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Kraków Nights

By Deleted User All Rights Reserved ©

Erotica / Thriller


Between March 1995 and April 1996 the author lived in Kraków, Poland where he managed and edited a periodical city guide. He also indulged in excess of quite staggering proportions. It was perhaps the last time in history that it was possible to get away with the sort of behavior described here. Take two parts JP Donleavy (Gingerbread Man), two parts Hunter Thompson (Fear & Loathing) and a fifth of Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) and yr in the right, extremely risky neighborhood, This manuscript has been sitting in the proverbial drawer for a while, but it still just roars off the page like a screaming guitar.. When I read it now I wonder that I'm still alive and kicking.

Chapter 1


Eighty kilometres down the railway track from Kraków is the town of Oświęcim, which you probably know better as Auschwitz. (If you ever want to impress someone from Oświęcim, mention the fact that you have heard of their feisty ice hockey team. You’ll have a friend for life). In Kraków itself, children play in the old, poorly commemorated former grounds of the Plaszów concentration camp. The villa from where Hauptsturmführer Amon Goethe used to take pot shots at his Jewish prisoners is still standing there, little flower pots in the window doing nothing to remove its leftover malevolence…

When I moved to Kraków to write a guidebook about the place, it was spring, and the summer that came was to be glorious. Easter marked its advent proper, and my first exposure to the passion, might and sheer bloody width of Polish Catholicism. I found myself stranded in a city where everything was closed but the churches – and they were all open. There had to be some secular sleaze to this city of sacral demeanour. Well, it turned out there was, and I was to certainly meet it head on. It was not so much that the murkiness of Kraków infected my soul, but that I swallowed darkness in black rivers of Guinness and bourbon and alleyways and ashtrays, of night -time and gentle lies. I was a man living in the shadows, and when the Americans and British and so on all picked up and left to fly home for Christmas with their families, I stayed on alone in my gloomy but atmospheric apartment. At night, I would pace up and down the gas lamp illuminated lanes of the Planty, the park that surrounds the old city; or stride alone in my long black coat and riding boots through the streets of the old town. I would (frequently) stop to take a short or a long or a what-have-you in (almost) any of the three-hundred underground cellar bars. At times, I felt like I was the only English speaker left in the city. I began to like it, as I drifted among crowded rooms like a ghost, sealed off from people by a language barrier and a kind of narcotic envelope of melancholia.

The Continent began to thaw in February, and so did I in the brilliant Polish sunshine – but it had been an interesting few months. The legacy of communism was a factor in day to day life in 99, in a way it isn’t quite today, although it can still take an absurd amount of time to mail a letter at the post office, enact a bank transaction, pay a bill, or wait to be served in a restaurant. In 1999 an authentic Orwellian nightmare could be had by stepping into the post office on little Saint Filipa street, and watching the proceedings for five minutes: the clerks’ faces devoid not only of emotion but it seemed of life force; the pounding thwack of ink stamps on envelopes and documents providing a demented counterpoint to the shouted exchanges through the plexi-glass grille. Surly incompetence meets blundering obtuseness. After a while too, I began to accept this reality as normality, and even found a comfort in the mindlessness of self-serving bureaucracy, the po-faced absurdity of it all.

I began to like that too. So it seems that part of me lives on in Kraków, and part of Kraków lives on in me… midst the vodka and carousal and smoke and revelry and the silence and the chill and the long, deepening shadows of a golden Kraków dusk. What follows is an Alistair Paine short story inspired by my time there. It begins mildy enough…


Age 32, with a career all too often on the hustling end of broadcasting behind him (not quite radio salesperson, but that gives you an idea), Alistair Paine had occasion before to linger in foyers and lobbies and reception areas, waiting to see small time, self-important ‘members of the business community’; retailers and restaurateurs, shaky self-styled entrepreneurs.

He had to admit, Restauraca Pod Gruszka in Krakow, Poland was somehow more upscale than the customer service office of some forecourt in Takapuna, Auckland; appraising the frescoed ceiling, the Louis quatorze knock-off chairs, the immense mahogany desk, the 19th century caricatures dotted about the place, Alistair sighed that sigh of yearning he liked to think was some ancestral pang for such trappings. His interpreter for the day, Pitor, typically, had other things on his mind. “Mr. Kosciusko’s secretary hasn’t been employed for her looks, but maybe she is more grateful. Plain girls try harder, eh?” It was a challenge, Alistair thought, to find some sexual angle on this scenario and exploit it, but if anyone was up to the job it was a randy, middle-aged Pole like Pitor Grabowska. Alistair made a noise that was somewhere between weary assent and recognition that someone had just spoken. The clock chimed. It was eleven in the morning and they had been waiting for half-an-hour. “You know, my wife almost found out about my girlfriend in Warsaw. Oh yes. She found the Rizla papers with Ola’s name and number written in lipstick. I did have some fast thinking to do. I did tell her it was yours, that you left it behind at Liam’s pub”. The man Grabowska looked well pleased with himself. Trying not to listen to Grabowksa’s BS, Alistair was pining for the moment that evening, when he’d walk down the stairs to the MacKenna’s pub: that rough, Celtic haven of strenuous expat hospitality. As if on cue, his cell phone rang. It was Alistair’s new ‘buddy’, Ed Lawless of the American state department. “Hey, what time you going to be there tonight?” There was no need to enquire where there was.

Alistair had just launched into a barely hushed, vituperative description of his present circumstances, “bloody half-an-hour waiting”, when Mr. Kosciusko walked in: preceded by Agneskia, the homely secretary. Kosciusko was a man of perhaps forty-five with a ruddy complexion, well-worn flannel trousers and something of the air of a country squire about him. “Mr. Kosciusko has been at an important meeting” she stressed, leaving Alistair in no doubt as to the status of this appointment. “The judges of the Golden Fork will meet here this evening to discuss the contest. It is, as you know, (he hadn’t) a great honour to be nominated”.

“I can imagine. Ahem. Has Mr. Kosciusko seen a copy of our magazine?” ‘That was a clumsy segue-way’ Alistair thought, as he proffered the latest edition of Kraków – The Small World Guide. The great man apprehended that this was intended for his perusal. He accepted it as one might accept a hot cup of coffee on a bumpy flight. After quickly inspecting the back and cover, he placed it on that revered institution of a desk. For the remainder of their meeting, which lasted forty-five minutes, he did not again pick the publication up to examine it further.

