for an answer.

You mean other than drinking or alcoholism, I asked, trying to laugh.

No, I mean something I wouldn’t know without knowing you.

How about not being able to be close to anyone, not having feelings
sufficient to register, I dunno, emotion?

Don’t be silly, she laughed again, cavalier yet not malicious. I can tell
you have feelings. You have feelings for this friend you travelled with,
Albert, and…she stopped walking and tried to stare up at me on her
tip toes, a favourite endearing gesture of hers. You have feelings for me,
don’t you Witold?

I suppose it was meant to be cute, maybe even coy, but her comment immediately terrified me. The idea of despite having done my best to
remain what I thought was sort of casual and natural in the matter, she’d
seen clear through me without the slightest hesitation or doubt.

I’m joking, she immediately amended, seeing the look in my face and
deciding to take my hand again. Don’t take it the wrong way, Witold.
It’s just that you’ve said you have no feelings and I just find that very
hard to believe. I think you are just trying to hide behind some tough
façade of disillusionment, you don’t seem as cold to me as you seem
to try and portray, that’s all.

I laughed aloud, a laugh whose force was meant to convey a mutual understanding of the hilarity, of the absurdity of the joke, my joke,
her joke, the contemplation of feelings at all or for each other, but
which perhaps left to its own devices, had sounded sarcastic and bitter.

I know that, I muttered finally as we recommenced our walk. It’s you
who fell for the act, not me, I corrected.


The days continued to roll by in something that verged on being a
pattern, becoming a habit.

And that pattern, which I maintained religiously in the fear that not doing
so would somehow upset the delicate cosmic balance we’d attained, was
that I always the first up, that I would leave the flat to venture out for a
walk, stop at the bakery for fresh bread and pastries, the fruit stall for grapes and berries or sometimes a pineapple and whilst I was gone she would rouse herself, make some coffee and wait for my return.

Although historically such an arrangement, even a relationship, was
something I was entirely unaccustomed to, it was clearly something at least
I could grow to want to be accustomed to.

Yet lurking in the back ground, always, was the innate certainty that
eventually the penny would drop. In part because it seemed only natural
to me that something of this nature; peaceful, contented, fulfilling, would eventually run its course and be replaced by the usual course of events so
that life could return to its predictable roots of apathy, it’s regularly
scheduled pattern of casual indifference.

And also in part because in a sense, she could have only let me in, and
perhaps even I could have only allowed myself to be let in, because of
the transient nature of our bond to begin with.

Oh, I certainly allowed myself the luxury, even after only a few days, of believing, even if only in a crippled way of believing; knowing the belief would be rewarded with pain eventually. But that luxury was enjoyed only
to the limits pessimism and reality would allow. I could even convince myself to a point that I could sense a slight, though tangible shift in her attitude toward me; begrudged affection grown in a soil of initial laissez
faire indifference.

Nonetheless, the day was coming, would come and half of my experiences with her were tormented by the knowledge that down the road, I’d pay for
my pleasure. Over the years you begin to believe you could only
realistically allow yourself to open up to a certain degree and begin slowly
to let your guard down. That’s how it works, in my opinion. The longer something goes well the more chance there is you’ll let your guard down
and then Bam! the consequences of that carelessness would be revealed.

In any event, as part of our established routine, once we were ready to
depart the flat for the afternoon, Anastasia would ask me only to give
her a number which she would embellish as an arrondisement, a
neighbourhood, a destination, and from that we would set out on our
walks, stopping after a few hours for a pichet of wine in a café, sometimes just sitting in the grass or on benches in various parks, riding the Metro. We’d then continue walking until there was little energy left and then
we’d buy bread with sausage or cheese and consume them in torn hunks, washed down by wine or water and if the weather was agreeable, followed
by a nap in the park.

The common theme in our time together, regardless of what we did,
was that we would talk about anything but our pasts. I’d always
imagined that you’d need to know everything about someone, their
histories, their amusements and tragedies, likes and dislikes, the litany
of former loves gone bad, childhoods, all that, before you could sense
any kind of growing attachment to someone. It’d always seemed to me
in New York like such an impossible proposition, having to spend years,
or at least months, digging the trenches for the foundation of a relationship that I never even tried to enter into it. It seemed such a
formidable undertaking that I didn’t think it were possible, that couples
I’d see before me would have endured years of painful formulation
before reaching any remote state of comfort and content.

You know, like when you reach a moment when two of you might be
together and start reminiscing about first meeting because after a few
months or years together you have a shared past and the past you don’t
share; that which you’d lived individually in the orbits of others before
ever having known the person you were with, and that past was shared
through telling stories about your past so that your past wasn’t just an
empty space from then to the present but that there’d be a bridge between
the two like “your” past and “our” present.

But that wasn’t how it worked with the two of us. It was sufficient for me
that she appeared to be fond of me, for whatever reason. I didn’t have to
know her past to feel close to her. Maybe because I wasn’t really close to
her, didn’t even really feel a desire to be, or at least a desire to be that wasn’t tinged with reluctance. What if her past held horrible secrets or revealed
things about her that would ruin the illusion we’d built together? What
if my past bored her to tears and turned her away from me? No, I only
wanted that sense of feeling wanted, that was all I could stomach and that
was as close as I needed to get to her, at least as the hours slid by.

By late afternoon those days, or early evening, it would eventually become
time for her to go back, prepare for work, for singing. Although each
day I did my best to ignore time there would be that inevitable point in the
day when Anastasia, for whom time still mattered because she had places
to be, would pull up softly, holding me at arms length and looking me up
and down as if it was going to be the last time she’d see me.

She didn’t have to say anything, I’d already knew that shortly she’d be
on her way, leaving me to my own neurotic and predictable devices
wherever we happened to be because we never gently eased our way
back towards her flat, we simply walked until a certain time and then
she’d be gone. As though I’d dreamt her up all on my own.

And so left on my own by the time rush hour traffic was hitting
its peak as though the timing of it were meant not to leave me alone
but united with the thousands of souls racing around the boulevards
and traffic circles to keep me company in her absence.

It was then the thirst would overtake me. I needed conversations in
a city whose language I didn't speak.

Instead I walked from wherever we had been, wherever she’d left me to
attend to her own affaires, with the scent of her perfume still in my
nostrils, and headed for the Panthéon, the beginning of a long, winding
journey through a bastion of student life forward to the Place de la Contrescarpe and then behind there, a few streets of misdirection later and
I'd find myself at Le Teddy's, a bar I’d come across quite by chance one
late afternoon the first few days after she’d started leaving me and a place
which I’d felt a simple affinity for straight away, the ground through
which I'd slammed my pole and flag of discovery as my local, my oasis
and new-found reality of solitude again all at once.


Walking worked well in the mornings but once the dark of day's
business end drew a curtain across the sky and the paths were more
uncertain, the markings less clear, it was time to head indoors and
as most places before and since I would discover, with time and
persistence, a predictable presence, eventually humanity would
return to me. Perhaps it was equally me returning to humanity once a
few beers had registered their effect, oiling my jaw and mouth enough to
dare speak to strangers without knowing the language of strangers and intimated through facial movements and hand gestures until inevitably, someone would show up or make their presence known and the roadblock
to communication would disappear through translation.

There were delineated stages of the evening defined by the coming
and going of customers and regulars whilst I remained planted at a
key position in the middle of the bar, wandering through one
conversation after another until the hours had filled up as simply
as empty beer mugs and before I knew it, time to return to Anastasia's
flat for a midnight snack and a shower.

Yet even within the course of several nights haunting this same
place I was able to discover revocable bonds with some of the
locals, Didier, the young artist, full of rancour and venom, a caustic
burning being who drank and spoke in staccato bursts both confusing
and enlightening, and Alan, an expat musician whose free time was
spent, whose passion was marked by, retracing the steps of Gypsy
guitarist Django Reinhard.

Inside Teddy's, after time we’d be roaring to life beyond happy hour.
Didier, with Alan in his garish shadow, chattered away to anyone and everyone around him, fuelled by passion and drink, known to everyone reluctantly as he sifted through the flotsam of the bar tide, his comrades
often fallen away, one after another until only Alan and myself would
be remaining from the original crowd and the old guard had been
replaced by a new one, the later night shift of drinkers and sometimes
strange conversationalists.

Didier and Alan had met in a bistro somewhere on St Andre des Arts.
Alan had been busking as he walked with a tin can attached to a neck
brace by a flexible metal arm, the kind you might see on a freely
bendable lamp, so as to allow the passers-by to, if inclined and
sufficiently entertained, to reach into their pockets for spare change
and drop it in as he passed. So the theory went, anyway. He said he
often thought it was more the strange invention that caught peoples’
attention than his playing but for whatever reason, Didier, who had been brooding over a coffee and a copy of Valery Larbaud’s Journal d’A, immediately leapt from his table, grabbing Alan by the arm in mid
guitar stroke and pulled him back to his own table. He wanted him as
his own discovery, even if Alan wasn’t his own invention.

Thereafter, Alan, who was staying in a run down hostel in the 11th at
the end of Canal St Martin, took Didier up on the invitation to stay with
him at his studio flat on rue Saint-sauveur where they would work on
a jazz musical based roughly on Django’s biography. Although Didier couldn’t play an instrument, his scattershot creativity flowed sufficiently
that he’d written lyrics for seven songs and had a loose script put together before Alan had even finished his second composition.

I’ll tell you about one night, just as an example, because it was like so
many others; as I get us all a round in, Didier immediately switches from
Alan, who is already feeling sleepy enough to seriously consider curling
up in a corner on the floor in the back of the bar because Didier refuses to
lend him the flat key, to me. Didier has other fish to fry. He wanted Alan there, keeping the conversation warm until someone else, namely me,
turned up. He was worked up in a particular froth and needed to spit it
out. Apparently, earlier in the afternoon, a butcher insulted his sensitivity
by refusing to accept a poem as barter for a shoulder of lamb and since then, he’d been on an apoplectic edge.

Do you feel as though you've been especially summoned, that there is
a special calling for you as an artist? Are you particularly alienated with a pronounced sense of being misunderstood by conventional wisdoms, bourgeois moralities?

He was asking me these questions, he the unemployed poet, the aspiring
artist, the man who couldn't simply allowing himself to drown in his drink
and keep quiet about it.

What's the point anyway, I ask pointedly as Alan takes the opportunity to
slip off to the toilets. He‘s heard it all already that afternoon. Hours of it.

Isn't this all some crutch you use to get through your daily misgivings your dissatisfaction with yourself in comparison to the accomplishments of the others? What purpose does your art serve other than a selfish mechanism of
petty, egotistical indulgences?

What purpose does my art serve? He asked with incredulity. What
purpose do you serve if we are speaking about purposes. What is your
utility, he spat bitterly? Is there some very special yet hidden trait woven
into your genomes that will come to fruition and blossom in the
righteousness of your purpose?

Calm down, Didier, I caution, licking my lips nervously as other
patrons are looking at us out of the corners of their eyes. What I
mean to ask is what purpose do you propose your creativity to be
used for other than yourself?

Why should my creativity serve any purpose other than for myself, he
asked, clearing his throat of Gitanes phlegm like a plumber snakes a
clogged toilet. I suffer enough from my choices, they make sure I do
suffer indeed for not being one of their productive members of
society…I could never calculate the psychological damage brought
upon me by seeing the contempt in their eyes. And why then do you
think I drink? Who wouldn't under these circumstances? What are you
saying, simply because I cannot subordinate my art into acceptable
consumerist values like writing commercial jingles about disposable
diapers or creating new superlatives for the unique comfort and
absorption of a particular brand name tampon, I should crawl into my
preternatural cave to wallow in my own isolation, fed on disgust,
shat into neat little pellets that can be easily swept up and
disposed of as if I never existed?

The monologue was spat forth with great intensity, with barely a
breath drawn. And just why are we suffocated with this doomed sense
of having to justify ourselves and our utility to others? Do you
think the pimply teenage bagging groceries in the Carrefour
hypermarché is pissing himself over his lack of purpose? A
paper-shuffler, lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth of spread sheets
and interoffice memos is scratching his head wondering why he hasn't
yet soared to the heights of his corporate manager, fluent in
corporate techno speak gibberish?

This silly question of yours, questioning the purpose of my
forsaking the chain gang of subordinates, pacified by television
soma, beaten into submission by the overwhelming nature of keeping
up, this is nothing to me. I laugh at it. I am proud of being a poet,
a craftsman. Proud of not being nothing, beautiful for it, in fact.
Look, Gautier once wrote that only things that are altogether
useless can truly be beautiful; anything that is useful is ugly
because it is the expression of some need and the needs of man are
base and disgusting as his nature is weak and poor. -

And furthermore, he added, warming to his subject like a university
professor unwittingly lured from the patina of his daily monologue
in front of an unfocused group of students, you will remember that
Frank Zappa, your own countryman, simplified art into being the act
of making something from nothing and selling it. There’s your utility.

And that is what the purpose of my art is. Not to cultivate myself
out of egoism, not simply to avoid the plague of working for some
other fat pig who will make profit from my sweat and leave me
scratchings in return. The purpose of my art is to elevate me out of
this slavery of civilisation…to free me to be myself, not just the
self in front of you in physical disarray, but the self I am beneath
all the surfaces, the subconscious, the bones, the gristle and
blood, the ineptitude of years, deep down below all of this, like an
object buried in a landfill which will never be dug out, lies
myself, the self I am trying to discover, my only reason for living
here, now drinking this beer with you, walking home – all of it
seems entirely without purpose unless it is in the name of this

I heard Didier's voice ringing in my ears all the way home, having
finally extracted myself politely, excused myself, my existence,
wondering whether I was beautiful or ugly, useless, or useful…the
world was upside down and I was rapidly becoming a slave to the
schedule of Anastasia. This was my sense of purpose.


And sometime before dawn I would hear the key in the door as I lie
attempting to sleep despite the racing of an adrenaline heart and
the anticipation like a dog of his master coming home and I would
hear her footsteps creeping quietly across the front room floor and
after giving her time to pour a glass of wine and have a seat, I
would rise as well, feigning as though I'd been sleeping all along
and we would go through a predictable round of apologies for waking
me as though I hadn't been waiting like a predator all evening for
this particular moment to arrive and my subsequent dismals of the
apologies for wanting her company and pouring a glass of wine
myself she would unwind her evening to me in great detail, each song
that she sung, the reaction of the crowd at particular moments, whom
she spoke with, whom she met, what she had to drink in between sets
until every detail had been scratched into my imagination deeply
enough that I could almost convince myself I'd been there as well.

She was often exhausted by the effort, the reliving and recounting
but would relax more deeply asking me about the conversations I
managed to remember from the evening, which characters I could
myself recall through the hazy evening. I’d recount pieces of Didier’s
daily diatribes and half the stories I made up from conversations I'd
had before with Albert because the truth was, a great deal of the
conversations I'd had, mired as they were in a lack of common
language and the tilting back of glasses invariably meant that I'd
spend most of those conversations determining the dialogue myself as
though I were writing it now free from the slowing tactics of alcohol
and translations.

Don't you get bored of that place, those people, the same beers, the
same faces?

No, they are like a human glue holding me together some nights. I
suppose I could have found better uses of my time but the truth is,
coming home to your empty flat with so much time to kill is like
sitting on death row awaiting a stay of execution. I need these
people, like I've needed all the people before them – if I am a
juggler, their faces are the balls I am juggling and concentrating
on those faces I am able to juggle.

Through the candlelight of the flat, I could see her staring at me –
Oh, you're just a drunk, Witold; you don't have to make excuses just
for me. I can't judge you any more than myself – it isn't the faces
as often it is the drink you are juggling and instead of helping the
concentration it is merely distracting it. I know, I've done in for
many years here and alone.

But we don't have to be alone, I would protest as though arguing
with a republican about the merits of the royal family. We've worn
paths through ourselves in that pattern, being alone and just as
easily, with time, we can wind paths through each other…

And the moat would be drawn back in and her feet would curl and her
knees hugged closer to her chest. Not now, she would murmur. Not yet
and maybe never but still always possible. There are a lot of years
on that same path with too many false steps in wrong directions.
That's why I need this time alone even if the one thing I seem to
want most is to be with you.

The value of life can be calculated only by the itemisation of the
sum and intensity of experiences, she said.

One of the reasons I keep all these photographs of strangers, she
was explaining early that morning after undressing and pouring a
glass of cognac from a bottle purloined from the club, is because I
try to abstract the particulars from the universal, the parts from
this composite. I wonder all the time what it is that makes one or
two men, say, out of a collection of them in one photograph, here,
she gestured, handing over a photograph of black-faced miners
standing below the photographer looking up as if from the bowels of
hell, regarding God. Look at this photograph. Notice how one or two
of the faces particularly grab you – why? Is it the angle of the
light, the photographer's vision, or some internal aura that the
captured soul demonstrates for that one split second?

She calmed after this sales pitch of the individual over the
collective and visibly decided that I could be trusted with her next
line of reasoning. When I regard men I wonder what qualities about
them I might admire, what characteristics might I absorb through
being in their presence – of course, the obvious – the only
qualities which are not intentionally hidden or cannot be hidden in
our venal society, are the easiest, yet least accurate measure of
judging. I cannot tell from looking at this photograph, any history
of the strangers below. I cannot decided who would be the more
caring lover, who would make the better father, who would be the
drunkard simply from the wild spirit yet in their eyes, those little
white circles peering out from the soot of their faces, but I can tell
somehow who among them was a decent man…

The candour was overwhelming when it came spilling out of her like
that so unexpectedly that I'd almost want to ask her to repeat it
again to make sure it hadn't been just another imagined bit of
dialogue in my head on a morning walk of dreaming.

I wanted to believe her but I wondered instead, with a vague jealous
passion, what she was doing. I wondered about friends which she
must have had whom she didn't introduce me to. I wondered if there
was someone else allowed to attend her gigs, wondered how many
lovers amongst the musicians she had taken or still took. I wondered
who stared at her dreamily as she sang, who invited her for drinks
between sets, who she shared jokes with and if of any of them, she
explained my sudden appearance.

Her minute descriptions of her evening always pointedly ignored what
was probably the reality of most of her evenings, whether it was
merely in my imagination or not.

I have to admit, my heart was fairly limping along with me those
nights. It was a rather unfamiliar feeling; queasiness, excitement,
uncertainty. The hours we spent together seemed like part of the
same stitched together during sleep and the moment we parted,
reality loomed ahead again. I didn't think about Utrecht or Albert
or any other moment in my life. I was living solely for the moment
when we would meet up again.


I have something to tell you Witold, she mentioned casually as we
sat in Jardin du Luxembourg tearing off hunks of bread from a loaf
and stuffing it with cheese whilst washing the meal down with wine.
I sat up, alarmed. Finally the penny would drop.

I've had a month-long gig scheduled for some time, a gig that I
can't really break or postpone and it's not here in Paris.

No problem, I shrugged, I'll come along.

No….she drew her words out carefully, shaking her head. We can't
really do that you see…first of all, the place that booked me allows
me free room and board which isn't to share…

I could find a place wherever it is and stay back, in the
shadows-like, I smiled playfully, unable to mask the fear in my

Well, you know how I feel about having you see my gigs…there just
isn't much point. Besides, I want to have some time alone. To digest
all of this, she explained calmly, waving her hand somewhere in the
vicinity between her and I.

Aha, I knew there was a catch to all this sudden happiness, I lamely
attempted to joke. Boyfriend stashed away somewhere else?

She smiled patiently. She must have known all along in the back of her mind, with more certainty than I because she knew, I could only suspect this day would come. She must have thought long and hard about this to herself, what to say, how to say it, what my possible reactions would be, the inherent dangers in one reply or another. She would have allowed, or even cultivated my continued presence in her life on a daily basis, she must have felt, if not her own then at least my own growing reliance on her presence. And yet surely, even for her it could not have been easy, as we bonded, knowing this secret of the gig lurking in the future. Perhaps there’d been no reason to tell me after all, any of these days we’d shared could have been the last just as easily as it could have flown into the following day. There had been no need to tell me, we had no ties together in the future. We were simply thriving in the present.

No, no boyfriend stashed elsewhere in a secret cupboard in another town, she laughed ironically. It's just like I said, time alone to reflect. Besides, isn’t your friend Albert going to start worrying about you? You haven’t called or written to him in nearly a fortnight. Won’t he get tired of waiting?

Albert? I nearly laughed. Albert will be getting drunk every night, will chain smoke his way through each day, will play or listen to music. The thought of what had happened to me might cross his mind, sure. But Albert is not going anywhere. Not yet anyway. And what if I rang the café he frequents and left a message for him? Not back for another month. Chasing paradise.

She laughed but still shook her head. You don’t mean to tell me that this comrade of yours who you’ve come all the way over from New York with to play jazz together in Europe with, he’ll barely notice you’re gone and worse still, won’t even care that you are?

No, Albert is not a man who worries about anything but where his next beer
is coming from. So it isn’t necessary to try to deflect this into something
about Albert and me. This is something about me and you.

I felt instantly and regrettably bitter.

She smiled with discomfort, touching my head gently.

When I return, I will come up to Utrecht to visit you…


There were, of course, untold questions I wanted to ask but I wasn't
sure I really wanted to know the answers. There were nights of
unflinching truths I'd often heard my father express about things I
could only imagine, truths which were usually better left unspoken,
as he often impressed upon me about my mother.

Deep down the desire to pout and pull in as though doing so would
alter the reality of the situation was overwhelming at times. Any
inducement out of pain, any remedy for the imagination of incessant
infidelities or worse still, apathy. I wanted to insist on coming
along, verifying myself things were as innocent as they were being
portrayed but I wasn't certain I wanted to be around to find out
they weren't.

I wanted to say fuck the whole thing, sorry I'd come along for the
ride, wanted to roll in a slough of my own bile, my own greed for
more, my own infatigable paranoias and distrust. But I didn't want
to feel this new limb severed, didn't care for the idea of feeling
the numbness set in, the futile blankness of knowing something that
was once full with promise had been emptied, deflated, punctured. I
knew better somehow, innately, not to want either extreme for
neither extreme instinctively, was the answer, merely an impatient

Play it cool, coldly and calmly and play it warm, supple and with
feeling, I told myself deciding to ignore all but the simple reality that
we’d be parting, for however long.


So the next morning, bitterest of mornings, reeking fear and regret,
I was seen off. Anastasia seemed genuinely disturbed by the looming
departure but I, as the entire time I'd been trying to piece her
together, hour by hour, sleeping or awake, through gestures, facial
expressions, hidden meanings in seemingly innocuous utterances,
remained as confused as ever about whether there was any difference
between what she appeared and sounded and felt and what she really
was – what did I knew even after all these days and hours
accumulated like rain water in a bucket left outside in a draught,
was that I didn't know her at all. I didn't trust her, I didn't
understand her yet somehow I was able to convince myself there was
something growing in me which she was unquestionably a part of – as
though the root of an indigestion can be pinpointed through a
specific meal, oh, it was the chilli dogs and sauerkraut, no doubt.

So departure was drawn out with a breadcrumb trail of promises and
yet still somehow, even though I was apprehensive about it, relieved
and heavily medicated from our farewell night that drew out into the
early first train of the morning in the direction of Amsterdam, I
wanted to leave the thread of this emotion at the station and let it
unravel all the way to the end of the journey so that at any time,
if either of us had been so inclined, we could merely follow the
strand of thread all the way back to the origin, crawling through a
tiny hole in the universe that had begun with a stilted conversation
in a night club.

CHAPTER ELEVEN: After The Burn Fades
“And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row”

-Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

Odd, what a difference a woman can make.

With each rail mile I put between Paris and myself the greater the
impression became that I’d just spent two weeks as the unwitting target
of an elaborate hoax or a prolonged hallucination.

I tried to coax myself into believing that regardless of the outcome the
time had been well spent, an irrevocably memorable. But you know how it
is when you attempt to delude yourself with one voice in your head only
to be shouted down by the other voice; the one preaching an unrelenting
version of a different reality: eventually you tire and surrender to the lesser
reality, the one you are accustomed to accepting without question.

So as Paris faded away and gradually became Brussels, as I put my body
through the motions of train changing, distracted my brain with departure
schedules and track locations, I found temporary relief in realising that
I was after all, heading back to a somewhat more familiar destination in
Utrecht, although not quite the familiar domesticity of home at least a
place with familiar faces, a place with the distraction of Albert, of music
of working and drinking.

Yet once again on the train and settled in my seat I took to staring out
the window as the Belgian countryside brushed by like a series of strangers
on a familiar street, lost in reliving every memory I could manage to
piece together as though this were a simple exercise, a reminiscence of
every note played in a show.

Was it so long ago pulling into the Utrecht Central Station with
Albert, eyes brimming raw with excitement and now, one woman later,
every kilometre left behind on the tracks was a deeper surge of the
incommunicable pain racing through the veins, numbing yet
simultaneously heightening the pain.

There was little to do in Utrecht but pine away, stuff two week's
worth of memories into every day to be replayed over and over, hour
by hour like a television sitcom you've seen so many times you find
yourself mouthing the dialogue in sync with the characters.

It's not like we ever had that much to do to distract ourselves with
in the beginning.

Considering our cramped quarters, it was a relief to pick up black
work through Arjen, a friend of Cees who had his own small building
company engaged in the demolition and renovation of apartments, if
only to get out, focus on something other than memories and clear some
space in the head.

My father’s sudden disappearance had interrupted my apprenticeship
at his job sites as an electrician and carpenter but I had retained
enough familiarity to be able to make my way around Arjen's work
sites dabbling in small building jobs and so passed most days working
off the steam of infatuation with my hands.

At first it was more than sufficient as a distraction. Day over, I
would gather myself back to the flat, filthy from head to toe and
exhausted. If he wasn't already in a pub or café, Albert would be
drinking steadily in the flat, chain smoking and listening to music
through the flea market stereo he bought whilst I’d been in Paris.
The flat, as I refamiliarised myself with it after two weeks away, was still
above that Somali takeaway on Amsterdamsestraatweg, one flight above
the kitchen where food was prepared. We still shared the bathroom and
shower facilities with the cook and her staff and then another flight above
it, the top floor of the building which opened from a kitchenette into a
10 x 15 metre bare wood floor flat.

We'd partitioned the space as best as possible but it was a small
space for two people no matter how you tried to allocate it. A large
kitchen table never used for eating on, just dumping stuff on – books,
papers, empty beer bottles, clothes, rags and whatever else found it's way
into the flat but no further – the kitchen table acting as a sort of border
Guard between the entry and chaos, was off to the right clearing a vague
path into what we determined to be a combination of a front parlour and
makeshift bedroom made up of a futon which I slept on although usually
only it's sofa form, rarely bothering to even pull it out, avoiding the trouble
of having to push it all back in the following morning. Just before entering
the parlour there was a small ladder leading to a small crawl space within
which Albert had tossed a mattress and a few small drawers. It wasn't of
such a height that he could stand up straight in it but in most
cases he didn't seem to care as it was enough work to crawl up into
the space and onto the mattress to snooze away the hours.

We had no television – like freaks without societal connections, our
only method of newsgathering was via innuendo and gossip in
Marktzicht and even then, limited.

It was odd to consider that in every café the uniqueness of its regular
patrons would render the innuendo and gossip individualised and that
this went on in cafes and pubs not just here but every city in Holland,
in every country of the world you might imagine, until the multiplications
of humans, squeezing out the bitterness and complaints of the day as they refuelled with alcohol would have seemed mind-boggling, the chatter overwhelming and unique or not, predictable.

Everything had a method in the day of a worker. Following work there
was the obligatory shower although some either too lazy or too
impatient for drink would go directly to the café and start in. In
either situation, by 6, the café was flush with workers sat around
tables, depending on the weather in or out of doors, drinking beers
and gossiping, filling the air with themselves, their voices, their

And then as though deflating, they would get up one by one and head
home for dinner content that they were sufficiently buzzed to make
it through their meal for an hour or two of blank stare television and then

The first night out with Albert after my return from Paris I attempted
explaining the meaning of Anastasia without knowing myself what that
meaning had been other than two weeks of pleasure, two weeks filling a
unique hole in my soul that I‘d never previously contemplated filling. In
fact, although intoxication and distractions had blocked recalling doing so,
I'd actually managed a few cryptic postcards to him that I wasn't coming
back straight away yet beyond that, I hadn't mentioned anything. Now I was
a faucet that couldn't be turned off.

In time it was up to Albert to shut me up. Although at first he’d seemed
quite keen on absorbing the details, in time, the redundancy of the story
itself began to gnaw away at him like a festering sore.

Nothing's more annoying than listening to someone prattle on about
some girl, he explained, some infatuation, some inability to shut one's
mouth for a moment long enough to allow the other to get a word in

So you see, he continued, delighted in the break of my unrelenting
story to infuse his own version of reality, there is nothing more boring.
We have an entire world here to talk about, gigs to rehearse for, side
streets to explore, people to meet. I can't stomach the idea of spending
the next few weeks listening to you prattle on about some girl you just
met as though you'd already had five kids with her and you were reliving
your memories on a deathbed fifty years later. Enough already. I get the picture. You’re infatuated. I've got every detail stored away in my head.
Now seeing as how the situation won't be changing any time soon, might
I suggest we go back about our business and end this incessant warbling
about love and women?

He was right, of course. At this rate I would drive away every friend
we'd made since we’d arrived so I directed this passion and enthusiasm
to writing letters to her instead. Virtual encyclopaedias they were, devotionals, hymns, scraps of poetry, lyrics, new Dutch words I'd
learned, things I saw in a given day that reminded me of her in every blade
of grass, every shift in the wind, changing of the sky, dawn to dusk as
though there was not a droplet of a single second I wished to pass without
her having knowledge of it.

Anyone can tell you such obsession is not only unhealthy, but bound
by its very nature to disappoint, Albert continued, perhaps feeling a tinge of
guilt for his recriminations. Unless of course, you can imagine a
reciprocal relationship where the emotions of one are equal to the
emotions of another, in depth and intensity – fake, naïve love, if you will,
which is not bound to last. For every pair of high school sweethearts,
pledging an undying love they think is there, rolled out like a line of custom-
made Rolls Royces, there are five times as many crap cars manufactured
whose shells you will see littering streetscapes – just like these false senses
of love and harmony. We aren't meant to spend our time wallowing in love
with one another; we aren't wired for it because it's too self-destructive.
What would man ever accomplish if he spent all his time trying to fall in
love rather than merely trying to get laid?

Albert was one who often preached about the utility of whores – lamenting
the simplicity with which man's second most difficult labour after the
effort to acquire power, the effort to get laid, could have been made if
the world had merely embraced prostitution rather than try to sweep it
under the carpets of morality. Can you imagine, he would struggle
breathlessly with the potential of this fantasy of his, can you imagine
if everywhere in the world were like Holland, if getting laid was merely
a matter of walking around the corner with 100 euros and a hard on
in your pocket? Can you imagine all the broken hearts that would have
been saved, all the fucking time and trouble we men could have been
spared all these years? Fuck. You think man has progressed and advanced
so far in this space of time and yet you wonder what he might have been
able to do, far greater heights in far less a period of time had he not been consumed with constructing methods and schemes for getting laid or worse,
falling in love….

But Albert, I argued with that flutter of infatuation in my heart now
enlarged by the beer, a light-headedness that distorted reality into a
pleasant sensation. Certainly you can't imagine all of those women
being merely enterprising young capitalists who don't mind exchanging
a series of sucks and fucks over a period of several years in exchange
for financial security? Surely you recognise that the majority are there
against their will, or against their nature, forced by circumstances into a
half life of prostitution. Surely you can understand how unsavoury it must
be for them, day in and day out to take men into their bodies, no matter
how clinical the method is with which they deal with these bodies who
have little or no personalities, just hard little dicks to compel them. I mean,
do you imagine them all merely nymphomaniacs who found a sound
financial mechanism through which to express their nymphomania?

Albert scoffed. They do so voluntarily, he muttered into his beer.

Sure, maybe the idea of servicing a dozen disgusting men a day isn't
so appealing but I'll tell you what IS appealing…the money they make
afterwards. I've spoken to them in great detail about this because
their lives fascinate me. Do you realise that here, out in the turpitude
of freedom rather than the dark shadows of some moralistic insanity
that forces prostitutes into true servitude; pimps, beatings, rapes, the
whole nine yards, here, it is a simple matter of paying your rent for a
room for the night or for the afternoon. You pay the rent and the rest is
yours, the decision on how much you make, how many you are willing
to fuck, how industrious you choose to be is entirely your own. It's free
enterprise, he stated, poking his finger in my chest. Let's say, and
I know from having asked, that a room costs a girl the equivalent of
200 bucks or less a night. In an eight hour shift, let‘s say a woman can take,
on average eight to sixteen men at let's say a going rate of 50 dollars a pop.
Do you realise the money involved? Hell, if I were a woman, I'd do
it. I wouldn't care. Keep your eyes closed, let your mind wander, what's
the difference? After awhile it’s merely reflex and professionalism and
at the end of the night you've got a fat bankroll of cash to keep you

You're going to absurd lengths to justify visiting whores instead of
trying to meet the local girls, I pointed out.

Bah, he spat. Meet the local girls. What for? So I can waste hours of
my time trying to impress them? So I can spend my own money on
them, to treat them like royalty, let them think their own shit doesn't
smell, say anything just to impress, just to convince them that at I
should be allowed between her legs? Why the stultifying
conversations alone make that a withering proposition. I don't want
to talk to women. It's been my experience that women, once they
believe they have you in their clutches and no longer have to be
interesting, will immediately fall back on the old clichés of
shopping and nagging, nagging and shopping, planning the nest,
blablabla. The whole thing makes me sick to contemplate. And for
what? Just to get laid? I don't want to have any children. Do I look
like husband or father material, he asked rhetorically with a laugh,
standing back, holding out his arms so that I could regard his full character.
No, of course not. And so what am I left with? Lies. Acting. Convincing myself that wasting a several hours of my time in a bar with a complete stranger is somehow worth it all just because on the periphery of it all
lingers the faintest hope that perhaps this stranger will be convinced or
perhaps this stranger will become drunk enough that she no longer
requires any further lubrication and there we go. Just the possibility.
Now what kind of investment is that?

He took another long gulp of beer, wiped his lips with his shirt
sleeved and let a low, subtle belch escape him. On the other hand,
he whispered conspiratorially, I can pay her fee and cut right to
the chase. God, I love it here, he emphasised again. Suck and fuck
they say, right down to business. Can you imagine if we could all be
that honest? I want a suck and fuck, how much?

But it's crass, Albert. These aren't cattle or pigs or machine parts we're
discussing, they're human beings. There's a certain finesse required.
You couldn't by that same token, walk into a bar and point out a few burly
men and say, hey, let's go – there's a farm house up the road I've had my eye
on and I need a few men to help storm it. And think about this, Albert – if
all that was ever required for sex was a few Euros in your wallet, wouldn't
the lustre erode over time? Sure, the novelty here of the concept here, for
you at this moment is enthralling, more so than I can really comprehend
frankly, but that's beside the point. Once the novelty of a world of whores
wears off, what are you left with? Wouldn't you then go out in pursuit of
pure women, virgins even, who are yet untainted by the experience of other

Wouldn't you then, sated with sex on demand, begin to ask yourself what
love is?

Bah, he waved his hand at me dismissively. You're love sick, that's all.
That's all you think about, the girl. It's unhealthy to put all of your
emotions into one sack like that which she could just as easily drop off
the side of the Pont Neuf and never see again. Who needs it, he murmured.


Love sick or not one thing I discovered myself doing, between the black
work day labour, cleaning off and passing the rest of most nights drinking
somewhere or rehearsing in the flat, was developing a new practice of
devotional letter writing to Anastasia. I giddily imagined the abundance
of unanswered correspondence which would be piling up through her mail
slot while she was away, a physical demonstration of my devotion, evidence
of an incessant effort of connecting myself with her even when she was
nowhere to be found.

I developed elaborate rituals in her stead. Some nights after work, after
showering, after grabbing a quick meal, I'd head off by myself to
Willemstraat and a pub decorated with regulars who greeted one another
like family, played cards around large tables or sat quietly reading

It was there that I could normally find a good sized table to myself because
other than regulars, not many others came in and although the regulars
numbered quite a few at times, there was always sufficient space, if you
could drown out the slot machine and the Dutch folk music playing in
the background, to sit down and compose my letters to Anastasia.

And there I would order my beer, set it down on a fading Leffe
coaster which existed even though the Leffe didn't, and from my
pack take out the French/English dictionary, the pad of paper, set the
pen down, all an elaborate ritual as if preparing the table she would
soon be joining me at although instead it was merely my obsessive
thoughts of her and the paper and pen.

Sometimes it would be snatches of lyrics or poems, but more often
than not, it was a breakdown of the minutia of the day, what the
weather was like, what the work that day had been, conversations
with the builders, the lunch, perhaps a few glasses of wheat beer at
the Ledig Erf after we knocked off work, snatches of local politics
I'd gleaned from listening to conversations…it was all quite boring
I'd imagined, sprinkled with memories of Paris, excerpts of
historical passages I'd read.

Yet I kept on feeding this yearning in a rapid cycle to burn the
hours I would have otherwise haemorrhaged through, bleeding
internally thinking about her, wondering what she was doing, whether
or not she was giving me any thought.

It was almost too much merely being in Utrecht because even in its
own sublte way, Utrecht was reminding me of Anastasia, reminding me
of the euphoria upon my triumphant return – the train station
arrival over a month ago imagining how one afternoon she would be
here and we would be walking along Amsterdamsestraatweg out for a
stroll from the flat, stopping in for a small beer or a glass of
wine in a neighbourhood café. I even scouted out the ones I thought
would be most appropriate if she ever arrived, which ones had the best
ambience, the appropriate setting for the outing with Anastasia I couldn’t
prevent myself from imagining.


The rehearsals Albert and I undertook when we weren’t obsessed with drinking of I was able to break away from my letter writing campaign,
needed direction. Without direction we tended to let drinking take
precedence over rehearsing. Sometimes I’d find myself reminding Albert,
in the midst of our nightly, pointless binges we seemed almost powerless to
regain control of, that we hadn’t travelled all this way just to drink. Yes, our
new found mates in Utrecht were great fun but we’d come to Utrecht on the
premise of playing jazz to unsuspecting ears and other than one festival, we
hadn’t played publicly again.

If we are going to play in public, I dutifully recited in great futility
considering our ongoing lack of discipline, we need to rehearse. And in
order to rehearse we have to stop going out every night. Seriously. One day
we’re going to wake up finding out we’re broke and we’ve accomplished
nothing but getting drunk in Café Marktzicht every night.

You know, Albert grudgingly admitted, normally I’d consider telling you to
fuck off, to be patient, but maybe you’ve got a point. Trouble is, without a
gig we’ve got no incentive to rehearse and with no incentive to rehearse we
don’t rehearse and if we don’t rehearse we won’t be able to get gigs. It’s a bit
of an unbreakable vicious circle, isn’t it?

The answer, in the end, was to go to an open mic podium which we didn’t
need to qualify for but which would motivate us to rehearse. So from a list
we chose one place to play three weeks later, just to set the wheels in motion.

And in the interim three weeks we did manage to rehearse. To put even more
pressure on ourselves we told all of our friends in the café about this open mic
appearance. We told complete strangers we came across knowing if we told
one hundred different people maybe one would show up. We managed to pry
ourselves away from the labour of drinking long enough in those three weeks
to Three weeks later we had finally managed to convince ourselves to come up
with three original arrangements to perform on our big re-entry into the world
of performance.

Not that the arrangements would be followed. We still relied heavily upon improvisation, never bothered to write down anything that we’d come up with and had little hope of remembering those arrangements. Still, we gave them names and I worked out spoken word pieces that would tie in with those arrangements somehow.

Time and inactivity had humbled us and our nerves were pacified only by drinking large quantities of beer in preparation the night of the open mic. I distracted myself daily trying to calculate how much longer it would be before Anastasia was due to return to Paris from her little Italian tour, allowing the little voice in my head to mock the notion that she would ever make her way to Utrecht knowingly beginning to doubt with each day nearer, that she would
arrive in Utrecht at all – it was certainly a distraction from pre-gig butterflies
and the gloomy uncertainty of how these three songs would be received, but it
was merely a replacement gloom, a heavy gloom, a heart-wrenching worse
than any potential embarrassment on stage.

When it was time, I couldn’t spot any of the people we’d invited through the
smoke of the club as the MC clattered on unintelligibly in Dutch before we
finally heard ….De Deadbeat Conspiracy….a smattering of applause before
Albert began plucking out the first few chords and I began a memorised
preamble of the obituary of a Dutch politician, in Dutch for several
sentences before emphasising notes that peaked at the wrong moments
of the sentiment of the phrase as though driving us all backwards
before pulling us forwards again. Albert punctuated these swings and
the room was silenced as we went on, confused as to our direction
yet drawn in by a vague familiarity.

It was a dark cavern we were leading them through. Albert's thumbing
bass notes were the stalactical tears to the wails I hit with the
saxophone, raising my torso against it in effort as the sounds
bounced off these imaginary, slippery walls in a damp cavern the
crowd followed us through.

As usual, we didn't know precisely where we leading them.

Rehearsals had been merely familiarisations with where would begin and
end but for the playing in between, we were on our own, one off the
other and back again as though our hands were holding a rope instead
of an instrument and the rope was what was holding us both in the
same line, the same line that the others were clinging to as we wandered
further into some low and slow flow melodies, tiny hints of melodies
really, suggestions as to directions which invariably led down dead
ends to turn around and head back from.

