‘You’re in Room 5?’ the young receptionist at the hostel asked, raising her eyebrows. ‘Well, there is a very… hmmm … interesting Polish man in the room with you this weekend…Have a nice day!’
It was by his smell that I first encountered Rafa: his cigarette smoke filled the non-smoking hostel and his sweaty trainers lay empty on the floor. A bag of beercans, full to bursting, lolled open next to his bed. When he entered the dormitory a few minutes later, he seemed like a ghost – a man in a black shellsuit, enormous, saucer-eyed, broken-nosed. He never said hello, never acknowledged me, lying instead on the lower bunk staring fixedly at the springs above. I was invisible to him, as though we inhabited completely different universes.
I found myself remembering other disconcerting hostel-encounters over the years. There was the Moroccan room-mate in Madrid, who’d hung a towel over his lower bunk, and cavorted noisily behind it with a Tanzanian whore; the Korean boy in Trieste who’d refused to say a word, glaring furiously from his bed in the corner as though planning a playground killing spree. Now there was Rafa, another human UXB. I had to talk to this man and take away his menace or I wouldn’t sleep a wink that night.
Thankfully a few muttered words of Russian from me were enough to make him respond. He lifted himself up from the bed like a corpse coming back to life and stared mournfully at me, still unsmiling, holding out his hand. The hand was vast, I noticed, and scarred, with split and rearing fingernails: my own seemed to disappear into it. To my questions he replied that he was a car mechanic, that his home town was Gdansk, and that he was in Kraków for just two nights. Kraków, he said, was ‘Number one! Number one!’, and he held up an enormous forefinger to ram the point home.
He reached under the bed and pulled out a big tub of yogurt. ‘Go on, have some,’ he said, ripping the foil off the top and thrusting a spoon at me. I refused – sharing tepid yogurt with someone you’ve just met is grim – and he began gobbling it down alone. A cracked open beer-can – a malevolent black and gold, and fortified to 9% – made up the feast. I found myself patting my pockets a lot, and disliked myself.
Rafa, when not mending cars, was a boxer, which explained those knuckle-scabs and the damaged looking eyes in which the irises seemed to float as though you could simply peel them off. His life seemed just as battered as his body: he was divorced from his wife, hated his job and lived, uneasily, in a tiny flat with his ailing mother. This weekend in Kraków, with his cargo of fortified beer-cans and the hostel bed, was Rafa’s form of escape, his grand getting away from it all, but it didn’t seem to have helped much. I felt, all the time as we talked, a kind of repressed violence in him – he might flare up at any moment. The conversation was innocuous enough, but his gaze was sullen and angry. I’d assumed he was a good ten years older me. We turned out to be the same age.
Already he was having problems with the hostel-receptionist. She was tiny, young, bespectacled, and supremely unafraid of him. Smelling the cigarette smoke in the bathroom, seeing the crushed-up beercans, she snapped something at him and he stared mutinously back.
‘I have told him not to eat and drink in the dormitories,’ she said in a clipped Polish accent. ‘And can you please stop him from smoking in the bathrooms? This is a smoke-free hostel, you have the patio outside. Otherwise he will be asked to leave.’
To defuse the tension – they were glaring at each other openly – I asked her to tell Rafa that I was a journalist, that I was writing a book, and to ask him if he’d allow himself to be interviewed.
She repeated, reluctantly, what I’d said. Instantly, Rafa seemed to swell.
‘He says he would be glad to,’ said the receptionist, ‘if you can find a time convenient to him.’
‘He has a busy schedule?’ I asked. I couldn’t stop my eyes flicking at the beercans on the table.
‘Yes, rather busy, he says.’ Her face was inscrutable. ‘But he will try to find a space for you in his timetable.’
‘That’s very kind of him.’
Rafa went on at her with his muttering.
‘He says he can tell you many stories,’ the receptionist continued. ‘His father died in a Gdańsk riot. He says Lech Wałęsa is a personal friend of his….’ Along with the disdain there was now open scepticism in her voice. But Rafa had doubled in size. He was suddenly, unexpectedly, a VIP. Like the girl, I didn’t know whether to believe him or not: all I could feel was how desperate he was to feel he mattered in the world, that someone would listen to him. And then, to set the seal on it, I foolishly got out a bottle of Żubrówka, the Polish vodka flavoured with bison grass, and offered Rafa a glass. He looked at it as though it were liquid dynamite, and nodded.
* * * * *
A few hours later, the beers were finished, my Żubrówka drunk, and a glass lay smashed on the floor. Rafa had forgotten domestic politics, and moved onto international matters. Now he was shouting at me – he did a lot of shouting – for calling the lost Polish city of Lwów by its Ukrainian name. ‘It’s not Lviv, it’s Lwów!’ he bellowed, looking about to thump me. ‘It was a Polish city before the war, and it will be a Polish city again. Polish! Lwów!!!’
‘Can you please ask your “friend” to be quiet?’ the receptionist hissed from downstairs. ‘We have a party of students from Uruguay who are jet-lagged and trying to sleep.’
Rafa hurled open the window and lit up another cigarette. I nagged at him: did he really think he ought to smoke here? It was against hostel rules. He might get thrown out.
‘Hah! Let them come and talk to Rafa,’ he glowered. ‘Rafa’s paid his money. He’ll do what he likes. Uppity young bitch….!’
He stared around himself, muzzy for a moment, and then returned to his theme.
‘Yes, Lwów! And those Ukrainian fuckers will see…it will be Polish again within ten years! Ten years!’ He looked round aggressively for any Ukrainians who might be hiding in the kitchen cabinets, then turned his anger back on me. ‘It is ours. Nasha… VI MNYE PONIMAITYE?’ Do you understand?