“As well as containing useful and interesting information about the history and cultural life of the city,” Alistair began on cue, waiting for Pitor’s translation. That perpetually horny teenager in the husk of a beached whale was at that moment gazing flirtatiously at Agneskia, the scene’s unlikely love interest. Seeing Alistair’s face turning claret, Pitor shifted gears and launched into the spiel. “Ale przevodniki Angielski bardzo dobre”…

“Yes, I know this type of guide”, said Mr. Kosciusko firmly, in English. In Polish, he curtly dismissed Pani Agneskia. The sudden use of English had surprised Alistair. The sentiment he had expressed did not. There was nothing you could tell a made over child of Poland’s socialist era about Western media. With one visit to Chicago, Buffalo, New York’s ‘Malopolska’ or London, they could assimilate all. “Well, you know then that by advertising in such a publication, you can bring more clientele to Pod Orlem, by showing them how beauti…”

“Have you been long in our country?”

“Six months”.

“And you don’t speak Polish?”

“Przepraszam, nie mowię dobrze po polsku”.

“Ah, rozumiem. Where are you from?”

“Jestem Nowy Zelandchic”

“It’s beautiful country, no? Poland I mean, ahahaha”

And so on it went. ‘This is how business is done here’ Alistair thought, hoping he hadn’t introduced commerce into the mix a shade too early. Coffee and cakes (which Agneskia returned with, briefly, furtively exchanging significant looks with Pitor as she slid in and out the door), getting to know each other, personal reminisces, shared experiences of ups and downs of business; these were the building blocks to establishing a rapport, a dialogue that would lead, inexorably, to a mutually beneficial relationship. Personal reminisces. Shared experiences. It seemed that a flood had begun that could not be stemmed. Alistair listened for a full forty-five minutes as Mr. Thomasz Kosciusko told him the story of his life. The story of his life was one of disloyal chefs and unreliable kitchen staff, of ever-increasing expenses and constantly diminishing returns, of a restaurant-going public that cared less about quality and tradition and only that their food be served fast and in a ‘robotic, western atmosphere’ (‘like the movie Westworld?’, Alistair wondered); a Maitre’d’s litany, nay inventory, of complaints. He rallied several times with spirited counter-attacks. “Of course one way to increase traffic to your restaurant would be to advertise in…

“You know I too am a Journalist. Well, it has been many years. But at university, I was one of the editors of our newspaper. But I would suppose that is not interesting to you.” Mr. Kosciusko’s face changed like one of those rotating billboards, and the stern countenance was replaced for a moment by a wounded, hound dog expression. Not flinching, Alistair returned Kosciusko’s gaze with what he hoped was a look of indifference. But Alistair’s attentiveness and interest was a matter of small import. Anecdote would have its way, and so he heard the story of Mr. Kosciusko’s friend Pavel, who at university had wanted to be a journalist and went on to write for an underground newspaper, which led directly to a year in a Polish jail. After just six months in Central Europe, Alistair had already heard many such stories: still they were seldom the stuff of a business discussion. He sat watching dust moles floating in the light streaming from the window in the vast awkward silence that followed the Polish restaurateur’s revelation. The telling of the tale contained an unmistakable note of regret – that Kosciusko himself had not done more during the struggle for democracy. This was not how things were supposed to have gone, but it was a blow upon a bruise, another exasperating meeting with a recalcitrant would-be client, and damn, was it thirst-inducing…


”Dynamism. Great bursts of prolonged energy, coupled with tremendous reserves of patience; you don’t often find them in the same host body. But that’s what you kind of need if you’re going to try and make it in any kind of business in Eastern/Central Europe, I believe. Oh and a fat roll of twenties for bribes”. Alistair was now at MacKenna’s pub on ulica Sienna and onto his fourth pint. He would drink four more that evening, as well as two measures of Jameson Irish whisky (“French shite”, Liam would describe it as – a comment on the label’s Gallic purchasers,) and four Kamikaze shots. Not a serious evening’s consumption by his standards, nor an entirely lightweight effort. Alistair was declaiming this malarkey to some recently cornered victim, Edward Foster of the British Chamber of Commerce as it happened. Alistair could tell from the way that Foster was adamantly shaking his head in agreement that he was bored with this soliloquy, looking for an out.

From across the room Liam shot him the look that said let’s go for a drive equals let’s go for a spliff or a line. “What the fook are ye on about this time, like, you daft New Zealand homo?” Alistair burst out laughing. If there is one thing he’d always enjoyed it was to see someone’s pomposity punctured, even if it was his own.

Liam MacKenna, proprietor of MacKenna’s pub, stood there behind the bar like an olde sea captain at the wheel during particularly rough weather; big as a barn, looking like he’d fancy a roll in the hay or a fight or, let’s roll up our sleeves and take as many drugs as we can, or how about we go up to them two lovelies and ask ’em if they fancy a shag? Whatever it was, he was up for it and on for it and that’s all there was to it. Three weeks before Liam and Alistair had a wild weekend in Warsaw, which ended in a six hour drive back to Warsaw, stopping only for a McDonald’s breakfast, spliffs and big rails of charlie. Coke notwithstanding, Alistair and Liam had been up for two days, and a couple of times they both fell asleep on the road, and nearly went smashing into another vehicle. Each time, Alistair woke first with a start and then a shout, jerking Liam into action. Afterwards of course, it was all a big joke. “It was fun like”, Liam said, and actually Alistair had to concur.

There was not a scrap of pretension about Liam. On the subject of his lazy eye: “Doctor told me my eye would never get any better with glasses, so as soon as me Ma couldn’t stop me, I threw the fuckers away”. This is an act that denotes character, which Liam had plenty of. Pretty much irresistible to the factory princesses who drank at his bar, Liam also had a beautiful and long-suffering fiancée. “When I got home and she saw the state of me as I stood in the doorway, she clocked me one on the nose. Fucking savage. I went arse over tit down a flight of stairs. But it’s good like. Shows she cares, you know”.