And when it was over there was the familiar silence as though they
were all expecting it to begin back up again until several seconds
hung between us and the realisation that it had ended, unexpectedly
– and just then, in that split second as they began to realise it,
as though we were too afraid to wait to find out if the silence
] would last or melt into applause, we were already pulling them back
forward again.


I woke up a few Saturdays later wondering what it was I should be
expecting. For over a week the realisation that Anastasia was to have
returned, at least to Paris, was a constant cloud hanging over me but for
the hours I pined away drinking with Albert and friends and I could
quell it for a time only to have it punch me again in the stomach without
the slightest bit of forewarning.

There was no word from her.

Not that our reunion had been all that well planned out to being with. She
had taken down my address but did I really imagine in hindsight that the
minute she got back to her flat in Paris after a month on the road she would
repack her bags and set on the first train headed out to Utrecht?
In fact, when I went over it in my mind, it was hard to ignore the
realisation that she hadn't pinned herself down to coming
immediately. She had merely said she'd come, not when she'd come.

I found myself analysing key words. After I come back, she'd said.
Not how long after, not soon after or years after. I'd been so over the
moon when she'd said she'd come I hadn't bother to read the fine
print – WHEN?

I seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure out of kicking myself over
that one. I was pinned down with just my King clinging to a corner,
three moves from mate. I resolved to pretend the month hadn't passed
at all or alternatively, that I had imagined or dreamt the entire
experience, that there was no Anastasia to begin with, I'd spent too
many hours in a coffee shop, had smoked myself into a stupor anything to
avoid having to consider the possibility that she’d simply just forgotten
about me once I was gone and she was on the road.

But every morning I woke up again there was a thick knot of nausea
in my stomach as though it weren't the overindulgences and late
meals that was doing it but some shattered dream that had collected
itself in pieces all around me waiting to be picked up.

Every morning I made the coffee, sat in silence at the kitchen table
after clearing a mound of clutter and rolled a cigarette so I could
sit back and smoke whilst staring out the window down into the
courtyard wondering how long I would manage to hold out before
writing again or worse still, taking a train to Paris uninvited and paying
an unexpected visit.

Every morning, after the cigarette was stubbed out on the bottom of
my boot I drained the remainders of the coffee in one long gulp and
headed outside, unlocked the bike, got on and rode to the job,
another afternoon accumulating dirt and slivers of building material
underneath my fingernails, carrying wood from a pile, hammering nails
into wood, measuring, cutting, hammering more, stopping for a coffee break
with the others at 10:30 and then lunch at noon seated on overturned plaster
buckets eating boterham sandwiches with filthy hands, washing them down
with cold milk that offset the soot of destruction and construction
combined with the stale taste of every cigarette break until finally
we'd pack it all up again, get back on our bikes and ride off in
different directions to different homes, different pubs, different
understandings of the day.

I even found a piece of a poem by a local poet, Ruben Van Gogh called Bouwmachines that described that clock watching of work; those exact
sandwiches, those exact longings for the day’s final cigarette:

“Maar het mooist vind ik de klokken
waarop de schaftijd aangegeven staat
Dat al die mannen dan op opgelegden tijden
hun werk terzijde schuiven
naar koffie en hun boterham grijpen
en in volle gelukzaligheid
gaan zitten wachten tot zij verder morgen
na nog een laatste shagje.”

It had been nearly two months since my return from Paris and as usual, I
arrived home to the familiar strains of something bleak and evil
leaking out of Albert's headphones at full volume, as he sat there sipping a bottle of Grolsch with hand, alternating with the Winston in the other, the
smoke trailing from it like a plane that had been hit and was on its
way to smouldering ruins on the ground.

When he managed to notice me, somehow the feel of the room must be
different when all other senses are completely absorbed in the holy
trinity of music in the ears, beer in the hand, cigarette to the
mouth – there must be some perceivable alteration in space when I
entered because no amount of noise I made could have penetrated that
veil – but he noticed something changed in the balance of the room
and so turned to see me.

He removed the headphones which for a split second before he also
turned down the volume, were as loud as the speakers might have been
without the headphones plugged in. He took a swig of beer and nodded in
my direction. Good day?

I brushed off more dust and held up my hands. The day of a labourer,
I lamented before leaning over the crate and plucking out a beer to
pop open.

Oh yeah, Albert mentioned as casually as possible. Letter for you


You know what the simultaneous experience of elation and dread feels
like? As if two boxers, when clenching up between each other in the
middle of the ring covered in sweat and pain, suddenly begin to kiss
and I mean a deep, probing and soulful mashing of the tongues
against each others', held long enough for the passion to mount
before one of the boxers reaches behind and delivers a razor sharp
punch to the kidneys of the other.

I drained the beer whilst simultaneously hovering over the contents
of the kitchen table, bottle opener, overflowing ashtray, Dutch
advertisements for high tech electronics at low tech prices, empty
packages of Drum, empty packages of Winstons, empty wine bottles
with candles stuck in the tops like corks and melted wax streaks hardened along their sides, yellowing copies of Metro and De Volkskrant, pliers,
electrical wire, odds and ends of emptied pockets, lighters awaiting
refills, and finally, there it was emanating like magic atop a
musician's magazine and a flyer for free pizza delivery – undoubtedly the
letter, undeniably, the fate. Albert hadn’t needed to elaborate. There was
no one else I was expecting a letter from.

Naturally I couldn't open the letter right away. After all those accumulated days and weeks there I was, my name in her antiquarian script on an envelope
finally acknowledging my existence again, proof that I hadn't merely
hallucinated those two weeks in Paris with her, evidence that I must have
crossed her mind at least once in crossing the gulf between us. Enough for
heel-kicking and a shower and a night out to celebrate the fate, whatever it
was for at least for the moment, I was going to live…until I knew the contents
of that letter at least, my mind would finally be, momentarily at ease.


What should I have expected such a letter to say? After all, she'd
promised to visit, not to write. When I allowed thoughts of the letter to leak into my mind that night I could imagine nothing but a dark foreboding, her
left handed scrawl conducting apologies and excuses simultaneously and
between the lines, the truth that it had all been a sort of memorable but unremarkable series of days which had indeed transpired but perhaps not with the same significance I’d allowed myself to imagine.

Surely by now my daily letters had reached her, my unhealthy
obsessiveness and oblique paranois apparent like some filthy secret
I'd unburdened to her.

But the following morning examining the yet-unopened envelope more closely, looking at the postmark I could tell it wasn't from France
at all but Italy, and it was then I decided it was finally ok to open it.

I tore open the envelope and read hungrily, flooded by the underwhelming awareness with each word devoured that the contents were only a partial answer. If she wasn't in Paris it explained in part why she hadn‘t come to Utrecht. (logically, because she'd not yet returned and she‘d only promised to come once she‘d returned.) Yet other than the names of Italian cities she was
or had been in, that the gig had been extended, and a brief confessional about an exhaustive battle with unspecified dilemmas, she didn‘t elaborate. Hardly an encyclopaedic accounting, cryptic in places and simply confusing in others.

In the end, her words were almost as nostalgic as the thousands I'd
composed in all those letters to her but no regret other than her personal
trials were expressed. So in the one sense, I allowed myself to feel elated –
I wasn't being openly rejected, I was being put off for a time, postponed.

She did manage to clarify that the tour had been a big hit. She’d been singing in places throughout Italy; Milan, Rome, Napoli, Firenze – all
over and as her status had slowly magnified, so had the demand for her, hardly
surprising, I supposed, but disappointing nonetheless because what
it all boiled down to was that she wasn't coming back straight away
and couldn't even say really, when she'd be back at all, although
promising definitely to be back and as soon as she was back, she
hadn't forgotten she was coming to visit in Utrecht.

Triumphantly, I unearthed amid those words several narrow windows of her own uncertainties, which she expressed in a casual code, expressing doubt that I’d even remembered her or, if I did, that I considered it little more than a casual fling which had now concluded. I laughed aloud reading those uncertainties, shaking my head. If only she knew of the volumes of correspondence that awaited her return home.

I set the letter down and stared out the window quietly. From up in the loft I could hear Albert turning restlessly.

Good news, he asked leaning his head out from the edge of the loft, a Winston already lit between his lips.

I tucked the letter away in my back pocket to take with me to work that morning.

Only if you consider no news to be good news, I rationalised. Her tour has been a bit of a success so she hasn’t even been back to Paris. At the very least, it appears she hasn’t forgotten about me yet, I exhaled, getting ready for the work day. Just enough hope to be maddening.

CHAPTER TWELVE: After Weeks of Waiting, The Sun Rises Again

“She’ll only break your heart, it’s a fact. And even if I warn you, even
though I guarantee you that the girl will only hurt you terribly, you’ll still pursue her. Ain’t love grand?”
-Ms Nora Digger Dinsmoor in Great Expectations.

Although I’d hoped for another letter from her once her tour had ended and
she returned to Paris, I hadn’t expected to just run into her outside
the flat one day, I have to admit.

Yet as I rode my bike home from work down Amsterdamsestraatweg, there
she was, seated regally at the small table outside the Somalian takeaway,
casually smoking a cigarette and watching me with amusement as I neared
and my eyes roared to life from a dull and listless stare into the every day post-work abyss.

And so yes, there she was. Unmistakably. Not a dream. In the flesh.
Weeks upon weeks of writing had conjured her as mystically as I had met

She shrugged her shoulders at my incredulous gaze. I suppose I never
really believed that all the writing would work. I suppose deep down I
had prepared myself for the worst case scenario and despite the optimism
bred in the act of writing all those letters, sharing all those thoughts had somehow grown with little nurturing like a cactus that needed little water.

I decided on holiday, she explained as I stood there wordlessly taking
her in. The tour was going well but there was a break in the shows so
when I finally returned to Paris, your letters were sitting there waiting
for me, a beautiful dedication. For a day and a half I read them all,
word for word, stopping only to cat nap a few hours here and there.
Your presence burned through me unmistakably, Witold. Once I’d finished
reading them all, I decided to take the train here immediately.

I would love to have a chance to freshen up she mentioned when
several moments had passed without my saying anything and I’d
simply gawked like a shocked teenager at her instead, dumbfounded.
It was a long train ride, she added hopefully…

Of course, I immediately stammered, picking up her suitcase and
hurrying through the front door of the café. The men playing cards
around a table stared up expectantly when we entered, amused by this
sudden stranger who had declined their hospitality for hours and had
preferred only to sit outside at the lone table and chair humming an
unknown little melody to herself and nursing a glass of tea and watching
the flotsam of Amsterdamsestraatweg passing by.

I made brief discussions, as brief as possible: friend from Paris,
stopping by a few days…but their curiosity would not release us from it's
clutches and they continued on with questions, bemused or perhaps
encouraged by my impatience.

How long are you staying for?
Why are you here?
What part of Paris?
What do you do?
Did you come by train or plane?
Why are you with this one?

When we were finally released I clattered up the stairwell without waiting for
her, dreading whatever humiliating disarray awaiting us in the flat. The
kitchen’s glorious odour of Somali spices lingered causing an audible
appreciation from Anastasia just before we reached the door to the top flight of stairs leading to the flat.

You'll have to excuse the state of this place I forewarned, pushing
open the door to the second landing. She shrugged me off. You've
prepared me quite well in fact she mentioned, reminding me of the
degree to which I had described the flat and the wonderful smells of
the kitchen. So far it is precisely as you wrote. So far, I laughed
to myself.

My, she stammered to herself taking it all in as I opened the door,
stepping back and wiping a stray hair from her forehead which had fallen
in the exertion of walking up the steep incline of the second stairway. My,
she repeated, having a glance at the piles of accumulated
bachelorhood; the vague indifference of the unwashed plates, piles
of empty containers, newspapers, empty beer and wine bottles, the
stale smoke hanging in the air like a dense fog even though all the
windows had been left open. Of course this was the falt in its natural,
normal state; filth and upheaval. We never planned on entertaining visitors.

Well, perhaps you underestimated the degree of your slovenliness,
she laughed.

I had to set about explaining the contraption of the shower and
toilet combination in the floor below, struggling to find clean
linens and towels, bemoaning the lack of good mirrors and even the
simple addition of a small table inside the shower for grooming. We
weren't particular after all. But she wore a face of pleasant
indifference which in the effort to conceal produced a mixture of
shock masked by a determination not to allow her disgust to
register. She didn't have to say anything. I was well aware of what
any normal human being might begin to imagine seeing such squalor
first hand. Albert and I rarely noticed – there were no guests
invited in this hovel and thus how we chose to keep it had been
precisely how we chose to keep it without the inconvenience of trying to
keep up appearances.

While she disappeared into the shower I quickly leapt back up the
stairs into the main room to make some demented effort at
straightening up; ashtrays dumped into empty pizza boxes and halal
meal containers, bottles quickly collected, drained into the sink
and placed neatly back into their respective empty slots in the
crates they were once carried in, magazines and newspapers piled
into one corner, clothing picked up and thrown into a pile within
the makeshift closet.

However we had no vacuum and little more than a hand broom to
sweep up the lingering odours and ashes, dust and stains, mildew and
assorted filth. By the time she had finished freshening up the flat
had taken on an almost unrecognisable order which despite the state
of it's interior, was vastly improved by any effort to render it
back to it's original state that, quite frankly, had never been too
charming or too clean to begin with.

Albert was no doubt already at the café and as I huffed and puffed
around the room I remembered myself – that I too was covered in the
dust and wood shavings and drying concrete, that my clothing hadn't
been washed all week and that I likely smelled far worse than the
pong of the interior of the flat. I lit a few candles and several
sticks of incense hoping carelessly to mask it all in perfume, the
room and myself.

She wasn't fooled. She made the best of it, put on a smile,
pretended it was another world altogether and yet still one we were
both in.

So we were fine. I just needed a shower and to let Albert know the
one room flat was now being shared by three.


Of course, it was Albert's idea, one which had crossed my mind
several times but never reached my lips, to include Anastasia in our
rehearsal. We hadn't done much since the last open mic until then but
one night we'd stayed in, ordered Somalian food from downstairs and ate
it on the table in the Styrofoam containers they were served in with plastic
forks, napkins and washed down with a few bottles of beer.

So how about you sing a few with us? He asked grandly, pushing
himself away from the table and tossing the remains of his meal in
the large bag of rubbish that was opened just a few feet from the
table. We haven't had much inspiration these days, Albert explained
and I've heard from Witold that you've got a beautiful voice.

Anastasia, not one for self-promotion, at least not from what I'd
witnessed, rolled her eyes. But I came to see Witold, to get away
from singing, she tried to explain.

Still, we've got to rehearse and well, don't you have to keep your
voice in shape?

I could tell he wasn't going to let this one go although I wasn't
certain if he was making a big deal out of it simply to annoy the
two of us, because he was sceptical, curious or just wanted to hear
her. I started to beg off, not much in the mood to play myself but
then an evil little grin crossed her face and she nodded sure, why
don't you play a little for me now and then, well, if the mood
strikes me, I'll join in. After all, I haven't heard either of you
play before…

We don't know any songs, I fumbled, again explaining how we
ad-libbed everything, never learned a jazz song and probably weren't
worthy of having her singing anyway. But Albert was having none of
it. Oh hell, Witold, we haven't needed to know songs before, let's
show your guest a little sample of what we can do…

He got up from the table and moved with sudden dexterity into the
living room where the bass was leaning up against the side of the
sofa. Reluctantly and knowing there was expectation in her
bemusement, I too rose from the table and made my way into the
living room, our little improvised studio with horrific acoustics.
Outside the hustle and bustle of Amsterdamsestraatweg was audible.
Anastasia made to clean up the table and light a few candles while
the two of us tried to tune up and get into each other's keys.

And it was true I thought to myself, putting the reed in my mouth, I
was curious and excited about the idea of her singing with us. We'd
discussed it but never with any seriousness and she was here after
all, why not?

But maybe it was the nerves or the outside noises or fear that the
landlord would hear us down two floors and complain at the racket
because normally we waited until late at night when they'd already
shut down and the café was closed before starting to rehearse,
normally well into a session of beer, reaching blindly for
inspiration but here we were anyway and Albert looking at me
expectantly, fingers poised. Goofing off to relax, I blew a long
sequence to begin a sort of soulful snake charmer song, holding and
blowing while Albert slowly filled in behind me, plucking furtively.

In time we started to build on it a little more, lost a little
deeper until I was no longer aware she was even in the room. We went
on like this for quite some time before realising there was nowhere
for her to step in, even if she'd wanted to. I stopped playing and
stood there with the sax around my neck and looked up at her staring
at us both with arched eyebrows, bemused.

I don't think I've heard anything quite like, she stammered for a
moment. I've never sung to anything like it, that's for sure, and
she tittered and we all guffawed, relieved for the moment. You guys
are, well, a bit weird, I'll say. I didn't realise…

We tried a few more on for her, laying it out thick and
experimentational until ever so slowly, sipping a drink of scotch
Albert had poured her from his alcove stash, she stood up and made
her way towards us, hips swaying slightly until I closed my eyes
entirely and then I heard it: she wasn't singing words, just trying
to find a melody somewhere amid the confusion, her voice huskier
than I'd imagined, having never heard it before and having only conjured
it in dreams. Soon I was trilling and Albert was slapping and we began
to hear this mournful humming that gradually birthed into some sort
of lullaby in French.

I don't know how long it went on, maybe it was only seconds, or a
few minutes, it was impossible to tell, but just as suddenly as it seemed to
have begun it ended and we all stood there in the room not saying a
word, staggered not by a sudden genius but by the strangeness of the
collaboration until Albert finally set the bass to the side, wiped
his brow and lumbered back into the kitchen to pull a fresh beer
from the crate and settled back down into his chair. That's enough
for me for the moment, he mumbled into his sleeve as he wiped it
across his lips. I think I need some time alone, why don't you two
have a night out?


None of us said anything about those few moments as a trio and
several days went by before we were encouraged, by virtue of several
bottles of wine, to do it again. In the interim, Albert stayed long
hours away from the flat, giving us our space. Anastasia was much
more animated out of her surroundings than she had been in them. She
regaled our friends at Martkzicht with steamy tales of the clubs
she'd been singing at in Paris and in Milan, embellishing, I hoped,
for my benefit rather than that of the others. She revealed tiny
shards of her past to me over days drawing out on canal walks, bike
rides and afternoons sat on various café terraces soaking up the
rare sun and sipping Belgian ales. She seemed to demur less and less
as though whatever fears had held her back when we were in Paris had
mystically evaporated. Don't get me wrong, she wasn't a sputtering
fountain of information. What little bit I learned was drawn out
over a long process but at least it appeared I was making headway,
at least I was no longer feeling like an intruder on her secret

And then a few nights later, when we were sipping wine around the
kitchen table, listening to a few CDs she'd brought over with her,
she suddenly asked if we knew how to play any jazz standards. You
know, she said, My Funny Valentine or Mack the Knife, or anything
really, something I could sing to that wouldn't require, hmmm, too
much skill for you two to play. Not that I don't think you could
play standards well, I dunno, what do you think? Do you ever play
something known?

Albert and I looked at each other with a mutual grimace. We'd never
tried it before to be honest. What was the point for a double
bassist and a saxophonist when we had no one else to back us? We'd
been left with improv and weirdness out of necessity and even with
lovely female vocals we doubted the two of us trying to slam out
some jazz standard was going to sound very good.

But hell, Albert said. We can try it a time or two, just for the
novelty. How bad can it possibly sound just because Witold can't
read music and I can't play anything I didn't make up on my own? He
snorted into his glass. What do you think, Witold, are you up for a
little Mack the Knife? I'll do a smooth walking bass line to start –
and you just start going from there…

But before we even started, Anastasia wanted to get us in the mood
by telling us how the version we knew was nothing like the original
murder ballad, the tales of Mackie Messer, Und Macheath, der hat ein
Messer, doch das Messer sieht man nicht and she sings it with real
sinister intent, the man with the knife no one sees waiting to
spring it out and stab away, the cold hearted murderer…

And sure enough while she's telling us this, setting a background,
Albert began thumping the notes, slow and morose. And she sang a
little more and then, struggling to find the right note, I blew a
little – it was rudimentary, no doubt. Pitiful maybe, but Anastasia
seemed to gain a little more life because our efforts. She let us
walk through a few versions of it while she hummed the beat she
wanted. Man, it was a lot of run-throughs as I kept missing the note
and trying to figure it out from a little memory and a little help
from Anastasia's humming but after awhile, it started to take form.

Not any form that any of us had ever heard it in before because it
was slow and melancholic and not snappy in the slightest. And we
went through it several more times until it began to feel a little
less stunted and then we were ready, from the top and wow, we were
just blown away by Anastasia singing this horrible song about a
murderer, changing the lyrics, switching from German to Italian to
French, nothing like we'd ever heard with that low husky voice until
she broke with a higher pitched warble, a plea, almost.

And again we were all a little overwhelmed, and it felt a little
kinky almost, the three of us standing together there in that room
past midnight, sweating and letting it all ooze into us and then
breathing it back out slowly.

The next morning we decided we would learn at least three songs,
this Mack the Knife version, like a sinister milonga, My Funny
Valentine and How Long Has This Been Going On.

Each one had its own strange stamp to it, the tentative, nearly talent-less version of our playing that she worked so hard to overcome and indeed,
her vocals were quite capable of carrying us beyond. We forgot all about
drinking for hours, simply rehearsing in that room over and over
again until we all began to feel comfortable with it. Between these three standards we sandwiched two originals – well, two songs that Albert and
I sort of made up as we went along and which Anastasia showed an adept ability to sing around. Before we knew it, we seemed to have enough for
a gig. Shocking in that it had only been a matter of hours over the course
of a few days.

Of course why we would be rehearsing for a gig at all was a little beyond
me to begin with. As far as I knew, Anastasia was only going to be here
for a brief visit, during a lull in her own touring schedule, a fact hat we all conveniently ignored equally.

I realise it makes little sense that we wouldn’t have broached the subject.
I think as far as Albert was concerned, irrespective of her motives or the reality of the future, he only considered the fact that we’d been meandering
pointlessly in our music for quite some time, that shamelessly, despite our
lofty if unrealistic goals, we were by and large more interested in simply
living, drinking and having fun in a foreign city than we were in finding a
focus in our music or perpetuating our goals with concrete actions, and
the unexpected arrival of Anastasia had propelled us out of that lethargy.

It was naturally a more complex proposition as far as I was concerned. I
was quite happy to ignore reality and the future because in doing so it
allowed me to the luxury of my own quickly developing fantasy; one which
was not only about music, about the three of us forming some mystical trio
and gigging around Europe, but about Anastasia as well because as long as
she was here with us helping us with our music she was also with me and
by doing so, our relationship, so to speak, was deepening. So I wasn’t
in the mood for questioning my good fortune. I think that is the
natural inclination when things are going inexplicably well - not to
question your good fortune but to revel in it. It’s only with hindsight
that you wonder at how stupid and naïve you could have been.

As for Anastasia herself, I’m not sure what she was thinking at the time.
Yes, we spent a lot of time together and yes, we talked a lot, but much
like the past, the future was a somewhat taboo subject. Our relationship,
guided by her unspoken rules, was an experiment in the present having
little or no relationship with the past or the future. At least that’s the
compromise I came to in my mind to justify it all.

I never came right out and asked her specifically about her motivations.
I never asked the simple question, why are you participating in the
formulation of a trio together when any day, a day which had yet to be
specified, you were going to be off again on your tour?

Why not? Well, again in hindsight I’d say that’s because I didn’t really
want to know the answer because I was too afraid of what that answer
might be and that‘s precisely why I accepted the relationship as it was
presented to me without question. It was like a superstition. So long as
I didn‘t ask any questions, it would continue and as mad as that perhaps
sounds to someone from the outside, when you consider all the unused
emotions which had built up inside of me over the years, all those years
in denial of emotions to begin with, you might understand that even
not knowing was better than having no feelings at all.

And there was also the fact of course that not having given my heart to
someone before I had no idea what it was they could do with it once
I’d done so. And that perhaps is the best explanation for why unlike
most people who have already loved and lost, I didn’t seek an answer,
I didn’t envision the perils ahead.

In any event, we settled in to our routines. I went back to working during
the day, Albert went back to navel gazing and drinking beer and
Anastasia took trips alone to Amsterdam, where, unbeknownst to us,
she engaged herself in scouting around places we might play.

It was if we all had all found a purpose – well, Anastasia had had a purpose
in her mind all along, even if she didn’t share it with us, but it was Albert
and I who really felt the difference, really felt as though for the first time
since we'd come here we were finally doing what we'd come to do. And Anastasia was simply the alchemist who turned our slovenly, drunken and pointless hours into quasi-disciplined sessions of rehearsals.

I don’t mean to belabour the point but when thinking back on it, it does
seem rather naïve and ridiculous that we’d have undertaken this so
suddenly and without introspection, simply following instructions as
though we’d been brainwashed. Anastasia had that effect. Not just on
me, but as it turned out, on Albert as well. And after all, we were getting
exactly what we’d wanted, what was there to question other than what
Anastasia getting out of all of this considering she was already a success
on her own, had places to go. Were we merely charity cases?

In a matter of days, I no longer had the energy to drink. Not just because
of work and disciplined rehearsal, but also because of this new
relationship, or rather, the effort of figuring out this Rubik’s cube of a relationship that saw us with only infrequent time alone. When we
were alone, it was again just as in Paris; seamlessly, we had entered
into one another’s space and settled there, without complication, without
explanation, a surreal transformation, you might say, from individual
to duo to trio. If you blinked you might have missed it, and perhaps we
had, finding ourselves as we did, all three of us together as though
we’d been together all along. You could almost allow yourself to believe
that in fact you had been together all along because in doing so,
explaining the illogical as such made it easier to believe to begin with.


Riding my bicycle back from work a week or two later, covered in the
usual cement dust and paint, I found myself veering predictably for Marktzicht. After all, it was Friday, the week over, I was exhausted from
the combination of steady work and steady practice, something neither
Albert nor Anastasia were undertaking simultaneously themselves and
thus, a position which justified a night off, a night of carefree
socialising or, in the venacular of Albert and I, a night off drinking
into a substandard oblivion. We were, after all, alcoholics and in the
end, irrespective of the distractions, ultimately that is what alcoholics
do. Drink.

Swinging down Loefstraat, not surprisingly, I spied Albert already out
on the terrace entertaining himself with a few locals, waving me down
as though the lure of going back to the flat and seeing Anastasia could
be distracted by his presence, on a Friday, on the terrace drinking. How
silly. I locked my bike up against an iron post next to Marktzicht and

You've just missed Anastasia, Albert enthused on my arrival, clearly in
a celebratory mood. Not the ordinary, hey it’s Friday let’s get fucked up
sort of celebratory mood as it turned out. Even more special than that.
She's gone back to the flat to change, he continued breathlessly, but
stopping by here, she brought a little news with her.

I motioned for my usual Amsterdametje and took a seat, still covered
in the day's dirt. So what it is it?

A gig, he smiled. Anastasia's gotten us a gig. In Amsterdam.


It took a bit of trickery, she admitted as we celebrated in an Indian
restaurant later that evening. Since you guys don’t have any demo tapes
and haven’t really played anywhere of note, I set up a meeting with the booking agent at this club called Alto on the basis of my own recent tour
in Italy. You see, I’ve got a few reviews and clippings of my own and I
was able to have my agent sent a few of the recordings that have been
done in preparation of a CD. I told the booking agent that I was in town
and wanted to do a gig. I told him I had two jazz musicians from
New York also in town and we wanted to try out some new material but
that we needed to set up the gig fairly quickly because we were all going
to pick up on the tour in Italy at the end of the month.

So, he had a look through everything, listened to my demos and agreed
on the spot that we could be squeezed in, not as a headlining act but as a supporting act. Apparently, they’d had a recent cancellation and happened to be looking for someone to fill in anyway, so the timing was terrific.

She smiled coyly as Albert, beside himself with angst and drinking even
faster than usual, in part because of the heat of the curry and in part because
of his new-found nerves, continued to stutter his amazement. So who is the headlining act, he asked impatiently.

Why none other than the legendary Hans Dulfer…

Albert and I looked at each other blankly. We knew legends. Perhaps not Dutch legends, but plenty of jazz legends and Hans Dulfer was unfortunately, not one of them.

I suggest we go this Wednesday night, Anastasia enthused over the dead silence as we attempted to figure out who this legend was. You can hear
him in person, maybe even introduce yourselves. As I understand it he is
quite an unorthodox but brilliant tenor sax player.

Great, I sighed. A brilliant tenor sax player. What am I going to bill
myself as? One of New York’s kings of mediocre tenor sax playing?

It isn’t important, Witold, she nursed, touching my arm before turning
back to her meal. The important thing is to get your foot in the door. I
think once you’ve done that you’ll find it isn’t such a frightening prospect
after all.

Oh but it was. Hours upon hours, day after day, the frightening prospect
of it hounded me like a irrepressible nightmare.

I changed my routine quickly. I still got up in the morning and went to
my job, but as I told Anastasia, there wasn’t time for me to do much else
other than practice. Suddenly fear had made me the most dedicated
musician on Earth. Every waking hour I was practicing to the point
where both Albert and Anastasia would simply leave most evenings to
get a break from me playing. Albert moaned incessantly. For god’s sake Witold. You aren’t going to become brilliant in a matter of weeks.
Not after all these years of striving to be mediocre. Face it. Wallow
in it. We both know neither of us are very good and if you ask me, that’s
part of our charm. Suddenly becoming dedicated is not only an unappealing new element to your personality, but it doesn’t fit you.
I feel like I’m suddenly rooming with a maniac.

Anastasia for her part, was subtly encouraging. No doubt she didn’t want
to embarrass herself singing with our awful playing but she had already committed to it. Committed to me, I liked to kid myself in those waking hours. And I wasn’t going to let her down.


And with time flying, my dreams soaked with anxiety, I woke one morning
a week or so before the gig to find that she was not lying next to me on that beat-up pull out sofa mattress.

I sat up quickly and looked around the room. There weren’t many places
for her to hide. Not in that flat. I even found myself getting up, amazing
that it would cross my mind, but it did, to check and see that she hadn’t
slipped up into Albert’s little loft cubby hole. Maybe she’s just gone out
for an early morning walk. I hadn’t heard her stir, hadn’t heard her get up, hadn’t notice her departure.

And as I stood I saw that in her place, set upon the coffee table that was pushed to the front wall when the sofa bed was pulled out was a single flower and a note.

As inexplicably as she’d arrived, she was gone.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: No Pain Like The Present
“Baby won’t you please come home?
Baby won’t you please come home?
I have tried in vain
Nevermore to call your name.
When you left you broke my heart,
That will never make us part.
Every hour in the day you will hear me say,
Baby won’t you please come home?
I mean baby, won’t you please come home?”

--transcribed from vocals by Bessie Smith, recorded April 11, 1923

I awoke that morning as I had each of the four mornings before it;
for the first few seconds of consciousness I felt nothing - that
delicious absence of pain – But one millisecond later I would remember
where I was as I stared up at the browning stains of the ceiling, the
cobwebs gathering in the corner directly to the left of the sofa upon whose
arm my feet were resting and in that millisecond the awareness would
return like a cramping abdominal pain in a mid-spasm episode of irritable
bowel syndrome. The realisation that Anastasia was not here followed
quickly like a right hook follows a series of penetrating and exploratory jabs
looking for the opening. I didn't know when she would be back, when I
would see her again, here or elsewhere, if ever.

By then a psychosomatic pain would rub it's way through my joints
individually until I could feel myself involuntarily curling into a
foetal position, inch by inch until my knees reached my elbows and
the blankets were pulled not over a recognisable human form, but a
cruel and tiny, curled char of a human being's soul.

I could already smell Albert's Winston burning away in the room as
he sat in the kitchen having his first coffee and vainly attempting
to focus on the words of a biography on Descartes.

He had been reading the same book for three weeks, always at the same
time of the morning, getting no further than the first dozen pages,
reading, then rereading passages until eventually the caffeine would
kick in and a few of the words began to focus. By then it was time to
stand and face the day.

As I had every morning since Anastasia had left with her unbearable
little note, I contemplated a series of actions to ease the pain. I could
sit up and reach for whatever dregs of the evening's beer were left
over in the bottle on the coffee table beside the sofa. I could
continue lying on the sofa and practice squeezing my abdominal
muscles until I could distract the pain out of me in yoga like
fashion, or pretend to feel it leaving. I could try and imagine
myself in a nightclub somewhere, imagine the inhale and exhale, the
fingers along the saxophone, the people in front who were but blurs,
passengers on a distant imagination train stuck forever in the same

I tried many different tricks employed to forget, none of which would
work, leaving me with the uncomfortable conclusion that whilst
lying forever on the sofa was perhaps the act of a man stricken with
inertia, it was not the act of forgetting, nor easing and thus,
inevitably, I would swing my feet off of the arm of the sofa and
place them on the floor simultaneously pushing myself to an upright

You're up! Albert chirped with annoying alacrity. For a man who himself
greeting the onset of each new day like a new pain discovered, Albert had
been disgustingly enthusiastic ever since we'd discovered Anastasia's letter.

Not because he was happy to see her go but that he believed, in his own misguided but well-intentioned way that somehow, by exposing this new, nearly criminal zeal for existence he could also influence me to embrace
a like-minded approach to the impending disasters of the day. As though
his sugar-coating misdirection of the pain I could not help but embrace
and wallow in like a man infatuated with his own disgust would somehow similarly afflict me and remotely ease my burden.

I gave him high marks for the effort. It was not easy for Albert to feign
enthusiasm when his entire being, as long as I had known him anyway, had
been constructed for precisely the opposite, an appalling aversion to cheerleading, a sterile blanket of immunity and apathy that covered him
and his flesh like a thin, ratty overcoat. I admired him for the effort –
the first time I could recollect any such effort streaming out of him solely
for the benefit of another.

As I scratched my head and focused my eyes on first the coffee table,
then the overflowing ashtray and the empty bottles in front of me, I felt vaguely appreciative for such efforts. But they were all for naught. The
feigned enthusiasm merely underscored the severity of my situation as
though he had come with a cheery countenance to my death bed to tell me what a beautiful day it was and how many more beautiful days there
would be to follow.

I cleared my throat severely several times until I worked up a healthy
wad of phlegm into my mouth, spitting it reluctantly into the ashtray.
The day gives birth. I stood finally with aches and pains that one becomes aware of only in an ultra sensitised state of low esteem and made my way
to the kitchen table where Albert sat, staring at me expectantly.

Gradually, I regretted to note, the scent of domesticity was ebbing
from what had become a sort of breakfast nook during Anastasia's
stay and in its place reappeared the gruesome dishevelment of two
miserable and sloppy men living in a miserable flat looking out over
a busy street of passer-by strangers and impatient traffic. The few
dishes we had were again piled unwashed from the residue of
Indonesian and Somalian late-night take away meals, bottles were
everywhere, ashes dumped in any convenient container, a general haze
of smoke, a hue of semi-permanent greyish ambivalence pervaded and
outside, another cloudy day to greet us.

Seeing he was getting nowhere with his Good Morning Life chat show
persona, he reverted back to familiar Albert, grumbling in his beard,
falling silent while considering how long he might hold out before the
first beer of the day. You couldn’t say precisely that it was his battle,
because he wasn’t really concerned about his drinking. He’d always
waved me off when I asked him about it. A nihilist doesn’t bother
himself with such things, he’d mutter.

I was bothered by it. I was bothered by it about myself. I wasn’t
a nihilist as far as I could tell. But this wretched stretch since
Anastasia left had consisted of little more than working and drinking.
sleeping, waking, working, drinking. A routine which wasn’t
entirely unfamiliar, but which now had taken on an extraordinary
zeal to the extent that I began considering perhaps I was now an
apprentice nihilist and Albert my venerated teacher.

I know, I know. The letter.

And the gig.

I’d have burnt the letter if it wasn’t the last remaining artefact of
Anastasia. I had in fact crumpled it into a ball and thrown it against
the wall on many occasions. But inevitably, I smoothed it out to
read it again, like a sacred scroll.

My dear Witold, it had begun, ironically enough. I never failed
to stop at that point to laugh bitterly. My dear? A bad translation
from the French, perhaps? Dear Witold would have sufficed, clinically speaking. I’d have been satisfied with something as simple and
complete as that, not overblown with the unnecessary, flowery
accompaniment of my dear, personalising the greeting as though this
Were some inescapable reality, that she had pulled herself away only
with the greatest of reluctance…

My dear Witold,

Please forgive me that I am writing this to you instead of telling you to
your face.

Sure, why tell me you’re leaving when you can just escape with a simple
note, I laughed bitterly to myself each time I read it. Deep down we are all cowards and writing a note then disappearing is infinitely easier than
saying something unpleasant face to face, actually allowing for a rebuttal
rather than proceeding on a decision via a one way road, a one way conversation.

(Or, I thought to myself not unironically in more truthful hindsight on occasion, perhaps it was precisely the type of acerbity I found myself adding parenthetically at each reading and re-reading that she had been trying to avoid in the first place.)

It is difficult for me. It will be difficult for you. But I am
afraid if I try to talk about it to you we will discuss and discuss
and in the end we will go nowhere. So I write it to you and perhaps it
will be easiest for both of us this way.

Aha, now we are getting somewhere, even in revealing her opinion
that talking it through would have gotten us nowhere. Here we
discover the implication that it was somehow my own predictable
resistance to her leaving that forced her to write her explanation out
in a sneaky note rather than discussing it with me directly. I might have
protested, I mimicked in a whiny, high-pitched voice when reading this part,
I might have dared ask that we discuss her departure or our future together before she actually went through with it rather than be satisfied with simply reading about it, like reading my own obituary in the newspaper.
To me, this was skewed logic. What kind of person would expect that
they could simply show up in someone’s life, entangle themselves in it
and then disappear again as though it had all been some collective
figment of imagination? But never mind. It was a fait accompli and
she escaped bloodlessly.

I must leave. You know about the tour, which is beginning again soon.

Of course I knew about the tour, I‘d maunder to myself (or sometimes
to Albert) at each reading, the point where I often crumpled the letter
into a ball and tried to bin it or flick it into oblivion. It’s only because
you never wanted to talk about it that we didn’t, I practically howl to
myself (or sometimes to Albert, if he was still listening).

I’d have been happy to discuss it, to make plans around it. But it was
her (again, as if I were still capable of holding the discussion with her
instead of to shadows,) it was her who insisted on pretending it wasn’t looming in the future, the tour. So yeah, over time, maybe I began to
believe it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I allowed myself the
superstition that maybe if I didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t happen. But certainly I didn’t expect it was just going to pop up. I’d always thought
when she was closer to the date, she’d let me know, let me AND Albert know. And certainly I wouldn’t have expected her to arrange a gig for us
that she didn’t intend on performing. What kind of person does that?

I am sorry that I will miss the gig in Amsterdam but you do not need me to
do it. You only needed me to get you to believe that you could do it.
I know you and Albert will be just fine without me in the way, taking
all the attention away from you. You don’t need me to make your
magical music.

I didn’t believe this part at all, would you? Clearly the truth that she’s
politely attempting to talk around is precisely the opposite; that we
weren’t good enough to perform that gig by ourselves at all and worse
still, that she didn’t want to be seen lowering herself, her standards, to
perform a gig like that with us. “Magical music”. This is clearly
sarcasm. Or perhaps some weird French irony, I don’t know but if ever
there was a paragraph which was not written in truth, this was the one.

No matter how badly I wanted to believe this explanation, that she’d be
taking the focus off ourselves, (as if that wouldn’t have been the
intention all along given the quality of our playing,) it simply sounded
hollow, unbelievable. Instead, those words seemed to scream out at
our inadequacy as musicians and in realising this, somehow it became
clearer, her motivations. It became clear that she’d actually had the
best intentions all along but in the end, had simply gotten cold feet
knowing we were terrible and that we’d only have ended up
embarrassing her. It was the only explanation that made any sense.

Albert, who was infinitely less inclined to take a conciliatory stance
on the poor quality of our playing, thought Anastasia’s explanation
was entirely plausible. Noble, even. But I couldn’t hear that silent dog
whistle blown. To me, after the third or fourth reading she was clearly
saying we sucked and in the end, that reality had been too much for
her to digest and instead of telling us to our faces that we were
terrible and the idea of the gig horrified her, she simply slunk off
to avoid it in the end. Her tour probably wasn’t even starting for
months. That’s why she hadn’t mentioned it. Oh, with enough
re-readings, believe me, it all became crystal clear.

In time I hope we will see each other again but right now I must focus
only on this tour, on my career.

I never came up with any snappy comebacks to this one. By then my
mind was usually focusing in on what shitty musicians we were and
how futile the entirety of this absurd mission of playing from city
to city was becoming. By this point in the letter I was usually only
barely able to read on. Once I’d cast the divinatory sticks there was
little point in reading further. I knew my future and it was grim.

The only thing I want you to know is that you are dear to me.

I will miss you greatly and I will think about you every day. I hope
you will do the same.

And this of course, was the proverbial kick to the balls. I’d already
be down by this point in the re-reading and this unnecessary, perhaps
even cruel admission, whether it were true or just another, final
twist of the knife, was unbearable. Sometimes I’d pick up the letter,
wadded and thrown against the wall, just to read that line and feel
even worse all over again. And then I’d crumple it up all over again
and fling it again against the wall, con forza, knowing the final,
ebbing lines by heart.