A prim Polish couple from Poznań entered, for a cup of herbal tea before bedtime. Rafa made conversational overtures but they thwarted them, looking at him coldly like the semi-tramp he was. I felt a moment’s irritation at their smugness, their squeaky clean, teetotal certainty they’d never make enough mistakes in their 9.30-to-bed-on-a-Saturday-night-lives to turn into him. They asked what dormitory we were sleeping in. I felt a spiteful pleasure when I told them it was the same as theirs.
The boy blanched. ‘Well…. I think we might go to bed, don’t you?’ he muttered to his partner.
The girl nodded eagerly.
They left, bearing camomile. We went on talking, Rafa went on drinking. Soon his roaring – about Ukrainians, Russians, repressive hostel-receptionists – had got so voluble I manoeuvred him into the hostel garden, where he was now pissing onto a shrub with the hosepipe force of a farmyard animal. I thought of all the pure alcohol flowing out of him into the soil: there would be an inebriated bedlam among the ant and earthworm community that night: there would be blood; woodlice would get hurt. Not only the strength of Rafa’s jet amazed me, but its longevity too: like a communist speech, it just went on and on. Above the splattering deluge, Rafa’s mood seemed to range from the bitterest anger to moments of morbid self-pity when he referred to himself in the third person and looked about to cry. I made the fatal mistake of asking him about his ex-wife. He glowered at me or perhaps at her ghost and rampaged off through the gates.
A couple of hours later he’d returned, blundering his way into the dark dormitory. Now he was flat out, spread-eagled on his mattress, still fully dressed. The rasp of his breathing drowned out the sedate exhalations of the Poznań couple who were, in their separate bunks, sleeping the sleep of the chaste. Only I was still awake – reading my guide-book with a torch, listening to the far-off sounds of revelry coming through the hostel double-glazing.
Suddenly at about 2.30 Rafa sat bolt upright, looking even more ghoulish in the red glare of the night-light. He nipped to the corner of the room. For a moment he stood immobile against the wall, reaching for his groin. Then there was a familiar sound.
‘No,’ I thought. ‘This cannot be the case. This simply cannot be. Rafa can’t be pissing again. Rafa surely isn’t pissing….. In the dormitory. On the floor. All over the prim Poznań couple’s shoes….’
But Rafa was indeed pissing: that powerful jet of his was now echoing off the plasterboard walls, landing, with a chillingly muffled sound, on the insoles of their Reeboks. The tinkling and splattering went on for a few seconds more, before the boyfriend sat bolt upright.
‘KURWAAAAAA!’ he bellowed, a Polish expletive, and the inside of the dormitory seemed to explode. He jumped down from his bunk, the light went on, and Rafa and he squared up to each other. Rafa snapped at once into pugilist defence pose, as though he wanted to demolish someone. The prim girlfriend squealed routinely from her lower bunk. I gulped and threw myself between them: if Rafa hit me, I reasoned, it would at least make good copy.
But it was the tiny receptionist who broke it up. There was something heroic about this 20 year-old girl in her spectacles as she marched in and snapped a few toxic sounding words at Rafa, making him crumple in seconds. She wrenched open the dormitory door and pointed sharply downstairs. Rafa opened his kitbag and began stuffing clothes inside it, muttering protests but compliant. It was a Repin painting, I thought: the hurried exit, scandalised onlookers, the gesturing official raising a finger of banishment: ‘The Misfit Leaves’. The receptionist’s authority was total. She frogmarched Rafa to the ground floor, locked him into a room by the reception and returned with a bucket and mop.
‘You’re not even shaking,’ I said to her.
‘Hah! I have three brothers,’ she hissed. ‘This is nothing!’
I was up before the prim Polish couple the next day, to find that Rafa, after his night in the improvised prison cell, had been released without bail. ‘Your friend did dirt, and was asked to leave,’ a new receptionist put it succinctly. I went out: I’d had enough entertainment and didn’t want to see the Poznans wrestling with their inundated footwear. What a weekend it had been for them: the exact opposite of the cultural, dignified tryst the boy had no doubt promised his camomile-sipping paramour. I wondered over coffee what would happen to them now, whether surviving the trauma of Rafa’s nocturnal one-man tsunami would bring them closer together, or, more likely, bust them up for good. Perhaps they would make the break tonight and, isolated once more, drift separately into lives of frantic vice.
As for Rafa I hoped not to see him again, but in vain. As I paid the bill at the cafe – its white table-cloths looked almost supernaturally clean this morning – I saw him loping across the square in the drizzle. Nothing would have been easier than to duck my head and avoid him but instead, prompted by some masochistic demon, I called out his name. ‘Rafa! Over here! Over here!’
He stared dully at me, looking more like a walking Munch painting than ever. Clearly he was no happier to see me than I him – why would he be? – but he sidled over anyway. He was shaking over his ejection, and full of hurt dignity. ‘The people at the hostel… they’re mad! Mad women! Crazy! They say I made water in the room last night!’ Rafa shook his head, scandalised. ‘It’s a lie – a total lie! It’s not possible I could do such a thing!’
I said nothing.
‘Did I…?’ he asked nervously.
I paused. ‘I’m afraid you did, Rafa, yes.’
He looked at me like a stranger, like I’d joined the plot against him. ‘I’m going to find another hostel,’ he muttered finally. ‘Somewhere the people are more normal. Somewhere they treat you with a little respect….’
I watched him wander off across the enormous market place, vanishing, like a ghost, into a side-street. Another day of being himself…. And after that another…. And after that another…..
I only hoped, for his sake, he was half as mad as he seemed.