And Poland does take them by storm. His recklessness, his flair, that candid Eastern European roughness when you look in his eyes. Barely a soul could withstand Poland’s charm when he was the golden boy of the Commonwealth: no one can resist him now, not after he’s donned that face and that uniform. As they say, everyone loves a soldier. Or a rebel, or a man without a country, or a doomed cause. And Poland’s got pain to spare, so it works out. Within a week, the British men are copying his accent.
And he knows he shouldn’t be there. That’s the first thing he tells England: “I can’t stay long, but –”
– But he’s the best pilot England’s ever met, even more reckless than America.
– But he always wants to know their progress on Enigma. (Frustration and regret and resentment, but he does want to know.)
– But he can do more good here, and he knows it, and he doesn’t have to stay there and die with the rest of them, right? (Poland just shakes his head.)
Poland’s very stubborn. England would call it contrary.
“He plays piano?”
“Of course he plays piano,” France scoffs. “Rosbif, you embarrass me. Have you ever heard of Chopin?”
England flushes. He looks at Poland, enjoying a rare moment of silence on the edge of the dance floor. He looks an odd combination of young and tired. “Hey, Feliks!”
Poland glances at him, clearly annoyed. He makes no move to either respond or come closer.
“Play us a tune, won’t you?”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Poland tosses back half-heartedly.
France chimes in. “Ah, so you won’t, then?”
Poland turns back to his drink. It’s too late, though. Some of the dancers gather around him and he downs the glass in one go and smiles charmingly. Half an hour later, one of the girls finishes a lively rag on the piano, and England hears it again. “Do you play?”
“A little,” Poland admits.
“Oh, would you mind playing us something, then? It’s so boring without music. Please, if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” Poland says – easily, after that brief pause. They clear a path and he sits down at the piano bench. Another little hesitation, a quiet, murmured burst of conversation, and he begins.
England vaguely recognizes it: something sad and sweet – as France said, probably one of Chopin’s. At his side, France whispers, “If Austria were here, he’d laugh.”
“Waltz no. 19. Any beginner could play that one.” France smiles softly. “That’s what he’d say.”
“Is it true?”
“Mm? Oh, I suppose so. But, you know, nobody can really play it like Feliks.” (England didn’t know.)
It’s short even with the repeats. Only a few minutes. When the song ends, quiet and halting, the whole room is silent and everyone in it has fallen a little bit in love.
England finds Poland outside, leaning against the wall, taking a drag of his cigarette. Half-closed eyes, a determined set to his jaw. He exhales. The smoke floats up into the night sky, a few stars visible through the haze of the streetlights, no air raids yet. Poland slumps back against the wall. England glances at his thin frame and ragged uniform. In the half-darkness, you could almost believe they stand in the streets of Warsaw.
And England came looking for him to say thank you, but it seems silly now. Poland didn’t even want to play for him, what’s the use of thanking him – and really, just for a song? Now that he thinks about it, the whole thing is ridiculous.
So instead of that nonsense, he starts right off with the first thing that comes to mind. “Flying again tomorrow?”
Poland’s eyes are nearly closed as he inhales again. Then, in a cloud of smoke: “As long as I’m with the fighter pilots, sure.” After all, what’s he got to lose?
England nods briskly. “Marvellous –I’ll man the bombardiers then?” The Polish pilots are fine dropping bombs, but Poland himself always expresses reluctance (or, as he puts it, preference for “combat that requires actual skill”. As if the war were some kind of chivalrous tournament where you could pick and choose your battles.)
Now he’s got Poland’s attention. “Fine. Where?”
England tells him the coordinates and watches him, as always, guess the right city. A sudden upwelling of emotion stifles his chest and he claps Poland on the shoulder. Maybe he’s a little bit in love too. “It’s been fantastic fighting with you, Poland, you know that.”
And a few days later, he’s on the dance floor again. Poland loves swing – he’s never without a partner – and when there’s a lull in the music, he and the girl (usually it’s a girl) retreat to the corner, laughing and smiling. The girl leans close to him, not up, exactly, and England strains to hear: “Don’t mean to be forward, sweetheart…” but Poland’s response is too quiet to make out. They both laugh.
“It’s fine! I’m nowhere near pretty enough for you anyway,” the girl says.
“It’s not that,” Poland protests. Then, “There’s someone back home.”
“She must be really beautiful.”
Silence. “Yeah. She is.”
The girl’s open smile is a gift, plain and simple. “She’s one lucky girl.”
And again, Poland pauses far too long, until finally: “We aren’t together.”
“I don’t see why not,” the girl says frankly.
Poland takes a gulp of his drink.
So England listens to Poland tell his citizen a careful story about a brave blue-eyed girl trapped in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. (And about Feliks Lukasiewicz, the selfish boy who loves her.) It’s almost funny. How he describes Lithuania’s hair. How his jaw clenches when he describes the look of contempt – hatred – on Lithuania’s face. How he talks softly, guiltily, of those years they spent apart, when the thought of the two of them meant the world to him…
(You’d think by now England would be accustomed to this kind of loneliness.)
He leaves the room quickly: Poland won’t even notice he’s gone. The stars are bright against the grey-black sky. No air raids. England leans against the brick wall of the alley outside and lights a cigarette.