But in this moment, I must leave. I am trying to think with my head
instead of my heart to save us both. I hope you will understand.

Love always,


That first morning, when I’d read it aloud to Albert, without the
editorialising and running commentary, we’d both just sat there in
that kitchen, exhaling smoke silently like death row inmates.

What about the gig then, Albert finally asked, reaching down to the
crate for the breakfast bottle of beer and passing one for me as well.
We popped open the swing-tip bottles of Grolsch, momentarily
distracted by the satisfaction of that familiar sound before putting
them to our lips and sucking down like a baby on a tit.

The gig, I finally said after half the bottle was gone? We can’t play the gig without her. She was the only thing that gave us any credibility. Without her we’re just two bad musicians making horrible noise together.

Albert puffed on his Winston silently for a few seconds. You know,
being two bad musicians making horrible noise together was
never an impediment before, Witold. I mean sure, having Anastasia
singing in front of us lent a certain credibility I’d say but not having her
here doesn’t render us entirely incapable. We haven’t gotten worse just
because she’s not here. If anything, rehearsing as we have, we’ve
probably gotten better. I think you’re misdirecting your feelings of
abandonment towards your playing. Think about it. We’ve already
done gigs before, Witold. This one is no different.

No different? This is a famous club. This isn’t some dodgy second-
rate place with somnambulist punters whose heads we’re barely
keeping up. This is a proper club and we’d be opening for a proper
Dutch jazz legend. This isn’t some kick any more. People would
actually be listening to us. People who know jazz. You and I would
never have attempted playing there, hell, they’d have never even
given us a gig there if it hadn’t been for Anastasia.

Albert took a long swig of beer. True enough. Still, it’s an opportunity
we shouldn’t give up on so easily. It’s already there in front of us.
All we have to do is play. I mean you’re the one who is always banging
on about how we’re accomplishing nothing. Here’s our chance. If it
goes well, who knows? This could be our chance.

Our chance? Our chance at what? Humiliating ourselves like never
before? The gig is less than a week away. We’ve rehearsed with a singer
in front of us. How are we going to suddenly compensate for not having
that crutch?

We aren’t going to compensate. We’ll just play.

And with that, Albert stood up, smiling to himself at the madness and
walked over to his bass standing up in the corner. C’mon, he said,
waving me over. Let’s rehearse for a change. Reasonably sober.


On Thursday night, we showed up at the jazz café Alto for our big
Amsterdam debut. The singer has fallen ill, we explained on arrival,
lugging our instruments behind us. But we’re prepared to play on.

Surprisingly, this revelation caused no hysteria. It was all very informal
anyway. There were other musicians as well. We could open, perform
a brief set without our singer, we could even invite others to come up
on stage and play with us. Nobody was bothered. So we set up, like
any other gig and took our positions, shortly after 10 that night, and

Sure, before we started, I made a little preamble about our fabulous
singer falling ill and how we’d come all the way from Utrecht, by way
of New York City, (which caused a short burst of applause from some
of the many tourists in the crowd,) and that we would attempt to let
the show go on anyway, despite her absence. We invited anyone in the
crowd with an instrument, if compelled, to join us whenever the mood
struck them but by god, singer or no singer, we were going to

That sort of strength in the face of adversity attracted a few more scattered applause and then I launched into the recital of a brief splice of a few
poems by the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog that I’d been committing to memory for the last few weeks, an entrée into the Dutch heart while
Albert plucked a few notes on the E string in accompaniment . Before
I knew it, I’d put the horn to my lips and away we went.

I can’t say we’d entirely fooled everyone. There were tourists, certainly,
who were beguiled, mesmerised even. I was certain that the true jazz
musicians in the crowd could see right through us but in all, after our
excuses, without our singer, no one stood up in disgust, as I’d often
imagined, and called us frauds before walking out. We played three
brief originals that we’d rehearsed and then, for the finale, a long
Impromptu piece I told the crowd before beginning was dedicated to our
fallen singer.

When we were finished, polite applause. A few people even congratulated
us as we removed ourselves from the stage and hunted down a beer with
the usual post-gig zeal. The bartender nodded to us as he handed out our
beer. You ended too soon, he advised us solemnly. You almost had them.


On the train ride back to Utrecht that night, armed with a few small cans
of Heineken, Albert began to talk about the next move. The next move,
I wondered to myself, staring out the window. We’d only just had our
biggest accomplishment to date. Was there no time to wallow in the
light of it?

Look, he said finally. I did get something out of all this in the end. Not
what you might expect of course. You see, I’ve been thinking, in the
wake of all this shit, watching you wallow in misery, seeing that
whatever vague momentum we’ve established at playing here in
Holland has probably reached its zenith, I mean realistically, we aren’t
going to be playing gigs all over the country now, we should be
satisfied with this performance and let it serve as a marker.

This made me think perhaps we’ve spent enough time here by now.
Maybe it’s time to forget about this ridiculous plan of staying here,
Playing here, establishing a foothold in Utrecht.

What are you suggesting? That we should go back to New York?

Hardly. I mean, I’ve developed a taste for this now, this vagabond
sort of unfamiliarity and yes, the delusion of being travelling musicians.
But part of the problem is that we haven’t been travelling at all, we’ve
just been stopped here in Utrecht, the first place, setting down roots
without considering that this was only meant to be the beginning, not
the final destination.

What’s left for us here? Do you really think Anastasia is going to come
back again if you wait long enough? She isn’t. I’ll save you the trouble
of finding out on your own. I won’t say your idea was a stupid one
borne of naiveté however, it is one you and even I should learn from.
It’s time to move on.

I ignored the dispassionate dismissal of my potential future with
Anastasia. Well, ok, I urged reluctantly. If not New York, then

Well, believe it or not, I’ve been giving the matter considerable thought. I
can’t say that I fully expected this weird departure by Anastasia but
before she arrived I’d already been thinking about this anyway. I mean
if you recall, back then, before she arrived, you’d been similarly
miserable, wallowing as you do in this girl. I figured then, as I do now,
that a change of scenery would do us both good. We’re stagnating here.
We’ve allowed ourselves to fall into a pattern similar to the one we’d
been trying to escape originally in New York. We know this place,
we’ve met sufficient numbers of people, we feel welcomed, but this
isn’t our home. Not that finding our home is the goal here but if you
consider that none of these places is ever bound to be our home
anyway, you might conclude, as I have, that the only solution is
more movement. We aren’t in Europe to make roots. We’re here
for the adventure of the unknown. And Utrecht, you’ll agree is no
longer an unknown place. Worse still, it’s a place you know and a
place you’ve now developed a pattern of misery in. There’s no doubt
it’s time to move on.

Ok Albert, I’m not disagreeing. In fact I’d welcome the distraction
of movement. Any distraction in fact. I just want to know where.

Well for one, I've been thinking a lot about Prague. I’ve been reading a
lot about Prague lately. More and more. It seems to inundate the media
at times, this obsession with Prague, the cheap, hedonist’s life, the
attractiveness of it for artists, writers, musicians, drunks. The more I
read about it, the more I hear others talking about it, the more I've
begun to believe that it'd be a better place for us – it's a lot cheaper for
one – the beers are so cheap they’re virtually free, the culture is bursting,
and well, as I said, now that we’ve had a little sniff of success, the time is
ripe to move on.

Besides, let's face it, there aren't that many jazz locales here, not enough
gigs, and frankly not enough inspiration. We're pissing away tons of
money chasing an empty dream every day we remain here – we've got to
find something cheaper, somewhat western yet with a hint of mystery –
An old communist stronghold, an historical nugget, a place, I’d point out,
that used music, albeit rock, not jazz, to form part of their revolution,
the velvet revolution, a place that used to be part of the execrable past,
our past. Didn’t you ever think about what went on behind that old Iron
curtain when you were younger?

I did, yes, of course, I wondered quite often what it was like behind that
wall, especially, as you know, as part of my family came from behind
that wall, well escaped it beforehand but nonetheless…Well what would
we do there? We don't speak the language, for example and that's not a problem here but it could be a big hurdle there.

Listen to you, worrying like an old woman about unnecessary things.
Look, I've read there's some 20,000 expats living there – we should be able
to straddle the border between expats and locals, find jazz venues, drink
cheap beer and meet exotic beautiful women.

What more could be expected? I'm tired of whores, I'm tired of getting
stoned to oblivion in coffee shops filled with weird Middle Easterners
listening to shitty pop music. I'm tired of drinking these little
glasses of lager, tired of living above this hideous Somalian
takeaway, the weather sucks and most of all, here you are moping
around most waking hours, thinking about that girl. It's not just
for me, but for you as well. The change of venue will do you good.

Alright then, Albert. For lack of a better solution and in the interests
of moving, forgetting and distraction, Prague it is.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN - You’re Never Too Old For A Broken Heart

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the
certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
--- Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright, dissident and politician

It was nearly eighteen hours by Eurolines bus to Prague. Cramped seats, dishevelled sleep, casual slugs from Albert's flask of Oude Ginever, the
strong juniper flavoured Dutch liquor from which gin is rumoured to have evolved, fuelled my insomnia along with the excitement of the
destination ahead of us, and instead of sleep, quietly humming to myself,
covered in a barely comprehensible issue of De Volkskrant purchased
at the origin of the journey in Amsterdam, a comically coloured
weekend edition of USA Today as well as the International Herald
Tribune, whose crossword Albert had completed at the journey's onset
in less than a half hour, I stared out the window and lost myself in

In the end, we’d decided on the bus instead of the train because it
didn’t involve having to change and thus didn’t require Albert to
have to lug his awkward bass from station to station. You get on
the bus and you stay on the bus until the bus reaches your destination.
It was quite uncomfortable at times but far less mobility was required.

Once we’d decided to leave Utrecht we didn’t stick around for long
goodbyes. It was already nearly November and by Albert’s
calculations, an inner clockwork of seemingly unrelated calendars,
the window of opportunity for making a move was closing. Once
it was November the next thing you knew, it’d be nearly December and
trying to move from one country to another, pulling yourself out of the orbit
of one city into another during December wouldn’t be feasible. You’ll want
to be settled far in advance of Christmas, he cautioned. Otherwise we’ll
be living out of bags until next year. Besides, we’re moving to what
is, in essence, a third world country with an underdeveloped
infrastructure. Without linguistic skills, we’ll be forced to rely on the
Expat community at first and who knows what kind of ghost town
they’ll leave behind at Christmas time.

So the day after our Amsterdam debut, we informed our Somalian hosts
that we were migrating. It wasn’t much notice but unlike the previous
tenant, we gave them time to plan. Three days later we had our tickets
and were on the move. It boggled the mind a little, our swift departure,
like a retreating army, only we weren’t retreating we were going on the

In those three short days we binned most of our accumulated junk,
stripping back down to the bare essentials; our instruments and our
memories, a few unread books and a few CDs. I even managed a very
brief, cryptic postcard to Anastasia in the unlikely event she’d have
had second thoughts and arrived unannounced at the door of the
Somalian take away again only to discover we’d already moved on.

Goodbye Utrecht, I’d written to her on the back of a coffee-stained
snapshot of the Dom Tower. Hello, Prague.

During the long bus ride I snuck peeks, through the dancing moonlight of
a German sky, at Jiri Weil's Life With A Star, whose reading I'd timed for
this trip, this story of Josef Roubicek, a Jewish bank teller who is waiting to
be called up for deportation to Terezin whilst his fellow Jews were
increasingly persecuted in a Nazi-dominated Prague…

Neither of us had known much more than a communist Czechoslovakia
in the entirety of our collective existence and the idea of this
one-two punch, the Nazis followed up by the Russians, seemed like a
positively devastating set of circumstances. Not as gutting as a letter
from your lover saying good bye, I might add parenthetically, but
devastating nonetheless.

….and all this after the promise of the Treaty of St Germain in 1919,
Albert began to read aloud, upon successful conclusion of the
International Herald Tribune crossword without breaking a sweat, from
some notes he'd scribbled in anticipation of our journey, some
background fillers, arcanea and trivia, solid facts and useful information
he'd been gleaning in his spare time for weeks once he'd known in his
mind he was ready to leave Utrecht.

You see, he began, warming up to his topic as we left some truck
stop somewhere between Belgium and Germany by late afternoon,
offloading a few travellers, uploading a few more whilst giving
passengers a chance to stuff themselves with cafeteria snacks and
junk food for the journey ahead, Czechoslovakia itself was the one
of the many offspring of the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire after World War One and with that treaty, the return to the
romantic notion of the medieval Czech statehood

Now, how did they lose that statehood to begin with, he smirked, I'm
glad you asked. He pulled at his beard, staring out the window with
cosmogony in his eyes.

The Czechs, you see, were in a pretty good position if you go back
to the 14th century. Their King Charles IV, King of Bohemia and even
Holy Roman Emperor, believe it or not, the All-Time chief of Czech
chiefs, had set it all up proper-like. Not only that but he was the
one who commissioned so many of the Gothic buildings that still
stand in Prague, also started up the University of Prague, etc.
You'll see half the city will have bridges and streets and buildings and
maybe even entire neighbourhoods named after him. A national,
historic hero.

Anyway, he led this golden age for the Czech Empire and diplomat
that he was. Later on he established several treaties of his own, of
primary importance the one with the Hapsburg family in Austria and
surprise surprise, surprise, the Arpads in Hungary which, you
guessed it, was the foundation of the very Austro-Hungarian Empire
that needed to be dismantled some 550 years or so later.

His daughter married Rudolf IV, the Habsburg King and they entered
into a contract of mutual inheritance between his family and the
Habsburgs wherein if one family became extinct, the other took over.
Another Rudolf eventually became the Czech King but this wasn't the
proper downfall - no, that came because of, ready to hazard a guess?
Yes, internal religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants. We'll
save Jan Hus and the Hussites for another day, Witold but suffice it
to say that from that point on, the Czechs were no longer their own,
they were the Germans' and it wasn't until that treaty of St Germaine
in 1919 that they became so again, however short lived.

Hitler once bellowed, sometime in 1937 I think, Czechoslovakia
would be wiped off the map, Albert continued with a relish, smashed
with military power, he threatened. England, France and Italy helped sign
his power to do so in Munich a month later and by the Spring of 1939 not
only was so-called Sudetenland under the Nazi thumb, but their troops had
entered Prague itself.

So that, as they say, was that, Albert moaned, rolling his back to
me, head against the window, long legs curled inward in a futile
effort to fit his frame into a comfortable position for sleep. I returned to
Jiri Weil's book:

“..Ruzena, I said, people are now drinking coffee, well, perhaps not
real coffee, but they are sitting somewhere warm, after a satisfying
lunch, and I am freezing, Ruzena, and I am hungry…”

It was a thoroughly demoralising book about human cruelty and the
rooms of mild insanity that thrived within them. By the time I'd
finished, I'd temporarily forgotten my fixation with Soviet Prague
and resolved to spend one afternoon, like Josef Roubicek, sweeping
leaves in a Prague cemetery. I hadn’t forgotten my fixation with
Anastasia, of course, but at least the book put my suffering in

Meanwhile Albert slept easily whenever the urge arose from the start,
I noted jealously. I had long hours to stare out the window yet most of
the journey was made in darkness so even staring out the window gave
me the feeling that I was enduring rather than travelling, transported
anonymously through historical lands in a god damned bus stinking of the
bad breath and body odours of two dozen snoozing foreigners instead of
riding horses like Sugambrians and the Suebian Tribes raiding along the

Morning slowly unveiled and with its unveiling, the countryside
danced naked.

As we made our approach to what we assumed was Prague there was
a growing ill ease. Everywhere had a hue of grey, industrial soot,
abused and staggered.

Expecting Bohemia, anarchy, surrealism and intoxication, we were
disappointed at our dropping point, a bleak Želivského bus station on
what appeared to be the outskirts of town.

You think you know a place by reading about it, reading the literature
spawned from it, listening to the stories of other travellers but ultimately,
it’s like trying to imagine what it would have been like to make love to the vintage photo version of Marilyn Monroe or Ingrid Bergman – you might conjure up the face, fill in the blanks of the intimate curves of the body,
cobble together personality traits from movie clips, interviews and photographs but in the end, the imagination is dulled by the inability to
make it real.

This is Prague? Albert managed to moan, setting down his bag,
quickly lighting a long-awaited Winston and pulling the collar of
his coat up around his chin and grimacing. Despite his shock, Albert read aloud from a guide book, editing on the fly to suit his style and to distract

Prague's first nucleus was founded in the latter part of the 9th century as a
castle on a hill commanding the right bank of the Vltava: this is known as
Vyšehrad or the high castle, to differentiate from the castle which was
later erected on the opposite bank, the future Hradčany. Soon the
city became the seat of the Země koruny české, the Kings of Bohemia,
some of whom also later reigned as emperors of the Holy Roman

At the moment, it looked like a wasteland.

I think this is it, I noted cautiously, sniffing the sulphuric air around me
and looking longingly for something familiar. Imagine if we were like,
dropped in here in like August 1968, I enthused suddenly as if doing so
could ameliorate what looked like a miserable situation. Imagine when
the troops of the USSR, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria were rolling in to
douse the Prague Spring. Imagine the euphoria of a greater democracy,
economic reforms and the abandonment of controls over mass media doused in a matter of a few nightmarish days of occupation.

Jan Palach, Albert muttered, puffing greedily on the Winston and
wondering where the first pub might be located even though it was
barely seven in the morning. I've read this city is loaded with
non-stop bars, he explained in a typically distracted sidebar before
returning to his original thought.

Less than five months after the Russian entered Prague, Albert recited
dutifully as though standing over a grave, Jan Palach infamously
performed an act of self immolation in protest of the Soviet
disbursement of reform, the entering of their troops and tanks. If you
want to imagine something, try imagining making the decision not
only to protest, but to kill yourself in protest and to not only kill yourself
in protest but to kill yourself by setting fire to yourself in protest.

That, he said, tossing the cigarette butt on the ground with
hundreds of others, and two historic acts of defenestration, are
what Prague symbolises to me before I've even had my first Czech

We carried on out of the depot and began the slow, uncertain walk
towards what we sensed was the city centre. It was clear from
looking up and down the Vinohodská that the east end was a trail of
the city trickling away into suburbs and the west direction appeared
to be the only other choice. Fortunately for us, unwittingly, it led
straight down, albeit after quite a pace, into the symbolic ground zero
of town, the Národní Muzeum.

So we carried on, Albert lugging his bass with only a small duffel
bag over one shoulder and I, with the saxophone in its case, also
travelling lightly – clothes we would buy on the cheap – these were
third world prices, after all and despite effusions about history
and literature, like most others who had come, we were there for the
cheap lifestyle and the heady anticipation of hedonism ahead of us.

Ten minutes down the street and the strap on a bag snapped and fell
harshly into the slush of the sidewalk as a menacing dog held on a
leash by a disapproving old lady began barking at us. Fuck off,
Albert growled back at the dog as the old lady shouted something at
us incomprehensibly.

So this is the dream? Albert demanded after twenty minutes of
walking got us closer to what passed as the skyline. This fucking
dreary slum of a city?

I said nothing, tight-lipped.

First impressions are not always the right impressions. I couldn’t
bring myself to believe, and nor apparently could Albert, that
a place which had such a fabulous reputation could look like
such a miserable place. Maybe we were on entering from the
wrong side of town. We trudged on silently, expecting to be
dazzled at any street corner.

And sure enough, a few hours later we’d not only encountered our
first memorable views, had our first sniffs at what the hubbub had been
about, but had visited Cedok, the Czech tourist agency, and had found
accommodation in what we considered after months on the lam in
that flat above the Somali takeaway in Utrecht, a quasi-posh post-communist hotel, had showered off the dirt of the bus ride, found a street-side stand to gobble incredibly greasy potato pancakes lathered in sour cream and thick, crunchy sausages dipped in mustard, served on a cardboard square with a
hunk of brown bread, had a flyer for a promising youth hostel and were on
our way to a famous watering hole called U Zlatého Tygre where
great writers like Hrabal and Karel Hynek Mácha once drank.

You can accomplish an amazing number of things in a short period
of time when you have nothing more on your agenda than finding shelter and drinking.


The religious split between Catholics and Protestants is followed
everywhere on an historical trail and the historical trail leading to Prague is
no different. The rationalist reaction against devotional Roman Catholic
literature was a constant spasm, like a dodgy sphincter, Albert explained as
we strode swiftly now to the pub, eager to begin. Sort of on par with the
literary rebellion against white males hogging all the good lit publicity
for themselves, he added. And look, in the 16th century, the
predominate and fevered Catholics of the Habsburgs took over,
pushing the Protestants aside, much like the Spanish king did to the
Protestants in the Netherlands. See the pattern of Europe during
these times? Religious intolerance followed by bloodshed.

But like the Dutch revolt, the bubble burst eventually when at the
Prague Castle, an assembly of Protestants tried two Imperial
governors, Wilhelm Slavata and Jaroslav somebody, for violating the
right of freedom of religion, found them both guilty, and threw them
out of the high castle windows, There you have your first Czech
defenestration. Albert smiled as he explained this, pleased to show off his
new found knowledge but also recklessly amused by the thought of
defenestration for some reason.

Undeniably, the euphoria of partaking in historical Prague had eroded
within the last decade between the first intrepid Western youth settlers to today's insensitive masses. Now there were stag parties and frat boy
mentalities sweating through pint after pint in one trendy location after
another. There were few remnants of Communist Prague to sip on a leisurely
afternoon, the aura had been vacuumed and binned and in its place cropped
up a nihilistic subculture of intellectual sewage who came to Prague for the same reason they came to Amsterdam. Hedonism as an art form.

That isn't to say Prague didn't have its charms. It would be
hypocritical to pretend that for determined drunkards like Albert
and I, latter day successors to the son of the esteemed Charles IV,
King Wenceslaus, the Greatest 14th and 15th century drunkard, this
wasn't a sort of beer Mecca we might have dreamt about once the
idea of alighting in Prague became apparent. Not solely because
the Czechs, being one of the greatest consumers, per capita of ale per
capita in Europe but also because the beers themselves were larger and
Cheaper. A spectacular combination for us, whose loftiest goals were out consuming the one another. Just like those hordes we despised.

They've been brewing beer here what, 1200 years? 8th century? Albert
was salivating as he spoke.

Bohemian hops are in the eyes of some, the worlds best, he continued
with his dutiful recitation. Whereas it started off people just brewing
on consuming on their own property, by the 11th century they started
pooling their resources, brewing collectively. And here it is, dirt cheap
and consumed en masse. We will live the auld days of communism;
smoky cafes, drinking lots of and lots of cheap domestic beer.

And we knew there would also be more exotic yet powerful pit stops
along the beer super highway like plum brandy in the form of
Slivovice or the herb-laden Beckerovka and even absinthe.

But more importantly there were the Disney-like facades of what
remained a sort of fairyland architectural backdrop. There were the
working class pivnices in Zizkov where men traditionally supped on
gallons of beer in dingy yet church-like reverential quarters. There
was the cheap cost of living which made life a bearable bargain. There
was Vaclav Havel running the country instead of the literary resistance.
There was the underlying hum of informality when it came to proving
competencies. You didn't need a sparkling CV to do something, you
merely had to do it. And one can barely mention Prague without
mentioning the birds of Prague, sexually liberated with superior
Intellects yet charming naivité, or, as the Czech poet Mácha described
them; pale as an amaranth, withered in the spring

Albert didn't need much convincing, once we'd established quarters
in U Zlatého tygra which a guidebook had directed us to.

Albert judges every place he goes based upon the cost of a pint of
beer. Cheap beer in Albert's mind equals worthy society. Cheap beer
attracted more interesting characters and the cheaper the beer the more
outrageous the characters would become. To him, a bar with high priced
beer meant the patrons would be high-priced as well; snobbish, phoney,
insufferably self-consumed and wholly uninteresting. The upper classes
lack poetry, he was fond of repeating whenever we were accosted by
ridiculous prices. Life is best in cheap simplicity.

So when we ordered our very first pints in Prague the first thing he did
was a little jitterbug on the way to sitting at a table singing to himself,
it's true, it's true! The beer is cheaper than water!

Do you understand what we are creating by hopping now to this new
location, abandoning an incomplete the experience first of New York and
then Utrecht? This is a poetic of surprise and variety giving us
the illusion of motion and expansion. Our acts are begun and never
completed. Our equilibrium is unstable because we are constructing
on several levels at once, each level with a different perspective.

And now we throw into the blender, the abundance of cheap beer, an
even deeper hedonism, a surreal blur of experiences. If this doesn't
emancipate our music, nothing will!

This is better than Mexico, he went on after having his first few
sips. I hate Mexican beer, he sneered, even though it's cheap like
this. This, this Pilsner Urquel from Bohemian hops, he sang, holding
the pint up in front of my face as though I wouldn't understand his
subject without visual aids, is the sign of times to come! And he
chugged down the remaining eleven gulps without breathing, placing
the glass softly on the table top and wiping his chin with his right

Take it slow, lad – an old man who had been sitting dead for all we
knew across from us, suddenly came to life, holding out a wrinkled,
age-spotted hand in caution. You lads are all the same. Your first
beers you drink like the first girl you fuck, quickly and without
comprehending what you are doing. If you are to be drinking many
beers in this city, eventually you will learn there is no hurry. There
is always another beer waiting somewhere just around the corner, just as
cheap as the last one.

The old man introduced himself with an outstretched hand as Pavel.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries before Pavel gradually swallowed his
reluctance and got around to asking us what we were doing in Prague to
begin with. Reluctance of course because to him these expat stories were
tiresome and predictable.

We let it out quite casually that we were here to start a jazz collective and
slip into an irredeemable vortex of hedonism in the process.

Well it’s no great feat to slip into the vortex of hedonism here he cautioned. Christ knows I’ve seen enough of your kind polluting the streets, leaving the
sickness on street corners, leaving the air hanging heavily with overindulgence. But starting a jazz collective, now that’s an intriguing

His eyes lost some of their tired dullness, sparking to light with memory before those same memories shifted gears from the pleasant to the unpleasant
then back to the pleasant again. He volunteered that his command of
English, be patient, he cautioned, this might become a long story, was
owed to migration as a boy of 14, just after the Communist's final coup
for power.

Actually it was only a few days after Jan Masaryk, he added as an aside,
the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was found under the window of the
apartment. They called it suicide but we all knew better. We were just a
drop in a river of emigrants flowing out of Czechoslovakia. Disgusted
and powerless, carried by the tide of that disgust and powerlessness we
left our homeland, hiking through a thick forest for days and days
until finally arriving at the Austrian border.

He paused here, perhaps for dramatic effect or perhaps distracted by
a sudden outburst of laughter from three young men seated at a
corner table whose heated discussions were incomprehensible to our
ears but whose slurring demeanour and loud gesticulations
demonstrated them to be clearly in the hold of an early afternoon

During this pause I searched Pavel's eyes for perhaps a hint of
those of perhaps my own grandfather who had emigrated from Poland
just after the second world war. For the first time since we'd left
New York I was beginning to feel the stirrings of my own heritage,
even if this were a different country, a different background the
stories were similar. Homelands overtaken by ideologies, oppression
and force.

Unlike my father, who had been born in America, had set roots in
America and had ultimately killed himself in that same America,
the same East River he'd grown up around, Pavel had actually seen
his homeland before and after the ravages, not once, but twice and
then again a third time, the euphoria of the revolution in 1989, as he
called it, by then an auld man of 55, resigned to the fate dealt to him
and thousands of others…

Well, I say “we“, he admitted, coughing lightly, but I hadn't really
had a say in the matter. My mother and father wouldn't have dreamt
of leaving me behind, not to mention the fear of what kind of
retribution I'd have been exposed to from the government once the
disappearance of my parents was discovered. So from the beginning, I
was told I was going and that was that.

The problem was, a girl of course. I was in love with a girl, Jitka,
and we were inseparable. But because of the goddamned Communists,
because my father worked for Lidove Noviny, the paper whose editor
was once the famous writer Karel Capek and whose publication was
banned by the Communists in 1948, my father decided it was time to
Emigrate before it became too late.

What that meant of course to me was separation from Jitka. Well not
just separation. Not like a summer camp romance coming to an end. Jitka
and I had known each other since we were small children; she grew up in
a flat two blocks from our own. We spent all our time together growing up
and of course, as the human body and sexuality began to take shape
our friendship became one of experimentation.

Pavel paused to sip his beer, not at all embarrassed discussing what seemed
to be his wistful sexual autobiography to us, two complete, random strangers.

What you must understand is that if it hadn't been for the
Communists, if it hadn't been for the decision of my mother and
father, fearful of persecution, to leave and to make me go with
them, I quite probably would have married Jitka and we would have
had a family and life history of our own. But this was not to be our
fate. Instead, our fate was sealed by events out of our control and
so, no matter how much I cried and pouted and stamped my feet and
sulked and screamed and threatened and cursed, my parents were
steadfast in their refusal to allow me to stay behind.

Of course, like any young couple in love faced with a forced
separation, this only made our will stronger and we decided on our
own to run away. We wouldn't have to flee in the back of a pickup
hiding under piles of straw, crossing under the eye of a well-bribed
and perhaps even sympathetic border guards. We didn't care about the
Communists, it was my parents we had to escape, not the Communists.
The Communists didn't care if we held hands or made love or got

But our escape lasted less than 24 hours before we were discovered by
a nosey neighbour and when I was forced back home my father said that
was it, too close a call, we were leaving that night - no more could the
effort be postponed.

There wasn't much I could do. My father and mother both begged and
whispered and cajoled all that day about our having to leave,
regardless of what I felt about Jitka, this was our only way of
survival. Jitka would still be here when we returned, they promised. I
didn’t understand and I certainly didn’t believe them. I only knew they
were tearing me from my life.

And of course, my parents never returned once they left. I made efforts to write to Jitka but of course do you think for one moment those letters ever
reached her? Or even if they had, that any letter she wrote in reply to
escaped émigrés living in a foreign land, flouting the failure of
Communism, did anyone really come to believe that such letters would
be delivered, regardless of how devoid of political content and how
utterly overflowing they were with descriptions of painful
unrequited love that had been forced from our clutches cruelly? Of
course not. Well, I can't be certain. Perhaps the censors rode
roughshod through my correspondences with a black marker line but I
never bothered with the political. Sure, I tried to express the
differences of this new life which would have been apolitical to the
paranoid mind of the state censor, but the rest of the letters, they were
filled with nothing but love, expressions of longing, elaborate detailing of
minutely sculptured suffering. The minute my parents had convinced
me I had no other options was the minute that I would never see
Jitka again.

From Austria, he continued slowly, stopping to pull philosophically for a moment on his pipe, accepting a light to set the pipe afire anew from Albert
Whilst sitting back slightly in his seat to see if we were sufficiently
captivated, we made our way to England. Slough precisely, where my
father got a job in the brickworks.

I suppose the initial excitement about escaping, the boyhood craving
for the exotic, allowed me to make the decision I wouldn't have made
otherwise. But once we'd made it out, beyond the border, a new reality
struck me. The reality that I would not allowed to go back, not
ever. The problem was of course, Jitka. My heart burned. Every
morning I woke up, both in Austria and then in England, my stomach
was compelled by bile, a sickness, a longing. Do either of you know
what it's like to have love torn from your clutches like that,

We didn't need to look each other. And although it was presumably a
rhetorical question on the basis of building to a crescendo of
disappointment, disillusionment, we both shook our heads solemnly.
We needn't bother with our own silly little tales. Pavel and Jitka,
the love which had never been allowed to flourish, eclipsed anything
Albert or I might have imagined.

Pavel shook his head sadly, even to this day. He knocked out the
embers of his pipe and took another long swallow of beer. I noted
then, perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the second, that
Pavel had the kind of pinched, broken blood vessel-lined face that
you could instantly recognise in an alcoholic. A sort of club
membership symbolism, like a fencing scar for drunks.

Before I was forced to leave, he continued again eventually, Jitka and
I had often discussed how we would be able to reunite after I left. It was
out of the question of course, once I with my mother and father had
crossed into the West, to return to Prague and thus it would be up to
Jitka to escape on her own. We both agreed it was too risky and she too
young to attempt something like an escape but agreed we would both wait
for 4 years; 1952 when we were both 18 and then she would cross into
Austria, just as I had and we would meet on Christmas Eve, 1952 in front
of the Sudbahnhof.

For four long, desperate, delirious years I waited for that
Christmas even to arrive. In the interim of course we had no true
means of communication. About a year and a half after we'd gotten to
England, the Zelnices, a family who had lived in our building who
had also emigrated, were able to contact us from their new home in
Canada and with that contact came a small box of precious, precious
letters Jitka had handed to the Zelnices and begged for them to
forward on to me once they were settled.

They were letters from her to me, a year's worth which had been
edited and cut so that they would all fit into this tiny box that
the Zelnices smuggled out with them as a favour to both families.
I'm afraid rather than making the transition easier, I became even
more despondent. I was to have been practicing music, my parents
insisting of course that I was a protégé and yes, I admit, the
musical studies and hours upon hours of practice were indeed a
welcomed distraction. But once those letters arrived and I read them
through and through, over and over again, every single day since
they're arrival, the wait to 1952 became unbearable.

I was dying in that home in Slough, I tell you. By the beginning of
1951 it was becoming too much for me and not even the music was a
significant distraction. I became a member of the London Schools
Symphony that year , as my dedication and need for distraction
through music probably turned me into a much more talented musician
than I'd have ever become on my own but none of it was enough.

He exhaled a long bluish stream of smoke and rubbed the side of his
face nostalgically. Somehow however, I did survive. And do you know
why? Jazz. Jazz, he repeated softly and slowly as if it were Jitka's
name, melodic and mysterious, pronounced by the 18 year old Pavel in
front of the Ostbahnhof station in Vienna on Christmas Eve 1952.

Well, perhaps I am over dramatising, he chuckled to himself with
amusement. Not simply jazz, any jazz. I was a classically trained
musician, not a jazz musician, you see. It wasn't until I first
heard of Oscar Peterson that I became fascinated. You see Oscar
Peterson had been classically trained, just like myself. He'd
studied under Paul de Marky, a Hungarian concert pianist.

The thing is, he also studied under a classically trained veteran of
the Harlem jazz scene and was rather enamoured with the swing music
of Benny Goodman he heard on the radio. Rather than pursue
the concert pianist route, he chose jazz piano. I had never heard of
him although he'd spent several seemingly fruitless years in Canada
exhausting the jazz scene there.

But in '49, Carnegie Hall, as part of a concert of Jazz at the
Philharmonic, Oscar Peterson made his debut in America as a jazz

And in 1951, as I was pining away for Jitka and trying to
concentrate instead on studying music, the Oscar Peterson Trio was
formed with Ray Brown and Charlie Smith. Ah, and this trio, Pavel
cooed, was the beginning of my life being saved.

It wasn't until he paused further still that we were like children
sitting at the feet of our grandfather recounting war stories. Like
Oscar Peterson, Pavel also traded in his years of classical training
at the conservatorium, he explained, because he instantly loved,
upon hearing his first bootleg copies, Thelonius Monk and Oscar
Peterson and because the music distracted him from Jitka.

Jitka, of course, although she loved music, had no idea that . After
the Nazi occupation jazz flourished in Prague. Jazz was that
yearning for freedom we all craved. Not only did I play, but I read
and learned about the history as well. The history, for example, of
Bedrich "Fricek" Weiss, who was deported to the concentration camp
Terézin, where he led the Ghetto Swingers. In 1944 he, together with
his father, was transported to Auschwitz and directly to the gas

And 1952 was a bad time for Czechoslovakia. I worried increasingly
for Jitka's safety. By then the communist show trials had begun and
even from England we could feel the fear bred during the trial of
Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other prominent Communist personalities
in November and December 1952. Whilst Jitka and I were busy planning
our reunion in Vienna, Slánský was executed, and many others were
sentenced to death or to forced labour in prison camps.

It was very difficult to obtain a passport in those days, he
explained wearily recollecting sadness. You had to apply for
official permission and to get official permission you had to have
an employer. Well, Jitka was able to convince her employer to deem
her a reliable person and she was able to obtain permission but due
to bureaucratic twists and turns I had no knowledge of, it was not
until February of 1953.

Of course, I was there, Christmas Eve in front of the Ostbahnhof
station in Wien. I waited there in the snow and the biting cold
expectantly without having had any confirmation that she would in
fact be arriving and yet belief, faith, made me wait.

I waited for several days out there, sleeping in the station to keep
warm before the idea began creeping into my head that perhaps I
should somehow get closer to the border so that she wouldn't have as
far to go. I could imagine millions of scenarios; being shot by
border guards, getting lost, starving in the forest, getting
frost-bite, dying, a million different things that could happen to
her that could have happened to her to prevent her from reaching our
mutually agreed destination at the appointed time.

It was insanity of course, to believe this could turn about into
reality. After several more days my money was running out and new
fears began to play in my head; evil fears of infidelity to the
dream. Who was to say, even though she'd written those letters,
those letters had been written two years before, who was to say that
in the interim she hadn't met someone else. Someone whom she
wouldn't have to escape her country to meet with. Someone for whom
she wouldn't have to pull up roots and futures to be with. Someone
perhaps better looking, more accommodating, anything. Anything
anything was possible! He slammed his hand on the table gently as
though living through every moment of those days in Wien again.

And what the hell did I know? I was 18. I had no real experience in
the world. Not from Slough. But I would not go back, not ever. I
decided in the end I would wait and in doing so, I auditioned for a
job in a Viennese bar to play piano, jazz piano. And whilst doing so
I waited and I waited and I waited.

The problem of course with a lack of communication was that I had no
idea of her situation back in Prague and she had no idea that I
would have waited for her. Without the confidence of knowing I would
be meeting her, the idea of simply getting out and leaving, of
disembarking in Vienna and never returning home again, without the
sanctity of knowing I was going to be there waiting for her, was too

How do I know all this? He laughed bitterly. Because in fact, we
were finally reunited one day. 1990. She had married by 1955 and
started a family of her own. We weren't children after all, any more
and whatever dreams we had once had of reuniting, they were gone
forever. She could never again have the opportunity to escape Prague
and even if she did she would have no idea of how to find me. And so
that was that.

Oh, she relived those weeks and months for me knowing she was stuck in
Prague that I’d be waiting for her in Vienna with no idea what had happened
to her. It broke her heart, she said all those years later, dry eyed, incapable of
crying even one more tear drop in the wake of so many she’s already shed for
me. I cried a lifetime of tears in those few months Pavel, she said to me that
first day we met again in 1990. I have no more tears left to shed.

She married and raised a family of two children, became a grandmother by
1980. And where was I? Still in Vienna. Still unmarried. Teaching kids, he
confessed into his waning beer as the barman slid through collecting empty
glasses, taking orders and working the room with a beer gathering mania that bordered on shamanism. I was teaching kids who had no interest in learning about the piano but were forced by their parents who saw classicism in
them instead of western consumerism. I didn't play in any more concert halls.
I played in pubs and bars around Austria and Germany when the need to
move forward fit but by and large, I stayed in Vienna until that one
day, that one day that was always a piece of my hypothetical life,
that one day…

It took me nearly a year to track her down now with a different
surname although the husband had died some time before. And of
course by the time I had tracked her down it was 1990, 38 years
later than expected, a lifetime's ocean between us.

I don't know which made me more sad. That we hadn't met at all in
1952 or that we were finally reunited in 1990 knowing it had already
passed us by.

But enough about these things, he suddenly waved away, digressing
into pity and sadness. What instruments do you play and what sort of
jazz is it you are conspiring?

I play the bass, Albert volunteered as the barman returned with
three more pints and ticked off three little slashes on our scrap
paper tally sheet which we watched with amazement. And Witold plays
the horn, neither of us very well, I might add.

Lacking astounding talent, Albert continued, we prefer a minimalist
approach to music. We don't play fancy 15 minute solos, we don't
spiral, we don't necessarily shake or groove or incarnate anything.

We try our best not to remind our audience that we struggle with
even the most rudimentary of beats and that neither of us could read
a music sheet any easier than we could read a newspaper written in
Sanskrit. In fact, to call us musicians might even be a stretch.
Conceptualists, perhaps. Like children who haven't yet conquered

Pavel stared at us for a few moments before taking the pipe out of his
coat pocket again and relighting it, a shot of flame from a match struck
on the floor, audible puffs and the Vatican-like smoke firing out of
the top of the bowl indicating he had finally digested Albert's
words in full. You will be very successful here then, I would
suppose, Pavel smiled slyly. This is precisely the kind of place
where you could pull something like that off.

We've already been a hit in Holland, I added unnecessarily because Pavel
is clearly a talented musician and despite this hearing this hollow
self-endorsement in my ears, I could not stop.

We are in the middle of a series of six month tours from one country
to the next, enough time to ingest the cultural and regurgitate it in our
music, all patterned locally.

Unfortunately, most of my contemporaries are long passed, Pavel
mentioned, thinking aloud. But if you are interested, perhaps one
afternoon you could come by my apartment and we could organise a
little session of sorts. It sounds as though it could be very
intriguing indeed.

