I had known Marcin for over three years before I finally met his elder brother. I think that I was initially eager to make the man’s acquaintance, for I was a great admirer of Marcin’s character, and his brother would be surely like a new painting from the same expert hand. Yet I had to admit disappointment in Julek. He should have seemed like an old friend, but he turned out to be a stranger and there was no ready sympathy between us. I had to start back at the beginning with him, and allow all of his own quirks and characteristics to percolate through my psyche.
He was a wretched man. From within his wretchedness, Julek gazed out at the world across the vastest of distances. Marcin regarded him forlornly, as if he was a grandfather who was not yet conscious that his powers were failing rather than an elder brother. When I met Julek, he was listlessly searching Edinburgh for work that he deemed satisfactory. He would give up and return to Poland after barely a couple of weeks. But our story only ends with Julek consigned to his lonely Lodz flat, gloomily watching Pirate Bay movies every evening and munching on the cheapest ready meal from the nearest supermarket, gradually shrivelling up like an apple core. It begins with a fresh young man, who is buoyant with youth from the deepest chambers of his heart down to his fingertips.
If Shakespeare observes that the character of every hero contains a fatal weakness, Julek confirmed this maxim in a quite original respect. Since infancy, he could only urinate when his grandmother was whistling. His grandmother had potty trained him using this method, but Julek had never managed to take the final step and achieve independence. Whenever they were at home together, Julek would tell his grandmother that he needed to piss, and once he was established in the bathroom, his grandmother would begin to whistle from the next room.
When Julek first went to school, his grandmother presented him with a Walkman, which contained a tape of her whistling away. I like to imagine that she was energetically whistling the Polish national anthem, but I cannot remember being explicitly told this detail, so it may be an embellishment on my part. Children are very tough and they may never need to visit the bathroom throughout the whole of the school day, but Julek made sure that he was never separated from his Walkman. If the tape was chewed up or if somebody borrowed the Walkman and left their own tape inside, then Julek would be waddling about in agony, his bladder being steadily overinflated like a party balloon, until he was reunited with his grandmother’s voice.
For reasons which need not detain us, Marcin had been taken into care as an infant, by an institution which had successfully potty trained him. He was bemused by his brother’s troubles, and he occasionally put his mind to resolving them. Marcin had established that Julek could urinate whilst the tape of his grandmother was playing, but not when Marcin whistled or even when Julek himself had a try. If Julek was uncertain whether the whistling voice emanated from his grandmother, then there was not a drop.
Julek’s first girlfriend Magda had no greater success. One morning, less than an hour before dawn, they were walking back through the town to Julek’s apartment, past houses that stood spellbound in mystery like museum exhibits. Stopping at the side of the road, Julek grunted to Magda in vague indication and he extracted his cock. Magda eyed him drolly as he untangled his headphones.
In the stillness of the night, that steady hiss seemed to be the only sound in the world. Magda reflected upon how every boy’s cock is always a pleasing sight. When Julek finished, he impatiently rattled his cock dry and then turned off the Walkman with a great clunk.
Magda blew a laugh through her nose, making a little sound like a beer can being cracked open. “You have to listen to music?”
Julek’s glance shot to the tail of his eye, as if somebody standing in the shadows might have noted this down. “Whistling,” he corrected her sullenly. “My grandmother’s whistling.”
“But what if I whistle?” She was excited by his irritation, the faint danger which rustled and uncoiled slightly somewhere within him.
“It would not work. Only my grandmother.”
“You love your grandmother more than me? That’s sick.”
Magda sounded oddly impressed and she seemed to puff up with all of the comic possibilities of this. Julek thought that she was suddenly more like a little sister than a lover. He spoke to her sternly, as if she should be sensible. “I don’t think about it. It’s an unconscious thing.” Magda did not believe him and she began to whistle as if this would cause piss to stream down his legs.
At eighteen, Julek traded school for a job at the large plant outside town that manufactured hydraulic cylinders. Julek’s boss was a huge bony woman named Agnieszka and he was so reverential towards her that he was soon established as her informal deputy. To the worshipful Julek, Agnieszka’s mind, encased within a forehead which gleamed like a beetle’s shell, was the most perfect of machines and every thought that it produced was entirely sound and completely unequivocal.
Once, she asked him to come down to the factory floor with her to inspect a pressurised lubricator which had proved defective. The factory was empty and Agniezka kept glancing at her watch, no doubt expecting her engineers to return from grabbing a mouthful of fresh air. She looked beastly today, her nostrils dilating with pure fury. Somebody had been messing about with the lubricator, she was certain of it.
“We will have to see what is wrong with it,” Julek answered with consummate diplomacy, twinkling with an admission that anything was possible.
