The sheer scale of my hangover broke my will to not smoke. I was leaning against the wall outside the off license on the corner of my street when the man walked towards me carrying a black shopping bag.
He offered it towards me and asked in a thick accent, “beer?”
“No, I had too many last night, I couldn’t do a beer today.”
He looked confused. “Have a beer”.
I grabbed the beer out of the bag. It was a 440mL Tyskie, a lager I hadn’t tried.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“Poland. This is a Polish beer, it’s very strong.” He showed me the label where it was written 5.5% alcohol. It was refreshing despite the high alcohol content.
The man introduced himself as Mark, and by now two of his friends had joined us and we were drinking Tyskies together on the corner.
“Why do you have no shoes on?
I looked down and acknowledged that I was barefoot. “I was quickly walking to the shop to get some smokes”. It was a bright and sunny day in London, about as good as the weather gets.
Mark was about 5’10, late 30s and boasted a small paunch, but he was tanned, fit and wearing clothes that had witnessed hard work – he was a carpenter.
“Where are you from?” he asked me.
Mark held out his hand for me to shake it and congratulated me on the place of my birth. I took his hand, slightly embarrassed.
“Why would you be in London if you are from Australia?”
I’d been asked the same question before, but this time it appeared genuine, rather than the half-smart way most English asked it.
“I want to see the world. I have a two-year working visa and you can only get it before you turn 31. I’ll head home after that.”
Mark was doing his best to understand me, but I was stretching his knowledge of English. His younger friend moved closer, he had a better grasp of the language.
“Poland is very bad for young people,” he told me. “There are no jobs, I couldn’t find any work and our money is worth very little – one pound is five of our Zloty.”
He held out his hand exposing five fingers to make a point.
“I find work here in London on building sites, it is much better here, but I don’t like London, it’s no good. I won’t be going back to Poland though.”
This lad was tall and thin, in his mid 20s, with shaved head and the early stages of a patchy beard. He was wearing a ratty t-shirt, tracksuit pants and Adidas slip on rubber slippers.
“There are a lot of Polish in England?”
“How many Australians are there?”
“About 30,000, I think.”
He laughed. “There are two million Polish in England, our Prime Minister calls Britain an island of Poland.”
Mark offered me a cigarette, I took it. “It is Russian, very strong.” It tasted better than the Malboro Lights I was carrying.
“Do you smoke?” It was a question from my new English-speaking friend, I never asked his name. I was holding the cigarette, but I knew what the question meant.
“Yes I do.”
He laughed. The third Polish man was rolling up a joint. This one hadn’t said a word to me the whole time and it appeared that he was the worst English speaker.
“I very much like smoking. It is very good.” My young friend said, with a smile on his face. His mates were laughing and talking in their own language. “They say I smoke too much.”
We were still standing on the street corner, beers and durries in hand.
“In Poland very many men drink standing outside the shop.”
“I’ve noticed a lot of people drinking on the street around here,” I replied. “Especially in parks. In Australia most people drink in pubs, no one outside shops.”
“Yes, but it is only one for a beer from the shop, and 10 for a beer in the pub. I can’t do that, ten is too much for a beer, who can pay that?”
I nodded in agreement.
“But then the police come and you get a ticket and it costs you 100.”
The joint made its way around the circle and I inhaled two deep lungfuls and passed it along.
An attractive girl from our street, who I had seen a few times since moving in two months ago, walked by with her boyfriend and the three Polish men made a few catcalls in their own language and giggled like schoolboys.
Mark called out to another woman who walked past not long after.
“You know her?” I asked.
“Polish woman,” Mark replied.
His friend told me she was Mark’s girlfriend. She wandered over and stood in front of Mark, said something and walked off. The others were laughing, making a slapping motion.
“This is Mark,” they said, laughing, indicating he was ‘under the thumb’ as we would say at home.
Mark was embarrased.
“No! This is me with Polish woman,” he said, pretending to grind an ant into the dirt with his foot.
The smoking was finished and it was just Mark and I again after his two friends made their farewells and walked off.
A smart looking black man parked his Porsche 911 turbo convertible on the corner near us and walked into the Chinese takeaway joint across the road. You don’t see many Porsches in the area we lived. There were plenty of cars parked on the street, but they were all
economical family cars and every second one had a flat tyre.
“That’s a nice car,” I said.
Mark looked at it, made a face and held up his hand waving it like he wasn’t sure.
“I like the car, I don’t like the driver. I don’t like blacks. The Polish don’t like blacks.”
He said it matter of factly, like he was saying he didn’t like a certain cut of meat. It was surprising, considering our suburb was predominantly of African or Caribbean descent.
“I don’t like blacks and I don’t like …..” he was searching for the word in English.
“Indians?” I asked.
“Yes, Indians. I don’t like Indians.”
I finished the last of my Tyskie.
“Well Mark, I have to head home.”
I thanked him for the beer and walked back to my apartment. I hoped I didn’t run into them again.