Prague would eventually reveal herself like that in so many ways. By
like that, I mean opportunities seemed to fall from the sky. It would come
to seem that with a little initiative, a distinct lack of fear and a modicum
of self confidence, there wasn't very much in Prague that couldn't be accomplished given time.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Reaching the Temperature of Acclimation

“Yeah the women tear their blouses off
And the men they dance on polka-dots
And it’s partner found, partner lost
And it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
It’s Closing Time.”

Leonard Cohen, Closing Time

During the course of our wanderings from neighbourhood to neighbourhood
which intrinsically consisted of simply exploring the inside of one
neighbourhood pub after another, polluting each with our unaccountable and
incoherent banter whilst swallowing one mouthful of beer after another,
we heard about a youth hostel nearby, a cheaper alternative to the decadent
luxury of the post-Communist hotel we’d been wasting our money in.

The sole criteria wasn’t that it be cheaper of course. There was also a pub
on site where we could, if induced, or so compelled, provide free entertainment to the visiting hordes and even the locals who might come
sniffing around. An opportunity to expose our music to the public, for
better or worse, a vague justification for our existence. We entertained ideas
of becoming the house band for the hostel and having once registered and discussed the possibility with the hostel manager, were sufficiently
encouraged by the prospect that we naturally found it compelling to drink
the night away in yet another futile tribute to premature, celebratory excess.

Yes, predictably, that was how we passed our time the first few weeks
in Prague. There was no reasonable explanation for our behaviour other than
blaming the hedonistic aura of the city herself. The natives were consummate drinkers, that much was apparent by merely glancing into any of the
neighbourhood pubs which on the street the hostel was located,
numbered more than any other street in Prague. They were all filled. They
were all heaving with patrons who supped their delicious Czech beers as if their lives depended on it.

Of course the general euphoria associated with living in a new
country with a city renowned for the dangerous vortex of its sybaritic
frenzy was undoubtedly a contributing factor; there was never a shortage
of places to go, excuses to stop in somewhere and have a beer or two and
once settled, fewer excuses still to get back up again and head back to a
hostel bunk.

These people were appeased with cheap beer for generations, Albert
opined one of our first nights out, sitting quietly at a table of locals.
You can gloss over a lot of tyranny and misery with the proper
application of cheap beer. Although they stood idly by as foreign troops invaded their soil, these people have rioted in the past whenever
the local government tried to raise the beer prices so you can see this is
something they take quite seriously.

Despite the lethargy of the first week or so upon arrival we were
acutely aware, upon return to the hostel each evening that our
living situation, while tolerable, was no long term solution. Prague,
being infinitely larger than Utrecht, presented not only its own
infinity of housing problems but also a plethora of potential solutions.

The one strategy we could easily agree after only a few days was that
we had no desire to move to the expat ghetto outskirts of Prague, home
of the dreaded panelaks. The panelaks symbolised failure. Not just the
hideous, heartless concrete buildings themselves but the banishment they symbolised to those cheerless suburbs, so far from the heart of the action.

You could thank in part Swiss architect Le Corbusier, the precursor
to the simple and efficient Functionalism movement of the 1920s and
30s, for the existence of panelaks because in many ways, they were
modelled after that design, deformed over the years by Communism
into the symbolism of the alleged material equality and collectivist
style they were peddling. They'd always been a source of cheap
housing in a city notorious for its lack of living space, a simple
Solution to the housing shortages; to be quartered in thin walled,
cheaply built edifices glorifying communism.

Ironically, they were now the great weigh station of the ex-pat life for
those living on the thin of their wits who didn't mind long bus or tram
rides back in the middle of a cold, bleak night. Communism was dead
and the foreign hedonists and pseudo intellectuals had already moved in
and made themselves at home.

We decided by straw poll, the two of us in an empty non-stop bar
near the banks of the Vlatava one night, that budgeting money would
come elsewhere, not in housing. It was the city or bust, no panelaks or dreary suburbs for us.

The only place we could imagine living was in the neighbourhood
of Zizkov, which had become our headquarters, our oasis from
tourism and again, home of the notorious street called Borivojova, which
contained the most pubs per square metre than any other city in Prague.
The same street our hostel was on. Zizkov, once a communist stronghold,
home of the local KGB headquarters, was named after Jan Žižka,
the famous general who in 1420 had led peasant rebels, along with
Hussite troops from Prague to victory over the Bohemian King
Sigismund in the Battle of Vitkov Hill. Now it was run down, blue collar,
trying meekly to assert a certain Bohemian flavour to an otherwise salty and
unusual taste.

Another strong point in favour of Zizkov was that there weren't many
places you could actually escape the disease of people gathering in what
would otherwise be pristine pockets of Pragueness, the local pivnices
still holding on to their blue collar perspectives and prices, unwilling or perhaps incapable of surrendering to the mass collection plate of
consumerist tourism, the parasitic nature of all tourism in fact.

Nearly everywhere you turned you would find a collection of dead-enders
who had fled their respective countries to find not only hedonism but jobs
in Prague. Jobs so they could stay longer, drink more, pretend to be on the cusp of something very important. In the early and mid 90s they liked to
regurgitate the notion created by foreign media that they would one
day constitute a movement of some kind, literary, artistic and
glorious, fancying themselves post-Communist Hemmingways and
Joyces and Steins.

I suppose it was to be expected in a way, Westerners flooding in,
held back and out precisely for their decadence, their unseemly
wealth, insatiable greed. The Americans formed a disproportionate
majority of these temporary immigrants as though the word had been
disseminated solely through college radio so that the population
of semi literate American university students would lead the charge.

In fact the media coverage of this pseudo phenomenon was so intense back
then that you were almost guaranteed, if you stayed a few months,
to be interviewed by someone for something and nearly always with the
same particular angle, conjuring up Paris of the 20s and 30s as if the city
and indeed, history itself was simply a worn record upon which the needle
had skipped back and remained, finding an irrevocable groove, playing over
and over again.

It was only a joke if it was taken seriously and by the time we'd arrived,
this original crowd of poseurs had eventually, like a shifting tide, begun to
trickle away, replaced by a newer corps even more intent on quantity
over substance. Yet from time to time you could still find hard-boiled expats, lording over some collective of artistic wanna-bes with misguided senses of
cool, all trying to out-hip each other as if their mere presence was deed enough. We knew it well. We were living it, albeit without the pretension
of novelty to mask our motivations and actions.

So eventually we came to the agreement that we would stay in the
hostel for as long as it took to find housing in Zizkov and only in Zizkov,
and in the evenings or afternoons, when possible, we would rehearse in
front of the hostel inmates. Our daily rituals continued in this pleasant
pattern for weeks.

One night we were in U Stare Pani killing time with cigarettes and
no particular goal in mind once that time had been killed, other than
ogling the Moravian bar maid, a particularly engaging champagne
of a woman reminiscent of Raphael’s La Fornarina, who charmed everyone who entered with her beauty and easy manner.

Hands to yourself, she would urge the more drunkenly aggressive patrons
who on occasion would want to take a piece of her home with them, a
memory, a touch, a souvenir. I’m engaged to Patrik Eliáš, she would warn. We never knew if she was or not but it didn’t really matter. The mere
mention of the name of the Czech ice hockey star was sufficient to avert
the attention of most any intoxicated aggression coming from a local Czech.

It was quite some time before the first act was coming on that particular night
and we weren't even certain we would stay long enough to hear the initial
chords when a foursome of performance artists arrived - we could sense they
were performance artists rather than the opening act, dressed as they were in a
variety of costume yet not carrying any musical instruments.

They took a table near us and set about their little gag: Milos,
Jaroslav, Robert and Ivo, all of whom shared a spacious attic duplex
in Prague 6, Bubenec, each speaking in character of their chosen
character: Milos as T G Masaryk, the Czech ideologist and
politician, dressed in an overcoat with woollen collar open at the
neck covering a white shirt, wearing a distinctive pince-nez,
whitish goatee covering the area around his mouth and chin.

Jaroslav as 1984 winner of Nobel Prize for Literature and poet,
Jaroslav Seifert, native of Zizkov, dressed in simple peasant clothes,
flannel shirt and stained grey sweater his large face surrounded by a mane
of white hair, the only one of the foursome without facial hair, so
chosen Jaroslav later confided because he had difficulty, with his light complexion and fair hair, with growing facial hair at all.

Robert as Jan Hus, populist reformer, most imposing of them all standing
well over six feet tall with his hair in a typical medieval tonsure, long,
almost triangular white beard (although this was a sticky point, Robert
Admitted, that although oft depicted as such, he wasn’t entirely certain
Hus had had a beard,) dressed in a burlap robe and wearing a paper hat
with pictures of the devil drawn on it. It was alleged, Robert conveyed to us,
that Jan Hus was made to wear such a hat whilst imprisoned. He then
launched into a speech, speaking Bohemian rather than Latin, which
was translated for us sotto-voce along the lines of Lord Jesus Christ,
I am willing to bear most patiently and humbly this dreadful,
ignominious, and cruel death for Thy gospel and for the preaching of
Thy World.

And finally Ivo as Antonin Dvorak, flowing handlebar moustache
speckled with grey and white, waistcoat, bow tie, black overcoat and
holding of course, a baton.

It doesn't make any sense, Albert protested, shaking his head and
wagging his finger simultaneously. Firstly, you're all of different eras
and save for Seifert over there, you'd all be dead so such a gathering
would be physically impossible.

Oh no, Seifert corrected, I'd be quite dead as well.

Well, it's artistic and tourist-oriented, Jan Hus explained. You see this
is primarily a method of promoting cultural awareness for both Czechs
and tourists alike, dressing up like this we promote Czech history
and culture. Of course, we aren't always IN character but on the
other hand, it is rather enjoyable to gauge peoples' reactions when
for example, after a long day of socialising with the hoi polloi,
working hard for our grant from the Czech Tourism Authority, we
enter a palace such as this eager to quench our collective thirst
and forget about the burdens which harangue our mutual characters.

Seifert, or I, rather, have nearly 30 volumes of collected poems. I was
born in Zizkov in 1901 and worked as a journalist until 1950 when I
finally started gaining the respect and getting paid enough as a poet to
earn a living on that alone despite never toeing the party line. Want to hear
my acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature from December
1984 in Stockholm? He cleared his throat, but we protested
we didn't have enough time…Of course, he interrupted, by then I was
very old and very weak, not like now…

But naturally it's not all about government grants or even eccentricity,
Antonin added impatiently to distract Seifert from his speech. Allow me
explain. In order to understand those with whom we want to identify, we mimic them. I love Dvorzak's music and yet can't play any musical
instrument and have no talent or inclination towards composing myself.
So by “becoming” Dvorzak so to speak, I am allowed the grace of his
existence despite having none myself. Of course I could never assimilate
entirely. That might be a sign of mental illness. Just as we are living, acting
as dead people who were once alive, so too are we finding identity, even if
it is only through the lives of others. The danger however is creating a split
personality, a duality between the person I am imitating and myself and I
honestly struggle at times delineating the difference between myself and
Dvorzak, that is how good an acting I have become. I can become Dvorzak.
Oh, c'mon! Masaryk laughed, slapping his palm on the table. No
amount of imagination, no costume, no nothing could ever create the
illusion that you were he or as talented or frankly, anything. Face
it, you're out of work, not composing. Instead of creating software
programmes, or sweeping crumbs off of a white linen table in a fancy
restaurant populated by politicians or cultural icons or German
tourists you have placed yourself in this vortex of character
imitation, not enough yourself so why not be someone else, correct?

Well for that matter, Dvorak confessed, I'm probably more entitled
to dress as Goofy or Donald Duck at the Euro Disney than I am a
famous composer but character imitation being what it is, guild-less
and free, well, there is no prerequisite and the entire plausibility
of it ultimately comes down to me. I can be prideful of being the
best Dvorak I can be but to be Goofy? Good or bad or indifferent, I
would be simply lost.

Masaryk scoffed and the conversation was becoming uncomfortably
heated as though all of the petty controversies polluting the daily
life of four grown men who lived together, spent most of their days
together dressed as other people, parading characters for tourists
and countrymen, was finally coming to a head, their frazzled ability
to maintain a semblance of civility between each other, as it would
appear for a suddenly famous rock band whose inexplicable fame had
grown their egos to unacceptable proportions and led to their ultimate split
up, we could sense the fabric unravelling.

We left them, Seifert warming up to his acceptance speech, Jan Hus
giving speeches about sacrifice, Dvorak waving his baton to an
imaginary orchestra and Masaryk rearranging the ashtray and
straightening the table cloth.


Albert had no interest in working, even though he'd watched me spend
hours some afternoons with a Czech dictionary and the local
newspaper's want ads looking for housing and employment. He spent
entire mornings undercover, snoring through breakfast and sometimes
lunch even though I would be in the backyard outside the window of
our dorm room practicing the saxophone against the walls of the

Our search continued, stuttered, distracted. We asked nearly anyone
we came across if they were aware of any vacant flats. Even a solitary
room would have sufficed. We wanted to end the sense of temporality
living in the hostel provoked. But just like in Utrecht, even with money, finding a place was difficult.

One day we met Tibor, a friend of a friend, outside a pub on Executioner's
Hill. Tibor had a girlfriend, Marie, who was staying at his flat and was paying for her flat that she neither needed or could afford any more. So
hers was available, Tibor had put out the word and that word had filtered
eventually down to us. He led us from Executioner’s Hill through a
labyrinth of hills and side streets we were utterly unfamiliar with until we
finally came to an old building across from a small, triangular park right on
the corner of a pronounced intersection of Koněvova and Jana Želivského
and on a tram line and next to a tourist hotel. The elevator barely fit one so
we walked the three flights of stairs, left at the hallway to the end, in the right
hand corner of the floor, Tibor pushed open the door to reveal to us our potential new home.

Having already shared the expeience of cheap rented property in Utrecht,
Albert and I weren’t expecting much in Prague. This flat, as you entered,
was entirely unremarkable although for about half the price it was nearly
twice the size. It had a proper shower and bathroom on premises, a standard
sized kitchen, a rather spacious living room and finally, a small closet sized room that may well have been a large walk-in closet once but for the
purposes of this flat and our sharing of it, would serve as a miniature
bedroom to one lucky lodger.

There was already a mattress set against one wall of the living room as
his girlfriend had left it and behind that sofa was a small bookshelf whose
half dozen Czech books Tibor leaned down to peruse before picking up a
copy of Post Office by Bukowski in Czech. I love Bukowski, he exclaimed
in his very limited English, suddenly breaking through the hush of our
language barrier which to that point had been limited to a charade of
hand signals. Tibor's English skills were raw and our facility with Czech
was of course virtually non-existent other than having learnt the proper case
declinations for the word beer in Czech, changing as it did, depending on the
quanity being ordered.

Bukowski's great, man, I exclaim, suddenly buoyant, shocked at the
discovery, amazed that Tibor had heard of him, not realising the reach
of Bukowski in the international subterranean world we were entering.
You like? He asked pointing around the room. Very good. We take.
Our English had began to mimic his subconsciously as though by
speaking in broken English we might be better understood. Like people
who talk louder when speaking English to a non Anglophile as if the
louder the language is spoken, the easier it is to understand.

To celebrate, although we had no idea that was the purpose when
Tibor led us from the apartment down the wide street to a pub table,
we were compelled to get inebriated. I’ll bet that surprises you. But the
speed and subtle fury with which we drank through Clint Eastwood-clenched
teeth was shocking. The savagery with which we attacked the first the beers
demonstrated our joy at finally finding a home. As Tibor became
emboldened, calling the waiter over, going into a long monologue
punctuated with laughter which could only have been asides to more
serious business and then waiting expectantly as though the
announcement of his first child were eminent, he demonstrated to us the
liquor and the glass – Becherovka, he taught us proudly that afternoon.
Becherovka, we replied in unison, wiping our lips with our shirtsleeves
and congratulating ourselves on our good fortune.

There weren't many in the restaurant yet and the few dwindlers
carried on their own languages in whispering corners. One shot after
another, chased with the beer which the waiter motored back and
forth with a speedy predictability. A man was picking his teeth with
his salad fork behind us. To the right, I could almost discern in my drunken hallucination that a pensioner couple were talking in hushed tones about the dog's bowel movements and the speakers placed around the room in corners near the ceiling, purred some strange Bohemian folk music.

We were able to converse only by the limitations of the palm-sized
Czech-English dictionary Albert carried with him every where he went. But
what did it matter really? We weren't saying anything important.
Bonding like apes before language was invented, simply grunts and
hand signals. I faded in and out of these communications, found myself
transported back again to Anastasia for the first time in weeks as though
she were my homeland I was dreaming of and the faintest whiff of
home cooking sent me tumbling backwards down the stairs of bittersweet memories unable to break my fall.

We were in a café in Amsterdam. Café Hoppe in fact, the brown café I
had come to frequent because the book seller across the road was
particularly good and one of my favourite coffee shops was just
around the corner. We were in Amsterdam for the day on the premise
of scouting a few jazz clubs we would enquire about and perhaps line
up a gig or two. Albert had stayed home nursing the last stages of a
flu that had bedridden him for days.

We were sitting at an outside table as the scenery rolled past us
like intricate waves peopled and dazzling with the enormity of
anonymous humanity washing by. Anastasia had been recounting a
morsel of her past – a recent past of course, I knew nothing about
Her. No story she ever told was older than a year as though she had only
existed at once, out of nowhere, just beginning that evening in
Paris when I'd first met her. But even still, it was a morsel, like
a crumb from one of the biscuits they served with the koffie

The air was ripe with rain. Only that morning we'd been caught in a
sudden downpour, soaked to the bone as we wandered through a
museum and later snacked on apple pancakes washed down with black
coffee laced with cheap cognac. For hours it had cleared and now the
clouds had returned, anxious to begin another hymnal of precipitation.

She was explaining one of the gigs that had gone wrong in Milan. The
microphone had started feeding back inexplicably half way through
her morose recalibration of Wild Is the Wind and the microphone
started crackling briefly before the sound went out all together.

She carried on with the song whilst the crowd murmured its
distraction and Christ, she said, stirring her coffee absently, I
felt as though I had just been fucked in some back alley and left
lying in the road. What was I singing for? Nobody was paying
attention? Those fucking people in Milan that night were like that –
transparent and shallow. Wonderful stylish clothes but ghouls
lurking on the inside. They couldn't wait to be distracted, time was
wasting. Finally I stopped singing and walked off. A few cat calls
followed. It was ok for them to ignore me but for me to ignore them,
it was an insult. The manager tried to placate me but I was having
none of it. I'll never play in this shit hole again I remember
screaming in French to the dumb Italian who was torn between the
now-partisan crowd and me, the diva singer who was packing up her
things to leave.

I’m aware of it, you know, she said coyly. I know how difficult I can
be to work with. I've got to have everything just right and if
there's so much as a hair out of place on the trumpeter, I simply
can't stay focused. But this club had already had a week of me and a
week of problems. Lighting was terrible, the air was damp and the smell of
mould was everywhere like a basement after a flood. I felt like I was
suffocating up there every night. Do you know what that's like? Of course
you don't. You and Albert just play, you don't give a shit. No offence,
Witold, but the walls could fall down around you like a poorly constructed
theatre set and you probably wouldn't even notice, would you? She laughed to herself imagining it.

Well anyway, that was it for that club. I told my manager I was
through with Milan in general. I gave him an earful of the treachery
that city had displayed throughout its history. And all the while he
would pat my arm and my shoulder as though I were some mangy dog
shivering in the cold. I wanted to punch him or scratch his face,
leave him with a mark his jealous wife would ask about later that
evening when he came home and stripped his sweaty clothes off.

She lit another cigarette then, even though there was still the old
one burning and then she stood up. Even thinking about it now brings
back the anger. I really hated that place Witold. It's so much nicer
here. The people aren't such….barbarians.

She took off for the bathroom to powder her nose or stare at her
reflection in the mirror, whatever it was women did when they used
the bathroom as an escape route. And whilst she was gone I sat there
sipping my little glass of Amstel, looking over at the chair she had
just been sitting in. I started imagining a day when she would be
gone again and I would be seated like this on another sort of day
like this in this very same café remembering just this precise
moment with the empty chair but Anastasia still here, gone for only
a few moments rather than months, sure to return from the bathroom
composed again, apologising for worthless emotions and asking that
we both have a glass or two of whiskey because she loves the
peaty taste so and then we'd be taking off on another rollercoaster,
drinking and talking until we were both obliterated, obligated to
maintaining the high, bouncing from venue to venue as though the
motion were the only thing holding us up.


And so just like that, with sudden discovery of a flat and reasonable
prospects of domesticity, the ache of Anastasia had returned for good
again. I hadn’t escaped it by leaving Utrecht after all. Tibor and Albert
were still there at the table, fumbling through conversation. The old
pains had returned but we had a flat again. We had a home. Something
for Anastasia to come back to, if she ever decided to come back again.

Tibor had held another lengthy discussion with the waiter this time,
unbeknownst to us, to switch our shots from Beckerovka to Absinthe.

The name of this comes from the Greek, Tibor attempted to elaborate.
Whilst I’d been day dreaming I’d barely noticed that we’d been joined by
Marie, who had a much better facility for English and had arrived to
explain some of the nuances of the flat to us but instead ended up
translating for Tibor, who thought it suddenly important to explain to
us in preparation of drinking that the word Absinthe came from from
the word absinthion, which in his understanding meant undrinkable
in Greek. Tibor lit a Start cigarette and gulping down a mouthful of
Mestan while Marie translated for us. The French used to use it in
Algeria in the 1830s to combat malaria.

The shots were lined up in front of us as his preamble continued.

At some point, wine became too expensive because of vineyard
destructions created by the Phylloxera, an insect that had been imported
from the English in the mid 1800s and fed on grape roots which not surprisingly, in the end, caused great destruction to grape vines in France.
As a result, the working class in Paris stopped drinking wine which had become too expensive due to the shortages and moved on gratefully, it
appeared, to Absinthe, a far cheaper industrial alcohol.

Thereafter, Parisians took to it, moving from one café to the next
during what they came to call The Green Hour, stinking of Absinthe.
Toulouse-Lautrec was rumoured to have carried a hollow walking stick
filled with a draught of it, sometimes adding various supplements to it like
bitters, or wine, or champagne. But here we shall take it in a pure shot,
without the boorish traditional burning sugar and spoon – just shots for men,
straight down. He raised his thimble like glass of green liquid and
urged it down with Albert and I following in dreadful pursuit.

And that night was a hoax, a deep mystery we were buried under.
Nothing was recallable. Tibor took us down all sorts of memory
lanes, the ugliest stretches he could remember until even his own
words, slurring and weighted, began to lose all meaning and
thereafter it was all a blank save for the horrible waking the
following afternoon on the floor of our new flat, heads pounding.

And, as I'd hoped, the distraction of moving, the diversion of a new
language, new culture, different people all conspired to rid me of
the listlessness of emotion I couldn‘t control or appease, which was catacombed and awaiting unearthing. Anastasia was in the background
for far too many moments, a longing I once again couldn‘t escape.

She was there like a vague toothache that at times would throb and remind
you of the potential pain and then in an instant gone again – there was too
much stimuli around, too much of the culture's aroma in every room, around
every corner.

And thus, there could be times when all was forgotten. There could
be times when she could have passed through me and I'd not have
noticed, committed to forgetting as though the effort itself weren't
a reminder.

Some Sundays we attended the little literary gatherings at Radost where everyone smugly played their roles as ex-pat ingénues. Albert and I sat in
the back, drinking overpriced bottles of Budvar, chain smoking,
wondering where all the talent went. It was a kinky breed of non fame
and non fortune and a lot of people kidding themselves. There were
a few interesting writers but certainly no one who was going to
jump start a cultural revolution or be remembered fondly a generation
later as the patriarch of a literary movement. No matter how
desperately the foreign, and primarily American media came in droves
attempting to portray it at its birth.

Albert was affected by Anastasia's disappearance almost as much as I
was although obviously he was spared the additional pangs of heartache
and palpating attacks of obsession. Her singing in Holland had given us
what seemed like instant credibility and without her we were out there, a
desultory duet of double bass and tenor sax, insolubly brief, irreconcilably
flat and uninspired as though all the confidence we'd gained initially had been punched out of us and there we were, bloodied and crawling in the streets
again waiting for another break.

The same lethargy which had handicapped us before was as simple as a grammar school mathematics problem; dreams plus alcohol equalled
dreams and little more.

Yes, we’d made it this far but certainly not down to any hard work on
our part. The cash settlement and boredom had gotten us this far. The
quest for somewhere else, that incessant canary in the mine shaft, got us somewhere else but the need for movement quenched by drinking, was
no artistic expression. The dreams of something irretrievable.

What’s there to be motivated by, Albert scoffed in the middle of one of
my frequent guilt trips on drinking too much and rehearsing too little; like
a little tour guide I highlighted the historical achievements and disasters.
We aren’t going to be famous, Albert, I would state, writing our obituary aloud. We don’t even have that drive in us. We are alcoholics in search
of window dressings. We want to justify ourselves despite there being no justification so we lean on the crutch of being musicians. The irony of
course, not even talented musicians, just musicians. Just an excuse to
travel, a furthering of drinking which we can justify by the periodic gig,
the illusion of being musicians. Otherwise, we’re just glorified drunks.
No dreams, no futures. Hell, maybe even no discernible pasts. Just
existing because we’re too cowardly to even kill ourselves.

Albert sneered, taking a large slurp of beer. Why I think you’re on to something there Witold, no pulling the wool over your eyes, is there?
We’re drunks with no guidance? So what? Who cares why we’re
sitting here? Who cares how we got here? We are here. We have
enough money to drink and we drink. As far as I’m concerned the music
is not a crutch of any kind. It’s an augmentation. I could happily
continue on as I had in New York, reading, listening to music, drinking
myself to death slowly. This is merely a diversion en route. Don’t kid yourself. Fame, success? Perhaps you should lay off the delusional
world you seem to be inhabiting for awhile. Take a vacation into reality.
You’re a drunk. I’m a drunk. We could both simply remain drunks, could have stayed right where we were in fact. But it wasn’t enough. So we’re
drunks in a different backdrop, a different country, hearing a different
language around us. We’re drunks with side interests in music. So the fuck
what? Since when did we obtain a higher purpose? You’re beginning to
irritate me with this self-righteous self-pitying bullshit. If you don’t like
being a drunk, stop being a drunk. If you want to make something of your life,
make something of your life. But please don’t insult me, sitting here,
wringing your hands about what we “should” be doing. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. If you want
to elevate yourself to another plane, go for it. I’m quite happy where I am.

I said nothing for some time, turning his words in my head and trying,
like that game where you hold a small board in your hands and shake it
around trying to make little steel balls fall into the holes placed
strategically around the board, to make sense of them. Albert wasn’t
wrong but was he right? I thought back to the years before I’d even met
him realising I’d done even less back then. Still drinking just as much
but never even considering leaving the neighbourhood. So perhaps he
was right. Perhaps I was over complicating a succession of events.
Perhaps having lived so long feeling nothing and having then allowed
myself to feel something, a vague sense of something if that with
Anastasia and then observing it removed, observing myself struggle to
find meaning…it had been the better response all along. Let’s just drink
more and wait for the end.

Maybe we should try and find another singer, Albert suggested finally,
perhaps a tingling of guilt for the bluntness of his appraisal reaching him.
It had started to rain, driving us back inside and as we sat beneath a canopy
and slurped, observant of the shapes passing before us.

What would be the point? We're not going to find another Anastasia.
I hated these sessions of pointless speculation that we so often
rounded to on afternoons like this.

Well, I hate to be crass, but you're not going to find another
Anastasia anyway. You've got something weird and clichéd invested
in it. Infatuation, lost love, longing. I'm only thinking of finding another
singer. I’m not too picky. We haven’t got much to offer. Perhaps if we
did have more to offer, perhaps if we did find another singer you might
find it distracting. So maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all. I’m sorry
if I trampled on your dreams by getting drunk incessantly. I hadn’t
realised how important the distraction of trying to achieve something
was going to be to your sanity. He let the crack of a smile escape him,
waving the waiter over and slapping me on the shoulder. Look, it’s not
over, Witold. It might feel like it to you, but it’s not. Even the roller
coaster has to stop at certain times to let some of the puking passengers
off and let more enthusiasts on. Just be patient.


I renewed my writing campaign knowing how well it had worked from
Utrecht. Afternoons after work, evading the plain clothes ticket
inspectors from tram to tram until I'd made it back to the
neighbourhood and slid easily into a chair at a boozy table at the
far end of a bar room where the smoke and smut of blue collar fates
had collected like years of grime on the walls of buildings. The beer would
arrive, the piece of paper scored and I would open a Czech study
book and another, smaller notebook used to pen these waking thoughts
of affairs from far away.

They weren't devotional letters in word, the act of course bordered
on zealotry, but I was careful to couch perceived emotions in
innocuous terms as though I were writing to her about two people I
knew, lovers I'd seen and deciphered and calculated. These bar rooms
were safe for this exercise. Private. Populated by entirely male faces.
There were no couples, no hand holding, no stolen moments of intimacy.
And if an auld man would saunter over to my table with a beer in his
hand curious about my pecking away in the notebook with a variety of
pens, I would add the smudges of our stilted conversation between the
lines which I constructed to depict Prague to Anastasia as anything but
what it was; debaucherous, homely juxtapositions of insanity and mirage.

The only piece I didn't hold back on was the truth that it wasn't only I
who wanted her back but Albert as well despite his flippant denials.
We were struggling without her on stage. She knew of course, the
legitimacy her vocals lent to our performances. We’d almost seemed
competent once and now we were plucking away at an internal illness
we couldn't define. Colicky moments of inspiration were infrequent. We
were lost. I hinted. We needed her singing to charm as though we were performing in front of a crowd of cobras.

But I didn't let on in these letters to her. Instead, I let her know between
the lines that it was a struggle. We were eating crumbs when we weren't pillaging our brains with beer and circular conversations in a language
we didn't understand. Come back to us and we can really stun this city.
But Albert and I alone were bicycle mimes, pedalling furiously and
getting nowhere.

And then perhaps like someone rubbing a magic charm over and over
every day in the hopes something would come of it with these
letters, eventually there was a scrap.

A postcard from Budapest. I am here for a two week tour, was all she

To me, a clear invitation and I didn't bother waiting to contemplate
it any further. I'd just gotten back from work and Albert was just
warming up to a mid afternoon rant about wars and diseases and
divine punishment and trying to drag me back around the corner for a
few quick pints before we headed out for the night. He was
pretending the postcard didn't exist on the one hand, careful not to
become too overanxious about the possibilities and twisting with
curiosity on the other hand, wondering if this might be the
beginning all over again.

I've no idea when the next train for Budapest is, I announced as I
quickly threw what few clean clothes I had into a sack and busied
myself with trying to calm down. In a matter of minutes I was packed
and heading out the door. Good luck, Albert mumbled, waving half
heartedly as though he didn't expect to see me back.

The excitement was short-lived. The last train had departed two
hours previous and the next one wasn't until 7:30 the next morning.
I returned to the flat, distraughtly calculating the postmark and a
two week tour – how long into had she been when she'd finally
decided to write? Where in Budapest would I find her with no clues?
What twisted game inspired her?


It was no simple jaunt, a 7 hour train ride to Budapest that saw me,
mind racing with possibilities and scenarios, each mile a prolonged
torture of expectation, each mile closer to what I hoped or expected
might be an answer of some kind.

I didn't know how much time I had and I didn't know where I was to
begin looking for her. But it had to be fairly simple. Jazz club gigs
couldn't be too a plentiful, I reasoned.

The only question was finding where they were and who was playing.

The problem is, Anastasia had an odd tendency to sing under
different names, depending on her mood. I knew this because she'd
mentioned it off-handedly one afternoon when we were rowing along
the Oude Gracht in Utrecht.

She was sat with her arms around her knees, looking up at me as though
from an imagined world. Do you know how many different stage names
I have, she asked. Of course not. I grunted and shrugged, rowing. Ten?
She rolled her eyes and tried to catch a ray of sun that had suddenly
showed itself from behind a cloud.

Three. Depending on my mood. Do you think that's how many moods I
have, three? I shrugged again. I've seen at least five I smirked.

But I'm expecting if it's only three, the categories are rather broad.

They are. Up, down and indifferent.

And what are the names then? I started rowing faster, thinking we
were nearing the Ledig Erf and how much I wanted to grab an indoor
table before all the cyclists started showing up in their Lycra
biking outfits. I could almost taste the wheat beer on my lips and
see the chess board between us.

I'll tell you one, she demurred. See if you can figure out which
mood it represents. She closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her
head as though transforming herself, or preparing to transform
herself. I thought how odd it might be if she spontaneously
combusted and what I would do to put out the fire before the row
boat went up like an aquatic box of kindling and I'd be forced into
the canal, treading water and trying to gather up all her ashes.

Flavia Arbessi, she whispered, leaning forward as my body bent and
pulled with the motion of the oars. I stopped rowing and the boat
continued skimming along the surface with the momentum of my sweat.
We drifted like that for a few moments silent as the sun slid back
behind the stage above us and I attempted calculating the hidden

Flavia. Well let's see, I debated. Isn't the origin of the name
Latin, for yellow? A blonde? More fun? Couldn't be a down name.
Yellow, blonde is too optimistic a colour isn't it? On the other
hand, perhaps you're trying to establish a sense of irony with that
stage name. Flavia in a depressive, suicidal mood…

She splashed water at me from the side of the boat. Why not
indifferent, she demanded. We were just coming around the bend and I
steered the boat towards the bank in preparation for unloading to
the Ledig Erf. Because indifference would be symbolised by some sort
of unisex name like Francis or Robin or something. I grabbed at the
mooring and stood up out of the boat, holding out my hand to pull
her up.

Well, I'd never use Francis or Robin for a stage name.

Why not? Robin, singing like a bird? Like little Edith Piaf?

Her nickname was the sparrow, not the robin.

Ok, I'll guess Flavia is for your up mood then.

I pulled her onto the bank and then yanked the boat up behind her.
So what's the answer? She smiled sweetly, watching an approaching
barge distractedly. I can't say really. I'll leave it for you to
figure out some afternoon when you're all by yourself and have
nothing better to think about…

I didn't have so much as guidebook to Budapest, knew nothing of the
language, had no map and no idea where to begin. Looks like it'll
have to be the auld standby, I amused myself in thinking. The
alcoholic's tour guide, hitting the locals and trying to milk as
much information as possible while watering my imagination with
Hungarian beer. I didn't even know what Hungarian wine tasted like.

So many bridges to cross.

By evening I'd accumulated a map and the names and addresses of five
different jazz clubs. I'd spent most of the late afternoon wandering
around through crowds; picking out faces and noting each one of them
was not her. Not surprising. What are the odds after all, to find a
familiar face among the hidden random in a city of Hapsburgan
bloodlines? For the purposes of distraction, I stepped into a wine
bar marked by the dilapidated characters gathered inside.

There was an auld and fat peasant woman standing behind a table
holding three different buckets of wine with ladles in them. I
merely pointed and she filled up a plastic cup. Around me pensioners
were smoking and playing cards. A few gypsy kids hung out by the
lone arcade game, begging cigarettes from stragglers and
entertaining themselves by bragging to each other how one day they’d be
making millions in gun running.

I drank a watery white wine, smoking distractedly, ignoring the fact
I hadn't bothered trying to find a place to sleep that night. I
would put all my eggs in one basket. I would find Anastasia and stay
with her. As long as it took.

But there was no Anastasia. I found that out after enquiries at
three different jazz and blues clubs that ranged from seedy to
opulent. She played here last night, the bartender in the third club
informed me as he poured a German lager for me. Unbelievable voice.
Haunting. She was here for nearly two weeks but I'm afraid you've
missed her. Last night was the finale.

Of course the bartender had no idea where she was headed next. Do
you know her, he asked suspiciously. A groupie, I explained
half-heartedly, stung by the nearness of my miss for fuck's sake. If
I'd only caught yesterday afternoon's train here, the story would
have had a happy ending. How’s that for our fate Anastasia, I wanted to
moan bitterly. Do you know where she was staying, I asked,
grasping at straws. He shrugged. I haven’t any idea. But she sure had a
lovely voice. You missed something special.

Back in the flat in Prague I returned empty-handed. Albert regarded
me from behind a book with the walls vibrating with a Brahms
concerto when I dragged myself home the following afternoon. What
did you expect, really, he surmised. What is this, some movie you're
writing the ending to? C'mon. It was rather ingenious of her, wasn't
it? Close enough to smell but too far away to touch. How poignant
for you.

What difference does it make? If she's out on gigs that means she's
already doing well enough. Do you really imagine she's going to come
rushing back here breathlessly urging us for the chance to play
together again as a trio?

What fucking difference indeed. Only my heart on a skewer. Heart
kebab. Care for a taste? Marinated in futility, lightly salted and
deep fried in false hope. We really should find another singer,
Albert ventured hopefully. And where would we find a singer
comparable to her? Are we just going to stumble upon someone as
though the streets are lined with them?

We played a gig of our own a week later. My heart wasn't in it. We'd
both had far too much to drink before we'd gone on stage and if we'd
been electric, they'd have pulled the plug. Instead, we were
ignored. What's worse than being ignored? Being forgotten? The
conversations in the crowd only grew louder, hoping to drown us out.

We really should learn a few standards, Albert remarked one evening
after we'd been drinking beer outside all afternoon listening to
Coltrane from a small garden next door to us.

Standards?! Why so by comparison everyone will know how bad we are?
I think we're best sticking with being too bizarre to decipher. It's
our only strength.

One miserable, wet Saturday we ran into Pavel again. We hadn't seen him
since our first afternoon in Prague and we greeted him as though we'd grown
up as neighbours and hadn't seen each other since the erection of the
Berlin wall. He was taken aback by our disproportionate enthusiasm.
We were out of ideas.

I told you we could get together for a recital one afternoon, didn't
I, he reminisced as we bought another beer for him in a nearby cafe. That's
where all our bated breath was blowing towards, in fact. Anything different.
He was game for it. I'll invite Frantisek and Jiri and yes, we'll
all assemble in my flat like the auld days he dreamed aloud. Perhaps some
Chopin to begin, then Thelonius then I dunno, perhaps some Stan Getz, what
do you think?

But the afternoon never materialised. As we were to find out later,
Jiri had died many years ago and Frantisek had immigrated to Paris a
decade before. They were still in his head as though they were
there, delusional. We came to an empty flat. No piano, no furniture.
Just old newspapers and a cat keeping him company. Have a seat, he
greeted enthusiastic and grateful, pushing the newspapers around as
thought they were antique furniture pieces. He made us some tea and
we sat quietly listening to the ticking of the clock. None of us
mentioned the lack of the piano that had been promised. Albert
stewed, still sweating from lugging the double bass all the way from
our flat. No old musician friends.

It's typical, he spat later on after we'd left and were back riding
the tram, Albert crowded the midsection of the tram with his double
bass, commuters staring at us angrily. It's typical that every
avenue we turn down, the despair gets wider. You think it's a
coincidence that Pavel as he described himself doesn't exist?
Ephemeral, like our music.

So we decided to forget gigs for awhile and concentrate on
rehearsing instead.

Changing venues from Utrecht to Prague had been like this
renewed enthusiasm for music, a diversion. My liberation from
heartsickness was sadly drowned in nightly debauchery. Nothing
seemed appealing. As November strode on, oblivious, Anastasia
haunted me, ridiculous, it seemed knowing someone only a few
short weeks yet allowing them to enter the blood stream, become
part of the breathing patterns. It didn‘t matter how long I‘d
actually known her. The experience of loss was as obsessive and
excruciating as if she had been there all my life.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Breaking The New Dawn, Piece By Piece

“There are two levers to set man in motion, fear and self interest.”
---Napolean Bonaparte, French general and Emperor

December gradually bled into January.

Along the way I'd finally managed to find a job after all my weeks of
seemingly pointless research of translating job adverts and applications.
As it turned out, one evening I opened the usual paper expecting the usual adverts and like a beacon of light, there it was in blatant, magical English,
an ad for a position at the American Business College, teaching basic
English Literature. I nearly spat up my maintenance beer in surprise.

You have to understand, most expats looking for work took jobs waiting
tables, bartending in the handful of expat bars that littered Prague, or they taught English. Some were lucky enough to get English teaching positions
in elementary or secondary schools and others scratched out their existences flittering from one bored student to the next on a private tuition basis. A job like this would be a miracle score, a dream.

On Albert’s recommendation we immediately set out the following morning
to visit Vaughn, an American we’d met through the expat scene who
was the only person we knew who had access to a computer. That’s how it was back then; no laptops, no buzz of enchanting internet cafes. We were lucky we knew Vaughn or we’d be limited to spending the day trying to find
a second-hand typewriter. We told Vaughn it was for a teaching position
in Bratislava, a place we knew no one in our circles had much interest in living. We didn’t want unnecessary competition.

With Albert’s assistance I typed up a completely fictitious CV which
included a master’s degree in literature from NYU and a few teaching
assistant jobs in Brooklyn high schools we weren’t even sure existed.
You’ve read enough novels and poetry to pull this off, Albert coached.
Nobody is going to check your background, you’ve seen how things
work here. You’ll probably have an oral interview with a professor or two
and you’ll only need to be able to bullshit your way through it. Trust me.
This is attainable.

That afternoon, with the CV freshly fictionalised and printed, I rang the
offices of the American Business School and set up an interview. I bought
a cheap dress shirt and a hideous tie from a street market vendor and set off.

