‘The General says I only go to Warsaw to get away from the Beloved’
Michael Harding Valentine: Being alone without the Beloved can be sweet because I long to be with her
Warsaw is a modern city but there are churches and monastic choirs hidden everywhere. Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
The General says I only go to Warsaw to get away from the Beloved. Which is true enough. But I tell him that she goes to Warsaw to get away from me.
“You’re both trying to get away from each other,” he says.
Which I insist is not true, because, as I explain to him, “We sometimes go to Warsaw together.”
“And did you never hear of Barcelona?” he fumes. “Or Tenerife. Have you no imagination?”
“But we like Warsaw,” I protest. “We’re familiar with it.”
Before Christmas the Beloved surprised me by saying we should go somewhere different, and I suggested Malaga but she meant somewhere different in Warsaw. Because we usually stay in Old Town.
So I said if we’re going to Warsaw we might as well stick with what we know best. And back we went once again in December, to the old part of the city.
Old Town is a medieval quarter which was flattened by Hitler’s bombs, but rebuilt after the war, and restored with love to it’s medieval glory. It has a kind of fake beauty.
We lay in bed listening to the sound of vendors in the square and someone playing piano in the apartment below. A Chopin melody slipping up through the floorboards. My Beloved asleep on the pillow.
So when I decided to return to Warsaw alone, after Christmas, I didn’t book a place anywhere near Old Town. It would have been too painful; feeling her absence at every corner.
Instead I booked an eighth floor apartment in the city centre in glass, with a balcony and a view of traffic struggling through sleet.
I love sharing Warsaw with the Beloved. But I also like being alone in the city. There’s a balance between the company of others, and the consolation of solitude; and one feeds the other.
The General says I’m just nostalgic for monastic life; for those long days of silence in a monk’s cell; a silence broken only by the bell calling each monk to the intimacy of the psalms, sung shoulder to shoulder with other monks.
I try explaining to him that I never actually was a monk. “Nonsense,” he says, “you were born melancholic. You couldn’t be anything but a monk.”
And to be truthful, monastic life is my medieval fantasy world. The possibility of what mystics used to call “union with god” still haunts me. The possibility that solitude, once embraced, might deliver up its own special intimacy.
Solitude is not fashionable in the modern west, perhaps because the icons of the old era are dissolving and we have not yet found the icons that might navigate us through the future.
But it’s funny how as we age everyone surrenders to death, which of course is the ultimate solitude. And as I grow older the monastery bell calls ever louder from inside my head.
Warsaw is a modern city but there are churches and monastic choirs hidden everywhere. Sometimes I look inside when they are empty. But I am only a tourist in those buildings. My monastic cell is a single-bed apartment. My choir sings on my iPhone, and my prayers are the words I scribble across the computer screen.
My liturgies are made from small gestures as I break the crumbling bread of my croissant in a nearby restaurant and share coffee with a stranger.
The only continuum I share with medieval monks is that same old solitude which I still cherish like a jewel.
The paradox is that being alone without the Beloved can be sweet, simply because I so deeply long to be with her.
But as they say in Donegal, “You can’t go home at night, unless you go away in the morning.”
So here I am in a modern apartment on the eighth floor of a building not far from Arkadia shopping mall with no one to talk with. The floors and worktops are cold plastic and there is neither stove nor cat.
There are no lovely magpies on the balcony eight floors above John Paul Avenue, a dual-carriageway I stare at, and marvel at how indifferent a modern city can be, to a human being.
When we were young, the Beloved and I cycled around Donegal. We loved the beaches. We’d lie on the strand just to hear the waves thunder as the ocean approached.
Now I experience that same vulnerability everywhere. Because old people don’t need the sea to feel powerless. Fragility grows with the years, and something unnameable roars at me, even in the fury of rush-hour traffic, like an ocean that must be faced eventually, and ultimately alone.