Liam may not have been a raving intellectual, but he had social skills. It had taken him just six weeks behind the bar to pick up better than survival Polish. A language short on vowels, long on consonant clusters and with a grammatical structure of geometric complexity: “Jaysus, when you see it written down it looks like all the leftovers from some massive fookin’ scrabble contest”. His own vocabulary did not seem to include the words ‘fidelity’, ‘faithfulness’ or ‘constancy’.

On the night in which we are in situ at the bar of MacKenna’s pub, Edward Foster had by now drank his obligatory ’swift half’ and disappeared, and a new, looser crowd was assembling around the bar. They were hearing all about Daniela – one of the more recent notches on Liam’s bedpost (or more accurately, on his dashboard as the act in question had taken place in a moving vehicle).

Alistair had heard this story before. The difference was that this time, Liam was telling it to a group that included another, not altogether disinterested party: Mike Driver, who was Daniela’s current ‘boyfriend’. Also present, was one Ed Lawless of the US State Department, in fact a US vice-consul, up in Kraków on one of his frequent visits from Budapest. Quite plainly, Liam felt no real hesitation in recounting this tale of auto erotica in front of Mike, because it was widely understood among Liam’s gang of regulars, that Polish girls were there to be enjoyed and then discarded. Finer feelings did not come into it. And anyway, Alistair had heard a very similar anecdote a couple of nights hence from Mike’s own lips: “Dude, this chick is unbelievable. Okay. You come in her mouth, but then she just keeps going, until you either come again, or you have to pull her by her hair to drag her away”. ‘How disgusting that he would tell me about it’ Alistair thought, and ‘What kind of childhood produces that sort of sexual slavishness in a seventeen-year old?’ He wondered, involuntarily stiffening in his pants.

It was clear that Mike held her in a kind of childlike awe. “Sometimes I think I want to take this girl with me back to America man”. Her winsome looks, plus this simple act of devoted subservience had captured his affections more assuredly than the usual panoply of fashion sense, career savvy and independent mindedness that he would have readily identified as being traits of the modern American woman. Like many of the single or faithless male expats in Eastern Europe, Mike was resentful of anything he thought smacked of feminism.

Mike Driver was a twenty-eight-year old Mechanical Engineer from Baltimore, working as a Senior Supervisor on a building project in nearby Katowice. He was vain of his biceps and triceps which threatened to bust through the seams of his tight, white T-shirt and he seldom left his apartment unless in a haze of powerful cologne. Unbeknown to him, the girls who worked at MacKenna’s had nicknamed him Johnny Bravo, after the muscle-bound cartoon Casanova. Mike had exactly two topics of conversation.

One is obvious …The other was the stock market, for which some specious, misplaced reason, was a subject he seemed to think Alistair knew or cared about. Once, in order to direct the conversation to something aside from chicks – or bulls and bears, Alistair had asked “Read any good books lately?” to which Mike had replied “yeah man, a bunch”. So far so good: “What about?”

“Stock market. Hey, check out this Penthouse with Carmen Electra”.

Mike’s new obsession seemed to be with Daniela, and Alistair wondered if Liam was pushing it a bit too far with this chiding, off-colour banter. If he was, US Vice-Consul Ed Lawless of Birmingham, Alabama certainly hadn’t noticed. “Aw man, where in hell in the US you gonna find a chick like that?”

“New Jersey”, Mike had offered and everyone laughed even though Liam didn’t really get the reference. Alistair was glad the moment of potential conflict had passed, but then Liam: “Ah, but now our Mike has gone and fallen in love to be sure. Wants to take her back to Bilmington or wherever the fook ’tis and make babies with her, don’t you Mike?”

“Son, don’t come to me looking for a visa for her. I won’t be able to help. Not unless she gives me three blow jobs in a row”, Ed guffawed. Again laughter. Alistair watched Ed closely, the way his ‘fat slob American belly’ (Ed’s own description) quivered under his Ralph Lauren shirt and Brooks Bros suit. Alistair liked Ed, even though Ed was corrupt, perhaps because. He was an interesting life study, that’s for sure.


Twenty-nine year old Ed Lawless was the larger-than-life manifestation of all the clichés about the wild Southerner. Alistair liked listening to the way the man said things, just as much as what he said. “Goddam it, wha’d’we godda do to git them girls to look over here? Mind you, I dunno if it’s a good idea – I’m overweight, and I’m sweating like a whore in church today”, and “I gotta git myself back home for some good ol’ time religion, and then a good whorin’ down”, and “Finally got my armed services TV hooked up. Sunday night football. Yes siree, me an’ a six pack and a box o’ tissues cause I’m so pumped up I can’t stand it”. Ed used his diplomatic passport and number plates as a shield and a talisman protecting him from the tedium of life as a law-abiding citizen, especially a law-abiding Hungarian or Polish citizen. He drove everywhere almost as fast and as drunk as he wanted. He picked mini-skirted Hungarian girls off the US visa application lines and went out on dates with them. Even his wife Annabella’s frenetic expat women’s social circle worked in his favour, giving him more time to leave Budapest and its more pervading glare of officialdom behind, for the occasional weekend of out-and-out debauchery in places like Kraków, Kiev and Bratislava.

Ed had first come to Poland (he said) to talk to a Hungarian-American locked up in a Polish jail, and had found Liam’s pub within hours of getting into town. Within twenty minutes of talking with Liam, and introducing himself as US consular employee on an assignment in Poland, he was in the store room ‘the magazine’ of MacKenna’s sampling lines of Polish methamphetamine (reputedly the best in Europe) and keying coke from a small bag that Liam had bought in Warsaw, “Oh, it’s shite really this stoof”, Liam had said “but I like the way me gums go numb, and at least you can say we did a wee bit o’ charlie and it wasn’t just speed”.

Since their first meeting a year before, Ed had been to Kraków three or four times, no longer ‘on duty’ but to whoop it up with Liam and cohorts. With a degree in Russian philology under his belt, he had picked up Polish in a short period of time, or at least enough “to get myself or some girl into trouble”. After what Liam had told Alistair about his ‘entertainment value’, he had tagged along to watch the Ed Lawless show in action the last time he had come to town, and was now along for the encore. Only this time, something was different, and Alistair found myself looking for the exit signs, the fire doors and the usherette with her torch to guide him to safety and the plain light of day…

Liam, lad-glamour incarnate, was supposed to have scored some coke that night too, but he did so thinking with his testosterone and not his better social judgement. “That’s rule number one, right, after never lose the stash, don’t get bitches involved in a drug deal”, as Ed put it. Ed, only in his late twenties, already had a politician’s red-hued face, and had more of the air of an operative than a civil servant. “Soon as you get a woman involved in a drug deal, you get some other guy who you don’t know or see involved too, and who knows what that son of a bitch’s intentions are”.

