Late at night I clambered over the front seat and over Mona our driver sleeping and went for a walk. There was one last person on the square. He was cleaning up the hot dog papers and empty cans and pink and yellow lottery tickets which had scattered on the Calais road. He had a green cart and nylon brush and his name, he said, was Marek. He spoke a little French, a little German, a little English. We went to a dive he knew and drank a Stella Artois together. He told me he had left his wife and children in Gdansk. He didn’t love his wife any longer, he did once of course. He was bored with her, she did not love him any more, and she did not like the way he spent so much time with his friend Pavel. She had been crying and sending letters and said he should come back and try all over again. But, he said, he saw no point in making a new start on what he knew would have the old end. He stood me another beer and I told him I was headed for fame as a film director. If he had a talent he could work for me. He could choose his profession and begin learning it now. He said he could imagine himself hairdressing, preparing the stars for the cameras. He could not be persuaded to raise his sights above that. Hairdressing—hair-cutting, he called it—was an honourable profession and had saved many injuries by preventing hair being caught in machines. I decided: he would be the first member of my crew. I stood him a beer and he told me that when he was a teenager he used to go to school with his hair bandaged in a turban so that he could grow it long the way people did in the West. Now that he was in the West himself, re-examining his life and turning all kinds of notions upside down, he had cut his own hair and enjoyed this so much he wanted to cut hair, not sweep streets. Suddenly a song on the jukebox upset him terribly and he went off to play a round of pinball. He came back and told me he had left his mother and father in Gdansk and this was his life’s greatest dilemma. He did not want to abandon them and he did not want to stay in Gdansk. It was a dilemma he did not conceive of ever solving. Nonetheless he had to return to Poland. He was working entirely illegally and so far for only two days, or rather, nights. How, he asked, could he ever work for a film director in the West? Unless—he saw a way—I was prepared to film in Poland. But did Westerners really want to sit in cinemas and hear the various tragedies of Gdansk? Why not? I replied—it would be the new Poland, or the new Russia. My first masterpiece would begin with a bedroom scene, with Mona sitting on a bed in an autumn light, reading about the new Russia. Marek nodded. The jukebox had gone silent. He stood me one more beer and I felt cold and sick. I decided I would have to leave that very moment if I was to be able to clamber back into the car over the sleeping Mona, but I would keep my promise to Marek and so I gave him several phone numbers and addresses, ending in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia was important because there I had an aunt who never moved. She was the fixed point in my universe, I told him, she had only to keep living and he would always be able to find me. Marek said he had an aunt in Potsdam and one day he would go there and visit the Sans Souci summer palace of Frederick the Great. Frederick the Great was a queer, he said. This was not widely known or mentioned but extremely obvious. He would see Sans Souci, which would always be like his Aunt Sophie remembered it. I felt bound to call this statement and asked him why. Because it was constantly renovated, he explained, a room at a time, round the palace and back to the beginning, in a never-ending cycle which lasted twenty years. The floors were kept smooth and shining by the visitors’ pantoffles which, as mandatory footwear, polished them every day. The visitors laughed and grinned at each other, said his aunt, because they had to slide around like children on rinks of ice, and this is what the visitors best remembered. I told Marek that William Morris believed marble should be made to wear. Our conversation faltered at this point. I told him Cézanne the artist believed roads should not be straightened out with pavements. I told him John Fowles the novelist believed gardens should be left untended by human stewards. Live and let live, I said finally. He thought I was talking about a film involving James Bond. Marek stood up. He said he felt he had burst through the barrier of night exhaustion, and could go back and clean the square until it was very clean. He asked me for an English word meaning very clean and I said like a new pin. He said he would clean the square into a new pin. I expressed a wish to see this. Hands on his cart, we went back through the streets. On the way we met a sprinkler vehicle painted the same vivid green, edging tortoise-paced towards the square. He didn’t clean at all after that, but mounted the cab of the sprinkler and waved goodbye. I clambered into the Fiat, collapsing so completely I was not certain I had not dreamed, inventing that just outside Calais I met a street cleaner whose name was Marek, and he came from Gdansk.
John Saul was born in Liverpool. His 2007 collection of short stories, Call It Tender (Salt Modern Fiction), met praise in The Times and in Time Out. A further collection, The Most Serene Republic: love stories from cities, was published by Salt in May this year.