Visiting My Penfriend
Tea in a Glass with a Slice of Lemon
When I asked him for directions, he flinched as if I'd hit him. Seeing as he was wearing blue workman’s overalls and was in the act of sticking up a poster, I’d presumed him to be a railway employee. Abba blond, I rated him ‘ten’ on the ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ scale.
‘Over there,’ he said, jerking his head to the right and without meeting my eye. In an instant, he was gone.
I’d arranged to meet my cousin, Dominik, at the main entrance. For fifteen minutes I’d been pacing up and down the concourse beneath Gdansk Glowny Station looking for it, my pink, plastic flip-flops, purchased from Colchester Woolworths three weeks ago, chafing between my toes. My first impressions of Gdansk, seen from the train window, weren’t good: tower blocks looming like oversized tombstones, skeletal cranes lunging from the skyline, grimy pipes running alongside the track, and blackened industrial buildings with chimneys belching acrid smoke which irritated my nostrils, even from inside my carriage.
I wasn't supposed to be in Gdansk.
Dad, who’d fled Krakow in 1939, had done everything to dissuade me from taking a holiday in Poland.
‘But Dad, it’s 1980,’ I protested.
‘Poland still Communist,’ he said.
‘But I'll be all right staying with Aunt Magda in the Tatra Mountains.’
‘For sure, Tatra Mountains very beautiful.’
He agreed eventually. I’d spent the last fortnight with my mother’s sister, in the south, the nice area of the country. Dad knew nothing of my Polish penfriend. My mates did, but, coming from a school of ‘Janets’ and ‘Janices’, they presumed my ‘Jan’ to be like their French ‘correspondantes’, a foreign replica of themselves, into ‘Blondie’, ‘Fleetwood
Mac’ and maxi dresses.
Only the Estonian girl, Eeva, guessed. ‘He’s a boy. Right?’ she said.
We never got on, Eeva and I, both of us children of World War Two refugees, with one foot in England and one further east. Driven by our families, and from within ourselves, to achieve everything, we trampled over each other, to be in the choir, orchestra, hockey team, tennis, chess team … and, oh yes, of course … for academic awards. Now, at the end of our school careers, the greatest prizes were boyfriends. I supposed she thought I'd got one up on her.
Wrong there, Eeva, although you were right about one thing. In Poland, ‘Jans’ are male, as is probably the way in Estonia. Did Eeva wonder, as I did, about what was in her blood and how her different life might have been? I never used to – until Polish John Paul II became Pope eighteen months ago.
Last Christmas, hungry for contact with the real Poland, I asked my cousin, Dominik, to write to me. ‘Sorry,’ he wrote back, ‘Useless at letters. Too lazy. But my flatmate, Jan, he’ll do it. He loves the music of the Rolling Stones. He wants to know if you can send him records.’
It was all innocent. Honestly. I had a Stones LP for him in my pack, bound with sellotape in layers and layers of brown paper. Dad didn’t know about Jan, of course. Or my being here in Gdansk. He’d have got the wrong idea too.
When my father vocalised ‘Communism’, the word curdled the air.
‘There must be dissidents,’ I’d said to him many times.
‘In USSR and in Czechoslovakia,’ he replied. ‘Not in Poland. Polish Army put down Prague Spring.’
Now in Gdansk I’d found proper dissident. I devoured what he’d left behind. Plain and monochrome, the poster cried ‘Solidarnosc’ with ink blotches inside the Ss and Os. It told of crane driver, Anna Walentynowicz, sacked for distributing pamphlets, and a planned strike by the Gdansk Shipyard workers calling for her reinstatement. Tomorrow. Dad didn't approve of strikes either, something we’d seen a lot of in Britain during the past few years.
‘Communists,’ he’d say, shaking his head at the television.
‘Dominik?’ Although I’d never met him before, I recognised his face from family photographs on our mantelpiece. When he kissed my cheeks three times, I felt like a proper Pole.
We chatted for several minutes about the weather; I'd expected Poland to be cold but this summer was unexpectedly warm.
‘We must find Jan,’ he said at last. ‘I told him I’d meet him at 17:00 hours.’
‘Oh … yes … I suppose.’
Casting one last glance at the spot where my dissident had stood, I followed Dominik’s confident step through the labyrinthine concourse to the station exit. Red and white trams hurtled along the wide street, alongside pavements thronged with workers in blue overalls, their heads and shoulders bobbing up and down as they walked.
Then I saw a ray of gold, the summer sun catching his Abba blond hair. My dissident again, stepping towards us and carrying a pink rose.
My heart leapt. Yes, it was him. Definitely. My stomach somersaulted.
Nearer and nearer he came. But I was in Gdansk to meet – not him – but Jan, my penfriend.
Dominik raised his arm. ‘Jan. Over here.’
Moments later, he stood next to us. With an old-fashioned bow, he offered the pink rose to me.
About the author
Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, Every Day Fiction, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, Radgepacket and the Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.
All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element. Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.
Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.
Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/