“Hello Pan (Mr.) Lawless”, said Daniela, returning from a girl’s talk she had been having with some fellow high school seniors in the corner of MacKenna’s back room.

“Oh hey, dzieñ dobry Pani, jak sie masz?”

“Dobrze, a ty?”

Alistair pulled on his pint and watched bemused as Ed flirted with Daniela in Polish. It was true, Daniela would have loved to have secured a US visa, but Alistair was not as quick to comment on it as was Liam: “Looks like she’s working on the visa already Mike. Shall I ask Ed what ye need for a Green card?” Mike’s forced grin was already a grimace, and the night was far from over.

“I’ve gotta get outa this pub tonight and go up the old town. I’m gettin’ cabin fever in here, it’s wrecking me fooking head”, said Liam.

...Dates have been changed to protect the very much guilty in my continuing, semi-autobiographical ramble. Once again, I must warn readers of a delicate or sensitive disposition that the following contains scenes of a drunken, obscene, intoxicated, blasphemous and lustful nature…

By the time they reached Black Gallery, a cavernous homage to industrial steel just a stone’s throw from the Rynek, Alistair was beginning to look and sound, well, a bit pissed. He was still reasonably coherent however and could, with some small measure of difficulty, focus on events and conversation around him – and even respond accordingly. As he knocked back the first shot of Kamikaze from a round of a dozen just bought by Ed, a fog of sluggish incomprehension begin to envelop him. It was not an unfamiliar sensation, but one that he tolerated as a more or less inevitable consequence of one of Alistair’s favourite activities: that is to say, the process of getting drunk. There are of course consequences to living so carelessly. Alistair reckoned at the time that it were his kidneys that were giving out. He would sometimes skip meals for days, and then after eating, have sudden gut-crunching spasms where he felt myself about to lose complete bladdertorial control. Even the prospect of shitting his pants in public did not deter him from this downward spiral. “It’s the only thing I’m good at”, he used to say – Alistair certainly didn’t rate himself much as a writer…

For as long as he could remember, Alistair’s head and heart and loins had been on fire. As a boy wandering the playing fields his primary school in Christchurch, New Zealand, Alistair had dreamed of the day when he would make brilliantly witty acceptance speeches at gala award ceremonies, looking dashing in black-tie. But the reality was that by 1994 he had effectively made sure that every door in New Zealand was closed to him. He owed large sums of money to several well-known Auckland drug dealers, and a few of the lesser known ones. His credit cards were up to the limit and his credit at the bank of available women inc. completely was exhausted. He had run out of options in New Zealand, which as it turns out, was the best thing that could have happened to him. On a day nervously pacing up and down in his rented apartment in the pseudo-Bohemian suburb of Ponsonby, a courier arrived at the door with an invitation to attend a fourteen day press junket to British Columbia, Canada. Alistair had never entertained the idea of going to British Columbia before, but what the hell?

Picking up where we left off in this wildly libidinous, drunken and violent tale from an alternate reality. I was never quite as self-destructive as these stories make out, although of course it isn’t all drawn from imagination either…

Liam, Ed and Alistair made their way back to the bar. Before turning back though, Alistair had noticed that he had, instinctively, moved into a stance where his best foot was forward, and his arms hung at his side, readied, as if for action. Without realizing it, he had sided with the Alpha males, and really, he thought to himself, it was pathetic because A) what in hell business did he have defending a sad tosser like Mike Driver and B) he would be the first to go down in a real scrap. He had the hand to hand combat skills of a clown in a circus fair shooting range. Maurice and Ed growled at the table of languidly defiant looking Poles, all of them around student age. For a moment, he admired them, hanging tough, and felt ashamed of himself and his entourage. Jamesons would help him forget.


The next hour, during which he polished off another couple of shots of Kamikaze and two glasses of Jamesons, was something of a blur for Alistair. But that was okay. This was it. The ‘click’ that Brick craves in Cat in a Hot Tin Roof, (only with no Maggie the Cat to lick his wounds). As he drank the whole scene about him seemed to take on an amber glow. Everything seemed at once hazy and all according to some higher plan. Around him twenty-something Polish yuppies and students seemed to be having an almost exaggeratedly good time. Dancing wasn’t dancing unless you pirouetted your partner around the room, until they virtually bounced off the wall. Drinking wasn’t drinking unless you slammed bottles or glasses on a table. Joking, laughing and singing-along had to be performed, if at all possible, at stadium rock noise levels. Couples made out as if it were a track and field event.

Alistair had never seen such reckless, self-conscious abandon as in this first generation of post-socialist young adults. Ten years before there had been never any more than three or four places in the entire Old Town of Kraków where you could get a drink. Now there were literally hundreds: now you could emerge from the cellar of Black Gallery to meet the first light of day upstairs in their still raging garden bar. Somewhere between the hours of four and five Alistair had transferred his supine posture from a bar stool downstairs to a deck chair in the sun. His arm draped over the wicker arm of his chair; clinging to his final, almost empty glass as if it offered some kind of security, Alistair watched in lustful awe as a girl in a backless dress tore up the pebbles shimmying to the strains of the Gypsy Kings. Alistair loathed the Gypsy Kings, but for this girl he was able to overlook that. Was there anything in life as uncomplicated as non-reciprocated desire? Was anything purer than pure frustration? Her voluptuous body, solarium tanned skin, flashing blue eyes and raven hair like a bird’s wing held him in thrall… And then he was coming to: the bar was virtually deserted and a waiter, coughing pointedly, was stacking chairs.

