Michael Harding: Are you Dimitri, she asked. I thought she might be a spy
The way Trump and Putin toy with Europe, I wouldn’t be surprised who meets who in the shadows of a cafe
‘I imagined myself in a spy movie. But then it occurred to me that maybe she was a real spy. She might have been planning to meet someone she didn’t know. ’ Photograph: iStock
I was in a cafe in Warsaw last week enjoying a bowl of soup with hard boiled eggs floating on the surface, when a woman arrived in a white belted coat and sat alone at a table near the window. She ordered a similar soup and stuck her nose in her iPhone.
I presumed she was waiting for someone. Half way through her soup she went outside and smoked a cigarette at the door. I watched her through the window for a long time, and when she returned the waitress had taken her soup bowl away; but it didn’t seem to bother her.
She ordered a coffee and went off again to have another cigarette and this time she looked at me as she passed, like I had two heads.
Finally, she stopped at my table, looking directly into my eyes and spoke in Polish.
I concluded that the lady in the white coat might well have mistaken me for Dostoyevski, a Russian agent
I probably looked confused because she repeated herself.
“I don’t speak Polish,” I said.
“Are you Dimitri?” she wondered, in English.
“No,” I replied. She apologised for interrupting me, then smiled and muttered something under her breath before gulping the second half of her coffee and flying out the door.
I imagined myself in a spy movie. But then it occurred to me that maybe she was a real spy. She might have been planning to meet someone she didn’t know. The way Trump and Putin toy with Europe nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised who meets who in the shadows of any Warsavian cafe.
And I still watched as she crossed the street and headed towards the swanky doors of the Bristol Hotel.
I don’t look like James Bond but the reality is that the people who do the ground work for spy organisations are often marginal folk with addictions, or destitutes on the edge of insanity.
In the bathroom I took a good look at myself in the mirror. Despite all my efforts to loose weight, my belly still bulged beneath my waistcoat, my hair and beard resembled the chaos of John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
And so I concluded that the lady in the white coat might well have mistaken me for Dostoyevski, a Russian agent, or the mysterious Dimitri.
Fantasies and daydreams are the consolation of the lonely; and I’m always lonely on the streets of Warsaw.
“But why do you go to Poland if it makes you lonely,” a friend wondered one night before I left Ireland, when I confessed the condition. I tried to explain that writers need loneliness in order to write. “Everyone needs to find a lonely place, like Jesus did, in the desert, if we want to be creative; that’s why I go to Warsaw.”
And writing is the most lonely game in the world. There’s only me and my laptop and an empty apartment; listening to what the good doctors, Simon and Garfunkel, used to call the Sound of Silence.
Warsaw is a silent place in wintertime. The trees are bare and the water fountains are turned off. People carry the silence around with them like little blocks of ice tucked away beneath their scarves and hoods and puffer coats.
Outside the Bristol Hotel there were so many Mercs and BMWs with chauffeurs that I began to imagine any amount of James Bonds on the inside. In the window people were enjoying cocktails and eating nuts and dripping jewellery from their wrists, or just posing behind designer sunglasses.
She dragged a miniature comb through my beard as if she were raking a tiny Zen garden
My reflection in the glass was looking more and more like the shadow of something destitute as the days went on.
And the people inside didn’t even notice me.
“I’ve become invisible,” I thought. “I need a haircut.”
So off I went to the nearest shopping mall.
The stylist in the hair salon washed and cut the hair and then approached my ears with a tiny tweezers, like a brain surgeon. She picked hairs singularly from ear lobes and eyebrows and dragged a miniature comb through my beard as if she were raking a tiny Zen garden.
Afterwards I happened to pass the Bristol Hotel again, and I stopped to see if my profile had improved. Men with gold cufflinks and drinking brandies looked out at me instantly.
“I’m visible again,” I thought. But that didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the sight of the woman in the white belted coat, smoking a cigarette just outside the door, and probably still looking for Dimitri.