“You’re a good boy Julek,” she said firmly, glancing at her watch again. “Most of your colleagues do not take any pride in this place. They would never treat their homes like this.”
They were plunged into darkness. Julek exclaimed and he reached out to steady himself, pawing at the grimy surfaces around him. Then suddenly, bewilderingly, his cock had slipped out of his overalls and it was exposed in the open air, like a fish slapping against the riverbank. He found himself sinking under a massive weight and his cock was pulled briefly into a horrible rhythm, as if it had been entangled in the spokes of some moving machinery. He was gasping as the lights flickered back on. Agnieszka stood before him, immaculate and serene. “A power cut,” she remarked, with a wry smile.
When Julek vomited, she smiled again, but then she stiffened with a look of conscious responsibility. “You seem to have taken a turn. This place is full of dust. I feel stuffy myself.”
Julek was so weak at the knees that he could not walk back to his office. He spent several minutes crouching in the corridor, as sweat poured out of his body.
Julek was naturally distressed by this incident, imagining that Agnieszka would rebuke him for his unprofessional conduct, but she never alluded to it again. Moreover, the defective lubricator must have fixed itself, for it did not seem to require any further inspection. In any event, the plant was suddenly entering a new period of its history. A gigantic Japanese car manufacturer had purchased the plant and a delegation of its executives was arriving to audit the facility.
The delegation would be housed in a hotel on the other side of the town, and Agnieszka and Julek would stay with them to supervise their visit. They both sat down to supper in the hotel’s restaurant on the night before the delegation’s arrival. Agnieszka had obtained various photographs of the executives, and she and Julek would spend the evening learning their names. Julek remembered Marcin once saying that Japanese people had no gender. Waking in the morning, they decided whether they would be a man or a woman for the day, and they then dressed accordingly. Julek decided very quickly not to mention this to Agnieszka.
“I’ll have the lasagna, please,” Agnieszka instructed the waitress.
Julek was always careful to order something more modest than his boss’ choice. He looked up at the waitress. “Just the omelette please.”
The waitress was Magda. For a moment, Julek sat completely immobilised as if a fire alarm had gone off. Magda’s eyes were as empty as the moon; she wore the expressionless face of a doll. She silently collected the menus, and Julek listened as she faded away in a trail of dots.
He was transfixed in terror waiting for Magda to return, but to his relief a new waitress presented them with their meals. The omelette was mildly chilled. Julek had been so busy with his work that he had forgotten about Magda for several weeks. Did she really work at this hotel? He realised that he did not know where she now worked.
Julek excused himself to venture in search of the gents. At the urinal, he reached for his Walkman.
It was gone. For a moment, he stood at the urinal uselessly, his cock hanging out like a single stray lock of hair. He must have left the Walkman in his bedroom. If he was nimble, he could be up the stairs and down again before Agnieszka started to wonder where he was.
In the bedroom, Julek would only wind himself up like a clockwork toy into a jittery despair. He searched the room once and then went over it again, foot by foot, to confirm that the Walkman really had gone. Finally, mastering his hesitation, he made an appearance at the door of the kitchen.
They had three waitresses called Magda, but none of them were working that evening. No, they could not tell which waitress had taken his order for dinner. The cheques were just left on a spike for the chef.
Julek returned to Agnieszka in a daze. He mouthed some excuse at her and she nodded without interest. She began to pull him along into some lecture about the use of formal titles in Japanese, and Julek tried to focus on her words, telling himself that this was important, but he could feel the steady insistence of his bladder. When Agnieszka asked if he would like another coffee, he almost screamed out no.
She frowned. “Are you okay? You seem a little far away.”
“I’m fine. I just… it’s the pressure, I mean the nerves… about the visit.”
Unfortunately, Agnieszka was so reassured by this that she visibly relaxed. “It’s quite natural to be nervous.” Smiling, she looked suddenly girlish. “You know, we should take this opportunity to get to know each other more. I know practically nothing about you, even though I see you almost every day.”
Julek’s bladder now felt like a huge heavy rock planted inside his body.
“Let’s order champagne,” Agnieszka snorted. His skin crawling, Julek could only acquiesce, and when the champagne arrived, he eyed the two bright glasses of foam with a mounting dread. Agnieszka quaffed liberally. Julek sipped and he seemed to feel the fluid zip straight down to his bladder, like a fish diving into a great sea cavern.
The words seemed to tumble out almost to Agnieszka’s own surprise. “You know, I had a boy who would be your age by now.”
Julek crossed his legs.
“They say – when somebody dies they say all sorts of horrible things.”
They could say whatever they liked as long as Julek could take a piss. But he nodded, now scarcely aware of what was happening.