It was 6.15am on a Saturday and Alistair’s evening was over, or so he thought. He picked himself up from his chair like an invalid in a rest home when the dinner bell rings. He figured that he had only been asleep for twenty minutes, if that. As he ambled out of the courtyard, mumbling Polish sounding pleasantries to the hired help, his head pounding, he began piecing together the events of the preceding hour or so. Mike of course had left, in hot pursuit of the evening’s femme fatale. Whither Ed? Maurice? Whenever Alistair reached a particular point of intoxication, (and there were worse nights than this), he tended to internalize, arguing with his inner monologue, shutting people out with a grunted ‘yeah’ or ‘I suppose’. Maurice had been first to leave, after Mike, which was unusual, but then he had been ‘on the batter’ since midday the day before, when a pack of Hooray Henrys in Kraków for the weekend had descended on O’Morgans with a deep and gorgeous thirst. He had kept going, and had held on until around five am, when his good eye had started searching for his lazy eye, so to speak, and he needed to support himself to stand. “I’m fooking wrecked lads, I’m outa here”. Also unusually, Ed had remained quiet since Mike had gone running up the stairs, and had stood nursing his beer, studying the table of students who had defied them, in particular the boy Jarek. That’s right – now he remembered – Ed had left a few minutes after Jarek had bid his fellow pint glass wielding scholars an apologetic farewell. Something about ‘pracuje’, which Alistair knew meant work. His friends had teased him as he left, most likely for being a sissy.

Outside on the street, Alistair reached in his topcoat to find a large, sticky roach which he had completely forgotten about, and decided to take ‘the long way’ home, circling around the Planty (the grasslands which encircled the medieval Old Town). He was just emerging from the Mikolajska pavement, about to step on the Planty grasslands and light his joint, when he heard sobbing from the bushes immediately to his left. It stopped him in his tracks, and it was as if he was watching himself as he turned and investigated the source of this low whimper of masculine despair. “Christ!” A shadow took a shape and that of a young man, hurt, but getting back on his feet.



Jarek’s face was not a pretty picture, but a picture it was. Someone had etched USA on his forehead with a knife, or some sort of blunt instrument, blackened his eyes, and by the looks of things, knocked out a couple of his front teeth. He seemed to be in the act of regaining consciousness, stature and fury. “I FUCKING KILL YOU AMERICAN FUCK!”

“Christ!” This would seem to have been Alistair’s cue to run away to fight another day, but he stood rooted to the spot just as in a nightmare. Only Jarek’s bloodied hand grabbing his collar shook him from his temporary paralysis. “Jesus”, he exclaimed before pulling away, and sending Jarek crashing, momentarily, to the ground at his feet.

Self-preservation took over and Alistair began running, running as fast as he had ever ran, with Jarek’s screams echoing in his ears.


Back at his apartment with the dripping shower and the tinny midi-system blaring the local Kraków house music station, Alistair sucked on that roach as if his life depended on it, ransacked his place until he came up with another three roaches, smoked them, and finally fell asleep at about ten in the morning. He had intended to stay awake until a ‘decent hour’, when he could rouse Maurice from his stew, but his overworked imagination had finally given out, and taken his body off with it.

There were of course only two possible conclusions: either Mike Driver, frustrated by not being able to find Daniela had laid in waiting, determined to enact his revenge on this insolent Polish boy – or Ed Lawless had taken to Jarek out of some perverse sense of wounded national pride, sadistic pleasure, or a grotesque combination of both. It didn’t bear thinking about, and as he drifted into sleep the compartments in his subconscious jostled for attention, so that instead of bloodied faces and knives and retribution, Alistair dreamt of a room with shuttered windows opening on a seascape and a cool breeze, a bed replete with crisp white sheets and mosquito netting, a breakfast tray bearing freshly squeezed orange juice and Jamaican coffee. It was a Travel and Leisure Magazine feature story dream, for a Travel Writer in Eastern Europe whose life was unravelling before his eyes.

It was seven in the evening when he finally came to, and after fixing himself a ham and cheese sandwich (about the limit of his culinary abilities) Alistair made the six and a half minute walk to O’Morgans (it was, he knew, seven and a half minutes from his office).

“Been trying to get a hold of Ed all day. Phone is outa range. Maybe he went up to Warsaw. Fucker didn’t even pay his tab. Ah well, he’ll be back. No sign o’ Johnny Bravo, neither. But he’s been phoning and asking after Daniela. As if I know or give a fook”.

“Hello Liam, can I have a word?” The front room of the pub was already packed, and there was a birthday party going on in the music room, a dozen young Poles toasting vodka shots and singing “Sto lat, Sto lat” (One hundred years). They reminded Alistair uncomfortably of the boy Jarek and his friends. Alistair waited a full twenty minutes before Liam gave him the nod, during which time he barely touched his Guinness, staring balefully at the rim of his glass and avoiding eye contact with anyone who might recognize him.

In the magazine (store room), he told Liam what he had seen, in between snorting some of the big Irishman’s newly acquired supply of speed, and smoking a huge spliff with too much tobacco (and too much grass for that matter), dry retching as he ingested and inhaled. Liam was nonplused by what Alistair had to tell him. “I don’t tink it was Mike. Fookin’ Ed, eh? Didn’t know he had it in him. Thought he were all mouth and trousers like most Yanks. Yer man won’t come lookin’ for him, certainly not here, not if he knows what’s fooking good for him. Jaysus. Women, eh, what can you do?”

“I know, what can you do?”

Yes, Alistair had fallen into low company, and not for the first time – only now he was giving over his life entire to it. Sure, he had a daytime job with an English language magazine in Kraków, Poland, and work was a daily struggle, but it seldom interfered with Alistair’s more important task of living out all his death wish fantasies.

Night after night Alistair would leave Maurice’s pub completely wasted and then get into all sorts of dire straits. Example: he got in a fight. Another time he was found crawling up the walls of his apartment building’s stairwell, screaming, discovered there by his elderly Polish neighbour, her features etched in horror. Maurice bailed him out of that one. On a separate occasion, he was thrown in the Kraków drunk tank. A few weeks later, again with Liam, Alistair was a passenger in a car engaged in a 100 mile an hour drag race. The driver was one of the cops who had earlier escorted him to the station. Escorted him to the station. “Hey Mr. New Zealand some big guy in cell is going to fuck you in the ass tonight”. When they were in the car together during drag races this same cop was passing around a joint. Alistair sat in the back of the car taking vacuum cleaner tokes whenever the stick came his way, and swigging on a bottle of vodka, probably not Smirnoff or Absolut, marveling at the madness of it all, the feeling indescribable to anyone who has not had the rare talent to give into it, the utter freedom of letting go to whatever downhill slide was coming his way.