The American Business College was the spawn of the new independence
of the Czech Republic, driven mad by the market to create English-speaking managers and automaton employees for multinational companies hungry for new human flesh in the new world. It had been conceived with a little funding
from the Czech government and many private donations and that was in
essence, all I knew about the place. As I neared it, seeing for the first time
it was housed in what looked like a refurbished barn, my mind eased its
panic. This was hardly upper establishment. The standard would not be
set too high.

The interview was with Geoffrey, an Englishman who acted as the school’s dean of admissions and Linda, an American woman who currently had the position but was leaving to go back to California. What we’re looking for,
in essence, Geoffrey began, is someone who can run through a rudimentary review of English literature for first year business students towards an interdisciplinary programme Of course, you may have a specialisation that
you may want to emphasise but by and large you will be adhering to a curriculum we’ve outlined as a guide.

He led me through a series of predictable questions about my academic background which I fictionalised with great aplomb, figuring if I was going
to lie I should do so flagrantly, spectacularly. I recited a variety of made-up literary magazines I’d published in, gave accounts of teaching in chaotic Brooklyn high schools that mesmerised them both, the violence and difficulty in reaching these difficult students, gang members, the experience of teaching in the worst sorts of backgrounds imaginable. Through it all, I gauged their reactions, knowing when to ease off on a particular tale, watching their eyes for recognition and acknowledgement, probing to see what sort of information worked on them and which didn’t.

In the end, Geoffrey stood up. There are a few other candidates of course, Witold but I must say, I’m impressed with your background, particularly the experience of these Brooklyn high schools, which sound quite challenging. I think you would make an excellent candidate. If you could call me back say, sometime tomorrow afternoon, I think I will have a definite answer for you regarding this position.

Two days later, I was in, officially. They were going to set up the
appropriate visa for me but, they explained, Czech bureaucracy would
likely turn the process into a long one and they were happy for me to
start working, even whilst my application, a formality, was ongoing.
I was to start at the start of the new term, just after the beginning of the
New Year.


One night, shortly after Christmas, I headed out to make my way for a Sunday evening open mic poetry reading I’d seen advertised. Albert,
usually in tow for these sorts of outings, was nursing an ailment of sorts,
an ailment he suffered with recurring frequency. It wasn’t precisely a
hangover; he was immune to those symptoms, but something which
came after heavy stretches of drinking and smoking. But neither of us worried. The burden of a chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, slob, he
shrugged. Fuck it.

This night it was a poetry reading but consisting primarily of local
Czechs, few if any of the dreaded expatriate blood spilling silly
lines about drunken nights swimming in the Vltava or some secret
romance with a Czech girl in a short skirt of questionable legal age, often
the typical sort of drivel they spouted in their less calculated, thoughtful

I had spent the afternoon reading an essay written by Havel for the
underground cultural journal Jednou nohu wherein he describes people
under the Communist regime as "nervous, anxious, irritated, or else
they are apathetic."

This was, he described, the stress of people living under the
constant threat of Communism, people dealing with absurdity and
nothingness brought on by totalitarianism.

And yet where was anyone different at any moment now? The
foreigners were still the relaxed crowd, those unharried by the thought of
waiting for someone to turn you in for an overheard conversation or
an act of sabotage – such stressed may have eased in some quarters but the
reality was still that it is a hard yolk to shrug off, those years of history that
never really officially existed. And how did that go on to explain my
own certainly stressed-out face, my own preoccupation, not with a
totalitarian regime, far from it, but the regime in my mind, the mind
rotten without stories, simply filled with obsessions, destroying any
semblance of peace waiting for the next postcard from Anastasia or
another day to pass without one.

Before the reading I stopped off in a working class bar, a run down place populated by Czech drunks and Slovakians living in Prague for the
higher wages. They were all dirt and grunge, instruments of trade. I
knocked back a few beers and surveyed the scene around me: filthy
alcoholics miserable for another crown, drinking away the little pay
they'd earned, those dream destinations of saving for home sewn into
their livers like embroidered histories of failure.

It wasn’t at all unusual to find a foreigner furloughed out to Prague
who spoke barely any Czech. But I was unusual for the locale simply
because tourists didn't stray into pits like this, they remained the
denizen of forgotten dark and dirty souls squelching tiny peeps of
forgiveness as they drank away not their sorrows but the memories of
the sorrows which ironically only led back up the same path back to
the sorrows again. Some of them spoke broken English. Some of them
spoke enough to ask me to buy them a beer knowing as they would
immediately that I wasn't one of them. But I wanted to protest that
I was and couldn't. Yes, my soul was ragged, yes, my stomach filled
with drink, yes, misery and fatigue were also my companions but the
difference that no time or place could overcome was that I was there
by choice. It was no courage to summon up a few tales of infatuation
hitting sour notes. It meant nothing to piss and moan my salary was
barely enough to scratch out a living. I was there by choice, they
by a destiny far deeper than mine. After all, what the hell would I
be crying about, playing at the destitution of others, standing
there pretending my heart sick was equal to their life sick that I
had a chance and threw it out whilst they could only stand and
watch, chanceless all along.

I bought beers for everyone to make up for it. Guilt, yes. I destroy
myself for fun and what would these characters have given for half
the chance to throw away? I held court via broken conversations of
gibberish, half-English, half-Czech, with a little Dutch and German
tossed in like kindling to a bonfire.

Gradually I was drawn in by Antonín, a man with a wife and two kids
lost somewhere in the paradigm of time in a village called Vlkolinec
where his father's house had been burned down by Nazis in 1944. So
he said. Why would he lie? And what was he doing here? Labour. Hard
labour, dirty labour, honest labour for dishonest pay tossed away
into the coffers of parasitical bar owners preying on the suffering
of others. The pure misery of loneliness. I suppose that's what
attracted me to him, the filthy fingernails, unwashed hair,
haphazard, cheap and dirty clothing and above all the eyes of
misery, clouding from time to time with tears recounting how much he
missed his family, how much he missed his village, how much he hated
Prague, the slave chasing a dream he was drinking away even as he

Why should I feel sorry? For example, you come here to make a
living, send the money home to the family and eventually, as the
dream goes, return home a wealthier man or at least wait it out
until another factory reopens. He hated the Czechs yet wanted his
own country. Thus the split between the Czechs and the Slovaks. The
haves and the have nots. And imagine the irony. Here is your freedom
without even the consideration of making it a revolutionary
struggle. Here you go, you Slovaks. Have your freedom and we'll own
the factories anyway, those that don't get closed down and you'll be
stuck, thumbing your way to Prague looking for work, crying in your
beer about the family you've lost never thinking for a moment that
by overcoming misery you might find your future.

More disgusting still, where was my misery to match his? Missing
parents who had the foresight at least to leave me a flat and enough
money for rent to allow me to piss away an existence and drop out of
school, lounge my afternoons in libraries pretending I wasn't
bourgeois, pretending my indifference was cool? What did I have to
compare, as I matched him beer for beer in a hallucinogenic blur? An
infatuation gone sour? What could I possibly offer by comparison as
an excuse to piss it all away? Nothing, that's what. Nothing and so
I drank all the faster and bought him a beer along each time to
match me. Goddamnit. One of us was going to be miserable and yet both of
us were going to end up happy. For an hour or two anyway.

Several hours later we were standing in each other's arms singing
songs neither of us could remember, generations apart, lifetimes
away, just two disgusting drunks consoling each other on the way to
finding our own particular paths through the misery, real or
imagined, actual or artificial.

Somehow I struggled to leave and make it to the reading. I was
already quite late and when I entered, in the middle of a fragmented
paean to the banning of Romas from bathing in the local reservoir
of a neighbouring village, everyone looked up from their false
reveries as I loudly requested another beer and slumped in the seat
in the back. Why was I even here? This cultural yen for discovering
the undiscoverable? Who were these poseurs anyway? Were they more
valid in another language? Weren't they all struggling with the same
tiny yarn they pulled and pulled at obsessively seeking answers they
had no questions for or else pretending they were pulling at the
same tiny yarn that like me, might make them feel as though they
were really suffering, really and truly suffering rather than
standing up there in front of a bunch of put-ons waiting to give
their little golf-claps of appreciation in the hopes that someone
would recognize their genius, their suffering, their uniqueness?

When there was an interlude, some snotty intellectual with a robust
opinion of himself meandered toward me in a non aggressive way and
asked me politely why I was there, reeking of beer and cigarettes
with nothing to say save for audible titters of ridicule dispensed
like cheap critiques in slanderous sidebars.

I'm here to hear your suffering chirp out of your orifices, I
mentioned casually, lighting another cigarette. This was followed by
an uncomfortable grimace on this fellow's face as though I had just
loudly farted. I mean really, I stated, standing up, gaining steam.
What is this charade; I demanded waving my arm in the direction of
everyone and unintentionally slapping him on the side of the head.
Then it all erupted. People jumped from their seats to squelch the
vagabond I imagined myself having morphed into when in reality they
all saw me for what I was: a drunk and cheap tourist taking
advantage, killing their excuses, giving them reason to pity or
disdain. A human goitre waiting to erupt. They all took turns
grabbing at me, shoving me roughly over and over again until I
reached the door and they shoved one last time, dumping me onto the


Once in awhile, I'd have a few beers in the Praha Holesovice train
station café next to the school with Marshall, the American who ran
the school's library, a patchwork collection of donated textbooks
from military bases, socialist non fiction, and a smattering of
Updike and detective novels that reflected his own taste's more than
the students'.

The train station café served a watery goulash and bottles of
Gambrinus and as Marshall would foment rebellions in his mind about
library autonomy, unrealistic funding aspirations and snatches of
his life as a Berkeley liberal who migrated once and for all out of
the slobbering jaws of American capitalism only to find himself
faced up against it again in even more sullied and contemptible

A series of budget crisis had left the school in tatters, desperate
for teachers of any walk and housed in a converted barn that reeked
of cabbage all day long. The caretaker and his wife lived on the
ground floor of the building and the stench of her gastrointestinal meals
made the thought of food unbearable. So we often relied on beer alone.

During breaks, I would go outside with the students and smoke
cigarettes. For the most part, I was ignored. I didn't like them
very much and I think they sensed that. There was something
about their aura of third world privilege that turned my stomach.
They'd come here to find their peasants to look down at. There were
plenty where they'd come from, but it must have gotten boring,
mistreating the same servant culture of what they deemed to be lesser
races over and over again. These kinds of people needed variety. Fresh
faces to sneer at.

They believed their cultural and racial snobbery was applicable
everywhere yet imagining them struggling as waiters in Chicago or
New York, fumbling with English, dropping this façade of feigned cool,
I realised they were nothing outside of their own bourgeois prisons. Unimaginative, barbaric. Wealthy within their community of privilege
or their country yet impoverished by their minisculity outside of it.

I was an anomaly. I wasn't one of them and I didn't step in from the
scenery. I'd come from another planet. They didn't know what to make
of it. I sensed that if I'd cursed more, if I’d thrown Yankee slang around
in confusing parables about lust and capitalism, they might have
warmed up to me a little but it was impossible. Each class was an
endurance test. All I could think about was getting out, sneaking back
on the tram, and riding around town reading my copy of one of the
library's crappy novels for the third time. The other teachers were even
worse than the students. They ran the spectrum from podgy, collegial
buffoons to psycho dramatic liberal arts graduates from large
metropolitan areas in America. Everybody qualified to teach it seemed.
Even me.

What were my qualifications after all? A few forged documents
copied at a local print shop? A fictionalised history? I could have been
a mass murderer on the lam for all they knew. It really didn't matter. As
long as the students didn't complain about you, you were fine and as
long as you let the students waste their time in whatever way they say fit
while simultaneously giving them the illusion of teaching them something meaningful they could manipulate in the future, if you could pull off
this little miracle, they were satisfied.

There were weird memories of that Praha Holesovice station which I
stopped in every morning on the way to the school.

Getting there was like a dream with the names of stations recited
mechanically in that sexy, Tolstoy cold female voice crackling weakly
out of the metro car speakers as we swept through on the yellow B line towards Northeast Prague:

Křižíkova to Invalidovna to Palmovka and then Českomoravská, and at
every stop, the pre-recorded chime would go off and then she would speak:

Unkonèit prosim, vystup a nastup, dvere se zaviraji., followed then
by Pristi stanice – and then whatever station was next.

I would tremble with delight at each word, wondering who this
mysterious woman was, if she was an embittered ex-Communist living
in a panelak flat somewhere in Zličín, chain smoking filter less Start
cigarettes, staring out a rainy window, deep in thought about the wonder years.

After a ten minute walk, across Vrbenského, ending through a strange
tunnel which ran underneath the tracks, I would arrive through the
portal of Praha Holesovice into a dank corridor which housed the
kiosk where the workman would gather in their ragged, blue jumpsuits
stained an invisible brown matching the colour of the soot around
them, chatting about the night before, some sipping acrid Turkish
coffee and some others getting an early start on bottles of
Gambrinus or Budvar, all smoking their filterless numbs fighting off
the cold, the memory of a day that had already filtered through
their subconscious in repetition.

I would order a coffee, find a metal chair and open up a small
notebook, scribbling incoherent lines, hunched over like a cripple,
pen in one hand, page held down with the other, small plastic cup of
coffee steaming in front of me, dreaming lucidly of Anastasia as
though she were sitting there across from me, wilting in the deep
stench of the train station, patiently waiting for my return.


When we weren't mired in our own reckless profligacy, stretched out on
the floor or sofa too exhausted to move, when we weren't out
drinking ourselves numb and acting like animals, we were actually
able to find our pieces of peace during the day spackled by long periods of
doing nothing.

Of course even nothing ended up being something. We lacked the
creature comforts; the internet, cable television, books or female
companionship thus we lived in a time warp of sorts. You can well
imagine it shouldn't be difficult for the average person to get
through the day without drinking, but take away their sacred cable
television, take away the children to distract and annoy them, take
away hobbies to simultaneously dull and amuse their senses, take
away the youthful indulgences of going on the prowl in search of
mating partners and there really wasn't a hell of a lot left.

I tried in earnest to kill time more quickly. I don't even know why,
really. Why did I want to kill time? I was in the prime of my life
so to speak, expatriated and out in a thrilling city, musically
untalented but still able to cobble together enough gigs to maintain
a semblance of respectability, reasonably secure in a professorial
sort of sense at the American Business College, and most of all, most
daunting and destabilising – free. There is nothing worse than idle free
time and I had too much of it. Oh sure, some swear they can use more
of it, tons more of it – how can someone say they have too much free
time? But it was true. Because free time was wasted on me. Idle time
was just another excuse to wallow in misery. That's how it is when
you're all knotted up in unquenchable infatuation waiting for those
few moments in between all those hours and months when on an
off-hand chance you just might run into Anastasia again. That was

Albert had no answer for me. He wasn't infatuated. He often appeared
to have no feelings at all. Fuck it and Who Cares, were his two pet
phrases. You could throw the world of worries on his shoulders and
he'd shrug it off and let it fall to the ground, fall to eternity.
He was no Sisyphus. You'd never catch him pushing a rock up a
mountain over and over again. He'd have never bothered. He'd light a
Winston and look around for the nearest beer.

Take his beers and Winstons away from him however and I daresay
you'd have a different person altogether.

Why would I want to go without smoking and drinking, he asked
incredulously when I brought the subject up one day of what he'd do
without them. Let's just say, I said. Let's just say they weren't
available, for whatever reason you were marooned somewhere or stuck
in a perpetual smoke-free sort of Disneyland and you had to go without
for a few weeks. What would you do then?

He shrugged, exhaling a long thin bluish stream of smoke as Lester
Young's Sometimes I'm Happy, a live recording, was blasting in the
background to the dismay of the upstairs neighbour who occasionally
pounded his floor, our ceiling, with disgruntled futility.

I'd go without drinking and smoking, he said simply. I mean after all, if
it isn't around, it isn't around. I'd find another diversion. Take
up knitting or play cards or go for a jog around the block.

Ha! You go for a jog? You'd collapse of a heart attack after the
first half block!

He shrugged again. Then my problem of no cigarettes and no beer
would be over.


(from the Diaries of Witold Kazersamski, cahier 2, page 173)
..there has been a lasting odour of doubt for weeks. Albert's despondent
drinking has blossomed for days at a time before wilting into empty
political rhetoric and finally, asleep, snoring on the sofa, the burnt-out
tip of his Winston still clenched between his index and middle finger.
It has rained for two weeks straight. A cold, gusty rain that turned the
days into an aura of bleak hours dying into their winters that keeps even
the Shot Out Eye out of walking distance for several days in a row.
Sometimes we hire this kid, this little Czech entrepreneur named Jiri to
take our pitcher and run up to the corner pub for a refill.

Jiri is the acne scarred teen who lived above the corner pub and often
hangs out in front of the Europa Hotel next to our apartment building trying
to convince tourists into guided literary tours of the old town. When we
needed something, we stick our heads out the window and yell down at the
corner. Since most of the time, Jiri was standing in front of the
Europa Hotel smoking, practicing German from a Prague Guide
phrase book called Auf Deutsch…


We'd already read all the few paperbacks we had in the room twice.
The limited number of cassettes and CDs had been played raw. Albert had
the stand up bass and I had the horn and once in a while, when we'd had
just the right balance of beer, cigarettes and instant coffee we cooked using
only hot water from the tap, we'd improvise. There was a
high-headedness, a mystical dizziness, a general gnawing of boredom
like a bone ground within our teeth, a perpetual gloom punctuated by
the open window and the hail hitting against the whipping drapes. It
wasn't necessary to have been in Prague. A prison anywhere would
have suited just the same.

In addition to the spell of unbearably shitty weather, in a misguided paean to
miserable free spending and fiscal apathy we'd outspent our monthly
allotment in one week and were stuck for three more living on only the barest
of essentials.

Yeah, I suppose we could have dipped into the following month’s budget. The budge was an arbitrary, artificial sum in any event but it had been maintained rather religiously leading up to then so we didn’t want to set
the precedent of failing to meet it. The belt-tightening was designed to alter the experience, break the daily pattern of waking, rehearsing, drinking, drinking, walking, drinking more, eating, coming home and sleeping, even
if the need for the belt-tightening was arbitrary and illusory anyway,
it was a little game of the imagination. Well, moreso for Albert. My
financial strain was more reality-based. Yes, the beer and rent was a lot cheaper than Utrecht but my salary at the American Business College was
barely sufficient to pay the rent alone, let alone a free-wheeling, devil-may- care lifestyle.

That’s how the fucking Soviets used to fuck it up all the time, Albert
warned suddenly one night when we were sitting around playing cards
listening to BBC World on the transistor and I was moaning about being
bored and considering blowing the monthly budget off to do something mad
and destabilising in preparation for Spring.

Remember all those five year plans they’d go on about achieving? Sure, they’d allege to meet them, but it was all bureaucracy, all about meeting targets, targets that were never met of course and everyone just fudged
the numbers or cheated outright so they wouldn’t end up in some fucking gulag playing dominoes with frozen fingers and digging ditches all the
time. Of course, those plans were based on productivity and our plan is
based on well, diminishing resources with no planned productivity but nonetheless, the point is if the five year plans had been realistic to begin
with and in theory if everyone had fulfilled their end of the bargain, their quotes, their targets, whatever, the system might have worked. And so
might ours. I’m trying to stay unemployed in case you hadn’t noticed,
Witold. I’m not interested in having to go out and find work. But if I
piss away my monthly budget, eventually it’s going to catch up to me and eventually, I’m going to be fucked. Penniless. Working some horrible job
like you. So there you go. Besides, it builds character, going without!

So that’s basically why and how we imposed these draconian measures. Because of Albert’s thoughts on the flaws on the Soviet Five Year Plan
and because according to Albert we were building character.

Well, it wasn't as bad as scouring the rainy streets for cigarette butts to
roll as I’d read in one of Orwell’s books. We had enough left over for
several litres of beer, a kilo of sausage, two cups of tepid instant coffee
and 11 cigarettes apiece each day for the rest of the month but nothing
else. Albert was still decompressing from 12 years of intense television
vision and the fact that the only source of entertainment in English he
could get was listening to BBC, which he hated and ranted and raved
about to no end some evenings, only served to raise the tensions, as
though the 11 cigarette per diem alone didn't create enough tension as it

On Sundays we went to the neighbourhood theatre, a large
garage-sized building down a winding driveway from a main apartment
house with dirt floors and folding chairs run by a wide bodied and
hard boiled old fat lady who grabbed at our crowns without preamble
more than a grunt without looking up, nodding her head behind her in
the general direction of the film. There were never more than three
or four people inside, probably because it was barely heated. It felt like
going to a state fair peep show, creepy and oily. The movie was always terrible. It was as painful as going to church and so in our roundabout
way, we were paying our dues along with religious humanity, suffering
along with the rest of them in solidarity but skipping masses and séances wherever they arose.

In many ways, it was the lack of events that made it most difficult.

We lived like dogs, waiting for hours in anticipation of a master to come
home then a ten minute walk or another plateful of the same smoked
sausage with the same jar of horseradish.

I realised then how much time we were spending drinking. Sure, there
were rehearsals and occasionally gigs, paying or otherwise, but usually
non-paying. There was busking in the streets out of the eye of the
police which was sometimes rather difficult considering the best places
to busk were where all the tourists were which is of course where all the
police were. And also considering with Albert’s double bass we weren’t exactly speedy in our attempts to escape.

But in the absence of having the money to simply drink as much as we
could handle or spend as much time in the pubs and cafes as we felt like
seemingly without consequences, we became acutely aware of how little
we actually did.

One night out in Akropolis, after we’d gone two days subsisting on little
bread rolls and the shittiest, cheapest canned beer we could find from the
local market just so we could save enough of our remaining budget money
to have the opportunity to spend a night of fairly free drinking where we
weren’t pinching every Heller and worrying over the prohibitive cost of
every sip we took, Albert spied a pair of young women sitting by
themselves drinking a bottle of Moravian wine, chatting quietly to each other
and, according to Albert, sneaking glances in our direction every so often.

Now, it certainly wasn’t difficult meeting or chatting up the local girls.
By and large they were pretty interested in Americans, maybe because they
represented a ticket out, maybe because the mini invasion of Prague had piqued their curiosity, maybe, who knows. It was certainly no doing of
Albert or I and more often than not we must have seemed quite invisible
to them.

I was far too preoccupied thinking about Anastasia to bother chatting them
up or responding positively to any efforts they made inroad to holding a conversation and Albert was, well, older than most of the other Americans who were living in Prague or hanging out. It didn’t disqualify him but it meant he was forcing himself to learn a little more patience than he’d demonstrated when he was frequenting whores in Utrecht.

In any event, we were both pretty drunk by the time Albert had spotted
them, not much of an accomplishment considering our minimalist diet
of the last two days to that point and the usual non verbal banter,
eye-play started going on between our two tables at Albert‘s
uncharacteristic curiosity. Eventually, Albert decided we should toddle
over with our beers and have a go at speaking to them. I dunno why
exactly. It’s not like we’re unaccustomed to being drunk suddenly veering
out of control and it wasn’t like we were particularly desperate. It was just
one of those things, you know, things falling together a certain way and
well, you just follow.

We got around to chatting them up, inviting ourselves to sit down at their
table, carrying over our beer tally sheet and making ourselves at home
despite the seemingly lukewarm response we received from them. That
they hadn’t told us to fuck off or called the bouncers encouraged us even more.
We ordered more beer and asked after their wine. We were talking about
the feeling that there nothing going on in Prague other than hanging out in pubs and sleeping or riding trams and shopping. We were well aware there was plenty of going on, but it all seemed related in some way to tourist shit. Did the Czechs ever go to these operas or plays or recitals in the old town
or was it all just for show, just creative little things to keep the tourists busy?

Needless to say the two girls were a bit put off by our ignorance. That we slurred our words and laughed hysterically at our own jokes probably didn’t aid our cause either. But to the credit of these girls, they were troopers of sorts, not easily scared off or annoyed, willing to endure us on the premise
that we might say something interesting eventually. One of them mentioned having seen us near the Charles Bridge busking, remarking casually that she recalled it in particular because she thought only the old Czech men played jazz. Most of the other buskers played acoustic guitars and sang cover songs.

If you’re bored all the time, or tired of wasting all your time in pubs, why don’t you do something else, one of them volunteered. Albert just
harrumphed and waved the waiter down for another round. Something else
that doesn’t involve beer, the other continued like a tag-team nag all of the
sudden. Like what, have a nap in the National Museum? Albert wasn’t in
the mood for discussing non-drinking activities.

Have you ever even BEEN to the National Museum, the other ventured, leaning in toward Albert and pointing a finger accusatorily.

The National Museum? He laughed. Why the fuck would I want to go

It’s unbelievable, really, they muttered to each other. People like you come here and drink yourself blind like there’s nothing else going on in this country, like this is just some cheap drinking society you come to for decadent lust. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I find something appealing beneath this phoney nihilistic façade of yours. Enough so I’d say that I’d see you again, Albert, if you were to say, meet me at the National Museum in two days around noon and if you were to say, show up sober
and stay that way for let’s say six hours.

The other girl looked somewhat astonished at her partner’s sudden challenge
to Albert and then looked over at me, terrified that I might anticipate a
similar such offer. I shook my head. My heart was still pickled in the bitterness of missing out on Anastasia.

Albert on the other hand, managed to find it all quite amusing in an incredulous sort of way, as if it were happening to someone else or he were watching it in a movie, impassively from his seat.

What is this, some kind of dare?

Take it however you like, Albert. The thing is, I’m a little tired of you
Americans or you English or you Germans coming here in floods of people,
week after week, year after year and the way you treat my city, my country.
Look at you, she continued, nearly rising in her seat, lathered in an indignant
self-righteousness. You don’t speak a word of Czech, you know
probably nothing about the literature, probably very little about the music despite professing some sort of affinity for both literature and music, and
you spend most of your time either drunk or recovering from being drunk.
This isn’t a country called Cheap Beer Land, she chastised. It’s called
the Czech Republic! Amazingly despite this harangue Albert was content
to continuing playing the crass instrument he’d suddenly become an expert
on. Perhaps he thought if by preaching ignorance he could get somewhere
more interesting than he’d already found himself, he’d preach it all the
more. Of course initially he was simply taking the piss but as she went on,
he simply assumed the role of cultural ignoramus. A little cheap
entertainment for the natives.

And by the end of her impromptu lecture, she took her friend’s elbow and
the pair of them stood up in disgust, not even bothering putting on their
coats before leaving.

So do you think she was serious about meeting at the National Museum in
two days at noon? Albert asked suddenly, somewhat sincere.

Ha, what do you care?

I might just show up and see what happens.


Perhaps it was an indication of how bored he truly was but two mornings
later, Albert was up early making a large cup of instant coffee from the hot water tap, smiling smugly when he saw me emerge eventually from sleep
and fog.

Bear in mind that other than that a string of 20 or 30 minute flings with a string of various whores in Utrecht, I’d not only not seen Albert with
another girl before, I hadn’t even heard him talk about one. I mean most people, even stoic friends, might let slip after all these beery evenings
together, the name of one or two former flames, maybe recount some
maudlin tale about some love gone awry. Something.

Hell, even though I spent most of my time prior to meeting Albert by myself, I’d still managed to work up a brief infatuation or two. Sure, I’d never actually screwed up the courage to talk to them let alone have a relationship
with them before Anastasia, but at least I’d had a history that I’d divulged of showing some interest.

So do you know what today is, he smirked, handing me a cup for myself.

Yeah, today’s the day you’re supposed to meet that girl in front of the
National Museum at noon. Sober.

His face fell a little. Well, yes, that too. But never mind about that for
a minute. In two days it will be first of the month! Meaning of course,
our little budgetary crisis is over and we can go back to eating like humans
instead of dogs or homeless people and most importantly, we have plenty
of reserves to see ourselves through several nights of the Shot out Eye!

Oh, I get it. It’s nothing to do with this girl at all then is it? Just the first
of the month and carefree times ahead again? Pshaw. Admit it, you’re
excited about meeting her again, aren’t you?

Ah fuck, I dunno, Witold, he told me with sudden, inexplicable candour.

You know I don’t have much use for women. I mean yeah, I like women.
I like having sex with them, it’s just that I’m not particularly fond of all
the chit chat I have to endure leading up to the good stuff. You know how
I feel. But yeah, I’ll admit I was a little intrigued by her. I like a woman who’s not full of shit, who gets right to the point. And besides, who knows, maybe she’s got a good singing voice….


Then, just as abruptly the pleasure had begun it ended and the wave of euphoria receded and it was still raining and it was only two in the afternoon and there were only 3 cigarettes left, Albert returned.

The girl never showed for the National Museum. After all that subliminal foreplay by Albert, (I knew he’d had high expectations despite the transparency of his denials) he showed up at the appointed hour with the requisite sobriety, under the influence of nothing but belief, and she
hadn’t bothered to get there.

I figured as much, Albert confided. I mean my real intention, since she’d made such a big deal about being sober and checking out this cultural nonsense, was to try and convince her to have a drink at a café before we
even went inside. I’d been all prepared to catch her off guard, astound
her with my knowledge of Czech history and literature, stun her into
silence before suggesting we go off to have that drink to celebrate her

But I stood out there and stood out there until I couldn’t look casual
standing there any more. So I figured fuck it. I’ll go have a drink. I know
the budget’s fucked but I figured after that kind of humiliation, the least I could do would be to treat myself to a drink, right?

So I decide to go to Café Louvre, you know that snobbish sort of place on
the main drag, Narodni, near the museum? So I’m sitting there, the waiter’s just brought the beer over and who shows up but this girl, can you imagine?
I’m like where the fuck were you? You know what she says to me? She
says, get this, “I knew it. I knew you couldn’t go six hours without a drink.”

I’m like how the fuck do you know when the last time was I had a drink and how did you know I was in here having a beer? So she tells me, simple. She waited from a distance - she’d been there all along, see. She’d been there all along getting some kind of weird, sadistic pleasure out of watching me wait. Or seeing how long I’d wait before I’d give up. And then when I’d given up, how long before I had a drink.

So, I was pretty fucking shocked as you can imagine but I was still thinking
on my feet so to speak so I asked her, what would you have done if I’d just walked away, just turned around and walked back to my flat and didn’t stop anywhere for a drink?

Oh, that’s easy she says, I’d have rung your doorbell and apologised for being late for the meeting, say that I got your address from someone at the Shot Out Eye since you told me you frequent that place and we’d probably have had a really good time. I usually sleep with men I fancy on the first date too. So there you go, she says, getting up from the table. I hope you enjoy your beer. That’s it, Albert nearly shouts hysterically over the Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard CD I’d been enjoying. That’s all she said, hope you enjoy your beer. Can you imagine? I mean, what the fuck kind of mental case is
she anyway?

Well Albert, maybe you’re right after all. Maybe you should just stick to whores. Cruel injustice, I know, I conceded afterwards. On the other hand, at least you weren’t in love with her. At least she didn’t come to visit you personally, fill your head with all sorts of off key ideas about emotions, fill you with some sort of hope about your music playing, fill your mate with
some sort of rubbish about upcoming gigs and then just disappear leaving
only a brief note in her wake.

Noted, he muttered, pretending to read a book in Czech, upside down as he ripped open a can of cheap beer and tried to relax.


And so we returned to our rituals When it wasn't raining, I went out, no matter what time it was. I walked from one end of the city to the other, fast
and fogged with the anticipation of reaching the end, turning around and going
back, outrunning the trams, looking into the windows with the old women
staring back down at me.

In my walking I could sense an almost palatable fear of cultures clashing, the
monuments chipped away by sledgehammers, the pained against the pain free,
the eyes of those old women seeing everything and knowing nothing more
than the human nature of their neighbourhood, while I didn't even know the
nature of myself, these unpredictable actions were unnerving. There was no
oasis and no abyss and the movement was meant to keep one afloat in between
the two.

A few weeks later I was finally able to convince Kazimir, one of the owners of
the Shot Out Eye to allow us to open for a blues band scheduled to play the following Saturday evening.

Most of the regulars in the Shot Out Eye had heard us play at one time or another at a gig or had even seen us busking and were still confused enough about our talents that they hadn't formed a solid opinion against us
yet. The illusion was still working and so long as Kazimir felt assured that
our playing wouldn't spawn a mass withdrawal from the pub, he was willing
to let us try and entertain.

So that following Saturday it seemed quite natural to show up at 1:00 when Kazimir opened the doors to the pub. Albert dragged the bass onto the bus
and we rode down as soon as we woke up, flush with cash now that the new month and new budget had begun.

You know you're not due to play until after six tonight, don't you? He asked, still groggy, vaguely annoyed. Albert, with his arm around the bass
case as though it were a drunken comrade, pushed past Kazimir and
dragged the case behind him. I've been in that fucking apartment for eleven days straight. I need a shot of Slivovice and a beer as soon as humanly possible.

While we drank beers at a leisurely yet steady pace, we played a best out of
five chess tournament against each other. As people began filtering in, we
used a clock and played one round after another of speed chess too fast to think, our hands a blur, our eyes, disinterestedly staring into thoughts only
the robotic movements of our hands could decipher. The music was already louder than normal. It felt like a Mexican peyote séance with painted faces
and dancing in between beers, hopping from foot to foot on the way
to the bathrooms, trying not to spill the beer in the hand.

By six o'clock, we were already too impatient to play our normal
route of slow and off key, the anti-jazz we wanted to portray it as,
too hip and out of place to be anything but they might cautiously
consider genius while at the same time weighing the distinct
possibility that we had no idea what we were doing.

The last week or two of having little money for other activities had
afforded us an unexpected sum of free time to practice and so some of the pieces whilst a little more polished musically, had developed lyrically or verbally, disproportionately enough so we ran the risk of giving away the
fact we had no talent. You see, our only hope lie in confounding, confusing
mystery. The more recognisably we imitated a sound or a song, the worse
we were likely to sound, the more likely we were to be found out.

It became clear from the onset, despite our condition on stage, that the
momentum needed to be swung, the emphasis away from recognisable
arrangements and towards a verbal chaos.

This led to considerably fewer options at our disposal. There were the
three set pieces we'd learned in for our gig in Amsterdam. We knew snatches
of more traditional standards, snatches we would blend in all together
haphazardly, like a tribute to musical sound bytes without any cohesion. Yet
despite these limitations, it appeared stunning. No one knew what we were
saying, not even ourselves. I sang Berlitz lines from six different phrase
books. I sang obscure American curses, commercial jingles, lines of Edgar
Allen Poe. Whatever came into my head with the same organization of
watching a plastic bag blow across a street on a windy day.

Lyrical flotsam. Musical jetsam. By the end of the set, it was clear
we'd fooled them. Kazimir slapped us on the back and handed us
another shot of Slivovice.

I'm relieved my friends, he confided. You didn't spoil the party. You
didn't drive them away. We've witness a musical miracle! He laughed
loudly and bitterly but it was all a show. He liked the sound of it. A
musical miracle in the Shot Out Eye. The jazz vagabonds stuck in
Prague, unable to extract themselves from a pleasure-seeking scrum, had
shown a modicum of worth for the first time in its three month
existence. We weren't malingerers and leeches after all, not another
pocket of tourist resistance to squelch. Now he wanted us to meet
some of his friends. Now he stopped by our table and joined us for a
beer, signalling to the waiter for another round. Now we'd never
fucking leave.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Holešice Jazz Festival

“Jazz is an intensified feeling of nonchalance”
- Francoise Sagan

Mikhail was a little droopy eyed as he stared at me over the chess board.

Days later we were hunkered down amid the smoke clouds inside The Shot
Out Eye, racing through half litre glasses of Mestan beer that arrived and were swallowed with more frequency than the chess moves themselves. For
the moment chess was the secondary adventure to the drinking. It was one
of those nights. One of those many, many nights.

Mirek and Miroslav, two members of a popular and historic local rock
band, were trying to interrupt our already wobbly match by out-shouting
each other with nonsensical slogans about Kafka and black humour
over and over again in different accents. Their band had formed in 1985
in defiance of the Communist regime when they played music that was considered antisocial by the government, and for more than four years
they performed in the Czech underground. It sounded heavy, but by
2001, the fervour of revolution had subsided. They were almost main
stream and the lack of an enemy was slowly killing them off.

Mikhail, on the other hand, was a jazz and blues guitarist who worked part
time in a musical instrument shop near the city centre. As far as we knew
he spent his free time rehearsing in the basement of that shop with a
variety of local musicians trying, with varying degrees of success, to
organise them into bands and when the bands were organised, to find gigs
for them to play in.

Shortly after we’d met him for the first time at the Shot Out Eye, months
before, he’d invited Albert and I to come and open for the band he’d strewn together for a night in a local cabaret. He’d overheard us talking
our usual stream-of-conscious gibberish hyperventilating into musical
theory and although he didn’t particularly agree with what little of what
we were saying that he understood about our haphazard music, he thought
it might be interesting enough, our novelty sufficiently eccentric to try
and lend a hand in promoting us by letting us open for one of his gigs.

Typically, Albert and I had spent the afternoon warming up in a our flat drinking beer and pretending to rehearse. The enthusiasm we’d once
shown in Utrecht and Amsterdam was nearly completely gone by then,
replaced by a listless and generalised malaise that came with the standard
lack of direction. Much like in Utrecht, once in Prague we‘d established
a pattern and were not likely to break out of it any time soon.

By the hour we were to step up on stage we couldn’t remember even how
we’d gotten there. Our playing was atrocious to our ears, disjointed,
inflexible and perhaps overall, sad, so we thought. The essence of
failure. And yet, as we swayed, post gig, complete and random strangers approached us, eager to practice English by praising our playing.

It’d would have been a success but for Albert dropping his bass case on a knee-level glass table around which sat a handful of Russian mafia-types
and upon which several bottles and glasses of expensive champagne stood. When the case hit the table, glass and expensive booze went flying everywhere, including on the clothes of the Russian mafia-types, who only moments before had been laughing and seeming to enjoy themselves and
their slender yet curvy female escorts.

The mood turned sour with frightening alacrity. We thought for a split
second we envisioned our lives flashing before our eyes. Somehow,
Mikhail was able to rescue us from certain death, quickly pleading with
the furious Russian mafia-types who seemed quite prepared to cut our
throats, to forget all about it, handing over handfuls of Czech thousand
crown notes he took from Albert and I as he was simultaneously pulling
us away.

And then only the night before we'd tried a blues quintet that failed miserably.
It failed mainly because, quite frankly, Albert and I proved to be rubbish at playing blues standards. Don’t ask me why, the music itself wasn’t
difficult. It was perhaps the difficulty of maintaining discipline or perhaps it because by comparison to the three other musicians, Mikhail along with
an exceptional drummer and a keyboard player, Albert and I simply
weren’t really very good.

No one really came right out and said it, they excused it politely by
saying blues might not really be our bag since clearly we were talented
jazz improvisational musicians and perhaps making the leap from one to
the other was too much to ask too soon, etc. They really were quite nice
about, thanks but no thanks and felt bad enough afterwards they took us
out and bought us drinks most of the night to make up for it. Still, it
was a discouraging step backwards and that night our faith in our
musical talent was at its nadir.

Mikhail kept staring at the chess board as if the longer he stared
the longer the possibility would exist that the pieces might somehow
rearrange themselves to his advantage. His crew-cut drenched with
the sweat of nausea. His face was mangled by a vague vertigo. He was
no Zbynek Hrácek, for sure. I was up two pawns, a rook and a bishop.
A better chess player than blues musician, no doubt. Check mate, under
the influence of less Mestan, would have probably been less than three
moves away but under the circumstances, it might have taken all night.

Mikhail pushed his finger out at his pieces and knocked the king over. Are
you quitting? I demanded about the speculative king down resignation. He looked at me deeper with those droopy eyes and shrugged.

There is nothing for me here. he comments, finishing off his glass and standing up. I still feel bad for you about that disastrous blue session but I
think there’s hope for you yet. Why don't you two boys come with me to
the Holešice Jazz festival next weekend? It’s my home town, I am already playing there and since I know the promoter, maybe I can convince them to squeeze you in somewhere, on an alternative stage somewhere... He raised
his eyebrows. Somewhere they won't notice you, he whispered conspiratorially with a little snicker. You both can sleep at my place there.


And so the following Friday Mikhail, Albert and I found ourselves
sitting on cold benches with a few bottles of beer at a suburban bus
depot waiting for a ride to Holešice. A few old ladies and a school
teacher going home for the weekend were waiting with us. For nearly
a week Albert and I had managed to try and pull ourselves together,
convinced, much as we’d been in anticipation of the gig Anastasia had
arranged for us in Amsterdam, that just a little rehearsal was all we
needed to sound like we knew what were doing. If only the random
note sequences were contrived rather than actually random we might
have been more convincing.

So did you hear more about our performance? Albert grumbled, lighting a
no filter Start cigarette, coughing, red-faced and veins popping up
in his forehead and looking expectantly at Mikhail.

Absolutely! he nearly shouted, relieved to have a topic of good news to
break the soul-dragging silence hanging over us. The old ladies and the
school teacher looked over at us, accessing the level of our intoxication
or insanity. I've spoken with Pavel about it and he is convinced we can
promote you as some sort of expatriate avant garde jazz duo of
subliminal importance. He likes your new name, Stalin's Mother, it
sounds more interesting than The Deadbeat Conspiracy. He thinks it will
draw people at least through the duration of a beer, no matter how
horrible you sound. Mikhail says this matter-of-factly as though our
ineptitude is so understood that even we should be convinced of it.

