C H R I S P A L I N G
Conor and the Polish Girl
(First published in The Independent Magazine, 24/08/96. Also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, read by Christopher Ecclestone)
He made love to the Polish girl and afterwards he felt more guilty than usual so he let her stay for the night. She was a student. Round her lipstick was a fine line of black. Conor met her in a nightclub in Prague. He thought, beneath the black leather jacket and the short black skirt that she would be the same as the American girls he usually picked up there, but she wasn't. She seemed to despise him in some way.
The next morning she was up before him and making coffee in the tiny kitchen. He heard her moving around, opening his cupboards, finding the beans, grinding them. He heard her lighting the gas, washing the filthy plates in the sink, emptying the bin. Then he smelt the cooking and it made him hungry. He smoked a cigarette while he waited for her to come back into the bedroom with his breakfast. He looked around the room feeling a little ashamed of the mess. He emptied the ashtray into a sheet of newspaper, then shoved it under the bed. There was a bicycle wheel, tangled in a pair of jeans, but it wasn't his.
When he had finished the cigarette he straightened the sheets. Then he got out of bed and crept to the pile of clothes on the floor. He wanted to sort his from hers so she would think differently about him. But her clothes were already gone. He waited a little longer while he heard her at the sink again. He thought he could smell bread and it took him away from the room while he tried to remember why it made him feel so sad. Then he heard the door of the apartment open and shut and he thought she must be looking for the junk chute in the hall or the garbage bin so he waited because he didn't want her to come in and find him naked when she was dressed. He pulled the covers up to his chin and tried to see round the edge of the door. He couldn't. He slid out of bed, just the top half of his body, walking forwards on his hands to see round the door with his body still tangled in the sheets. The door was shut. She didn't have a key, so he was safe enough to dress without her walking in on him. Even so, he dressed quickly, tugging up his Levis, stamping into his boots, looking for a clean tee shirt and making do with the one he had worn the night before.
He went out into the sitting room and waited. He smoked another cigarette and picked up an old copy of Prognosis. He went to the window and looked at the Vltava. Someone was fishing in a small boat in the wide shadow of the Charles Bridge, a pleasure boat went by and the people took pictures of the man fishing. The swell rocked his boat a little. The man reeled in his line then cast again. Much was done in the city, consciously and unconsciously, for the benefit of the tourist. Conor realised that the Polish girl had gone.
The sink in the kitchen had the girl's plate in it, and her knife and a shallow pan with a crust of dried potato. The table had flour on it, a fine coating. A glass of water, half drunk was on the drainer. Conor picked it up and smelt it. The girl's perfume was in it; fragile and trapped transparently in the glass. He held it up to the light coming through the window and he could see on the rim where her lipstick had marked it. He looked closer at it. The print of her lower lip was faint but perfect. He knew he was in love. He put the glass on the shelf beneath the window and smoked another cigarette. When he had finished it he collected his large folder and went onto the Charles Bridge with his oil paintings. He knew what the tourists wanted because once he had wanted the same: a part of the city to take home with him; a part of what it made him feel: flattered that it allowed him to be there and owning it, even though it was just his version of it. His friend Jude had said that like all art it just reflected something inside of him, that art has to hold up a mirror to our own experience. Otherwise it isn't art. Jude, however, was stoned, and when she was stoned she always talked that way. Now Jude moved with a new crowd that had arrived with the new season and he rarely saw her.
He thought about the Polish girl all day. He even missed selling one of his paintings because of her. An American woman came up to him and asked if she could see inside his folder. He had just three paintings taped to the wall of the bridge, and he showed her, then she went to fetch her husband, George.
"See, George?" she said to the man. He flipped up the sunshades from his glasses, then looked over the top of the gold frames at the painting. "Isn't it fine?" George looked a little longer and pursed his lips. He toyed with the strap of his old camera, considering the deal, but Conor knew he had made the sale. You always made the sale to the woman, never the man. More sales were made with unframed canvases than framed ones. Unframed ones seemed more authentic, you could even charge more for them on the pretext that they shouldn't have been in the folder in the first place.
"This is how much, please?" The woman asked, taking a corner of it while the man was still looking. Conor was just about to close the deal when he saw the Polish girl walking away from him towards the Little Quarter. He ran across the bridge and took her shoulders from behind. She stopped. He turned her round to tell her that he loved her and all of the other things he hadn't yet worked out. But it wasn't her. She had the same long black hair, the same leather jacket, short black skirt, but it just wasn't her. She was, in fact, Japanese. He let the alarmed girl go and went back to his folder but the woman and George had gone.
Conor left the bridge in the middle of the afternoon and returned to the apartment. He propped his folder against the wall of the living room and he went into the small kitchen. He picked up the glass and looked at the print of the Polish girl's lip. He smelt inside the glass but her perfume was fading. He put the glass on the drainer. He was afraid he would lose her altogether and was caught between pouring out the water and turning over the glass to trap what was left of her scent inside or just covering the glass with a saucer and hoping that the scent didn't just slowly dissolve into the water. He found a saucer and laid it over the glass. Then he carried it carefully into the bedroom, reasoning that it was probably better to keep it out of the light. He traced the outline of the lip with the nail of his thumb, careful not to line it, just wanting to touch something that was a part of her. He put the glass on the bare boards of the bedroom floor. Then, looking at the bed, he knew there must be something of her there.
