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I had coffee with my friend Anna in the Bongo Club today, and she told me an interesting story. An IT technician named Jozef often stopped by at a bar on Leith Walk after finishing work. He drove home in a car, of course, but, like many Polish workers in the city, he did not have a valid driving license and he considered the prohibition against drink-driving to be a curious local custom rather than a significant law. In the bar on Leith Walk, he would have several pints of beer, but he would always drink a glass of water before beginning the drive home, believing that this set his mind to rights. The bar was a small concern which was owned by an elderly Nigerian immigrant. He tended the bar during the day, and at night the son of one of his friends kept an eye on it. It was the latter – a French student named Anton – with whom Jozef would often end up talking.

Jozef and Anton had little in common. Jozef was three years short of forty, his hair was falling out, and he was resigned to witnessing his children lapse into pidgin Polish, or “Ponglish” as he had heard it called. His wife was a solicitor, and neither he nor her had the time to teach their children about Poland. Anton had been some sort of student, and he would most probably be some sort of student again – nobody under thirty-five seemed to work any more in this city, or else they nodded in and out of work like sleepy heads, and always returned to a dreamland of aimless study. This would sometimes anger Jozef:

“You are young. There are brains in that head of yours. Christ, if I was your father, you would be out the door until you came home with a proper job.”

Anton laughed. Jozef continued furiously.

“Why don’t you find an adult job? A managerial job?”

“I prefer not to,” Anton sang dreamily. “One meets so many parasites – people with humanities degrees who have unnecessary jobs, in human resources and environmental sciences and alternative healing. The world would be a better place if these people had the courage to admit that they were unemployable, and then scuttled away under some rock…” He laughed happily. “Like this bar!”

The more that Jozef and Anton talked, the more the world receded, leaving their two minds absorbed in each other, like two skaters twirling together against a pure white landscape. Jozef would tell Anton things which he had never completely acknowledged to himself, and Anton’s searching mind seemed to shake the soil and matted roots from shapeless lumps, revealing stark outlines:

“I have to get out of this city. It’s always so dark and I sometimes wonder what the weather is doing to my mental health. It’s unnatural for a man to get so little sunlight.”

“Then why don’t you just leave?”

“My wife is too involved in her job. And I could not leave her and the children. It would kill them.”

“You infantilise those children. You see so little of them, that they would not really miss you if you left.”

“Jozef laughed. “That is true. You are right.”

Summer arrived and the council began to install tram lines along Leith Walk. There was considerable disruption to the commerce of the street, and the Nigerian owner was so exasperated by the fall in custom that he only opened his bar at weekends, and then finally shut it altogether. Jozef was at a loss and he perhaps assumed that he had lost Anton, but he soon found his old friend amongst the nightlife on Leith Walk. Over the following weeks, they drank together in various bars on Leith Walk and thus resumed their folie a deux.

Jozef was confused and disturbed at spending so much time with this gloomy student. Jozef had come from a strict Catholic family and, as an adolescent, he had been intensely embarrassed by his need to masturbate. He had consequently played an odd little game with himself, in which he had tried to restrict the occasions when he had masturbated for days at a time. Once, Jozef had gone for five days without masturbating and he now remembered this early triumph over desire as he strived to spend less time with Anton. But a world of chores waited beyond the bars where he drank with Anton, and the days when he abstained from Anton seemed empty and unmemorable.

There was a time when he became aware that he had spent almost a week without Anton, but then arriving home from work on a Friday night he found the student standing in his living room.

“What are you doing?” Jozef stammered.

“I’m not leaving,” Anton replied.

Outside there was the sound of a car. Jozef’s wife was getting in from work.

“My wife is coming!” Jozef hissed.

“I’m not leaving.”

The door opened and Jozef’s wife walked into the living room. “Who is this man and what is he doing?” she demanded.

Jozef said nothing. Anton said, “I’m not leaving.”

Jozef’s wife blinked. “Who is this man and what the devil is he doing?”

Jozef said nothing. Anton said, “I’m not leaving.”

“Jozef!” his wife screeched wildly. “Say something! Who is this man? What are you doing?”

Jozef said nothing. Anton said, “I’m not leaving.”

The door burst open and Jozef’s children charged into the living room, intent on capturing the television. When they saw the three adults, they stopped.

“What’s happening?” the eldest child asked uncertainly.

Jozef said nothing. Anton said, “I’m not leaving.”

“Upstairs!” their mother ordered, clapping her hands. “Chop chop!”

“But we want to watch television,” the youngest child wailed.

“Do as I say! Go to your rooms!”

Jozef said nothing. It was as if his mind was a mixture of acids and alkalis which had suddenly met, neutralising each other and leaving nothing behind.

Dinner was an awkward affair. Anton sat defiantly at the table, even though he had been pointedly excluded from the dinner. The children watched him nervously.

“Jozef!” his wife berated him. “This is ridiculous! Beyond a joke! What is this? Pull yourself together!”

But Jozef said nothing. His mind was the light fading on the far wall, and the strings of spaghetti twisting round and round his fork, and the television murmuring from the next room.

He and his wife went to bed, and Anton accompanied them. Anton sat in a chair by the window.

Jozef’s wife had been subdued for some time. “Jozef!” she despaired finally. “This has to stop. Look at me! Speak to me!”

But Jozef said nothing. Perhaps he hopes that when he awakes in the morning, Anton will be no longer sitting at the chair by the window. Perhaps, on the other hand, he hopes that his wife and children will silently pack their suitcases in the night and be gone by the morning. Or perhaps his mind has simply packed in, like a terminated airport, and like an unresponsive appliance, with its fuses blown, he is utterly useless. In any case, his wife ended up staying with Anna and I do not know what happened to the children.

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