Now of course, you might wonder why we’d changed the name of our
band like that, surely the handful of followers, if they even numbered
that many, would be disappointed. The truth is, not only was the name
The Deadbeat Conspiracy getting us nowhere, it was also tainted by
the memory of Anastasia, who I hadn’t heard from since that mysterious
postcard from Budapest.

So one day, maundering through the titles while paying Marshall a
visit in the American Business College library, I came across a Stalin
biography with photos. Thumbing through the old photographs, I
naturally thought of Anastasia and her collection of anonymous photos
but then my thoughts were jolted by a photograph of an older woman
who, according to the caption underneath, was Stalin’s mother.
The idea floored me. Stalin had a mother? Why of course he would
have but to contemplate this brutal dictator’s mother, whatever she
must have done to him as a child to turn him into what he became, why
it must have been repulsive. And so, I thought, while Stalin was a
nasty bit of work, you can only imagine how bad the mother must
have been.

I came home that afternoon to find Albert in his usual mid-afternoon state
of gradually working up to being drunk and announced it was time for a change in the band’s name to Stalin’s Mother, as in, if you think Stalin
was bad, you should have seen his mother.

For a few days anyway, it was inspirational. We managed more
productive rehearsals in those few days than in the last month and a half
combined. But then we were seized by the predictable inertia and
before long, we’d fallen back into routine again. Another false step.

Well, it's a relief that I didn't lug this fucking bass with me for nothing,
Albert growled, giving the ungainly bass carrier beside him an unfriendly jostle and staring down the old ladies beside him. He'd pissed and moaned about that bass ever since he woken up that morning.

This is going to be one heavy fucking thing to drag around with me all weekend, he began warming his whinge to the right pitch while the coffee
was brewing. Jesus Christ, this thing is heavy! he exclaimed when we'd
gotten on to the street and were headed for the tram. Getting it onto the
train at rush hour provoked even more frustrated fury, angry stares,
bitching and complaining and cursing in languages no one was
going to bother to try and understand. His only consolation was the
kiosk near the bus station where he bought several large bottles of beer
for himself. What a nightmare he sighed finally, gratefully gulping his
first mouthful.


We got into Holešice as the sun was setting. The first matter of
order of course, was to stop at the first pub we found, instruments
and all, and kill some time with the locals. Mikhail, as this was
his village after all, knew most if not all of the people ambling
in for their typical Friday night-return-to-the-village-by-train
beers before heading back off to their respective homes for dinner.

And as they came in Mikhail would call them over, introducing us as
a unique jazz experience, a once in a lifetime chance to see jazz taken
to its furthest, perhaps strangest parameters. We were in short,
musical geniuses. People would nod appreciatively looking at us and
our instruments, looking us up and down as though they wanted to
touch us, these two masses of American flesh with the strange
talents. Touch us to see not if we were real but to see if some of
this magical aura of American might rub off on them for better or
worse. We were after all, far from the raucous path of Prague
overflowing like backed up toilets with expatriates and tourists. We
were in this village anyway, a novelty.

Yet rather than feel pleased and excited we felt more like circus freaks inevitably. Come, look at the foreigners who will play at our little
weekend festival, regale us with instrumental magic and wonder. In fact,
I was quite pleased with it all, quite prepared to wallow in the special
attention and milk it for all it was worth. Before we’d even played a note
we had them right where we wanted them.

But Albert was bringing me down, unnerving me by making noises about wanting to go to Mikhail's place only a half hour or so after we‘d arrived,
moaning like a rheumatic in deep joint agony. He wanted to unload his
gear and wash up from the ride in. Mikhail and I were somewhat stunned
by this mysterious character makeover. Albert, not in the mood to drink?
Free beer?

Nonetheless, we were the guests and so after a final round Mikhail finally stood and announced, much to the disappointment of the crowd gathered
to stare at us, announced without further preamble that the bill had been
sorted and we would now proceed to his house where his wife Elena, who
had spent the better part of the afternoon brushing up on her English and preparing a vast array of rustic specialty Czech cuisine, would delight our palates and offer desultory conversation.

Upon arrival we met and greeted Elena who we were naturally curious to
discover more about, this suddenly-revealed spouse of German/Bohemian
origin, who in all our nights of chess or music playing or drinking Mikhail
had never sought fit to mention. It was strange to observe this vaguely domesticated version of Mikhail, a subtle, reassuring touch on her elbow,
a secret peck of affection when he thought we weren’t looking.

As we’d trudged the steep uphill distance to his house from the village
centre he‘d begun filling us in. As a profusely sweating and swearing
Albert followed behind at a distance Mikhail described in detail the logistics
of his past, revealing one breathless layer after another:

First the marriage and child at 20 then the death of the child three years
later under circumstances Mikhail steered well clear of. The marriage
itself he confided, hanging by a thread over remorse and unspoken accusations until Mikhail had taken the decision, spurred on by the news
that a flat of a friend had become available in Prague, decided to move to
Prague part-time to give his spouse and the marriage the space he thought
they needed. Then before long, he found the job in the music shop, the
stepping stone he'd hoped for a career in Prague as a studio musician or
a promoter or leading a blues band, new dreams to paper over the old

He filled me in on the subsequent years of drinking and playing music
whilst the distance between himself and Elena, supplemented only by
once-monthly visits back home, gradually narrowed and how slowly
their original love regained a second, tougher skin. He conceded, in
this quickly-unravelled history that while they were not considering
living together on a full time basis, they had at least repaired, strand by
strand, the initial emotions that had once brought them together in the
first place.

It's not been an easy several years, Mikhail intoned philosophically
and reluctantly as we stood on the crest of the hill overlooking
the lights of the village below and smoking reflectively, waiting as
Albert trudged upward to reach us, huffing and puffing and cursing
again our lack of transportation. But I think we've overcome the
most difficult period we have been presented with and perhaps in a
way these experiences have strengthened our relationship.

I looked at his face, imprecisely lit by the cherry of his cigarette,
wondering at the delicacy of relationships, the depths below the surfaces
people often choose not to reveal. I got the impression he'd been
withholding this information from us all these months not because he
hadn't trusted us but because matters of this nature were simply not
relevant to our encounters and that now, having invited us there was
really no way around it. Sure, he could have just revealed he was
married and left it at that – perhaps we'd have wondered about the
lack of children or why they lived in two different places, but
these questions would have remained unanswered had he not taken the
opportunity to reveal them voluntarily because it is certain we
wouldn't have thought to ask about them ourselves.

In fact, I didn’t know all that much about Albert either despite all the time
we’d spent together. Perhaps I wasn't curious enough and had I bothered
trying to reach beyond the stoic present I might have found within him as well,
troubled pasts from distant experiences which led him to his current
personality. It was a safe bet we were all in fact hiding things, little revelatory
pieces of our pasts or simply failing to disclose them for a variety of reasons.
Unless there was a purpose to bring up past pain, the unspoken code was that
it was better having left it unsaid in the first place. Perhaps that's what friends
are supposed to be for rather than simply revelling in the present but even for
myself, the past wasn't an issue that came up in the mind very often unless
prompted. The present was all there was and the past had grown more
distant, more obscure, perhaps even less believable as time moved on.

And now as we entered his home there was little we might have discerned
about the past from the present. Elena greeted us with a kiss on each cheek,
smiling radiantly with anticipation as we were filled with the unfamiliar senses
of domesticity coming home; Tchaikovsky in the background, meats and
dumplings bubbling in spices filling the air around us. Mikhail took us to the
room Albert and I were to share, unspoken that this was once the room of the
son who had not made it, the empty bunk beds in the corner a morbid
reminder of what could have been. After showing off his collection
of electric guitars, a Gibson in one corner, a Strat in another and a Les Paul in
the closet as well framed Zappa poster from the Freak Out album with The
Mothers of Invention, he left us to ourselves awhile, to clean up
and unwind as he caught up with his wife and sorted out the
evening's plans.

This whole thing creeps me out, Albert confessed sotto voce after I’d filled
him in and as he leaned his bass against the bare wall, his cigarette-choked breath coming in gasps from the exertion and slowly found consolation on
the lower bunk, his long legs stretching out over the edge of the bed. I didn't say anything. Grunting non committally as I took the time to roll a cigarette and digest not just the journey and the history revealed but allowing a
certain sudden angst of performing in this festival to swim over me.

First in that bar with all those people coming up to us like we were
either lepers or gods, Albert suddenly elaborated, and then all this business
about Mikhail's wife, the dead kid and shit, look at this, I'm probably lying on
his bed. He didn't move from the mattress in any event, rubbing his eyes
and continued muttering, more to himself than to me.

It isn't such a big deal, I exhaled, looking for an ashtray before
realising I probably wouldn't find one in the room of a dead child.
I opened the window and ashed in the garden below. Besides, I'm
starving and that food smelled like heaven.

No, it's not a big deal, Witold. I'm just creeped out thinking about
all that family planning going awry and sleeping in the bunk of a
dead kid I never knew existed. Not to mention the triathlon of
hiking up the fucking hill to this house, carrying that bass and
trying to smoke all at the same time. Is it just me or does it feel
to you like this weekend is going to be a disaster? I mean this
festival is going to be packed with talented musicians and who are
we? Two vagabonds with no talent trying to assimilate? What if we're
booed off stage?

I laughed to myself. What's this emanating from the mouth of the
great stoic, a smidgeon of pre show jitters? A dash of apprehension?
Don't go getting all suddenly human and sickly with emotions on me, Albert.
It's just a festival. Everyone will be drunk. We've played in
festivals before. We won't be booed off stage. The ghost of
Mikhail's child is not going to come haunting you tonight. This is
supposed to be fun. We're going to meet a lot of people, play music,
listen to even better music, drink a lot of beer and just outside
that door there's a rustic Czech feast awaiting us. The way I see
it, we're doing just fine.

Albert grunted, hitting his head on the upper bunk as he moved to
sit up, cursing and rubbing his head whilst reflexively reaching for
his pack of Winstons, tapping out a cigarette and popping it between
his lips. He got up gingerly, like an auld man in a nursing home and
stood up finally to his full height, lighting his cigarette and
joining me by the window. Yeah, I know Witold, I know. It's no
crisis. Just a passing fancy. You know, like once in awhile I want
to know what it's like to feel the illusion of being human. He
laughed to himself which induced a brief coughing spasm, spat out a
back throat full of bile and put his pork pie hat back atop his
head. Then again, such visits are necessarily brief.

The meal was as good as advertised through the nostrils. By the time
we'd entered the kitchen Mikhail was already sipping a beer and
quickly poured out two large bottles into steins for us to join him.
Elena proudly informed us we were about to engage in a typical Czech
meal which, after months of a diet consisting primarily of fried
cheese with chips from the Shot Out Eye, crunchy street stand
sausages and brown bread hunks, had our mouths watering before we'd
even settled over our plates. First came the tangy meat broth
flavoured with garlic followed by a sirloin of beef, which she
explained as she filled our plates, was mixed with fried, cut
vegetables with the sirloin interlarded with bacon, seasoned with
pepper, a bay leaf, thyme, vinegar and a cranberry compote then
baked before adding the fresh cream. She served this with dumplings
and when it was all over, a combination of fresh berries and apple
tart with powdered sugar.

Whilst eating we discussed our rationales for being in the Czech
Republic in the first place, how we were finding life in Prague,
what life in New York City had been like, and a further wide array
of discourse on blues and literature wherein it was revealed by
Elena that in addition to working as a physiotherapist, she had also
been compiling a translation of Tom Waits lyrics into Czech which
she had yet to complete but had already found a publisher for.

Although you could sense the anticipation in the air it was not
until we were sated and sat around the table in the kitchen puffing
cigarettes and sipping her grandfather's plum brandy with our belts
loosened that she allowed herself the luxury of explaining her
desire to go through particularly difficult passages of Tom Waits
lyrics which she couldn't possibly fathom a translation for.

Nor could we for that matter. Some phrases were simply
untranslatable and even attempting to explain their meaning in
English was virtually unthinkable. Imagine explaining the following,
for example:
kick me up mt. baldy
throw me out in the fog
tear a hole in the jack pot
drive a stake through his heart
do a 100 on the grapevine
do a jump on the start
hang on st. christopher now don't let me go.

Oh sure, we could explain the context of St Christopher but even
that she herself knew. Those little eyeball kick phrases however
were simply too much. To counter, I suggested perhaps as difficult
as making sense of some of Dylan Thomas' more elusive phrasings. We
felt guilty of course. Perhaps this was the entirety of our worth,
an ability to transpose the incoherence of scattershot lyrics into a
more palatable English but we were incapable and the plum brandy
made it no easier.

All night long on the broken glass
livin in a medicine chest
mediteromanian hotel back
sprawled across a roll top desk
the monkey rode the blade on an
overhead fan
they paint the donkey blue if you pay

Eventually sensing the effort of milking information out of us was
more trouble than it was worth, through a secret sign of
understanding between even an estranged husband and wife, Mikhail
announced that as soon as we finished our glasses we would go out
for the evening to meet some of his friends, his fellow musicians, a
cacophony of locals in a village suddenly flush with musicians from
all over the region.

We trudged along the dark road back into town following Mikhail and
Elena, blindly relying upon their expertise to guide us through what
we supposed would be yet another sullying night of excessive celebration.
Since the meal, Albert had become much more animated as though his brain
and mouth had taken that much longer to catch up with the arrival of
his body and the inspiration of the food had been the facilitator.
Or perhaps it was solely because the walk back to the village was
all downhill, it was hard to say but I wasn't going to interrupt Albert’s sudden loquaciousness with irrelevant questions.

The owner of the pub we went to was a giant of a man who went by the
name of Karel. And I mean, literally a giant. He must have been
nearly seven feet tall and easily weighed well over 300 pounds. The
pub had been his grandfather's, passed to his father, neither of
whom stood over six feet five but Karel had continued to grow and
once he'd decided to continue the family line of pub ownership he
had the roof removed and the ceiling raised higher to facilitate
movement. Otherwise, he stammered in broken English, I'd keep
hitting my head and the bumps were growing too big. So as we entered
to the right following introductions where Karel had saved us a
long, thick wooden table and several of Mikhail's mates were already
leisurely drinking their pilsners, we could appreciate the rationale behind
the height of the ceiling, the addition of the second fire place to add
extra heat to the room. In older times the ceilings were necessarily
lower both because people were generally shorter five or ten
generations before but also because the low ceilings allowed the
rooms to heat more quickly and easily as there was less space to
heat. Of course another advantage to the higher ceilings was that
the room would be less smoky and considering the fastidiousness with
which the patrons were chain smoking, this was a good thing indeed.

Pavel, Miroslav and Tomas were waiting along with their girlfriends
and/or wives who sat gamely in expectation of meeting the new
foreigners and to reunite with Mikhail and Elena who, she had
confessed on the way down to the village, rarely went out save for
the nights when Mikhail returned. Most of them spoke a smattering of
English and when required, Mikhail and Elena could be counted upon
to relay enquiries and comments from one language to another but in
any event, Albert and I spent large amounts of time just taking the
scene in of this homespun beer hall and the chaos of clattering beer
mugs, waiters running back and forth adding and subtracting glasses,
foreign laughter punctuated by loud expressions we couldn't decipher
and the smell of burning wood and burning tobacco hanging in the

As the night wore on it was decided, perhaps silently or perhaps
simply in a language Albert and I didn't understand, that the women
were all going to head back to their respective homes whilst the men
were to continue on through the evening. We were going to a club
where several of the festival musicians would be gathering to meet
and greet and get drunk with abandon once loosed from the strangle
holds of feminine parameters on intoxication and moderation, to
obliviate and obscure, wind up and down, spin and crash.

By then my mind was already a flip switch remote control, reality to
illusion back to reality again. The beers had gone on holiday to the
head, the others, I dunno, I didn't know, I was aware of the others but
only vaguely so. There were too many carnival attractions in the
imagination, too much effort in walking without stumbling, taking in
the darkness without any adjustment of the eyes.

And before I knew it we were entering a club, the club; a heaving
scene of music and people planted and re-earthed from emerging
villages, Slovakian and Bohemian cities, heaven and earth, clouds
and graves and instead of settling in slowly taking in the madness,
instead of flowing along with the river of new entrants through the
front door, rather than holding hands with those that brought me
there so as not to end up a simple toast of human flotsam, I made a
beeline for a table filled with a mixture of young but grizzled men
and leggy, laughing women who radiated, vibrated, seemed in my intoxicated state, itchy for my company.

Certainly this was an optical illusion, a trick of the mind, a
boring requiem of the drunken ego singing louder than the internal
acoustics would allow but this did not matter in this auto-focused
intoxication mind, not infused as it was with the hyperventilation
of the new, the congo of the coming festival banging in the mind,
the kaleidoscope of unfamiliar faces plump and waiting to be picked
from the bough.

Without realising, for that one out of body minute I had finally
allowed myself to become disentangled from my near constant
preoccupation with Anastasia and figuring perhaps that I owed
nothing, I was in essence, free to explore. After all, exploring, as
Albert often preached, meant exploring the native women as much as
the native beer and perhaps there was particular girl who'd caught
my eye but in any case, I'd broken off from the group, oblivious to
where they were headed and made myself comfortable at the lone empty
chair at this table where sat a particularly stunning brunette whose
eye I thought I'd caught and predictably, filled with drink, enflamed by a
mixture of excitement and ego, swaying with anticipation, I
immediately and perhaps stupidly decided to try out the smattering
of Czech I'd learned to try and impress her.

Naturally she had no idea what I was talking about. I suppose I
didn't either. Something about the weather is fine, I'll have
another beer would you care to join me, or perhaps something that
sounded far more vulgar, I've no idea. Suffice it to say that
whatever it was, the manner in which I was addressing her
immediately set off alarms in the wolf of the pack who wasted no
time in leaping across the table, knocking beer mugs to the floor
and grabbing me around the throat, his momentum carrying us both to
the floor. I tried to bite at his arms, get a hold of a piece of
flesh to ward off the sudden attack and wriggling beneath him I
howled curses of incomprehension loudly in English, phrases I'd
never uttered myself before but had heard many times on the streets
of home.

I could feel my air being cut off regardless of how I struggled or
perhaps more so because I did as the grip this guy had around my
throat only tightened. And then just as suddenly as this attack had
begun, my attacker was pulled off of me from above and it wasn't
until he was fully in the air that his grip around my neck finally
loosened and was released and with incomprehension, I looked up to
see Karel holding the attacker up by the throat and the attacker
babbling apologies as Karel growled in Czech things I had no idea
of. I slowly stood to my feet with the assistance of Mikhail and
Albert whilst the attacker's apologies moved from Czech to Karel to
English to me.

I had no idea you were American, he effused. I thought you were some
drunk trying to break into our table, a threat to us….let me buy you
a beer, I'm sorry I attacked you, you must understand…

Relieved by no longer being choked, I shrugged, glancing out of the
corner of my eye to the girl who had for a second anyway, been the
object of my attention and slapped him lightly on the arm. No
problem, I said calmly, cracking my neck with a sudden movement of
my head from left to right. I'm sorry for interrupting the table
like that without an introduction.

I don't know what Karel had said to him but perhaps it was merely
the shock of being hoisted up by the neck by the village's infamous
giant that calmed him, in any event, we all settled back to our
tables and when I went back a half an hour or so later to buy my
round, my attacker arrived at my side whilst I stood waiting at the
bar, apologising again. He too was a musician, he confided. He would
also be playing at this festival and he didn't want me to get the
wrong idea, see. He'd thought I was just some leering, staggering drunk
causing trouble, you know how they are. I shrugged. You probably weren't
too far off the mark anyway, I confessed. In any event, let's drink to
the brotherhood of musicians. And the rest of the evening when our
paths crossed we'd make our mutual apologies, confer about music,
exchange favourite songs and generally attempt to remove whatever
lingering memories of ugliness remained.

The following morning, how we got back, I don’t know. I recall going back
to Karel's pub before dawn and having a few more beers before
falling asleep with my head on the table and had no recollection
whatsoever of Mikhail and Albert having to drag me back up the hill
to the house, their laughter ringing in my dulled background ears at
the attack on the American musician, sure to make all the local
papers and fill the town with gossip for the weekend.

And I heard all about the following day as well after we'd had a
little coffee, showered and headed back into town to the concert
hall. Everyone who passed us seem to know me, waving a greeting or
making a joke much to my chagrin. So it goes in a small village
filled with strangers where news travels fast. Apparently nearly
every performing musician had been in that club last night and every
one of them had seen what had happened.

Nonetheless the excitement was tangible as we entered the empty hall
with our instruments joining those already on stage, those
performing in the early sets were already beginning to tune up,
performing sound checks, sipping beer or coffee randomly.

The music hall was already crowded before the first band had even
started, heaving with musicians, friends, family, neighbours, supporters
who were from early on, already allowing the beer to flow freely.

The first few acts came on as we were gathered around the table
continuing our banter both in Czech and English, translations and
explanations going round like peace pipe offerings. The musicians were
in fact, quite talented acts, local kids who had formed in some instances,
heavy metal screeching teen trios and in other instances, seminal blues bands.

Mikhail and his wife, along with his mates and hers were all sat at
the table length and took turns switching seats to sit next to us, ask us questions about America, about our music, American music generally
along the “have you heard of…” lines.

As the first hour or two had passed we were simply indifferent to the idea
of playing at all ourselves. We were thoroughly entertained simply by the
acts that were already on and the company, conversation and beer that
flowed all around us in liberal portions.

In the midst of hearing about one girl’s experience as an exchange student
in the suburbs of Cleveland, out of the corner of my eye, I could discern a movement in the crowd that had gathered around us. A subtle movement
but one which I intuitively became aware of. Although I couldn’t see over
the top of heads, a wave of sorts was moving the crowd back and sideways
and eventually, as it reached the very front of where we were sat, I could
hear no more of the conversation around me, as if I’d gone suddenly deaf.

Actually it seemed as if everyone around me had stopped moving, stopped talking, the band had stopped playing and the beer was all gone. As the very front of that crowd parted, much to my shock and simultaneous excitement arrived the very diminutive figure of Anastasia.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: The Risks Of Turning The Corner
“I had always heard that your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time.”
-- Lester Burnham, in American Beauty


I thought I'd surprise you, again, she said nonchalantly or perhaps ironically, with a smirk of expectation twisting at the corners of her mouth as she approached the table and registered the look of complete shock that
enveloped my face.

I could only stare back at her face with incomprehension, a dream materialised before my eyes. A good dream? A nightmare? Who knew?
I mean the initial shock didn’t allow anything else to flow past into the
brain, to register any feelings or thoughts on the matter. Like when you’re
cut and that split second when the cut is white before the blood suddenly
starts rushing out.

I wasn't sure how to introduce her to every body. My girlfriend, my muse,
this bird I know? I looked over at Albert for a clue but Albert appeared to be
as dumbstruck as I was. Anastasia of course, revelled in the moment of indecision, knowing the powerful effect her unexpected appearance would have on us.

Hi everyone, she said to those gathered around us, those whose curiosity
was piqued by her appearance and my reaction, the blood draining from
my face. I’m Anastasia, a friend of Witold and Albert, she introduced
finally in response to our silence. And before we could supplement, deny
or agree with that information everyone was enthusiastically returning the
introductions and no one had any idea that they were in the presence of
a woman who possessed the most beautiful voice they might hear during
the entire festival. If, of course, she was finally going to sing with us.

I allowed myself a momentary fascination with the reality of seeing her
there in the flesh before me. It seems odd but sometimes you can imagine
someone so often and so unyieldingly that you almost forget the details of
what they actually look like.

Their face becomes a blurred homogeny of dreams. You don’t visualise
their eyes or sense the tactile softness of a cheek to cheek caress. It’s as
though they’ve existed only in a textbook somewhere in your student past,
the words you were forced to memorise and recite still stuck in your
mind, randomly, yet you aren’t sure why and can’t force that memorised
text from your head.

Shock often registers in the body with numbness. I could feel myself
saying nothing. No air moved my adducted vocal chords to sound.
Unlike the first time she appeared unannounced in Utrecht, I could not
accept this arrival without question, even if I couldn’t verbalise those
questions. I didn’t embrace her without reservation, grateful for the opportunity to do so after so many months of waiting.

No, as we drank each other in carefully, (the others had since gone back
to their conversations acutely oblivious to our history and it was as though
we occupied an invisible, silent bubble among them,) she seemed to be
assessing my capacity for pain, trying to distill from the look in my eyes
some sign of forgiveness or joy or anger. She said nothing but put her right
hand against my arm, gently. And I of course, stunned into silence, was running through a catalogue of emotions not unlike watching those varieties
of fruit spinning in a slot machine waiting for the spinning to stop and the
conclusion to make its presence known. Was there anything to forgive? I
didn’t even know. Yes, my heart did pirouette a moment or two but then as though a hamstring pulled in mid movement, the joy was immediately tempered by the pain.

Of course I had questions for her. Well, I had them in my mind, still
formulating, incubating in those few moments, but I was still incapable of
verbalising them. I assessed as much as possible in those tiny moments;
how did I really feel about her being here?

Fuck, of course, I was elated, I told myself silently. And each time I
allowed that recognition to creep in, bam! The shadow of her
disappearance re-emerged and the questions were blown back in my face
in order: Why did she leave Utrecht so suddenly, without even speaking
to me, leaving me some stupid fucking letter in her wake? How did she
even discover that I’d be in this little village on this particular weekend?
How had she gotten here and most importantly, why in the hell was she
here to begin with?

But those questions were to go unspoken for the moment. I can't
say that I didn't care, I most certainly did, but there are questions you sometimes don't necessarily want to know the answers to and rather than
spoil the surprise of her appearance immediately I preferred to push
those questions to the back of my mind and accept her as instinctively
I'd know she wanted to me to accept her – without question, without
precondition and without asking for more - which is precisely how I
played it.

As she carried on talking with what seemed to my cynical eye to be a
practiced nonchalance, as if it were perfectly naturally for her have left with
a letter and then just as suddenly and unexpectedly reappearing here,
materialising out of nothing in front of me, carried on talking as did those
around us, she succeeded in pulling me into this vortex. The initial
introductions wore away and suddenly it was just the two of us among
them and I stood in my glorious lethargy listening to her escapades in
Torino, Budapest, Zagreb and Vienna, to name a few. I tried to imagine
a selfless self that could simply wallow in her being here – to simply be

She wanted to be treated as a crowd would treat her - appreciative for her appearance, mesmerised by her presence, tangled in her web. She preferred
to be loved rather than possessed, I could see that plainly for the first
time and the stage had always been the safest place, the only place to feel it.

It might have been the shock of seeing her or the space which had grown
between us but as she was no longer simply a dream, a figment of my
imagination, as she stood there real enough in flesh and blood I could
almost perceive her in that moment as a person, a flawed person, not an
icon, not an image, not a memory.

I tried to imagine that if this was going to be the only time I would see
her then I wanted it to be a pleasantly memorable rather than a desperate or
confused experience. Notwithstanding the notion that the last thing she'd
come all this distance and come to all this trouble for would be to
listen to a puny man with his puerile notions of possession react in
a vain and disdainful fashion instead of merely exuding his appreciation.

I wanted desperately to grab at her and caress her simultaneously and yet I
felt oddly torn between loyalty and fear compounded by the uncertainty of
how I should treat her, not just when we were alone but more importantly,
in this public venue. And these thoughts allowed me to consider further
the full implications of why she had chosen to appear when she had, here
in a public place, a safe place where I wouldn't intend on mauling her with
my selfish, hungry hands or with my probing accusative questions.

I was swaying slightly both from the beer and excitement. I couldn't
very well leave the venue with our appearance due up later. Too many
people had been told in advance, too many were waiting to see for
themselves what these two weird American guys were going to do. There
will be time, there will be time.

As a distraction, while she spun her tale of cities and gigs I tried to think
of the other lines that followed in that Prufrock poem by Eliot, knowing
I’d once memorised them and heard them then in the back of my mind while
I deliberated and debated my next move, our next move, for certainly we
couldn’t simply stand here in the hall drinking beer and pretend nothing
had happened, that her sudden appearance was as normal and ordinary as
her sudden disappearance.

And so it was with ignoring the lines of the Prufrock poem I was
desperately trying to recall as a distraction or indeed, as a guide, that I
finally lost my desperate grip on patience.

So, I interrupted suddenly, as casual as possible, Are you here to play
with us again, then? I managed to ask this with what I presumed formulated
on my face a teasing smile but playfulness, I knew was not a strength of
mine, not with so many raw emotions on the line and so perhaps my face
betrayed my impatience, perhaps my voice rang with bitterness and
cynicism, it was hard to tell.

She didn't say anything for a moment as she seemed to attempt to decipher
the basis and intent behind my query which even I wasn’t completely
certain about.

Why don't I have a glass of wine while I consider she asked, snuggling unexpectedly into my arms and smiling, as though postponement,
diversion and hinting at what I was certain to want was a sufficient tactic.

It's been a long journey, she clarified.

And so we finally had a few private moments over a drink, clearing a
table for ourselves in the front of the hall where others were hungrily
wolfing down forkfuls of goulash and dumplings, slurping their beers
and either revelling in the previous performance or talking excitedly about
the one to follow. Not that I really understood what they were saying in
any event but I’d grown accustomed, listening as I did daily to a language I
could only understand in tiny snatches, to perceive rather than actually
understand what people were talking about. Facial expressions, circumstances, tone, all useful aids. Or had been, deciphering foreign
tongues. But these new skills were of no use in attempting to unravel
the mystery of the woman before me.

I suppose you’re wondering, among other things, how I found you here,
she began after a sip of wine, her tongue perched momentarily on the
wine stain of her lip as she peered into my eyes attempting to read what
registered inside of them.

I'd actually intended on surprising you in Prague, Witold. It‘s been so
long and your letters have been a great comfort but as always, they aren‘t
the same as seeing you. It‘s been crazy touring, you wouldn‘t believe it.
Anyway, I just haven‘t had time before now to come up to Prague to see
you and even now it was only because I’m on my way to a performance
in Krakow, or I was at any rate.

I'd taken the train from Paris and believe me, there wasn't going to be a lot
of time to prepare but once I was on the train I knew there was no way I
could forgive myself if I didn't stop in to see you.

(Of course, in my mind, even while I digested her words, the initial instincts
I thought to myself but not aloud, were why hadn’t she just ask me to join her somewhere if she was so busy, surely she knew I’d have come straight away. Then the bit about no way to forgive herself, well, fuck, I tried to stifle an ironic laugh, how the fuck did she forgive herself for dropping me without the grace of doing so face to face but by a sneaky little letter under
the cover of the night?)

I mean you know, a few times when I was close, I tried to send a postcard to you but even then, most cities I go to, I’m not there for very long and since
you don’t really have a telephone or any way to really get in touch with you,
well, it’s been difficult. Especially since I don’t always know the next stop
on the tour. It’s all been happening so fast.

So anyway, when I got to Prague, in transit to Krakow, I just took a cab and went to that pub you mention so much, Shot Out Eye? I even had a hard
time getting a cab to find it because I didn’t have the address or even the
name in Czech. Anyway, I figured you mention it so much in your letters,
you were more likely to be there than your own flat. She gave a short giggle.
Funny, isn’t that, Witold? Left with the choice I figured I’d be more likely
to find you in a pub than your flat…anyway, I made a few enquiries about
you two and it was then I found out that you would be here at this festival.

This morning I woke up and decided to come, even though it's out of my
way and yes, even though it meant cancelling, much to the anger of my
manager, the show which was scheduled for this evening. I still have to
leave before the end of the night for a show tomorrow night but I thought at
least we'd have a little time together. I've missed you terribly Witold. I try to
make it to Paris once a week just so I can go back to my flat and find all your
letters waiting there and as soon as I pick them up, I get back on the train and
go wherever the next performance is scheduled for with those letters bundled
up to comfort me in all those days and nights in between. I've dreamt so
often of being with you again that I can hardly believe it myself.

Why else would I go to this much trouble to see you even knowing you
are going to be preoccupied with the festival just for the chance to feel
you properly relax in my arms and tell me more of all those wonderful
things you write about in your letters? (I couldn’t tell who she was
trying to convince more, me or her.)

But…if you miss me as much as you say, and not that I'm doubting it, I began
sceptically anyway, Christ knows how often I've dreamt of hearing you tell me these exact things, still I can't help but wonder, knowing as you must how
willing I would be to drop everything and follow you, why you don't
just allow me to follow you on tour? That way we could see each
other all the time. That way…

She held up her right hand, waving me off gently.

I could tell you a lot of stories, Witold. I could make up excuses, the strain
it would put on me for my performances, the difficulty of the logistics, and
yes, I would like nothing better than to have you there with me, for support,
for your affection, for reassurance, but the truth is, I'm far too afraid to allow
you to accompany me. Afraid of what you wonder? You name it. Afraid of
getting hurt, afraid of hurting you, afraid of disappointment, afraid of losing
this incredible feeling I have reading your letters, knowing that every day
you are somewhere out there thinking of me, dreaming of me. Do you have
any idea what a comfort that is to me?

But why would you prefer it to the actual thing?

Quite simply because nothing, no one, not at the moment anyway, could
live up to what you've created. I certainly am not the person you've
imagined me to be, god knows, no one could be. I don't want to
discourage such infatuation but there are truths about me that might ruin
your illusion of me and to be honest, I'd be crushed to find out that your
illusion of me has been shattered. When I left with just that letter I was
taking an awful chance that I’d lose you, I knew it But it was a chance
that I had to take. And then, when you started writing to me again, my
God, I was relieved, so relieved. You see, it's your dream of me that
allows me to consider that I might just be worthy of such a dream. It's what
has allowed me to enjoy myself all these months in between. The knowledge
that someone out there anyway thinks of me in the way you write about me,
in a way no one has ever treated or considered me before. It isn't your heart
or my heart I'm afraid of breaking. It is that dream, yours and the one that
yours allows me to hold on to. A tiny sliver of sanity.

Already she’d spilled more to me about herself, about her feelings, about
her inner workings and thoughts in this short flurry of words than in all the
times we’d spent together combined. For the tiniest of instances of self-
recognition, I was dismayed to think I’d spent so much time pining after
someone I knew so little about. Perhaps that dream was a common one
after all, a tiny sliver of sanity. Perhaps that was the purpose all along.

I didn’t bother saying anything for awhile and neither did she. Her eyes searched mine for a faint hint of recognition but despite myself, despite the inner joy I felt at what she’d said, with the introduction of the idea that this,
all these months of infatuation had simply been a diversion for not just me
but for both of us, I questioned the authenticity of any of the feelings I
thought I’d had. Still, you don’t suffocate an infatuation as powerful as
mine was for her with a few words. Especially not when her words, if I
chose to interpret them in such a way, were actually an acknowledgement
that she too cared, that there was the thinnest hope of moving this beyond
a simple sliver of sanity.

I took another sip of courage, finally moving, flinching, and cleared my

Not that I need a definitive answer to this today, or even this month or any time in the near future but just to satisfy my curiosity, do you ever envision
a time when you would allow yourself to reveal those things about yourself
to me that you think would destroy the purity of my thoughts of you or has this illusion carried me as far as I'm ever going to be able to travel with it?

She smiled obliquely and took a larger sip of wine, large enough to finish
off the glass. How about another glass of wine while I think about that a
moment, she cooed as the tension in our nerves screamed out for a respite.

I searched for the waiter who, busy as he was, had managed to spy the emptying of the glass and was quickly on the job, bringing another two
glasses to the table obediently, ticking our drink slip and disappearing

Armed with another sip of wine, her eyes never leaving mine, her hand touched mine again.

I'm glad you don't ask that as a definitive question because if it were, I'm
afraid I would have to tell you that it has carried you as far as it can. But
neither of us really wants to believe that and so why should we concern
ourselves with killing it off before we've ever given it a chance? Are you
in that much of a hurry to get on with your life? You see, this vagabond
life you and Albert are living seems to fit so perfectly with my own.

Had you been a young man on a career path looking for a wife to settle
down and have kids with, had you been a man who knew what he wanted
and wanted to take it without waiting, had you been childish and demanding,
I'd have viewed you as an entirely different entity. But you aren't. Time
appears to be something you have plenty of and I would only ask, perhaps
beg of you your patience, your recognition that you do in fact have plenty
of time to allow this relationship to find its appropriate path rather than
pushing it along ahead of schedule out of necessity or impatience. Can we
agree on that for both our sakes? Patience?

I felt myself swelling with emotion – love, infatuation, illusion whatever it
was I might choose to call it – I felt my hands quivering with joy and
requited expectation. This was no ending, just a beginning. And yes, a
strange beginning to be sure, but clearly a beginning and a promise. I
squeezed her tiny hand as hard as I dared and kissed each knuckle on that
hand gently, feeling that joy in every one sending us both quivering.

Of course we can agree that, Anastasia. I will wait for you for as long as it takes.

Her face eased. She held her stare a moment longer before searching
out my pack of tobacco and began rolling herself a cigarette. In
that case, she said smiling, looking down and then looking back up
at me and smiling again, I'd be happy to sing with you two today.


Oh shit, I wanted to get up and dance and sing and hug and kiss every
single face around me. I was losing my mind with rapture. Not of course,
because we were going to go on stage together for the first time ever, the
three of us, but because she was here at all and not only that she was here
at all but that we’d actually held a discussion about our future together.
The future. Well, it was not a definitive future by any measure but it was
a hell of a lot more that I had to go on than I’d had a few hours before.

Without further preamble, I took her by the hand and we walked back
out into the hall to the table where Albert, Mikhail and the rest were sitting
watching the performance. We sat down in the space created by several
sliding over, hunched over the table in conference with Albert and began
discussing the songs we would perform.


With Anastasia joining us we were suddenly a trio again, her arrival was a
punctuation of our performance. It wouldn’t be about us, we whispered, but
her. Even Albert seemed a little unnaturally giddy as he slurped his beer and
explained various tactics for masking our insufficient talent with Anastasia’s
sweet voice. Our own music was of no consequence, he elaborated. We
would just tried to play as obsequiously in the background as possible.

The others were naturally quite interested in these new developments. We
all kept fairly low key about Anastasia’s talents; yes, she sang, no, she
didn’t play any instruments, yes, we’d played together before, no we hadn’t
been expecting that she’d show, no we were quite happy to have her join
us and yes, they were all going to be in for a little treat, no doubt.

We were buoyed by her arrival, naturally. Suddenly we felt like we had a
little credibility. Not credibility based upon the stories Mikhail had
dreamed up to sell us to the promoters and get us on the bill but real
credibility, a real chanteuse. And after all these months, after the false
start of that club in Amsterdam, after those hours rehearsing in Utrecht,
most all of which was now out the window it’d been so long ago, we were
finally going to see what we could do together.

When she excused herself at one point to freshen up, Albert leaned in conspiratorially. So what’s the deal then? I shrugged. No deal. I mean,
well, I dunno, she kind of implied that she’s got a few things to sort through,
the gigs for one, I dunno personal shit I guess, but that in essence, if I’m
willing to continue waiting for her, well, it might be worth my while in the
end. It isn’t much but it is, as they say, better than nothing.

Well I’ve got to hand it to you Witold, you’ve been persistent, I’ll give you that. I’d have never kept at it like you did. Not after the way she left. But what the hell, she’s here, I mean, this is great. Now we can avoid a long afternoon and evening of humiliation and embarrassment.

Eventually we were summoned to the front side of the stage and backstage
and as the act on stage was tapering off, received instructions on set up; the
sound check was going to be as brief as possible, they were running a little
behind on time, Mikhail, who had come along as a translator, explained to
us. And then, just like that, the band on stage was off.

We ordered a quick shot of slivovice for bravado and good luck when suddenly the canned music faded and someone got on the PA to announce,
the infamously awkward, Damy a panove, Stalin’s Mother.

Muffled, half-hearted applause but for our group, towards the back.

Albert stood there holding his bass, leaning backwards as though
that bear of a bass would knock him over from the weight and the
dozen beers that proceeded him.

I held the sax in front of me, too much adrenaline flowing through me to
stand very steadily, gathered a deep breath and staring at a fixed point above
the heads of the crowd because I was terrified suddenly, gasping for air.

But then Anastasia stepped out there with the dusty spotlight in front of
her and she had her back to me: so when she began to sing, her voice a slow
and tenuous caress, bouncing back from the walls of the hall past her and to
Albert and I as she began the opening lines of a morose, pained version of My
Funny Valentine.

It wasn't hard to follow at all.

I'd hit a low note every ten seconds or so, Albert plucked here and there
when it seemed appropriate and before we knew it the place had fallen
absolutely silent.

The crowd, every face I could discern from my vantage point, bartenders
and waiters and kitchen help and doormen all stood there, transfixed by
Anastasia's voice. I wouldn’t have described it as being something more
beautiful than they’d ever heard but you have to understand, the majority
of the afternoon had been filled with mostly booming male voices, hoarse
blues and very little jazz. Especially jazz sung by a diminutive woman with
a powerful song which seemed larger than her own lung capacity, her own
body could have produced.

All those times we’d rehearsed back in Utrecht, what we could remember anyway, gradually began to filter back in because you don’t forget things
like that - Albert and I didn’t anyway because we’d had really pretty much nothing to compare it to or replace it with in the interim.