It was all North America, he could take a Greyhound bus to New York – in reverse Midnight Cowboy mode. Ten days after receiving the telegram, he was on a plane bound for Vancouver and the beginning of a two week high speed schmooze fest and orgy of hotel inspections, travelling with a mostly affable group of middle-aged feature writers from places like Wellington, Hamilton and Invercargill. “Invercargill? How d’you stand it?” Alistair asked at the bar one evening, pissed for a change. After fourteen days of intense scenic beauty and politeness, he said farewell to hospitality weary travelling companions and with a little less than two thousand Canadian dollars to his name set out to reinvent himself in Vancouver. A postcard to himself that he wrote six months later will indicate how successful he was in this quest.

March 6 1999, Calgary

I fell down, I fell down too far. So far as I know, I am the world’s only near bankrupt, destitute, penniless, substance abusing exile and rake, waiting in a flea-bag hotel room for a Western Union transfer to arrive with around a thousand dollars US and my dispatch papers, my ticket out of Cardiac Arrest Hotel. Actually, it’s the Saint Louis in ooh… maybe Calgary? In the morning, a taxi will take me two blocks to the rather grand Palliser hotel, where a contra deal I have scant intentions of fulfilling has allowed me to make a weekend love nest for a secret assignation with some highly desirable dangerous goods, getting in from the airport at nine. You can’t eat airfares, as every travel writer knows, but I come pretty close. For a guy who never has any money, I sip my lobster bisque and Dom Perignon in some pretty swank joints. I also stay in places where you can hear the winos and the junkies scream at night. When my travel writing career began, it was sunshine – or via con sola – all the way. I travelled with a photographer, my Iago as it turns out, and everywhere we went we were feted as visiting dignitaries or celebrities – of which species we were neither. We cruised in jet boats with Argentine aristocracy, and trawled the fantastic discotheques of Buenos Aires. I made love to an ice-cool white-blonde beauty who spoke barely a word of English. English/Spanish dictionaries on the table when we went out for dinner at the Parilla Steakhouses, and another girl in Salta, buxom and ripe as a peasant wench home from the fields… But when the stories have been published and the relevant airlines and agents paid for their space around it, I am always the last schmuck on the food chain to be paid off. From El Cielo discoteca to this dismal, unloved little room with the dirty sink and stains on the walls, I have obeyed the paradigm of my paradox – five star poverty. Landing gentry to fall down drunk, I’m a modern-day Remittance man. So, I’m taking the job in Eastern Europe. Editing and writing guidebooks in Krakow, Poland. And I’m going to show those lazy, puff piece writing, intellectually dubious, late model land cruiser driving losers back in the old country, what media empire building is all about. I Fell Down, now I gotta get up again.

So yes, after six months in Vancouver working for a crash and burn dotcompany which Alistair had been convinced was a ‘front’ anyway, he had found himself out of a job, and running out of cash – again. He was also in the midst of a passionate and ill-advised affair with an Italian/Canadian woman whose husband was a middleweight drug dealer with a hair trigger temper, a temper aggravated by what he saw as his wife’s neglect. He had somehow broken the code of her office call minding system and discovered a message left by Alistair, in which he conveniently left his home number. His phone call caught Alistair off-guard, but he was able to dissemble fairly persuasively; He was the travelling, predatory hack who hit on women wherever I went, it was pathetic really – no Christina (for that was her name) had not been receptive to his blandishments… he was a loser… a fake… a man who chased married women. Alistair did a pretty good job convincing ‘Pauly’, and uncomfortably, maybe an even better one of convincing himself.

Time to shed his skin and grow a new one, something that was fast becoming a habit: He packed his things and went to the bus station, and took a Greyhound to Calgary for the simple reason that it was the first one going. (Greyhounds again).

In a cybercafé on Calgary’s St Stephen’s Ave, and on something of a whim, Alistair tapped ‘travel writer wanted’ into an internet search engine and two entries came up: a women’s writing workshop and ‘Small World’, a fledgling guidebook company specialising in Central and Eastern Europe… So now here he was, the Managing Editor of Kraków – The Small World Guide.


Ten o’clock and it was still Alistair, Liam, Mike, Ed and Daniela, and they had been to several points along the way before arriving at Black Gallery. Only, right now: where was Daniela? She had spent most of the evening flirting with Ed, or at least that’s how it appeared to Mike, while Mike stood around wishing he spoke better Polish and Liam kept ordering drinks, oblivious to his torment. The ribaldry rolled ever on…

“One time I was down here and a fooking rat ran across the bar and up that fooking staircase”…

…”Oh, look at that chick, she’s as Hot as Balls man. My wife even notices how hot the chicks are in Poland – especially compared to the men. You know what she said ‘What is it with this split in the gene pool anyway?’”…

…”Daniela, she was running out of my apartment in her underwear, throwing her shoes at me. You wouldn’t believe the passion between us man”.

ONLY, WHERE WAS DANIELA? She had somehow disappeared into the crowd, perhaps on the precept of a trip to the powder room. Mike, scorned by Liam and conversationally cuckolded by Ed, was bristling with agitation.

Alistair was sure that he spotted her first. Daniela nestled in a cove with a group of young Polish boys; all shaven heads and bulbous eyes, Adam’s apples and gangly physiques. The largest of the group, and the closest to her, was leaning forward whispering something in her ear, and rubbing her succulent inner thigh up and down under the fringe of her tartan mini-skirt.

“Oh Jesus”, he muttered when Alistair clocked what was happening. His first instinct was to slip away from the group, and save Daniela from herself. “Cześć kochanie, maybe you should come and have one of these Kamikazes with me. And you know, your boyfriend, Mike”… Right. Sound plan. Or at least, it seemed that way, until he turned again and saw Mike was already on the war path, striding purposefully towards the table at the back of the club where Daniela was enjoying the attentions of her new admirer(s). Liam and Ed were not far behind. Liam turned to Alistair and smiled the kind of grin you might smile if you came home late and famished – and found a roast boar with an apple in its mouth, waiting on the dining table. “You up for it?” Alistair said nothing, but found himself carried along by his brawnier companions’ momentum. IT HAD COME TO THIS. He knew one thing for sure; Daniela wouldn’t be copping the blame for this, at least not in front of a crowd of people in a bar. Sure enough. “Scuse me pal, but I don’t think my girlfriend needs your hands all over her. Capiche? Rozumiem?”

