The Wall

By Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki

Translated from Polish by Julia and Peter Sherwood

1.

 – Ah well, you only live once. You scared of flying? — the man in the seat next to me asked. He looked much older than me. It might have been the beard. — No, I’m not scared, I know I have to come back — I replied. — Well, I am scared. It’s not natural for human beings to fly. Birds are a different matter, although I’m not sure if birds feel fear. From my experience as a vet I can neither deny nor confirm that. So my travelling companion was a vet. — What’s your pigeon? — he asked again. I hesitated. Who knows if he really was a vet. He might just as well have been a plant, a customs officer, or some other kind of agent. How could I be sure the plane would really take off if I told him the truth? What if they took my stuff away or thrown me off the flight? The guys in uniform, they had all the power in those days. They could have thrown me off the flight but they could just as easily have locked me up and kept me in for a couple of years. And I couldn’t afford to be thrown off, let alone locked up. I had become a father just two months earlier. I was a student sharing a tiny room in a student dormitory with my wife, my baby son, one of those they called a spousal room. The only difference between this and a normal room was that it contained another bed. The size was the same. Provided everything went to plan, this trip was a chance for us to survive for a few years. And with a bit of luck, it might have been enough to buy a tiny studio flat for us to call our own. Those were difficult times even though the curtain was beginning to rust. The fact that I was able to take a day trip to West Berlin was proof of that. Polish citizens had recently been allowed to keep their passports at home, in their desk drawers. I was the proud owner of a few deutschmarks, bought from a shifty character by the Okrąglak department store. I made a brief trip to Hungary where I stocked up on multicoloured hats and scarves, followed by another, even shorter, trip to the GDR where I hawked the goods to a Vietnamese trader. This yielded hundreds of East German marks, which I exchanged for real deutschmarks. Next I went to West Berlin and purchased six jamboxes illegally from a dealer on the Ku’damm. It had to be the ones with flashing LED lights. The long black ones, with stereo speakers, of course. They were going to fetch a lot more in the Soviet Union. And it was these six jamboxes that I had declared at the airport as items meant exclusively for personal use, which I would bring back with me. The customs officer just smiled as he signed my customs declaration… — I’ve got a thousand condoms — said the vet. There’s no law that says how many condoms you can take abroad on a one-week trip, right? I was beginning to like the vet so I smiled back at him and nodded. — I didn’t declare anything, — he went on. — They kicked up a huge fuss at the airport. I told them I wasn’t going to bring back used rubbers. I almost managed to convince them when this officer joined in, quite a prude she was. All of a sudden she said, sure, you may take condoms for your own use, just like a hairbrush or toothpaste, but this quantity suggests smuggling. I blew my top. I wasn’t doing anything illegal. Could she show me a law that said how many condoms one can carry? No, she couldn’t. We all have different needs, right? — he evidently expected me to agree. — She wouldn’t let off. She sized me as a one-shag-a-day man, seven rubbers altogether. What a slap in the face! No way, I said. When she saw how annoyed I was she said I could take fourteen, that came to two a day. I didn’t agree to that either. She stuck to her guns and said I must leave the remaining rubbers behind. But then her colleague said, leave him alone, Bożena, maybe the gentleman wants to shag himself to death? Yes, exactly, I want to shag myself to death, I screamed, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. There’s no law against it. So they let me go. I have no other goods, this stuff sells like hot cakes over there, you know. Rubbers are hard to get in Russia, the government is hot on procreation. One rouble per rubber, I’ve a thousand roubles in my suitcase, work it out for yourself. And the poor buggers make a hundred a month. These rubbers will turn into a golden sausage, I tell you.

Those were difficult times even though the curtain was beginning to rust. The fact that I was able to take a day trip to West Berlin was proof of that. Polish citizens had recently been allowed to keep their passports at home, in their desk drawers
I was reassured. Now I could tell that my neighbour was an honest man. — I’ve got jamboxes. Six of them. — With LED lights? The Russkies like flashing lights, you know. They’re no good without flashing lights. — I know, I know — I replied. All the jamboxes have LED lights, in various colours. — Good man, that’s the way. The more flashing, the more colours, the more roubles you get. Bravo! The plane taxied onto the runway and came to a halt. We were headed for Moscow first, then further still. — This is is the bit I’m most scared of — said the vet, hastily fishing out a hip flask from the inside pocket of his jacket. — Will you have one? — No, thanks, it’s a bit early for me — I said. — I have to, I’m dead scared of the moment the plane takes off, I’m always like that. But when I take a sip it gets a little better. You sure you don’t want some? — he repeated his offer. — No, thanks, I really don’t. — OK. You only live once. The vet took a big gulp from the bottle. As the plane took off, he took another. — OK, we’re in heaven now — he said, with a small gasp.

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