But whatever we’d rehearsed, as we’d always played only for ourselves in
that flat, had been rehearsed without an audience so there was no way of
knowing what to expect. Yes, she’s sung hundreds of times for audiences
and knew precisely what she was doing, how she was doing it, how she
would draw them in and exhale them back out gently into their seats, how
goose bumps would appear on their flesh. She knew the reactions and was
prepared for them. She knew how good she was in essence, what she
expected from herself and what she expected from her audience and knew
from the very start, even with the two of us clanging around in the
background, this was going to be her audience and she was going to make
sure they remembered that.

And even though I thought I was concentrating on playing, in essence, even
as I played ever so gently, I was listening to her like one of the audience
myself and I was also noticing how silent and motionless the audience had

I’d never seen an audience transfixed by anything Albert and I had ever
done together. At best we were background noise with the risk of becoming
annoying. But that was just the two of us. With Anastasia on stage, we were transformed. And out there, into that blackness the stage lights were
blinding us from, there was no fumbling with glasses and silverware, no more
idle conversations breaking ice over and over, no more bottles opening or
glasses slid across the wooden bar counter. Just Anastasia's voice, like lying
down on your back in the grass, closing your eyes to the moonlight.

When she was finished she just stood there as though waiting for us to start
the next song. But before we'd even considered what next, the crowd had
suddenly woken themselves, hooting and whistling, shouting, holding up their
drinks. She brought the mic stand over in front of me.

Your turn. she announced, turning on her heel and taking a seat off
to side of the stage.

"Giant Steps" gets its name from the fact that "the bass line is kind of a
loping one. It goes from minor thirds to fourths, kind of a lop-sided pattern
in contrast to moving strictly in fourths or in half-steps."
-John Coltrane

Needless to say we were fairly feted once we left the stage after surviving
five songs. To wild acclaim, Anastasia returned from the wings of the
stage after the weirdly syncopated abstract jazz piece, No Place Like
Home, Albert and I performed alone, which was commenced under the
premise of Dorothy tapping her heels together three times and rather than
making it home, finding herself over and over again in the same place.

We rolled through three more numbers after that; a boisterous cover of
Mack the Knife, a howling, burning version of Wild is the Wind and then
another abstract piece that Anastasia surprised us both by when, with a
shrug and a shy smile she began a slow recitation in French of random Edith Piaf lyrics.

By the time we were finished the crowd was enamoured. Not with us,
of course, but with Anastasia.

We rejoined our table to fascination. Mikhail, the only one out of
everybody who’d ever heard Albert and I together, was particularly
astounded. Everyone was taken by Anastasia, as if her voice had cast a
spell over them. But by then it wasn’t only her voice that captivated. By
the time we’d returned to our table it was her mere presence, as though the table was occupied by some sort of royalty once she sat down at it.

She was impeccably modest. She never once mentioned to any of them that she had broken a date on her tour to come and join us, perhaps out of nothing more than pity. She didn’t hint at having to leave again shortly for Krakow
or point out that her performances normally required paid admission. Yes,
she accepted the accolades gratefully but throughout there was a deference
to Albert and I, as though it was only through us that she was transformed
rather than the other way around. Only Albert and I and perhaps Mikhail
knew it was a load of bullocks but we allowed the audience to believe whatever they wanted to believe both with and without Anastasia’s
assistance. Praise for our music had been a long time coming and
irrespective of whether or not it was merited, we decided to revel in it.

As long as politely possible, she maintained her demeanour as one of the group but eventually other realities involved in the situation became unavoidable. As another round of celebratory beers appeared she leaned in
to me and whispered, I hate to be killing this wonderful moment Witold but
I really can’t stay here much longer. I’ve got to sort out my things, make arrangements for my train. As it is, I’ve got a good 10 hour or so journey ahead of me and I’m due on stage in Krakow at 9 tomorrow night which means I really should leave tonight rather than tomorrow morning.

Listen, I’ll come with you, I began….

I’m sorry Witold, not this time, not yet anyway. You’re going to want to spend time here enjoying this, being with your friends. There’s no need to disturb you. As I said before, I’ve come here to see you. We’ve had a little discussion, we’ll have another as soon as time allows. I’ve sung with you
and Albert, maybe even made up for running out on you two before. Aren’t you happy?

My guts churned. Of course I’m happy, I began, wanting to describe the deliciousness of a moment that I knew was destined to leave me with painful indigestion afterwards. And of course I understand you’ve got to go in
order to make to Krakow with enough time to relax before your show but
well, aren’t you going through Prague anyway? I mean, I could….

She put her finger to my lips, leaning over and gently kissing the side of my face.

Yes, you could and some day, you will. Some day I’m sure you’ll see
enough of me you’ll be sick of me. But for now, just let me go, freely. I
need time to think about everything as well, Witold. This isn’t just a
simple matter for me. There are a lot of effects to consider. Can we
follow this idea, this agreement? Patience?

Reluctantly, yes. I nodded like a rebuked child. I guess you’re right. I
guess you’ve got more involved in all this to think about than I do. I
know how I feel, you know how I feel, it’s just a matter of….

Time, she finished for me, smiling. I nodded, taking a deep sip of beer,
not even hearing the band that was playing.

So listen Witold, I don’t want to make a long process of goodbyes with everyone. Will you do me a favour? Just say my goodbyes for me, explain I’ve got to be in Krakow in the afternoon and I’ll just slip off out of here,

What about me? Will I have a good bye?

There’s no need for one, Witold. I will be in touch with you soon, very shortly. Just give me a few days. I think after Warsaw and a few other
Polish cities, I’m due to be back in Budapest so, well, I’ll make certain that
I go via Prague and we can see each other again, talk some more. Ok?

So long as you know that I’m agreeing to this under duress, protest, yes, ok,
I understand. Go on your way, flutter away little butterfly, disappear into
the void of the night as suddenly as you appeared…

And within minutes, I was sitting there, trying to focus on the band, the
only one knowing she wasn’t coming back, my head already a little fogged
by drink and the experience in general, unfocused and believing perhaps it
had all been a simple process of the imagination while everyone else was focused on enjoying themselves, the music, the mood, the shared
friendship and fun. Her presence, once retracted, had that effect on me,
making me acutely aware of how alone I really was.

Even I could tell by then it wasn’t healthy, that placing myself in the
hands of the whim of a woman like Anastasia was a recipe for pain, a
clear, undulated certainty that I had already placed myself in harm’s way
by allowing myself to feel such extremes in the first place.


The following day, with the festival concluded and wanting to leave Mikhail and his wife to revel in their rare reunion in privacy, Albert and I packed up our musical kits and announced we were heading back on the train to Prague.

This time, left to ourselves, we stared out at the passing through the window, silent for long periods of time. We hadn’t spoken much since the
performance primarily due to getting carried away in our celebrations and
the night generally being a bit of a fog. Or perhaps neither of wanted to
spoil the memory by speaking about it, as though in doing so, the reality
that it hadn’t really happened would overwhelm us.

So was that true, what you told the others about Anastasia, Albert asked, smoking absently, a real sight with his hung over visage and dishevelled appearance in the window seat and the double bass propped in the seat beside him. Did she really have a gig to go off to or was she blowing you off?

Yeah, she’s really got a gig in Krakow. At least well, yeah. She’s really
got a gig in Krakow. As far as I know anyway.

And how long is the gig for?

One night I think, maybe two. A few more gigs somewhere in Poland and then at some point, down to Budapest.

And what happens then? Albert was a patient little digger, putting the cigarette to his mouth, thinking a moment, exhaling and asking another question. A subtle, smoking inquisition, or so I might have imagined in
my hypersensitive state on the subject.

I dunno.

He let me sit there in peace awhile, a new tactic. Eventually, after I began to become somewhat fidgety with information, I continued:

Apparently, I began reluctantly, a hint of exasperation escaping into my
voice as the conductor checked our tickets and looked us over, she’s interested, I suppose you’d say, for lack of a better description. Albert’s eyebrows raised.

Interested? In what, you? In singing with us?

I dunno Albert, I said, increasingly cranky. In me, I think. It’s on hold, I dunno, we’ll see, ok? I don’t know. What difference does it make, it’s
not like we’ve got a summer of festivals and gigs lined up, is it? If she
sings with us once in a while, great, we might have a little credibility but
if not, fuck it, we’re moving along anyway.

Albert hacked into his hand then stood up, pushed down the window and spat out it. The prelude to another coughing spasm.

Well you have to admit Witold, if she’s singing with us, it makes a helluva difference. I mean, sure, we can get the odd gig here and there and continue fucking around as we have been indefinitely. But if she’s singing with us regularly well, that changes everything of course, I mean she’s on tour for crissakes. Obviously if she’s singing with the pair of us, we’re going to have
a lot more success than we’ve got a chance for with just the pair of us. But
to ease your mind, Witold, no, I’m not that concerned about our gigging schedule. We’ve fucked around this long it doesn’t really matter, obviously.
I was asking more about her and you, you know? Anything happening there
or am I going to be rooming with somebody on suicide watch for the next
few months?

He laughed to illustrate he was taking the piss and the laugh turned into a minor little red-faced coughing spasm.

I waited this out patiently.

Hey, I’ve got a carton of free cigarettes for you here….

Fuck off.


We sat silently through several small villages, stopping at each, waiting for
the one or two people who boarded or got off and then went on our way
again. We both stared idly out the window.

Do you ever miss being back home? I asked suddenly, as the question had been nagging at me since the festival, listening to all those people making
the same envious remarks over and over again about New York and about America.

He reluctantly removed his line of sight from an undistinguished point out
the window in the distance, deep in thought or simply, head buzzing,
flittering from one random thought to another, and turned to look at me, a
vague look of distaste or incomprehension in his eyes.

Finally, after staring me down a moment to try and discern if I was serious,
he shrugged and shook another cigarette from the pack.

Not particularly. I miss my flat, my books, my cds. I miss that certain
comfort and familiarity of having all my shit in one place rather than in two
or carting it around from one place to another. But do I miss the city generally? No. It was always filled with too many people with too many personal agendas as far as I’m concerned. You know me. I can’t stand
those fuckers. And people forget, in their romanticisations of what you
might consider to be “home”, the daily realities; the stench, the crowded
subways, the queues, the phoniness and predictability of so much of it…
I find it more interesting here but only because of the novelty. If I lived
here for a year or two I’m sure these fuckers would start getting on my
nerves as well. Sure, they like drinking beer and having a good time but
there aren’t many people I spend time with that I want to spend MORE
time with, if you see what I’m saying. Why?

It’s just that I feel like I’m supposed to miss it more than I do. Like it’s some fantastic experience that shouldn’t be missed. But it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like a place I lived. Just like I feel like I’m supposed to miss my father or my mother more than I do, that the implication of not missing these places, these people, these memories, is that I’m somehow not sufficiently human, that my emotions are weak and underdeveloped.

Albert watched me through narrowed eyes, perhaps trying to calculate how soft I had grown since Anastasia’s sudden appearance before taking a deep
hit from his cigarette and exhaling the smoke into a haze in front of me as
he spoke.

You’re sufficiently human Witold, believe me. You’re just not a masochist. Or you’re not sufficiently masochistic to suit the others who think that you can’t do one thing without missing the other. You’re a realist, Witold. Like me. Your father and mother, wherever they are, are gone. They’ve never returned and they never will. You know that and logically you figure why bother worrying about it. Yeah, you could mope around more, act as if the suffering were more tragic, if only to appease the moral sensitivities of the herd. But I like to think that like me, you see the futility in all of it. You aren’t in New York, by choice, I might add, so why would you miss it? If
you missed it, you would go back. You aren’t being forced here. Listen,
people like to think about places where they aren’t. It’s their natural
disinclination to happiness. Deep down, they want to be miserable because
it makes them feel more alive than being happy, so they invent this shit to compensate for it. They like to plan for futures or live in their pasts instead
of living in the present. Just because you and I reject the future and aren’t
satisfied wallowing in the past doesn’t make you or I any less human.

I nodded, silent.

So when the fuck are you going to tell me what Anastasia said? Is that what this is all about, this sudden awareness of your lack of sensitivity to your past? Did she say something to you about it?

No, she didn’t say anything about that. She gave me hope that I’m not pining away for her for nothing. She confirmed her feelings. Sort of. But it’s complicated.

Albert laughed smugly to himself.

Complicated? The only thing that’s complicated is how she’s managed to string you along for so long without giving you much in return, Witold. Unless you count running out on you and the gig back in Utrecht some sort
of cosmic love sign.

Look, I said, somewhat heatedly, defensive. She cancelled a gig to come
up and see me, to see us, to sing with us, to fucking help us out, throw us a
bone, ok? We’d have floundered miserably if it weren’t for her, you know
that as well as I do. So don’t go getting all preachy on me. She isn’t
stringing me along. It’s a little more complex than a suck and fuck with a
whore for thirty minutes, ok?

Stung perhaps by my outburst, Albert turned back to staring out the window the rest of the trip.


Back in Prague, I tried to occupy my mind with as much non-Anastasia thoughts as possible. It wan’t easy you know. I went to the school, taught
my class, smoked my cigarettes, drank beer during lunch, chatted with
students and faculty about anything they wanted to chat about to distract me,
and then walked back to the flat rather than take the tram simply because the movement, walking, allowed me to wallow in the fantasies of an alternative world, somewhere where Anastasia and I were already together. Where we would share meals and films and lie in bed together.

By the time I reached the flat, I’d coached myself thoroughly. Throughout the
walk home I would straddle a fine line between fantasising about whatever
possible future would be imaginable and telling myself like a DJ trance 4/4 time signature beat to be ever reminded that the likelihood was slim, best to put it out of mind. And so the walk home became a sort of Dzogchen meditation exercise loop wherein I thought about a future yet simultaneously ignored the possibility of a future at all, of a postcard or of an Anastasia
sitting atop her suitcase in front of that run down old Communist building
our flat was in.

And then of course, inevitably, I would reach the flat and the anxiety would begin anew. Would there be a postcard waiting for me? Would she be there, waiting for me when I arrived? Every day I laboured through this ritual as I either climbed the three flights of stairs to the flat or simply road the lift up and every day, I opened the door, walked into the flat and there was Albert sitting there in his cloud of cigarette smoke, music on, eyes closed, silently sipping his beer. His eyes would open on my arrival, if he wasn’t wearing
his headphones and entirely unaware of the world around him, and he’d
simply shake his head no, knowing all along what my first question would be.

Anxiety could distill into disappointment and further still into anger. I could wage this degeneration within me progressing with each day that passed without a word, without a visit, without hell, without anything. In time it
was as though she’d never appeared at the festival to begin with, as though
we hadn’t had any stunted conversation about our future, as if she hadn’t
said she would stop in Prague on her way to Budapest.

When the adrenaline of anger inevitably burned off; the process would take a few different forms, all of which inevitably involved drinking, sometimes
with Albert, sometimes just going off on my own for a further walk to some anonymous neighbouring pub where I would sit silently, namelessly and
brood, complacent in my ignorance of the language so that nothing that
anyone said around me could possibly be a distraction, the anger would
slowly fade into a kind of abject misery, a sense of doom, worthlessness.

You see, I wasn’t very accustomed to this kind of emotional rollercoaster
and it was quite unnerving. All my life to that point seemed to have been spent balancing the edge on an even keel, never letting myself get too high
or too low. Sure, alcohol would bring me there - insane highs in some ways,
euphoric stupidity of incalculable heights. But the lows, well, they were
physical and could be managed by a series of caffeine-based remedies and
aspirin or at the very least, more sleep.

But having opened this Pandora’s box, the creaking hinges of the heart,
having turned my head and looked away when feelings were clandestinely
sneaking past the guards in the dark of the night ready to perform some
incalculable sabotage, I was unprepared for the ramifications of the down, the misery, uselessness, panic and doom that accompanied the slow realisation that perhaps even though my heart had been opened, it wasn’t necessarily going to be filled with happy, mindless pop melodies and little song birds chirping like sentinels, the arrival of Spring.

No, too late I realised that it was equally possible, hell, probable, that opening it was only going to expose it to lies, misperceptions, all the black, cancerous bile of the world would come wafting in like a radioactive breeze and by then of course, too late to close it back up, the toxicity sealed, it would all simply permeate me, infect me, give me the greyish, sunken hue of the miserable bastards who had been walking anonymously around me my entire life.

And so with each day that passed, the shell hardened, the gates to the heart shut tighter, yes, the toxicity was still inside, but no more was getting in. I pretended to forget all about her. But then I would wake some mornings
and I would be greeted by a ball of pain wrapped around my stomach. That
too would pass, inure me for the day ahead when I would stand in front of
students and talk, almost unaware of my words, when I would make small
talk with the staff over bitter coffee heavily laden with sugar, talking about
the weather or politics or listening to some cow-bored story about some triviality in someone else’s life with feigned interest because outwardly, I
was normal, I was fine, I was well-adjusted and happy. Inside, that didn’t matter, no one else could see it and I wasn’t about to show it off like an
amputee on a street corner begging for spare change.

As a sort of punishment, I suppose, I stopped writing to her altogether. Yes,
I told myself the idea of punishing her for not communicating with me, for
not coming to visit or at least letting me know what was happening was
absurd. I was hurt and wanted to hurt back but all that was bullshit, I would
realise sitting in one of those smoke-filled working class pivnices peopled
with old men playing cards, that I wasn’t punishing her at all. It was a joke.
If she cared at all, she’d have contacted me thus, she didn’t care. And if she
didn’t care then certainly my not writing to her wasn’t going to make a
difference. If anything, she’d be relieved.

No, it was clear, I wasn’t trying to punish her, this was some sort of clarion, a call, muted as it were, to her. I suppose in the back of my delusional mind I thought if I stopped writing those letters to her every day she’d realise perhaps that she’d forgotten about me or perhaps that she’d been wrong from the beginning to ignore me. It was as though by not writing, I could conjure her image to my side all the quicker.

So I had a lot of free time on my hands in the absence of writing all those letters to Anastasia. I’d never realised exactly how much time I’d spent every day writing those letters, as though spending time sitting with her or walking hand in hand, a luxury. Suddenly I had all the time in the world. Suddenly time was like some multiplying, mutating disease whose cells I couldn’t kill off fast enough.

There were times of course when in lieu of simply drinking, Albert and I would actually rehearse whilst drinking. We tried a variety of methods
toward self-discipline, rehearsing when we’d say we were going to rehearse
and we’d get started and invariably, some irritated bastard would bang on the
wall or the ceiling and we’d be left with nothing but going off to the Shot Out
Eye or whatever neighbouring pub struck our fancy on the way to the Shot
Out Eye.

It didn’t really occur to us to find a studio to rehearse in. No, that was for proper musicians, which we didn’t consider ourselves of course, simply blighted, staggering musicians who occasionally hit an interesting note.

So instead, we drank. We drank talking about music. We drank discussing specific song theories, conceptual albums, tonal variations. We talked about what so and so did in such and such album and what cafés or pubs we could
try and get gigs in. There was no end to our beery conversations about the
kind of music we were going to play, the heights we could reach…all a
prolonged dry heave of inactivity, accomplishing nothing but the daily ritual
of drinking and finding something to talk about while we did so that
appealed to us.

As often happened, primarily because when we’d be drinking and talking
we’d be getting louder and louder, more and more full of ourselves and our potentials, more and more certain of our celebrity, even if it was entirely within our own heads, that someone would come around to our table,
someone who spoke English, enough to have understood us, and we would
then be properly engaged.

On one particular afternoon as we stumbled from pub to pub, far too easy
to do in our neighbourhood, a guy named Andrzej came around. We’d seen
him around before in the Shot Out Eye, a gypsy with a charming demeanour,
a fellow drunk who was always smiling, always swinging his arms around
you and nuzzling his face in close to you conspiratorially.

Most Czechs we met were virulent about the Roma, as they called them, the
gypsies, looked down at them as lower than pigs, vermin, yet in the Shot Out
Eye, Andrzej was somewhat of a local fixture and even as some of his friends
or children joined us with him at our table that afternoon asking us if we
wanted to buy cigarettes or lighters or cheap booze, we didn’t mind; an
adoptable, charming group of petty thieves, we giggled, understanding
nothing of the pidgin English they were speaking and just trying to make
sure nothing was stolen whilst we drank. As it turned out, in our wandering, we happened to have stumbled into his local.

You music, no? You music? Andrzej was slobbering drunk, perhaps more than usual that afternoon, poking us, prodding us, tugging at our shirts and all the while these kids banging on in our ears, Mister, mister, mister!

Albert lit up a cigarette and sat back, gently pushing away the hands poking at him but clearly growing irritated. Yes, we play music, he shouted about the din. What music? Andrzej shouted back. Bass, saxophone, jazz.
For some reason, this was far too complex for anyone to grasp. Too many
words or too much booze, the mood was insane. Andrzej .poked at us
tomorrow. Zitra, he shouted, pointing his finger up at the ceiling, down at
the floor, poking us in the chest to make sure he had our attention. Yes,
tomorrow, we recited dutifully, what? Music, music! You music! Come!

After we’d left, strolling in the cold streets heading for home for more booze or perhaps for some food, we still hadn’t decided, we were still trying to decipher what it was Andrzej was trying to get across. We should play or someone else was playing? Who the fuck knows, Albert muttered, sticking
the key in the door. But who cares, these people aren’t going to care. Let’s
just bring our shit there and play. And if they don’t kick us out, we’ve got ourselves a rehearsal space.

And from there it grew.

Well, imperceptively really.

We started off the following day, up at around noon, a breakfast of instant coffee and a few bread rolls left over from the day before, a half dozen
smokes and we were off, Albert, his porkpie hat turned down at an angle
so that you couldn’t see into his bloodshot eyes, lugging his bass with his
usual lack of dexterity and gruesome effort, cursing and mumbling as we
walked to the tram stop and me with the sax tucked in the little gig bag,
nimble, almost dainty by comparison, a rolled cigarette hanging off my lip.

And then the usual commotion and jostle as Albert lugged the bass on board
the tram ignoring the dirty looks of passengers who all were screaming silently
in their heads about fucking tourists and the inconsideration of others
meanwhile ignoring lifelong penchants of their own, historically, for
looking out for themselves and screwing others over at every opportunity.

It wasn’t until we were on the tram and moving that we began to consider whether or not we even remembered where Andrzej’s little local was even situated. My concentration, with head still in a thick soup worthy of any respectable grandmother’s kitchen, were frequently interrupted by outbursts
of protests whenever a potential route was suggested, (fuck no, that’s too
fucking far to lug this fucking thing from Albert, for example,) stares from
flabbergasted onlookers who didn’t need to speak a word of English to
grasp the sentiment of the outburst, until finally, we discovered ourselves
just a short, walkable distance away from the locale that looked vaguely

Naturally when we arrived in our bustle, although there were several people there already in various states of intoxication, not unlike a typical attendance in one of the local non-stop bars, Andrzej was nowhere to be found. We had nothing to lose although Albert and his struggles with the bass would have begged to differ, the journey alone required at least two or three beers reward before the heart beat would begin to settle down, a few more cigarettes to calm
the nerves and remarkably, reduce the blood pressure. So we just set our instruments down beside our corner table without a word and waited for the barman to slide over and start bringing the beers.

The ritual of course, was firmly ingrained into our DNA by now. I remarked, with some wonder, how far we’d come since that first day since arrival, our tentative steps in Prague, even that first pub, having no idea how to order,
how the beer would taste, how cheap it would be and how incessantly and
speedily it was served. Albert made some comment about how remarkable
it was to still be alive at this stage, several months into what he coined a “hedonistic freefall”.

And before we knew it, sure enough Andrzej showed up, remembering virtually nothing of our conversation, if in fact it had been a conversation at all. Drunken shouting or even drunken mumbling, in a language you know only a small handful of words in to begin with is difficult to remember.
Throw in years of alcohol abuse, diminishing brain cells and the general
neurological decay that sets in and it was no surprise not only that he didn’t
remember us, didn’t remember speaking to us, didn’t even see us those first
fifteen minutes or so he engaged himself with catching up with his mates in
large swallows.

But then after some time, as his distraction and boredom set in, his gaze
turned to us and as we watched with amusement, a little light seemed to
click on, his eyes brightened with the discovery of a piece to the puzzle and
he immediately made his way over to us, slobbering over us reeking of
halusky and garlic, body odours nearly overwhelming, overpowering even
the smell of stale alcohol and cigarette smoke.

Music, music, he greeted, sitting down at our table, slapping our backs and pointing to our instruments like a chimp encouraged by its first sign language mannerisms rewarded with a treat. We smiled back at him, as enthusiastically as possible. We play? I asked, reducing my own English to its most basic form to assist while trying to determine the limits of his capacity to conjugate the verb itself. We play? I asked again, motioning to our instruments.

And again, that glorious light of recognition flashed in his eyes. Yes, yes! And then he shouted unintelligibly to the barman, the barman shouted something equally unintelligible back and, there you have it. Andrzej
grinned, head bowed, one hand on Albert’s back, one hand on mine.
Music! He suddenly shouted, standing up and clapping his hands together.

Oddly enough, as it turned out, once we got all set up and got going, the interest of the neighbourhood had been alerted and we’d accumulated what was probably our biggest audience other than the festival since we’d arrived.
Andrzej was not only enthusiastic to our playing but had taken to banging on the table beside us as a sort of percussion accompaniment, banging away first with his hands only and then as time went on, with a pair of halved broom sticks. People all around us shouted and clapped rhythmically, encouraging us to play faster, encouraging with their hands a certain beat until we reached the syncopation they were craving and proper Roma dancing to quick
melodies which we struggled at first to imitate, began in earnest.

We went on like this for hours. All around us people were drinking wine, clapping, stamping, snapping their fingers to a beat they wanted us to imitate, frequently interrupting us to instruct and then standing back as we attempted
to imitate either joyous with our success, or grim-faced with our failure,
coming back to us again, teaching us the beat they craved and wanted to

Can you fucking believe this, Albert grinned, slurping a beer, sweating profusely but for the first time I could really remember, genuinely happy
and excited.

After several hours we were exhausted. We begged off any further playing and made motions like yawning, putting our hands together and bending our heads downwards just over those hands to mime sleeping. It was still only
late afternoon but the exertion and the beer had taken its toll.

We weren’t paid of course. We’d been playing for their amusement but it
was just as much of benefit to us as to them if not more so. We certainly
didn’t care. House band or rehearsal studio, it was all the same to us if we
had the space to play and practice. So, as we paid up our bill, we gestured
to Andrzej before leaving. Zitra, tomorrow, we asked gesturing to our
instruments. Yes yes yes! He shouted enthusiastically, pounding us on the
back and shouting out to the others who approached us one by one, the
males all in various states of heavy intoxication, embracing us, tapping us
on our back or shoulders, all mumbling incoherent words to us and only
half listening to our replies in English, our smiles sufficient, everyone
drunk and happy and more to come the following day.

This went on for several weeks. We were getting quite adept at the Roma music, especially the ballads which they hummed to us at first, awaiting
our imitations and then, as we neared approximation successfully, and then sang out loud, to the others, ballads whose words we could not understand
but for which we laboured with our instruments intent of doing those
unintelligible words justice.

For those several weeks Prague had finally become our little piece of heaven.

CHAPTER TWENTY: Different city, different street

“Three days was the morning
Three lovers in three ways
We knew when she landed
Three days she’d stay
I’m a proud man anyways
Covered now by three days.“

Jane’s Addiction, Three Days

When you travel enough, spinning through a vortex of languages which
have secretly imbedded their meanings into your subconscious there are
times when you awake with a start in complete confusion about what
it is you're waking from.

I walked to a window overlooking a street viewed through a prism of
rain, half-lit by street lamps, watching a man attempting to walk
with a speedy nonchalance, newspaper folded over the top of his
head, one arm up to hold the newspaper in place, the other swinging
back and forth in desperate propulsion.

And only this morning I'd freed an insect of some sort from a
spider's web just under the bathroom sink wondering if I was doing
the humane thing by rescuing it from its struggles and the slow,
inevitable end to its existence or if I'd only been interfering like
the spider's little nosey neighbour, jobbing up the mechanisms of
nature and the balance of the insect world.

I watched the man and his rain-spattered arm swinging until he was
gradually swallowed back up into the night further down the street.

Three days I'd been in this hotel in Bratislava on the mere rumour
that Anastasia had been headed this way.

And don't think for a minute I didn't have to hear an earful from Albert –
the old, haven't you learned your lesson yet speech he brought out every
time one of her postcards arrived. She probably doesn't even send them
herself, he'd mused back in our grim and smoky flat on Husitská.

Certain enough, I wouldn't find her sitting in this hotel room with its drab
curtains and filthy carpets. Three days I'd been here already and having
left only once since I'd arrived, gathering the strength to face her again,
chain-smoking and staring at stains in the wallpaper, I had a good idea
the courage was never going to come from anywhere other than a half
dozen pints in the nearest pub. Then again, that wouldn't have been
courage, that'd have been drunken bravado, devil-may-care, feigned
nonchalance as in oh, fancy running into you here in Bratislava,

There wasn’t any postcard. I dutifully informed Albert. Of course, he knew
this already. The postcards had come sporadically from different towns and
cities after our meeting at the festival, little clues and cryptic messages first
from Polish towns and then from cities in Scandinavia, a sudden unplanned
leg of a tour I hadn‘t heard anything about; Helsinki, Stockholm, Gothenburg,
Olso, Copenhagen, fuck, everywhere, even smaller cities I’d never heard of.

The postcards that filtered in did little really to explain although their mere existence made it clear what was going on - change in plans of the tour, a
new opportunity, expanded horizons. Usually only a few words or a simple sentence or two in her tight script along the lines of very busy, or hectic schedule or don’t even have time to sightsee.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the postcards. They gave me some sort of vague hope, justifiably or not. I began to feel guilty for having stopped
writing to her in the first place and imagined that when she finally made it
back to her flat in Paris she would be disappointed to find out there was no
bundle of letters from me waiting for her. I couldn’t get that image of
disappointing her out of my mind, thinking of her arriving at that little
flat, exhausted from travelling but buoyed by the thought of my letters
waiting for her and then, opening the door, not finding the usual piles
of my correspondence on the floor, slipped through the mail slot, finding
nothing but bills and junk mail instead, that look of disappointment in her
eyes at that precise moment of realisation was what I imagined most so in
the end, once we’d started having these little gigs every day with the gypsies, I started writing to her again just to get that image of
disappointment in her face out of my mind.

But the postcards in essence, meant nothing. I wasn’t with her. Yes, she was thinking about me, great. But the touring went on forever, even well after she said it was going to, impeding us from dealing with the issue of a relationship other than this long distance, nearly wordlessly unfounded dedication.

I suppose it’s natural, to want more. Even if the wanting made me feel more like a cliché than I wanted to. But the fact remained that we were apart, we were going to be apart for the foreseeable future and perhaps I had to consider getting on with my own life, this gypsy jazz, this daily run through the intoxication training ground, this day to day effort to forget.

So it was rather suddenly and unexpectedly that I’d discovered the resolve
to head uninvited to Bratislava. Albert had long ago embraced his pet
theory that it was all a colossal mind fuck of some kind, some sort of
sadistic little game wherein she'd conspired with others, people perhaps
who she knew would be going through that village or town who could
write out these little postcards on her behalf, just to keep the game going.

It might have been a sound theory but for the fact that it was certainly her handwriting on those postcards and how does one after all, buy a tourist
postcard from a village or town, write a message on it and post it all
without ever having been there in the first place?

So that's the way it had gone for weeks, getting these postcards, getting
jerked back into thinking about her, thinking about the absence of her,
thinking about all the things I imagined we could be.


I got off the train with a burst of energy but after the first few hours turned
up nothing the energy wore away and slowly it sank in that the chance
had been missed again. How could I be expected to stay one step ahead of
her, to know instinctively where she would pop up next?

For a little while I thought I could detect a pattern in the postcards, or perhaps it was merely delusional. Sill, I had to try.

Did the names of the villages and towns fall in alphabetical order, some
geographic sequence, some cleverly disguised yet still breakable code? Not
in any of the instances. After Scandinavia, one week it was Hungary, another
it was Austria. The following month Slovenia,, and after that, Poland again. Amazing, all this touring and yet one of the greatest pit stops on the circuit
was blatantly ignored. Didn’t she ever tour in Prague?

I was growing weary of the game, frustrated by my lack of success and then,
when I'd overheard a conversation between two Czech Dixieland jazz
buskers on the Charles Bridge one afternoon talking about the little French
girl with the beautiful voice having stopped by only a few nights before that to sing with them, I crudely demanded to know what they were talking about.

After their initial huff at my intrusion they reluctantly shared a few tidbits
with me about a little bird with a beautiful song in her voice stopping in
for a few songs on her way to the train station for Bratislava.

Surely that couldn't have been a plant. I never hung around the Charles
Bridge, rarely even crossed it, so she'd not have left this clue for me here.
No, it was certainly unintentional, coincidental, a twisting of fate I was
meant to overhear and meant to act on. This time, I would be the one to
turn up unannounced.

But the moment I got off the train in Bratislava had come the crushing
realisation that the situation was hopeless, the idea had been hare-brained.
What if it hadn't been her? Oh, certainly I grilled those two musicians on
the Charles Bridge but good for details to try and ascertain with certainty
that it was in fact her, but they didn't know her name and who knew
anyway, she might be using any name by then.

Even if it had been her, what had she been doing in Prague at all anyway?
And even if she had been in Prague, what shitty, terrible thing did it
portend for us that she’d been right there and had never even contacted
me? And then, if I’d just forget about that sour point for a minute, if she
had been going to Bratislava in the first place, who's to say she'd still be
there at all. And if even I forgot the sour point of being in Prague without
telling me, and ignored the possibility or probability that she would have
already departed to the next great city on this never-ending tour by the time
I’d arrived, where in the hell was I going to find her?

Nowhere, I thought to myself sitting on the edge of the creaking bed and rolling another cigarette. Not sat indoors never having left the hotel room paralysed by inertia or fear or the knowing futility of it all.

The only logical place to begin looking was music venues. Bars or cafes or pubs which had live music where she might be singing or might be looking
for someone to sing with. A bird with a voice like hers had to sing, after all, craved the public attention, yearned for the recognition. It never should have been hard to begin with yet in all the little music venues I'd stormed into expectantly I had yet to overturn a single worm beneath the rock, had yet, not
only to find her but to even find a trace of her having been there at all to begin

I was already missing Prague. The afternoon drinking and rehearsal sessions had become a ritual, one we looked forward to each morning when we got up,
a schedule of sorts other than the class I was teaching, around which to orbit.
Overnight almost we had become guided, energised, focused. Overnight we
suddenly felt credible.

Which of course made my inability to control myself all the sadder. Common sense should have told me there was no reason to go chasing after Anastasia. Her actions should have indicated either that she was going to forever be too
elusive or that she wasn’t really all that interested, other than the idea of
us, not the practicality, or as the case may have been, the impracticality of it. So I had no business being in Bratislava trying to hunt her down like a war

And yet there I was.

Convinced that since I was already there anyway and that she certainly wouldn’t simply show up in this hotel when she didn’t even know I was here, or for that matter, if she was even here, I headed out to explore the city, the poor man’s Prague.


Whilst walking it was impressed upon me how different a city looks when you’re alone in it. In fact, the old Doors tune, People Are Strange When You’re A Stranger kept popping up into my head, perhaps reflectively.

When you blow into cities, as Albert and I had, ready to take it on, begging to embrace it and be embraced back with every debauchery and hedonistic urge sated, the city becomes an almost anywhere place. Plus you deprive yourself of most sensory experience. Sure, you get the highs, the passion. Sure you talk up strangers you might never speak to sober. Sure, you go places you wouldn’t dream of entering when sober but the darker side to it is the
negation. Drunk, Albert and I would become almost impervious to charms.
We’d be quick to negate, quick to turn up our noses at people, at experiences,
in essence at life. Life was drinking, only the venues were changing.

I don’t know why I realised this when walking around Bratislava, evading the stout Austrian and German tourists in the market square examining trinkets and crafts with delight . The easiest guess is the most obvious, sobriety. But there was a sobriety that had to do with not drinking and the sobriety that had to do with chasing a girl around from city to city with no earthly idea why other than some weird obsession that completely contradicted, emotionally,
the entirety of my life up to that point.

Why was I constantly getting myself in this pickle anyway? I’d done so well to avoid relationships and emotional entanglements my entire life that it seemed strange that I would creep out of my shell now, that by virtue of a simple dream and a chance meeting, here I would find myself surrounded by foreigners with their own empty chattiness polluting my ears instead of back
in my flat in New York evading, always evading exactly this sort of millstone, chasing after a dream. A dream? Since when did I have dreams? I felt as though I’d left my life, someone else took it over for awhile and now that I’d stepped back into it I was only now beginning to survey the damage the stranger inhabiting my life had done.

And what were my feelings for Anastasia anyway? Love? How could I be capable of love? I haven’t given a thought to anyone but myself and maybe Albert for the entirety of my life, or at least the majority of it once my parents were out of it. So why now? What was I playing at? Was I simply bored? Looking for new experiences? And if it were such a scientific endeavour,
some clinical, detached survey to complete the missing elements of my life,
why did I feel such longing?

Ah, but predictable creature that I am, after wandering around aimlessly for hours, getting nothing sorted out but confusing myself more instead, I decided to enter a cellar pivnice and have a beer or two, sample the local goods, forget my troubles for awhile. So I descended the winding stairs to the bottom which opened up to a windowless room where sat an old man and a chess board.

The old man was studying moves. He had the pieces spread out, a book in his hand on Sicilian Defence and a beer to the side of the chess table. I noticed him first because he was first in my line of vision but as I went further I could hear Rammstein pounding; an odd juxtaposition, Rammstein and the old man practicing chess.

And as I entered further I encountered an incredibly bored looking girl with short blonde hair, pins in her lips, plaid skirt, Doc Martins plopped up on the bar top, reading a book as though impervious to the music which was quite loud and insistent.

I ordered a beer and headed over to the old man. A game of chess would be a nice distraction, even over the music. I motioned to the board. Would you like to play? He looked up from his book, certainly he hadn’t heard my words, the music was far too loud for conversation, but he must have felt my presence there. I pointed again to the table. You want to play? I nearly shouted, waiting for a sign of recognition from him, acknowledgement. Gradually, he appeared to grasp it, a look of mild delight crossed his face. He put down his book and nodded his head, motioning to take the chair opposite him. He said words to me that I couldn’t hear or even if I’d been able to hear them, no doubt I’d have not understood them anyway, a pensioner’s Slovakian. As I sat down, he removed a black pawn and a white pawn from the board, put his hands behind his back and then held them back out, like a magician, hands closed, motioning for me to pick, right hand or left hand.

Before long we were in the middle of a good struggle. He was probably a little better player than I was, or perhaps I simply made a few dumb mistakes early on, distracted by the Rammstein or the venue, or the bored girl with her feet up on the bar top or perhaps the pensioner himself. But we continued playing, I lost two games in a row before perhaps luckily gaining the third and by then of course, we were out of beer and I’d gone up and bought us another few rounds.

Each time I got more beer the girl would unravel herself from her position, setting her book down, whose title I couldn’t read, and would pour the beers without a word, without even really looking at me really. And oddly enough, when the Rammstein CD was over, instead of putting a new CD on, she simply hit replay and the entire CD was played again. And when it was over the second time, she did it again until it got to the point of being almost surreal. Between the pensioner, the chess, the Rammstein, the Slovakian girl and the emptiness of the pub, I no longer knew where I was or that I was even alive, that I wasn’t simply dreaming again, somewhere else.

After a few hours, I finally left, a little tipsy, like the pensioner, and headed back out into what was now the beginnings of night. I tried to find a place to have a quick meal and decided finally, whilst chewing over a few sausages and dark rolls at a street stand, washed down with a bottle of beer, that I would give up this nonsense, go back to Prague, back to rehearsals, back to life, forget about Anastasia as best I could, for my own sanity and health.

And when I went back into that very same cellar pub a few hours later the only thing that had changed was that the pensioner had left. The place was entirely empty although there was now a heavily muscled doorman at the entrance. Entirely empty and the very same Rammstein CD playing and the very same Slovakian girl sitting with her feet up on the bar top reading.

So of course I got the idea in my head to try and chat her up seeing as how we were the only people in the bar. After I ordered I tried to make some little comment passing as wit, about the CD, or lack of variety. She looked annoyed. She turned the music down for a moment. I’m sorry? Nothing, just I was curious why you’re listening to the same CD over and over again.

Because it’s good, she said as if explaining why the sky is blue to a small
child. And then she turned the volume back up and went to her book. I finished my pint quickly and left.

Bratislava is an ugly, unforgiving city. Perhaps I’d been spoiled by Prague
and its well-preserved grandeur but there was something miserably
industrial, bleak cold and grey, filthy, about it, as if the longer I stayed, the lower my shoulders would slump, the dirtier I would become, the more
permanent this nagging feeling would grow inside me like a cancer.

By morning, I had decided for certain that this was it. I was leaving. I
wouldn’t play the game any longer. I’d wash Anastasia from my mind
just as I’d washed my parents from my mind and go back to my life
in Prague with Albert and drinking and music.

It was just as I’d decided I’d had my fill, that this ridiculous charade should end finally, just as I was turning the corner back on to Michalska ulica,
returning from a morning stroll to go back and check out of the hotel that I spotted her at a café, reading something, not a book, not a newspaper but
what appeared to be sheaves of paper.