“Hey American, there’s no problem”, said the boy, whose name was Jarek. Clearly he was not intimidated by four pissed up old timers. “We were at school together. She was a junior then, and I was a senior. I was like older man. Who you are?” (Who are you).

“Bardzo stari pan”, said one of Jarek’s friends at the table. It meant very old man.

“The fooking cheeky coont”, Liam said, with a mixture of hostility and admiration, shaking his head, winking and looking over at Alistair as he did so.

“You little fucker”, said Ed. “Movic Angielsku” (‘Speak English’).

“Listen I don’t think I like what I’m hearing, in any language”, said Mike, “C’mon Daniela, let’s go. And you, what’s your name?” Jarek’s whole body visibly clenched, and he blew a cloud of cigarette smoke in Mike’s direction, action-movie tough guy style. “I said what’s your freaking name, sitting there with your goddamn hand on my girlfriend’s…”

“I am not your girlfriend!” said Daniela suddenly; reminding everyone that she was the cause of all this tension. She was meant to the play female lead, not a bloody spear carrier. To emphasize the point she rose from the table and went running past Mike and up the stairs into the night air, with Mike not far behind.

“Aw Jesus”, groaned Liam and Ed, more or less simultaneously. This was not how it was supposed to go down at all. The chance for a perfectly good pub brawl, was now denigrating into a standard boy-girl fight. And they had been so close. Jarek shrugged his shoulders. “Women, eh, what can you do?”

Drinking yourself to death was one thing. Being confronted in the early hours of the morning by a kid with USA etched on his forehead with a blade who wants to kill you and all your friends was another. Alistair wondered what the hell the Polish kid was doing and how he might be feeling vis-a-vis the possibility his taking revenge. The next morning, when he sat down at his desk and rarely for him, began to write, in longhand, what he ended up writing was so very far from the specifity of the situation.Well, by this stage, he knew the scene around him in Kraków pretty well. What he didn’t know he could imagine, and what he imagined was indeed something like the following…

When Jarek Szymanski had awoken some eighteen hours ago after falling unconscious again following his failed bull rush at Alistair he had immediately regained his sense of composure, so that however bad things looked right at that moment: his forehead tattooed with the initials of the country he at once most envied and resented, and a body aching with bruises inflicted by a surprisingly powerful left hook and an eager wooden sole, he would just have to buckle up and make it through. Jarek had a long, unpleasant journey ahead of him, ten miles to Nova Huta, the grim industrial suburb built in liason with another huge 1950’s communist worker’s paradise, the Nova Huta steelworks – all of course bestowed on the city in the 50s with the benevolence of Uncle Joe. Reflections on Stalinist architecture were far from Jarek’s mind as he fished through his thin denim pockets to find just one zloty. No, he hadn’t been mugged. He was just a student in a pub making one or two beers last all night and now because of one flip remark to one asshole, he’s got a stupid and painful scar on his forehead and will have to importune strangers for financial assistance – beg, for his train fare home. It would be a humiliating experience asking for the money of course, though he’d get it eventually but then, oh then, dear God, came the long train ride back to Nova Huta and women who looked like his grandmother sizing him up and muttering “Scandala” (scandalous) in a deliberately audible whisper. And how long would he have the scars? What would his mother and father fifty miles away in Bialykosciol have to say about them if he went home for a visit the next weekend as he had planned?


Eventually Jarek arrived back at the tiny one room apartment which he shared with Darek, a self styled internet entrepreneur, and instead of collapsing onto his mattress and curling up into a foetal position, he virtually pounced on Darek’s slumbering torso.

“Szpiedalia. Korva! U.S.A. What the fuck”! cried Darek at this rude interruption.

“Uwaga! (Look out!) Don’t you fucking fuck with me today. I need to use your cellphone you fucking computer geek loser”.

“Okay, okay, what the hell happened to you?”

“Do we have any sugar? I need energy. Hey you’ve got weed. Hmm. That’ll do instead”. (It should be reiterated, Jarek was only nineteen years old).

“Okay, but don’t smoke it all you freak I need some for concert tonight”.

“Whatever. Have you seen my notebook? I want to call Janos Drzaszcz”.

“Janos Drzaszcz? Jesus. You on a phone number in-your-notebook type-basis with that animal? You in some mafia shit already?”

“Listen. Shut the FUCK UP. I got attacked WITH A KNIFE by some gung-ho American freak okay. I didn’t recognise him, but one of his mates that was there before was that cunt from the Irish place. Marketa drinks down there, so did Agneskia, Daniela…”

“Daniela? She involved in this?”

“Give me the fucking phone. I just want to see if Janos Drzaszcz is getting all the protection money he should be from that Irish guy”.

The criminal career that had made Janos Drzasczcz the man he was had started early, but had really slid into high gear when he killed both his mother and father at the age of nineteen over a ‘business debt’. Fourteen years in prison had followed. In prison, due to his physical strength, unflinching gaze, readiness to scrap, intimidating reputation and native economic sense he had founded the beginnings of a crime empire… on, at first, nothing more than stolen cigarettes. Jarek’s capitalist zeal had not been stemmed by incarceration for matricide and patricide, in fact it was only sharpened. Within two years he’d became the biggest speed dealer inside Ludwinow prison. Suffice to say, his captors did not hold high hopes for his rehabilitation, but Jarek had kept a low profile for years, prisons were overcrowded and…

Within hours of being back on the street, Janos Drzasczcz had met and fallen in crazy love with an angular looking streetwalker named Ola Novak. It was as if his inner ‘Sid’ had found Ola Novak’s inner ’Nancy’. Drzasczcz’s fury would not mix well with his passion on a night six months later, after he and Ola had an argument in an adult shop where Ola’s girlfriend was working. Ola had dramatised her contempt for his feigned indifference by sucking off two guys in the little screening room while two other happy punters jerked off on their chairs, clothes, wherever. Finally it was too much for Janos. He had began tearing the place apart, destroying everything and hurting everybody in his wake, except for of course for Ola, whom he could never even imagine hurting physically. The police were called and reluctantly arrived on the scene, providing whichever madman that was ripping up the basement at the Westerplatte/Bastowa corner with plenty of getaway time. To their utter dismay Drzasczcz went quietly. He served another year and six months before he was released. He had become partners in a pub casino with his supposedly hard-as-nails cellmate, who in truth was too scared to refuse him a half the takings. Business went well, as it usually did for Janos Drzasczcz. His winnings and acumen allied with a willingness to use sudden, extreme violence ensured Drzasczcz’s primacy in the Nova Huta underworld within months of his second release from prison. He became known as a man who could get things done, and he and his crew did favours for two very big, very important Ukranian gangs.

