‘Graphite!’ exclaims the sharp-suited Polish businessman sat opposite me, and slaps his knees, pleased at remembering the word. ‘We used graphite! Graphite, you know, stuff what you get in pencils. But we used it for tramways, to conduct the electricity. Prague is full of my graphite. Or was,’ he shrugs, unconcerned ‘maybe, they change now. Who knows? Graphite is easy to get now.’
I’ve been working with the Roman for about four months at this stage, and know when he’s about to pause for breath. How did you land a contract for a Czech company, I ask him? His face darkens.
“No contract. In the eighties, was very simple. You have businesses you can trade with, and businesses you can’t.’
‘Who could you trade with?’
He grins humourlessly. ‘The people who invade you. It was all the, you know, the U.S.S.R, the Soviets. You only trade with countries which have the same.’ His face takes on a conspiratorial edge, eyes twinkling slightly ‘you have to be a crafty man, eh? Very crafty. Talk to friends who work in the same industry, trade materials from each other’s warehouses. No payment, but what could we pay?’ -he laughs -‘we were poor! So it was always, cheat or go hungry, cheat or go hungry. Bribe some people, maybe, who cares. Work your ass off for nothing, come back each day feeling hungry. Communism, man. Is shit’ he says, with some feeling.
The bright, airy conference room feels a million miles away from the picture he is painting. We are in one of the most modern buildings in town; all-glass exterior, water coolers, plush leather armchairs, a view of the Polish countryside that stretches across to the horizon to rolling plains and distant mountains. Apart from the solidary, clean-looking petrol station on the other side of the road, we could be in the middle of nowhere. It’s all an illusion. Walk two minutes down the road, duck under the railway underpass, and you come to the centre of Raciborz, a pretty market town where the third-degree burns of modern history are still visible. Traditional, brightly painted masonry extends about as far as the picturesque market square, after which it is gouged out and replaced by monotone, dirty grey concrete. Tower blocks loom like fortresses over every free patch of horizon. On the roadside, magazine kiosks are plastered with racial caricatures and pornographic invitations. Ancient bullet-holes are visible in some of the prettier bits of masonry. The rotting corpse of a steam engine frowns out at the town from its perch atop the railway station. Perhaps the Roman chose his site because it represents an untainted idyll. Like Nero, or Caesar, he has a select way he chooses to view the world; this also applies, in no small degree, to the lessons I am teaching him.
‘He’s an advanced learner, very proficient in the language. Occasionally there are a few slips. That’s what you’re going to help him with,’ my boss warned me.
‘Should I copy off some exercises from Business English Extreme, then?’ I offered, bright young English Language teacher that I was.
‘God, no!’ she looked horrified. ‘Don’t actually try to teach him anything, he’ll hate it. Just let him talk about what he wants to talk about. Correct him if he makes any mistakes.’
‘Should I bring a vocabulary sheet for certain topics?’
‘If it’ll make you feel better.’
It did, but it was completely unnecessary, even impossible. The Roman is a shrewd businessman and an extremely clever talker, even in a language that is not native to him. Every conversational snare I throw over him; politics, his family, machinery, he can sidestep them all and return to his favourites. The dish of the day is usually either business, wine or communism. To my shame, I don’t discourage him. Today, it looks like the topic will be communism, peppered with business.
‘Imagine,’ he tells me with sincerity, ‘you have to queue from six in the morning, just so you can get bread. Maybe some wine. You get two types of wine,’ he chuckles, ‘red, or white. So big surprise. Winter is freezing, why would you have white? You go for red. Everything is the same, everyone does the same, everyone is miserable. You swap food with your friends so they don’t go too hungry, either,’ he leans forward, the glint of unspeakable avarice clouding his eyes. ‘Nobody makes any money, everyone stay the same. So,’ he shrugs, ‘I take on more jobs. Say my business can do more things.
‘What was your business in the first place?’ I ask. This is pure selfishness on my part; we were meant to be talking about medieval Polish history. But something about the Roman makes you want to know; he somehow manages to be incredibly conceited and fascinating all at once.
‘Maintenance. My company and I, we work in the railway yards, you know, fixing locomotives. You know the old steam trains?’
I think about the rotting hulk a few minutes’ walk away, and nod.
‘Well, we refit the boilers, get them working again. We’re pretty good. So, we get contracts for fixing trams. And then-‘he claps his hands together ‘Graphite. Spare parts for graphite. But that wasn’t enough. You know what else graphite can be used for?’
‘No.’ I thought about pencils, but don’t say it aloud.
‘Molds. Molds for jewellery. You pour in gold; it sets in the graphite-boom!’ he laughs. ‘Very lucrative. And from graphite, to gold, to other metals. Business, it’s like stepping stones to me. You know how to play stepping stones?’
I tell him I’m familiar, but don’t see how it applies to business. ‘It is all business. Finding opportunity, moving from one place to the next,’ he shakes his finger at me, animated by his vision, reckless with greed. ‘Very soon, I will be investing in the future; solar technology. I have the materials; I have the engineers- why not?’ he laughs. ‘I want to preserve the nature; If I don’t, where will I go hunting?’
This is an admittedly good point, albeit typically functionalistic and unsentimental. Retrospectively (these sessions took place in 2016), I wonder what kind of reception the Roman would have, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Greta Thunberg and associated planet-savers, virtuously extolling the virtue of a carbon-free world whilst simultaneously indulging in weekends of primal bloodlust.
‘But you see how I mean? About the stepping-stones?’ he insists gently. ‘Like with the wine. Like I said, white or red, no choice. It was like that for a decade of my life. Then the U.S.S.R. collapsed- oh my God. I remember, my friends and I, we all rushed to the Supermarket at maybe seven-thirty in the morning, about the month afterwards. Wine from Australia, from Italy-we have so much choice!’ a broad smile spreads across his face. ‘I keep-I kept the first cork I pulled out. I keep every cork I pull out now, to remind me. How many do you think I have?’
I make a guess. ‘a thousand?’
He grins delightedly. ‘Four thousand and fifty-three. At the moment. I want to keep adding. A life counted in wine corks.’
Soon afterwards, his paid hour comes to an end. We shake hands, business-like, and I stamp out into the snow, leaving him to run his empire.
Peter Thorn is a teacher of English living on a blasted heath somewhere in South Surrey. In his spare time, he goes bird-watching, blunders through Italian lessons and secretly thinks Coldplay are OK up to the fourth album. His writing, at times serious, tends to revolve around his own sad, horrible sense of humour, in the hope that anyone similarly disaffected will at last be able to have a reassuring chuckle. Goes well with brie.
Read more of his work at aloka here: https://aloka-magazine.com/2020/04/19/pigeon-england-the-importance-of-meaning-and-unspecific-empathy-in-a-world-in-chaos/