He tore off the covers and threw them on the floor, he jumped onto his knees on the bed and, nose close to the mattress, ploughed up and down the candy striped sheet, minutely scrutinising every inch. It did not seem possible, but there was nothing. He picked up the pillow and held it to his nose, to his cheek, even to his ear, but there was no trace of her. He had the mark of her lip on a glass, the crust of potato on a pan, a fine dusting of flour on his table, and a fork and a plate. He ran into the kitchen. He had forgotten the fork and the plate. They had been in the sink all day and he hadn't even bothered to get them out and look at them. Surely there was some sign of her there, even if it was only the lines of the fork outlined in dried, coagulated oil on the plate.
He lifted the plate from the sink, pinching the edge of it between his finger and thumb. He did not put it on the table, because he did not want to disturb the flour. Even so, a drop of water fell and cratered the fine powder: the water from her plate falling onto her flour. Almost, then, as if she was still there. Perhaps, had she returned, she would have done just that: taken the plate and the fork from the sink, accidentally splashing the flour on the table as she passed, then....
Then what? Conor drew a halt on that line of thought. It was leading him towards a dark place he had once been before, one long weekend alone.
He went into the living room and sat on the couch. He smoked a cigarette and listened to a tape of an old man singing the blues. Then he went out with the sole intention of finding the Polish girl.
Someone was projecting an old Czech cartoon onto the damp walls of the club. The club was an old cinema in the basement of a building close to the town hall. Conor paid to get in. His wrist was stamped, then he walked down some stairs, and came out onto the balcony of the cinema. The dance floor was thirty feet below where the stalls used to be. Some American girls were weaving a rug by the bar. They had been there for months. Conor never knew why and he didn't care enough to ask them. They were smoking marijuana. Jude was with them.
Only vodka and Budvar were sold at the balcony bar, and sausages with dry white bread. Conor nursed a bottle of Budvar. His friends tried to talk to him but he didn't seem to hear them. Each time a girl walked in he pushed whoever he was with aside a little so he could get a closer look. When he wasn't watching the door he watched the film. It made no sense, but they were mixing the music to the images and Conor felt a little trippy. A girl was dancing to the music, but it wasn't dancing music, it was martial music, then the sound of a train passing, then a baby screaming, then something cool and pastoral. Just a collage of sounds to match the images of the old Czech cartoon which was now cut with shots of tanks rolling through the streets.
Conor asked the girls if they knew anything about the Polish girl. Jude said she thought she might have been in the night before. Conor said he knew this, because this was when he met her. She didn't know anything else. He had taken Jude home one night, and now he remembered and felt a little ashamed. She looked at him in the way she must have done the time before and he asked her to come home with him again, so she laid down her corner of the rug, whispered something to the girl next to her, got her coat and came.
Jude stayed the night. Conor slept badly. In the night he woke and Jude was getting out of the bed. As she got back in he woke again. She pushed her back against his chest, took his arm and made him hold her. The next morning she said to him: "Who were you thinking about when you were making love because I know it wasn't me."
He lied to her.
"Tell me about this Polish girl," she said as she dressed and Conor, still in bed, watching her, pretended he couldn't remember much about her.
"Just a friend," he said. "She stole some money from me."
And he didn't know why he had said that until later.
"A friend, and she stole money from you?" Jude said.
"Yes. She needed it, I suppose. I sold a painting, so I had enough."
They went out into the kitchen. Conor saw the glass on the drainer. He picked it up and looked closely at the rim.
"What have you done?" he said.
"I washed it up," Jude said.
"You washed it up?"
"You washed it up. I don't understand. Why did you wash it up?"
"I was thirsty and I got up and drank some water in the night. Then I washed the glass...what, do you have some aversion to cleanliness? You should clean up this kitchen. It's filthy."
Jude moved about, picking up plates, washing the flour from the table. Boiling a kettle for hot water because both of the taps ran cold. Conor watched her.
"How did it taste?" he said.
"The water. How did it taste?"
"Christ, Conor, I don't know how it tasted. It tasted like water. A little stale, maybe."
"Yes. I suppose like it had been in the glass some time."
"Sweet? Did it taste sweet?"
"No, not sweet. Just a little stale."
Soon the room was clean and they were drinking coffee and both smoking cigarettes.
"Are you going to run away from me again?" Jude said. "Because you hurt me last time. All the things you said that night, you hurt me, just running away like that."
"It's important we don't lie to each other. Not any more." She took his hand.
That night, as Jude again slept in his bed, Conor got out his easel and a new canvas and tried to paint a portrait of the Polish girl but it didn't work out. Instead he painted another picture of the castle. Next day he sold it on the bridge to an old couple from Amsterdam. The oils were still a little wet and the images were blurred but the couple didn't mind, they said they preferred it that way.