And so it was that on this spring day in 1995, Jarek Szymanski was standing alone and hopeful outside Rafal Drzaszcz’s apartment door. Shaved, showered and somewhat rested, he was wearing a Lonsdale zip jacket that he had and a beano to conceal the congealing shame on his forehead. Jarek hesitated a moment before ringing the bell, then what the hell, he’d come this far. He pressed the bell and waited outside the door to the kingdom of vice. He hadn’t left Nova Huta. Janos Drzaszcz and his entourage had, over a course of six months, occupied seven adjajcent apartments and with the aid of a sledgehammer had turned them into an interconnected twenty-four hour den of iniquity. From the beads in the doorway to the pink frilly welcome mat, the 1980’s graphic art and mirrored tires on the walls, the strategically placed strobe lighting and the fake marble Grecian busts, you knew you were in an epicenter of depravity the moment you walked in the door. If that didn’t convince you, then the sight of straws and lines of white powder, the constant playing of action movies or porn on the television, then the shaven-headed, besuited muscle men and the luridly made-up harlots nearly dressed in spandex, rubber and vinyl would have.

Jarek was met at the door by another man with a scar on his face. This one started under the man’s left eye and finished above his top lip. “You Szymanski? Yeah, come inside. Thought you’d said you’d been carved up?”

George Michael on the stereo, Vivid Video’s Sex on the television, Jarek could swear blind he saw a man in a suit getting a blowjob through a gap in a doorway while some other guys sat around watching but forward keep moving towards that once heard not forgotten booming voice, that always made Drzaszcz sound like a man speaking in a wind tunnel through a mobile phone. It was almost like another man’s voice, even bigger than his massive body suggested.

“I’ve met you before. Ola, where have we seen this kid before?” Drzasczcz was such a large man that Jarek had not even noticed that curled up between his legs lay Ola Novak, in white, thigh length stilleto boots; her watery eyes surrounded by thick, deliberate patches of black eye shadow. It was like looking at a tank, and its gun, then looking down to notice it had tracks too.

“Ah, we met at Marek’s birthday party”.

“You never run for me?”


“Why not? That’s alright you don’t need answer. What do you want from me Szymanski?”


Meanwhile… Back in McKenna’s pub, Alistair was now being jostled and prodded and told to get around to telling everyone what he’d seen that morning. But the truth was, Alistair didn’t much feel like telling his story anymore. It was a fresh memory, but he was bent on obliterating it. ASAP. PDQ. Plus, it was Saturday night and Alistair Blaine was in his element, the apex of his seven day alcoholic calendar. It was now midnight, and Alistair had necked a dozen Guinness that evening. This feat of considerable stamina and accompanying display of lucidity had been facilitated by a full five lines of speed. One of Liam’s mates had also brought a little something with him from Berlin, an Ecstasy tablet which he had eventually presented to Alistair with faux surreptitiousness: “This is what I like about taking drugs, it’s like being in the Secret Service”. Alistair had dropped it on sight, reasoning that from there on in, he best switch to voda mineralna nie gaszowana (water - no gas). He had read somewhere that MDMA and alcohol were not good mixers. Never mind the swill already sloshing around in his belly.

Anyone listening closely to Alistair however, would have noted an edge, not of ecstasy, but of hysteria; in his voice, his speech patterns, and his theatrical bonhomie. Alistair was a little hysterical, even if he had not registered so to himself. Beneath his carefully wrought facade of jollity, his frayed nerves refused to fuse, and his heartbeat was irregular, its syncopation like some danse macabre. His constitution may have been built along the same lines as the proverbial brick shithouse, but his nerves were more delicately calibrated. Nevertheless, there was a story, clamoring to be told, and as the first giddy sensations of slow acting MDMA quietly announced their presence, Alistair began telling it…

“…I was alone by this stage, this one having decided to vamos”.

“Mary, Joseph and Kevin. I’d been on the batter since midday so I had”.

“Interesting digression. But can I finish the goddam fucking story?” said Alistair, his voice suddenly sounding hoarse.

“Hey don’t look at me in that tone of voice”, Liam said, laughing.

“You want me to make you shut up for a while,” Alistair said, all bravado.

“Bring it on you Kiwi woofter’, Liam, laughing even more.

“As if he would have the balls”. Alistair and Maurice turned to find Ed Lawless standing a few feet away from their table, framed by a doorway and the muscular silhouette of Mike Driver. Mike, as always, cut straight to the chase:

“Any you guys seen Daniela?”

“Daniela? Jaysus you’re, what-is-it, orally fixated aren’t you?”

“Hey Mike”.

“Hey Alistair, how was the rest of your night?”

“Oh, you know…”

“Ed man, where have you been?”

“I’ve been with Mike all day, trying to eat and drink as much as possible, while he’s been trying to track down this Polish girl. Well you know, Stars and Stripes forever”.


“You don’t think those punks last night had anything to do with her not showing up, now do you”.

“Alistair, tell the lads here what you saw last night”.

“Yeah, I’m dying to know”.

“Wait a minute. You boys have been into something haven’t you?”

“Ed, I’m forgettin’ me manners. Could be ’cause I’m blocked. Come on lads, I want to show you them photos. They’re in the back room”.

“I’ll sit it out here”.

“Sure and suit yourself. We’ll only be a few minutes”.

“What’s the matter Alistair? Look like you’ve seen a ghost”.

“Did you say goat?”

“I’m fine. Just everything mixing together I suppose. I had a head start”.

“Come on then ladies, follow me” said Liam.

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