I closed my eyes a moment, stopping in my tracks, then reopened them
again to see her still seated. Her back was almost entirely to me, as though
she’d been facing as best she could away from me to conceal herself if I’d
been coming from this very direction but this of course, was preposterous
as she had no idea I was even in Bratislava and even if she did know it, she
certainly wouldn’t be trying to avoid me.

Yet I could not shake this nagging gloom, whether it was Bratislava or the
solitude or the circumstances.

You might think I’m crazy but at first I considered after all this to simply turn around, walking away as quickly as possible from where she was seated, some 50 metres or so from me, hop the next train back to Prague and pretend I’d never been here, never known her, had never allowed my heart to roam so far from home.

But although the terror rooted me for a moment, passers-by turning over their shoulders as they passed to glare at me, I knew the absurdity of turning away was unthinkable. I’d come this distance, I’d have to admit I’d come this distance on some half-baked scheme and simply hoped that her surprise and happiness at my having come across her would match my own.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE : Anastasia’s Interlude

“C'est merveilleux en moi la vie bourdonne
L'amour jaillit dès que je m'abandonne
Et quand il m'a soûlée
De mots et de baisers
Et qu'il sourit, c'est drole
Je mords dans son épaule
C'est un gars qu'est entré dans ma vie
C'est un gars qui m'a dit des folies
Tu es jolie, tu es jolie
Veux-tu de moi pour la vie

Edith Piaf, from C'est Un Gars

You can’t imagine how much my heart sank when I saw Witold standing there in the street. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was pretending hard that he hadn’t spotted me and poor boy, pretending he could carry off an aura of nonchalance, caught out, flat footed, spying on me. How did he even know I was here?

But his timing was terrible. Here I was with the contract in my hand, Franco waiting impatiently in his suite, right on the verge of the independence I’ve been craving ever since I’d let that pig Franco touch me for the first time.

How could Witold, stupid boy, interject himself now of all times? Why the devil was he here?

I too decided to pretend. I studied the contract, now a blur of words. Do you have any idea what I’ve gone through to get this contract? Those slimy hands of Franco, hours and hours, week after week in Franco’s company? Listening to him moan on and on about his wife, listening to his pathetic, raspy mewling for my attentions. I can’t even fathom the sacrifices I’ve gone through right now and my god, just as I’m finally nearing my goal of all of this, Witold is here. Witold is here somehow having found me.

Don’t get me wrong, I like him. I’ve grown quite attached to him and his letter writing. It’s wonderful to come home to those letters, I mean it. And he’s quite talented with his words. Sometimes, standing there in my flat reading his words I feel like melting. I feel like I could just be carried away
by his words, carried away out of all this bullshit, away from Franco, away from the road and all it’s filth and slime. All those dead, boring hours, all those moments trying to fend Franco off yet again.

I try to put Witold out of my mind. I’ve tried to do this over and over again and at first I was pretty successfully. He’s an interesting boy in some ways
yet predictable and boorish in others. I’ve got a bit of a drinking problem
of my own but Witold and his sidekick there, Albert, my god, I haven’t ever seen anything like it. They’re like animals when they’re around beer.
Original, chatty, witty all at first. And then as the beers get poured in they
digress, deeper and deeper in banalities, absurdisms, strange connections
and word play I can’t follow at all. I mean not only are they speaking English
but they’re speaking American English. It’s far too fast, far too much slang is
thrown around and sometimes, when I was in Utrecht with them, I thought I
was going to lose my mind. Really.

But whenever I manage to put Witold out of my mind, who pops in his place
but Franco. I’m really growing to hate him. And Witold is only a reminder
of how miserable I truly am.

Nearly a year now Franco has been stringing me along with these promises
about a recording deal, a touring contract, some real stability. Sure, sure,
he’s gotten me gigs, too many almost. I’ve been all over the place for months
with hardly a break. And every time I complain about the pace, suggest I
would like some time alone, away from touring, it is Franco who reminds
me with his little smirk that it is I who wanted this to begin with.

And it’s true enough. This is what I thought I wanted although I had
expected perhaps a little more glamour, less of a vagabond’s life, it was what
I’d craved, what I’d asked him for when he first crossed into my life.

But I can see right through him. I can tell he isn’t getting me these gigs
for my benefit or because he thinks I’m talented. He’s just getting them to
to make sure he has an excuse to be with me.

Oh sure, he comes on these tours with me. Nearly all of them. To his wife
he makes out like he’s some big shot record producer following a hot talent
but does he tell her that he’s sleeping with me? Of course not. Does she even know I’m a woman for that matter? Probably not. He’s probably got that poor
woman believing I’m some young male heart throb crooner he has to protect
from insidious groupies or something. Surely he hasn’t hinted that he chases me around like he’s in heat, staying on the road to have his excuse to be
with me, monitor me, make sure I don’t have a chance to meet anyone else.

Of course, I’d not want him to tell her anyway. If he did, then he’d be my headache, not hers. I mean he’s my headache enough already, suffocating me with his needs, his delicate almost feminine hands always touching me,
pawing at me while he coos promises of the moon in my ear.

And yet a year later, those promises are still unfulfilled.

I’ve done my bit. I’ve gone on these tours, I’ve sung in these horribly
indifferent nightclubs, places that are sometimes little more than strip clubs
with a brothel up the stairs. There have been some horrible places.

And worse still, I’ve had to play the role of his lover. How much more sacrifices do I have to make to get results?

Then he lets me know one night in Milano just how much sacrifice he
expects of me. He wants to leave his wife and kids behind he tells me.
As if I don’t feel bad enough already for being the mistress. Rotten to the
core for what I’m doing to his wife, whether she knows it or not. Sure, it
could be anyone, I try to convince myself to relieve my guilt. It’s not like
Franco would only cheat on his wife for me. For all I know he’s cheated on
his wife AND me. That’s the kind of man he is. But still, I’ve fought a lot
of guilt all these months, ever since I found out. Do you know Franco
wasn’t wearing a wedding band when I met him? He only puts it on when
he’s in Italy. Once he’s out, off it goes. Now he wants me to be the home
wrecker. No, I told him. Completely not. He wants to marry. Oh how he purrs, that little bastard, when he wants something, caressing my arm in the
club so the other musicians would see what a big man he was, whispering in
my ear meaningless words, love, love, love.

But I told him no. I didn’t waver at all. I mean, the mere thought of
spending a lifetime with this flagoneur, watching him grow a middle aged
belly and growing bald and become more disgusting and repetitive and
needy as the years went on. Can you imagine?

No. So that’s when I decided I needed a contract. I’d had enough. We were getting ready to start a tour of Central Europe. Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Budapest and uncountable cities in between. A reasonably steady tour.
Every venue worse than the last.

And naturally when I thought of Prague I thought of all those letters Witold had been writing me from there. I thought about how I’d become terrified in Utrecht, that innocent visit, turning into a terrible, oppressive mire of
alcohol and pointless, meandering music. That’s why I left him with a letter
in Utrecht. Really, I figured that was it. I thought I would never hear from
him again. But I was ready to take that chance. That’s how desperate I’d

One fool, this Franco character, buzzing in my ear all the time was enough.
Yes, there was some unknown quality in Witold that drew me to him. A
certain I don’t know, innocence, I suppose. He’d never been with another
girl before, can you imagine? I mean, he’d never had a girlfriend before.
So he said anyway. I don’t think I ever really believed that. I mean look
how he followed me that first evening in Paris. Stalked me. And he didn’t
even know me.

First I thought, yes, this is the action of a man who is used to chasing
women. Not a shy man incapable of even the simplest conversations to
start talking to a woman. Not a man who had never had a girlfriend before.
But then I thought well, maybe. The more he talked that night the more I
began to believe him a little. And then, in time, those days afterwards as
we both seemed to attach ourselves to each other, I became quite certain
he was telling the truth. He didn’t seem aware of the little psychological
games couples play, that people play with each other when they’re trying to
get something out of the other. He seemed almost naïve. It was charming.

So that’s why I let him stay with me in Paris. Yes, I suppose I was a little
lonely as well. Franco had difficulties at home to sort out so told me to
wait for him in Paris for three weeks while he went on a little holiday to
smooth things over. But I’d been lonely well before that. All the touring
with Franco meant his was the only company I kept. And as I said, his
company isn’t that great. I never have any meaningful conversations with
him. He doesn’t listen to anything I say. I’m a woman, why would he listen
to me? He’s too caught up in his self-important pseudo macho world to
bother listening to me. I’m just a pretty face he likes to be seen with, likes
to play with because he‘s bored with his wife or his ego needs another
boost.. Someone he might make a little money off of, promoting me. Something to distract from his miserable home life, an excuse to travel.

You name it but sincerity is not one of Franco’s strong suits. He used to be
a lawyer. Well, he still is. But apparently, he made enough money early on
to allow him to squander his time now going on the road with me. I can’t
believe his wife even lets it happen. If it were me and I were married to this
buffoon and he was gone several months out of the year to shepherd a bright
young jazz talent with a beautiful voice (don’t worry, those are his words,
not mine…) I wouldn’t believe him. Not knowing his character. For him
this is some little hobby he’s used to explore an affair, to get away from
home. Ok, yes, he says he’s an entertainment lawyer, has represented some
“big names” in Italy but there’s no real evidence of this. For a lawyer he’s
been awfully short of evidence. About everything.

Anyway, yes, I was feeling lonely when touring and even when I was home I felt alone. Usually I don’t mind being alone, I rather prefer it. But in those few weeks or perhaps even months before Witold started stalking me that night I guess I was secretly longing for precisely the sort of encounter Witold presented to me.

So it was no problem to let him stay with me, to share Paris with him, to try and keep him entertained. I tried not to lead him on too much. I didn’t sleep with him. I barely kissed him. I did like him though. It was just a little fun. Plus I knew I’d be leaving to go back and on tour and I thought, why not? Why not have a little fun, entertain this lost boy, allow myself a little fun
while I waited to go back on tour?

His dedication afterwards, all those letters waiting for me when I’d returned home during a break in the tour, my god, it was overwhelming. I couldn’t put those letters down once I started reading them. And in a funny way, reading them all, I felt even closer to him than I did when we’d been together.

That’s why I’d decided to go to Utrecht. I’d only planned on a short visit, just to try and see more, find out if the person behind all those letters, if his words, were real.

Then it started getting out of hand. I started feeling like it was almost expected that I would stay and that I sing with them. I didn’t mind singing with them, mind. They weren’t very good musically but they were weird. They played in a strange manner I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was, as they tried to explain it, experimentational. And they weren’t vain about it at all. They were easy to work with, compliant. They did anything I asked. But I suppose I should have been more straightforward about my intentions. I should have been but time slipped away and before I knew it I was scheduling a gig for them. I had no business doing that. I had to go back on tour. Sure, I could have done it the once but the more I thought about it the more I realised I was only leading them on. Yeah, it was too late but there was still time to cut it off.

And yes, writing a letter and leaving was a pretty cowardly way of going about it, I admit. I expected that was the last I’d ever hear from Witold. But then when I came back to Paris off the tour, there were the letters again. Not as though nothing had happened at all, there was of course a resentment I could read through his words but he didn’t pressurise me and after several letters he stopped referring to it at all and just kept writing about life in Prague. And again, those letters endeared me to him, made him real. Allowed me to feel as though I could trust him.

Anyway, when I thought of Prague and I thought of Witold I decided this was where I was going to make a big melodramatic scene with Franco. I’d break it off right there in Prague and tell him I wasn’t going to another city with him. I wouldn’t sing another song, I wouldn’t let him ever ever touch me again if he
didn’t get a contract for me. A real contract with a real touring schedule. In
good places, not horrible, seedy nightclubs. I’m good enough, after all. I’ve
gotten my foot in the door thanks to Franco but if I stayed with him, that was
going to be as far as I got. A foot. He was never truly interested in furthering
my career. He was interested in furthering himself. Making me his.

But that got his attention alright. Two shows missed in Krakow and one in Warsaw. Then he was listening to my every word. I can get you a contract he said, that’s certain. I can always draw up a contract. But if you cancel this tour, if you stop now right when we’re in the middle of making it, he promised, that would be it. My name would be ruined. Diva. Temperamental. Too hard to work with.

So, I gave him another month. I continued the tour and he made noises about the contract. And here we were in Bratislava now. He’d finally produced the contract. Only, get this, he said he’d worked incredibly hard to get this contract for me and if I didn’t sign it that day, he couldn’t guarantee it would still be available. Nice little trick, wasn’t it?

So there I was sitting at this café, reading through the contract and I just happen to glance up and there he is, pretending he didn’t see me. Witold. Silly boy. And all those words, all those letters, all that naïve love spilling out of him like a faucet.

Such incredibly bad timing. Why couldn’t he have just waited? No, I can’t say for sure that once this contract was signed and I could tell Franco to get lost, that I’d want him replaced by Witold. I liked Witold, yes. I was quite
fond of him as I said. Those letters were like long distance caresses. Not demanding, just steady, reassuring. And his idea of me, this romanticised notion of me, god, that was going to be too much. I would never live up to it and I knew, I just knew it, I could see it clearly, there’d be some point where reality met dream and disillusion would set in and there’d be this little wrecked man, pointing and accusing me. I know, it’s happened to me too many times before.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw him there out of the corner of my eye.
Maybe my heart did a little dance thinking he was here, trying to rescue me,
poor boy, when he’s the one who needed to be rescued. And there he was,
pretending he hadn’t seen me, trying to decide what to do next….

And all the while, I had no idea myself, what to do next.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO: If I Wasn’t Awake I’d Think I Was Dreaming
“I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.”
Pere Henri in Chocolat (2000)

I finally screwed up the courage, turned and headed straight for her.

She turned, unsurprised it seemed to me, that I was suddenly standing there in front of her.

Witold, she smiled, receiving my kisses to each cheek gracefully. Whatever
are you doing here?

I felt slightly annoyed that my unannounced arrival didn’t cause more chaos,
didn’t send her reeling as much as suddenly seeing her there at this café
table had sent me reeling. What was going on?

I dunno exactly, I answered honestly. I mean, I knew that I was here, tracking
her down with obsessiveness but for some reason I sensed she hadn’t meant
what was I doing in Bratislava, more like what were my intentions now that
I’d succeeded in tracking her down. I felt like my presence required a more
monumental confession that an admission of simple stalking, simple
obsession, couldn’t quite encompass.

I came here to see you, of course, I answered finally, taking a seat across
from her and trying to flag the waiter down for a glass of wine.

You’re not an easy woman to find sometimes, I started to explain, half- remembering a line I’d rehearsed in the hotel room several times imagining this very moment. But I figured you’d surprised me enough times, appearing unannounced and it was finally mine turn to turn the tables.

She laughed non-commitally, at what? At how pathetic I seemed as I sat
there trying to feign a nonchalance which must have been embarrassingly transparent as the waiter materialised and took my order. my hands trembling as I quickly pulled out my packet of Drum and rolled a cigarette.

I’ll be honest with you Witold, she said finally, leaning forward and putting
her hand on mine. Your timing is rather odd. These papers here in front of
me are a contract which I’ve been sitting here trying to decide whether or not
to sign for the last hour or so.

Well hell, if it’s a bad time I can just carry on, I said, feigning a motion to
stand, I’m sure I’ll be making my way to Bratislava again in the near future…

She laughed, despite herself, motioning me to stay in place.

You know what? It’s early but what the hell, I’ve had a long day already,
why don’t we just order a bottle of wine?

Of course. You know you won’t have to twist my arm but look, really, if
this is a bad time, I’ll understand…

Witold, she said, exhaling, there will never be a good time for what I have
to tell you so this is as good a time as any.

Naturally, my heart dropped at hearing this. I’d read about these types of
speeches, the I like you as a friend sort of speeches that have a way of ingraining a certain indelible finality to hope.

The waiter arrived with the wine and immediately I drained it while
Anastasia employed a rudimentary Slovakian I never realised she was
capable of to order us a bottle of Moravian wine.

So, I asked as casually as possible, trying to enjoy my final cigarette before
the execution, is this one of those good news/bad news sort of things or is
it just bad news?

She laughed again. I was batting a thousand when it came to entertaining her at least, squirming with dread.

Oh come on, Witold, I didn’t say anything about bad news. I just think
that since you’re here it’s time we had a proper conversation about
everything, about us, for example.

I didn’t say anything but exhaled a long stream of smoke, distracting myself by thinking, as I did on occasion, about what ever happened to all the cigarettes famous people had smoked in their lifetimes. I mean, I knew that
they were smoked and eventually extinguished but for some reason the idea
of Jim Morrison or Frank Sinatra or Miles Davis, for example, smoking a cigarette, fascinated me. Can you try and imagine how many fag ends old
Blue Eyes tossed away or ground into an ashtray in his lifetime?

Well, to be honest, I’m never quite sure whether there is such a thing as us, for starters. I mean yes, there’s us in Paris, there’s us in Utrecht, there’s even us at the blues festival. A nice, brief history of us in fact. I’m just never sure if us means two people, two people on their own paths with occasionally intersecting points or if us means you and I, together.

The bottle of wine arrived and we utilised the time the waiter took in presenting the bottle to us, opening the bottle and then pouring a small sample into my glass, to contemplate us. Or at least I did. After an embarrassingly
quick taste of the wine, an affirmative nod, both our glasses were filled and
more cigarettes were rolled and lit, the two of us smoking quietly while I tried
to wait patiently for her to elaborate just a little.

You see Witold, this is why you’re timing is rather funny. That is to say
I’ve been here with this contract for some time now wondering what to do
and I’ll admit, I can’t really say honestly that while I was contemplating my
future you were exactly in the forefront of those contemplations yet here you
are, like a sign of some sort.

(Of course, the revelation that I wasn’t at the forefront of her thoughts as she contemplated her future was a bit disconcerting but I satisfied myself that
at least my timing, as far as I was concerned, couldn’t have been better.)
And what does the sign mean, I asked as though I was asking her if she thought the greyish clouds floating overhead were an indication of rain.

I don’t know. This contract means for me, liberation. For months I have
been playing in these nightclubs, running from city to city with no idea where I’m heading. And worse still, I’ve been tied to the whim of my manager all this time with little or no say in the places where we went. This contract takes me from the hands of the manager to that of a record company. I would be able to record and album and then tour properly, to promote the album. It is a future of sorts.

Well that’s great, I enthused, seeing perhaps why thoughts of me would not have entered into the decision-making process. What’s to decide? It seems
that you’ll have exactly what you want.

Her face contorted with anxiety and soured as though the wine had gone bad in
one swallow.

You see, there’s a strange little caveat my manager has inserted into this contract opportunity which is in part, the part is the difficulty.

I waited patiently, sipping the wine while she struggled internally with her words.

There’s no easy way to say this, Witold, so I’ll just come right out with it I guess…She shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, tapping her cigarette into the ashtray. It means I have to tell you something, or perhaps that I should tell you something that I’m not too eager to reveal to you…

She took another deep breath. You see, I’ve been sleeping with my manager. Or perhaps more precisely, I’ve been my manger’s mistress. For months. Since before I even met you.

Well. That was a bit of a shovel to the head, as you can imagine. Sure, we
weren’t exclusive. We weren’t even a couple. We hadn’t even slept together once. And surely the thought of this possibility, maybe not with her manager, but with others, had crossed my mind oh, maybe a million times at least.

But to have her sitting before me, admitting it to me, to have to visualise the idea of her sleeping with her manager, even in the abstract, even without having any idea who this manager was or even what he looked like, it twisted my guts like they hadn’t been twisted since my parents disappeared.

I didn’t say anything. I just smoked, staring off at a fixed point in the distance.

I felt her hand on my wrist. I’m sorry, Witold. I mean, I’m not sure I have to be sorry considering us, whatever we have been, friends or something more, I still have no real idea, but even I knew it was something I probably should have at least mentioned from the beginning.

I shrugged. I haven’t had any claim to you. Yeah, I may have professed feelings for you in all those letters, I may have let myself hope there was something between us but the reality is, you’ve never told me there was. You’ve never really led me on. In fact, you’ve been quite cagey all along, maybe to your credit. Hell, I even remember when you showed up at that blues festival you didn’t say anything even then, didn’t commit to any feelings, just asked for my patience. To allow the relationship to find its appropriate path, I think you said. I should have known then maybe.

Witold, I know this confession of mine sounds terrible but it isn’t quite what you might imagine it to be. I’m not in love with him. I don’t even know how I even became his mistress to be honest with you. I think I didn’t believe I could do this, all the touring and trying to get this contract without him. Because that’s what he told me and I believed him. And before I knew it there it was, this sordid little of affair that I entered into because I thought that was the only way I could get what I wanted. I know that sounds terrible, that it makes me sound cheap or maybe even like a whore, I can’t imagine what you think of me, but I don’t love him and I certainly don’t want to marry him.

Marry him? (the confessions dropped were successfully more astounding and suddenly not only was I unsure of my ground I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be in the same city…) How do you go from a sordid little affair to a marriage proposal? My god. Ok, I didn’t appreciate the knowledge of this affair but if this guy wants to marry you for crissakes, I don’t know what to say. I’m completely out of my element.

Witold, we’re moving too fast. She took hold of my head and tried staring into my eyes but I couldn’t look at her. I looked again at a fixed point just above the waiter’s head.

Can we both just take a deep breath for a few minutes? I hadn’t planned on all this coming out like this. We’re moving too fast, please, can we just talk about something else for a few minutes, please?

My eyes widened at the farce. Talk about something else? Like what for example? The weather?

Well, what you are doing here, for example. I know you joked about coming here to see me but did you know really somehow know I was here or is this all just some big coincidence?

I stared at her for a moment in disbelief. Then I rolled another cigarette and lit it quickly, hands still shaking. I took a big swallow of wine.

Yeah, I said finally. I came here to see you. I didn‘t know for sure that you‘d be here but I happened to come across a couple of buskers on the Charles Bridge where apparently you‘d stopped off and sang for them a little while you were in Prague. So yes, I knew you were in Prague and that you didn’t bother to try and contact me while you were there but I came anyway maybe to find out why, maybe just because I wanted to see you. I’m not sure. But I guess I know why now at least.

She appeared to wince just slightly, another secret out of the bag.

Listen Witold, I’ve never lied to you, have I?

I thought about it for a minute or two, thinking about how close she’d danced near lying without having really done so. Finally I shrugged, tapping my cigarette against the side of the ashtray just for something to do. No, you haven’t ever lied to me that I’m aware of Anastasia. I suppose I could split hairs and say that while you haven’t lied to me on the one hand, you haven’t exactly been very forthcoming with the truth either. But I guess technically, no, you haven’t lied to me.

She leaned in closer, touching me on the arm. I don’t love him.

Well that’s great, I shrugged, moving from her touch. So you don’t love the guy you’re sleeping with. That’s a great comfort.

I don’t know how to explain it to you Witold. I didn’t even imagine you’d be here when I was making this decision. I didn’t even know there would be a decision to make and I certainly didn’t plan on just blurting all this out but since you are here, I didn’t see there was any other choice. I’m stuck. I’ve been demanding this contract for months, trying to get out from under him, from his control over my career and then all of the sudden he finally presents me with this contract and proposes marriage to me at the same time. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. He’s already married. All I wanted was the contract and to get away from him….it’s all so fucked up.

Predictably perhaps, I think to myself, I notice tears formulating in her eyes but I’m unmoved. I’m too aware of my own pain to be moved.

Look, I said finally, clearly this is something between you and him. It’s got nothing to do with me. Yeah, I happened to show up here but you said so yourself, you weren’t considering me in the equation anyway. So maybe it’s best if I just go on my way, as I’d planned this morning before I ran into you. Let you figure out what’s best for you.

Please, Witold, she murmured before unexpectedly moving forward and sinking into my arms, sobbing against my shoulder. I need you right now, Witold. Please, just stay here for awhile, talk to me….I’ve been trying so hard to be strong but now that you’re here I realise I can’t be any more, I need your help.

It’s true, I’m not comfortable holding a sobbing woman, no matter who she is and I’ve got zero experience doing it. But for whatever weird wrenching of my own heart I’d just experienced, I couldn’t simply walk away after all these months and forget about her. I could have done that a few months ago maybe. I’d done it all my life, but just then I realised I couldn’t any longer. It was too late.

I looked up over Anastasia and tried to catch the waiter’s eye for some assistance. What the fuck am I supposed to do, I wanted to shout to him. But his back was turned as he busied himself with polishing glasses.

Then, just as suddenly as she’d lost it, she regained her strength, momentarily anyway, and sat back down in her chair, pulling a tissue from her purse and fighting to compose herself.

I’m no expert on these matters, I began slowly, but why do you think you even need this guy to begin with? You’ve got an unbelievable voice. You should have your pick of contracts, not just one and certainly not one with strings attached.

To me, this seemed the obvious answer. Coming from a person with no talent it’s almost unfathomable that a person with talent would need any help moving their career forward. If that’s what the person wanted anyway. If there wasn’t some deeper, unspoken motivation clouding the issue from the beginning.

You’d have to know where I was before I met him, Witold. I mean yes, I complain about these gigs, these nightclubs where I perform, none of which are really top class places, but compared to what I was before I met him, before he started promising me the moon, even this is a much better place.

She lit another cigarette off of the one still burning and signalled drained the remaining wine into her glass. She looked up at me, her eyes glistening.

You don’t know me, Witold. You don’t know who I was, what kind of things
I’ve done in my life, what kind of things have happened to me, what kind of terrible, wretched things I‘m capable of. All you see is this end product which you’ve romanticised without having the facts. I could tell you things that would probably completely change what you think about me. Sleeping with a guy who wanted to be my manager, who promised me a way out of the miserable hole I was in is nothing compared to some of the other things I’ve
done with my life.

Naturally, the caused a spark in my imagination. What kind of things, I wanted to ask. Details. We’ve come this far, let’s hear the worst you have to say about yourself, I wanted to say. But instead I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even know what kind of expression I should be wearing. Interest? Disdain? Disbelief?

Look, I said finally, you’re right. I don’t know you. I don’t know these things about you, whatever they are, the things you’ve done, the lows you’ve visited.
But even I try to think, for example, that you could tell me you used to be a crack whore or what, I dunno, you killed your own child, I just can’t see how any of that information would change what I feel, what I think about you. I’m
hardly in a position to be a judge of morality. And you’re right, maybe I don’t understand why you didn’t simply just do it on your own instead of sleeping with this guy so he would do it for you, maybe you have very good reasons. I mean they must be very good reasons, I’m willing to believe that. Isn’t that enough? I don’t need to know the details. For whatever reason, I believe you when you say you thought it was the best way to go. What’s important to me is right now. You say you haven’t decided what to do, which tells me something already. As well as the fact that had I not come strolling along here and run into you, you’d be making that decision without even considering me. So it seems to me you should just carry on with figuring out which direction to take. I’m just in the way, confusing things more.

No, no, she sort of squawked, reaching out with the tissue still in her hand to keep me sitting there. That’s just the point, Witold. You ARE here. It’s not a coincidence, it’s a sign, just as I was saying. I’ve been turning everything over in my head and all the while, if I’d just thought of you, I’d have known all along what the right answer was.

The right answer? There’s no right answer. You make choices. I’m not a Ouija board. You make choices and you live with them. And if they’re not the right choices, you change them. If you don’t think you can make it without this guy then you have to decide how important it is to you that you do make it. I don’t have anything to do with that. I haven’t had anything to do with it all along. I’m just hanging on out there somewhere in the periphery. The real choices are with you. I’m only a distraction from those choices.

I considered then what the effect of another bottle of wine would be. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to hold on, to stay right there and have a say, despite what I was telling her. On the other hand, I knew I didn’t want the weight of the responsibility of my presence effecting her decision. It’s easy to hang on and maybe just as easy to let go. What’s hard is finally making the choice once and for all.

I stood up finally. You know where I‘ll be, Anastasia. Prague. All I ask is that when you decide, you at least let me know. I mean I’ll be in Prague anyway but really, after all this, I’d hate to think I’d be in Prague sitting there wasting my time thinking about something that simply isn’t going to happen.

She had composed herself by then.

She nodded silently to herself. You’re leaving Bratislava now then? I’ll understand if you are of course but you should know at least that I have to decide one way or the other today.

Again, the thought crossed my mind that if I just sat back down again, ordered another bottle of wine, if we spent the entire afternoon together talking, I could convince her that taking the contract was a bad idea. I mean she must have already considered it could be a bad idea and if I was there, if I didn’t leave her, I could almost guarantee the decision, couldn’t I?

The thing is, and believe me, I’ve thought about this millions and millions of times since, if I stayed there and tried to make certain she decided in favour of not taking the contract, maybe even in favour of being with me instead of whatever else she might chose to do as an alternative, I’d always know in the back of my mind that it was only because I’d stayed that she’d decided that way.

Have you ever overheard couples talking about chance meetings, about how if such and such hadn’t happened at just the right time, if the stars hadn’t been perfectly aligned or whatever such nonsense it is they use to convince themselves that fate played a role in the matter, that they might never have been together in the first place? I have. Many times. And I’ll be honest and tell you I think it’s all a bunch of bullshit. I mean, when I think back to when my father disappeared I could allow myself to wonder what I might have done to try and change that fact before it happened. Or if I had been a little stronger or a little more supportive for my mother when my father disappeared maybe she’d have stuck around, maybe she wouldn’t have decided to take off on her own and leave me there to figure it all out on my own. But where would that have gotten me? Stuck in the past, that’s where.

The thing is, they made their decisions, enormous decisions, one to take his life, the other to leave her son behind, completely on their own. I had no say in it.

So believe me, I thought to myself at that moment, standing there in front of Anastasia, here is your chance, finally, to have a say in it. Finally to try and stop someone from leaving your life. But it didn’t feel right anymore than it would have felt right to force either my mother or my father to stick around a few years more just because they had some responsibility to me or felt guilty. My mere existence had already altered their lives, had already taken from them a freedom, a youth they could never regain and there wasn’t a day that went by when they were around that I didn’t know that, didn’t feel that. I didn’t need that kind of guilt again.

Well maybe you can buy some more time, I said finally. It’s not a decision you want to rush into.

I kissed her gently on the cheek and headed for the train station.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE: The Insurmountable Losses
“Well I’ve lost my equilibrium and my car keys and my pride,
The tattoo parlor’s warm, and so I hustle there inside
And the grinding of the buzz saw, ‘what do you want that thing to say?‘
I says, ‘Just don’t misspell her name, buddy, she’s the one that got away.“

- Tom Waits, The One That Got Away, (Small Change, 1976)

It’s sometimes the case in a moment of surrealism that the truth finally comes to life.

I’d encountered a friendly female guide in the course of a dream, followed that dream without knowing why and found myself deranged by infatuation in its place. Had the dream been meant as an encouraging sign or simply another crossroad down another avenue of aching? On the long train home I asked myself if in fact this little chanteuse had always been a figment of my imagination, a dream that until that day, continued in a prolonged exercise of excruciating delusion.

She existed, of course and would continue to do so irrespective of whether I continued to dream about her. The pain of that infatuation had now dissolved into a comforting numbness, a return to the empty, hollow but nonetheless welcomed inability to feel.

There was always that vague possibility of course that she would turn up at my door again some day but this was nothing to count on. The decision had been to turn around again, leave, abandon her before she abandoned me. A simple exercise of self-protection. It was not a resolution but a surrender to a perceived truth far stronger than any dream. I was miserable and there was no rope to pull myself up out this hole or, if I’d chosen, to hang myself with. As the train pulled into Prague’s main station I braced myself for that emptiness to become all-encompassing.

Hello? I’m home, I announced to any empty flat.

There was no sign of Albert anywhere. No lingering smoke clouds, no loud music booming from the speakers, nothing. Dead silence. His bass was propped up in the corner and the ashtray was filled with butts but none still smouldering. I twitched around in the flat for awhile trying to figure out what to do with myself. I’d spent the train ride girding for a nice long conversation of I-told-you-so with Albert, sitting around drinking beer, discussing our next move and now that I was here and he wasn’t, I didn’t know what to do with myself.

So naturally the first thing that came to mind was the Shot Out Eye. It was the most likely place Albert would have been if he wasn’t in the flat. It was the most likely place for either of us.

When I arrived there I found the usual, familiar faces. None of them were Albert’s. I asked around, had he even been around today? No. They hadn’t seen him in a few days. That hardly seemed possible. Hardly seemed like Albert. Not unless he was on his budget in which case he’d have been home anyway.

But you see there was nothing to concern myself about, anything was possible. He might have gone on a little bender of his own somewhere with his rehearsal partner dangling himself like a pinata in Bratislava.

It did cross my mind that he’d simply left Prague altogether but he wouldn’t have left his bass. I had a beer while I mulled over the possibilities. If he was off somewhere why wouldn’t he have left a note? Why of course not, because he had no idea when I’d be back. The last time I said I was leaving for a few days I was gone two weeks in Paris so perhaps for all he knew the reunion with Anastasia had been a successful one and I’d decided to join her on the road, touring. Not that it could be reasonably extrapolated that my horn playing merited a slot in whatever band she’d be singing with on the road, even if it changed every night from one city to the next, so he probably wouldn’t have imagined that one.

I finished my beer and headed out to make the rounds, hitting each of the usual spots that Albert and I frequented and in each place, finding no Albert, having a pint and moving on again. By midnight I stumbled home, still not having found Albert and expecting he’d at least be in the flat by then with an easy explanation that had eluded me.

But as I approached I noticed no light was on. I entered the flat, flipped on the lights and inspected the miserable, empty space, inch by inch. No clues. Everything I could imagine he might have needed had he left the city, for good or on a short trip, was right there in the flat. Had he found a woman? Was he curled up in someone’s arms in their flat, muttering sweet nothings in the dark? The notion made me laugh aloud. A romantic Albert, indeed. Fat chance.

Of course my anxiety about his disappearance grew by the hour when he still hadn’t come home after three more days. Not a word. I tried to convince myself that had he known I’d returned he would certainly have gotten in touch with me. So I allowed myself a little space to worry. Worrying about Albert took my mind off the absence of Anastasia and the realisation, also growing day by day, much like my concern for Albert, that she’d decided on the contract or at the very least, decided not to bother keeping me entertained with my delusions any longer.

I managed to return to work if for no other reason that it provided me a modicum of distraction for a few hours every day between long walks back and forth to and from the school’s dilapidated building. I had a beer and goulash in the train station with Marshall, voicing for the first time, my concern that Albert appeared to have simply disappeared. Did you ever consider that something might have happened to him, Marshall offered as a form of consolation. He might be in a hospital or a morgue. You should check the Municipal Hospital or perhaps your local police station, see if you can find anything out. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s certainly a possibility
it doesn’t appear that you’ve considered.

I didn’t want to consider anything, to be honest. I was at my lowest point.

I headed straight for the Shot Out Eye after class with the idea of placating myself with a stupefying session of intoxication, the All-Time Drunk of Serial Drinking, it was distraction of sorts, mulling over with a vaguely schadenfreudesque satisfaction at how completely out of my senses I was going to be when I finished; a pure, cathartic cleansing, chasing away any last vestiges of the memory of Anastasia as well as my growing concerns about the fate of Albert.

When I arrived at the Shot Out Eye however, Kazimir immediately headed me off and sat me down. A woman was here looking for you, he said and for a second, my heart skipped a beat - Anastasia had finally come to her senses! But before I could carry the fantasy any further, Kazimir was putting his hand on my shoulder. She’s a nurse at the University Hospital. She didn’t tell me much out of respect for your own privacy but she did give me a number for you to call. She said she has some information for you.

I sat there, dumbfounded. A beer was brought to me and I drank it but I certainly never tasted or noticed it. What the fuck, I thought to myself. This can’t be happening. It had to be about Albert. If it was about Anastasia, how would the nurse have known that a message in the Shot Out Eye would meet me? Of course. I wasn’t a hard man to track down, simple habits. But it was Albert who was missing, not Anastasia. Or maybe Anastasia had intended on returning to me but was injured in an accident or something? Fuck, I couldn’t figure but either way there was not going to be good news at the end of that conversation.

I went out to the pay phone across the road and rang the number that the nurse had left for me. General Reception. I gave my name in the unrealistic hope they would be expecting my call. Then it dawned on me. I gave the nurse’s name instead. After several earth quaking moments of waiting, a woman finally picked up.

Is this Witold, she asked. Yes, it is. More delays.

So my message in the pub has reached you? Yes, of course, I muttered, spit it out already. Witold, I’m afraid your friend Albert is here in the hospital. He’s not in very good condition. He was hit by a car and if I’m honest, I cannot say for certain how much time he has left.

I hung up and stood motionless in the phone booth. It simply couldn’t be possible, could it?

I rode the tram to the hospital, asked for Albert and after turning down endless hallways, finally reached his room. Tepidly, I stuck my head in, you in there, I shouted.

And I saw him in his hospital gown, looking thin and weak, not Albert, but what seemed instantly like Albert’s ghost. His eyes were closed and it was not difficult to imagine standing there looking down into a casket. His face was bruised and bloodied, cleansed and then stitched but the head injury, it was explained to me, was not one he was likely to recover from.

What am I supposed to do, I wondered aloud. The nurse put her hand on my arm and led me to a chair where I sat in a stupor.

I began to panic, thinking how it might be possible to get him moved to another hospital somewhere, a place where they could actually do something. Could the end be avoided by taking him out this third world hospital? Surely, if he was getting care in New York or somewhere else, anywhere else, there would be something that could be done other than simply resigning oneself to what had always seemed an impossible fate.

I watched his uneven breathing. He’s close to unconscious, the nurse added helpfully as I probed around the bed attempting to find an answer, a way to see his eyes opened, to confirm that this was simply another bad dream in what was turning into a series of bad dreams none of which I could wake myself from despite the terror with which I watched it helplessly.

So what am I supposed to do, I finally demanded, just wait for him lying here to die?

The trauma to the head makes the recovery quite improbable and even if he were to come to there’s the very likelihood that is brain, deprived as it was of oxygen, will not recover fully. Even if he were to live he might do so only in some vegetative state.

I left the hospital after a few hours in order to try and find sanctuary, away from my thoughts. I tried to go to a cinema to forget about it, distract myself with some stupid age old comedy but halfway through it I simply stood up and left, headed back for the flat.

In the miserable days that followed I found irony in staying dry, off the piss as the drinking through the trauma seemed an unlikely solution. Instead, I tried to consider what I was going to do, what possible scenarios still existed if now, not only was Anastasia gone but so too would Albert be leaving me alone again, as I’d been from the beginning.

There was nothing I could do for Albert by staying put in Prague.

I couldn’t speak to him for assistance. I sat at his bedside talking to him, trying to get him to answer me - what the fuck should I do, stay here, watch you die and then what? What would I do with your body? Would you want it interned here in Prague or returned to New York? It was impossible to know because, the realisation dawned again, painfully, that I didn’t know enough about him, enough about what he’d wanted, to know what next step to take. Would he have wanted me to simply leave, get on with my life, affix a certain memory to existence and move on? Would he want me sitting here, trying to care for him when there was nothing I could do to fix the situation?

In the end, I decided to leave. I know that you might think this to have been a despicable act of abandonment. The idea crossed my mind over and over again. What the fuck is wrong with me that I can’t make the simple sacrificial act, to stay on for the duration, deal with whatever fate awaited him and of course, me.

Yet equally, what was the point of my staying? To be with him in final moments he couldn’t even be aware existed?

Of what I knew of Albert, the nihilism, the apathy, I couldn’t imagine he’d have cared one way or the other. Not unless like me, the façade was simply a way of protecting the heart. Was he afraid or even aware of dying? I racked my brain trying to recall even the slightest, subtle hint from our incessant conversations about nothing in particular, nothing of importance, what he might have thought, what he would have expected. Surely he would have expected nothing of me but my own self-preservation.

And so, without allowing myself to become paralysed by indecision, I called the shot.



Tamara is still busy providing me with forensic detail about her fascination with European cities. She may have taken a brief break, allowed me the opportunity to
nod my head in agreement or sigh in disbelief, but the break wasn’t long. Long enough to draw another breath and begin again on another monologue.

I can tell this match making is a disaster. We aren’t going anywhere after this afternoon. Oh, we might end up getting drunk and maybe even end up sleeping with each other at night, wake up next to each other with that shit taste in your mouth of stale alcohol and stale sex, that odour of resignation. But we won’t be going anywhere else. We’ll be going through the motions.

I suppose you might be wondering what happened.

I haven’t told any body before.

I’m not even sure I’ve told myself. Just experienced it. Took the blows as they came without wincing. Save the pain to feel another day because that’s what I realised, opening myself up like I did, not just to Anastasia but to Albert as well. You open yourself up like a little blossom just so somebody, some stranger can come by and without even realising it, step on that blossom, crush it. And all that’s left is pain. You see, I’d taught myself all those years that feeling nothing at all was preferable to feeling pain, a non-stop drip of pain through the muscles, the bones, the head, the heart, everywhere, on every street, at the beginning and ending of every day and all the long succession of minutes in between. Pain.

What I wondered, abstractly, as I was fading in and out of Tamara’s torrent of words was how others adapted to that pain. I have no delusion that I’m the only one, that each of us isn’t fighting in our own ways, that incessant defence against pain. It might be said that defeating pain is merely living itself in defiance, refusing to succumb.

But I am not that strong. I’ve never been that strong. Eventually I return to that same protective shell, feigning the motions of emotion, struggling not to think that every step will be my last or their last and finding a tidal emptiness in the wake of failing time and again, to let myself go, to blossom again for someone else.