“They say that I didn’t look after him properly,” her voice sounded strangely factual, as if she was telling an anecdote about somebody else. She finished her champagne in a gulp. “He was messing about in my garage and when I found his body, well, I hid it for a few days. I didn’t know what to do.” She looked up at him, in appeal.
He needed to move, to get to his feet. The energy inside him was bubbling aimlessly, urgently, poised to foam over. He needed to be outside in the cool air, alone in the vast space of an empty street, where the angst would recede like a predator taking its eye off him.
“I got several letters… I don’t know who sent them. But they were deranged.”
As Julek lurched to his feet, she tried to pull him back down beside her. “Hold me,” she cried. He automatically clapped his arms around her, conscious only of the pain packed up like treasure in his bladder. Yet it was suddenly all too much and he was fighting blindly to escape. She would not release one of his arms and he pushed her back so brutally that the entire sofa flopped over in a great harrumph. He caught a fantastic glimpse of bare legs and heels splayed in the air, but then he was running for the lavatory, freed like a schoolboy.
At the urinal, he felt a hopeless sense of relief. His cock dangled uselessly, a tight little knot. He reached out for the arm of the man standing next to him.
“Whistle man, please whistle…” Julek pleaded.
“I’m sorry,” the man said very politely and he made immediately for the door.
Julek pushed and pushed and pushed at his useless bladder, but it was no good.
He found himself back at the bar, his head reeling. To his mild surprise, Agnieszka was on her feet, her hair dishevelled and her eyes wide, but with a sharp note of command in her voice.
“This is Julek, my assistant. Julek, Mr Masuko’s party has arrived early. Please help with their drinks.”
A mirage of jovial-looking Japanese men swam before Julek. They were blinking expectantly.
“What would you like to drink?” Julek whispered.
“Hello!” one of the executives roared.
Julek felt truly wretched, but he tried to apply himself to the situation. “What would you like to drink?” he repeated in a hard, faraway voice.
“You want drink?” the executive demanded.
“You!” Julek told him.
The executive had stopped. Julek looked around, wondering if time had frozen.
“Beer” the executive suddenly announced.
“Which beer?” Julek’s bladder was so heavy that it seemed to be pushing down, nosing gradually out of his body. He expected it to be expelled with a plop, to land at the executives’ feet. Julek feebly batted down the pain once more, feeling massively precarious, like a dog which is tottering about on its hind legs, ready to keel over at any moment.
The executive seemed to be surprised by the question and he waved it away. “Any beer!”
Julek ran desperately for a beer. A waiter understood and handed him one, and he ran back to present it to the executive.
The man looked astonished. “For you!” he mouthed. “Beer for you!”
Julek tried to remonstrate, but the executive indeed expected him to drink the beer. Several of his fellow executives had encircled Julek to watch, wagging their heads eagerly. Transfixed, Julek looked helplessly to Agnieszka, but he could not seem to make eye contact with her.
And so miserably, resigned to total defeat, Julek began to force the beer down into his body. The executives watched him with an engrossed admiration. Julek felt the liquid newly settle inside him, crushing his abdomen with an overwhelming, unbelievable pressure, and then he was fighting frantically to escape. The executives laughed emptily, without comprehension. They instinctively stepped back as Julek shot across the bar in a single movement like a paper aeroplane. Julek was fumbling at a table which was being set for dinner until he found a steak knife, which leapt in his hands as if it was on fire. Climbing out of his shirt, Julek plunged into the pain as if into a swimming pool, making a smart little nick in his bladder.
Warm blood bubbled over his fingers, as creamy as milk. There were a couple of sharp pops, and then a fierce jet of urine sprayed out of Julek’s body like the issue from a fire extinguisher. The executives were scrambling back in a fright, but they were slipping on the bloody floor, and some of the clumsier ones were caught in the blast. There was a crack as Julek trod on somebody’s glasses. He was running witlessly after the executives, virtually chasing them, in his haste to explain and help them. Agnieszka was drenched trying to fight him back. The odour of fresh vomit filled the room as several of the executives were profusely sick.
A shining pool of urine – virtually a pond – spread across the floor to the far wall. The pain had forced a cold little hand into Julek’s innards, and he was now lying on the floor, curled around it.
The Japanese left Poland the next morning, without visiting the plant. Agnieszka tried to approach them, but one of their secretaries told her with great viciousness that the Polish were nothing but animals. They had soon shut down the plant and Julek’s hometown was impoverished. Agnieszka sent Julek a text message whilst he was in hospital, telling him not to bother returning to work. His bladder is now made of plastic, and it is operated by a contraption that looks rather like a beer tap. Marcin jokes that they should fill Julek with beer for parties, so that he can walk around topping up people’s drinks.
[Marcin previously appeared in the short story “Heebie Jeebies.” Ed.]