This is the mountain where the artists tired of the city gather: the sanatorium, the sanctuary. The roads here have run horse-drawn since before living memory, couriering dilettantes to the retreat upon the hill, to Zakopane – the ancient bedchamber of Polish folk art. This: a home for delicate fingers winding tapestry under moonlight, shimmying up the necks of violins, smudging and correcting charcoal sketches, now (an August morning) slipping into the grip of automobile enthusiasts, counts and countesses, newspapermen. The cough-and-spit of baying motorcars is choking up the mountainside. The engineers are emblazoned with foreign names: Austro Daimler, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz. The starting line flutters with excitement.
The year is 1927, our mountains: the Tatras of southern Poland. The Zakopane retreat is hosting the Kraków Automobile Club’s first Tatra Race, a seven-kilometre sprint to the edge of Lake Morskie Oko.
‘I wish nothing but the clap on this fanatical generation…’ Stanisław has been up here six months with barely half a play in his notebook. ‘Sports, dancing and automobiles – it must be an absolute barn dance for the shrinks.’
Stanisław had been the first to realise that if this disparate crew of artists, playwrights, poets and composers (advancing age creeping towards them all) were to retain their dominion atop the Tatras, these racing-people would have to be deposed. A plan, a plot from one of his own plays, had formulated quickly: sabotage, of the most insistent order.
The conspiracy is a simple one: a roadblock. The artisans have already considered various materials: firewood, bricks, a felled tree, anything that would plug the oily designs of the motorists. But Stanisław has a different sense of life. He is an artist, a pillar of the theatre, a crafter of plays typewritten and quilled, a performer and, seeking a tradition of his own, a provocateur. For Stanisław, firewood simply will not do.
‘Let’s have the easel propped a little higher… Hamlet slightly to the left… Where are my oboes!?’
Almost fifty have assembled at his instruction, carting with them canvases, instruments, sheet music, sculptures, scripts, togas and there, in the middle of the road, being stacked this moment by a Silesian set-designer, ninety-nine cans of paint. The Silesian stands back, admiring his pyramid of corrugated tin.
‘You will see,’ swooning, ‘that the ochres, scarlets and deep browns at the base support – quite subtly I think, the following layer of greens and blues…’
At the roadside, the twenty-piece orchestra are absorbed in a din of collective tuning.
‘We ascend, naturally, into aquamarine, dark orange and up into the magnolias, Prussian-blues…’
Stanisław is enthralled. The orchestra is tuned, the portraiteers are crowded around their canvases, the thespians are already wittering their monologues – this will be Zakopane’s greatest performance and here, crowning its peak with a final pot of Mikado-yellow, the set-designer is descending from his ladder to timid applause. Stanisław is alight with joy.
A call comes from the roadside. ‘I see them!’
Stanisław dashes over, snatches the binoculars.
Here they come, these motor-maddened aristocrats, trailing smoke and tyre-marks, towards the spectacle.
Hesitantly perhaps, the conductor lifts his baton and the orchestra stutters into a Polish waltz. Stanisław straightens a few easels, tweaks a toga.
‘People of Zakopane!’ Double-checking the binoculars; the motorcar is coming. ‘The power of our art can only find triumph against their football,’ a pillar of smoke now visible, ‘their Charleston,’ a rumble, ‘and their engines!’
Everybody can see the motorcar. It is charging them, hot red in the morning sun, bearing down upon the road, insatiable. Stanisław sees the driver, furious and begoggled.
And so it is, the legend himself gunning through the Polish countryside in his snorting Mercedes-Benz. The soft arch of his grill is bearing teeth all silver and sharp. As he slaloms, the automobile is revealed in all its glory.
Stanisław is suddenly mesmerised; the racket of violins fades away. Look – the sensual curve of the bonnet, wheels blurring gently in soft focus, a chassis shining crimson, levers rising up like reeds and rushes, a spectacle of its own, a statement, a sketch. Such music, undulating from the motor in peaks and troughs… Such theatre, propelling its audience into a new age of speed, opulence, leisure – leaving that foul, all-consuming war behind, racing towards a bold future…
Stanisław’s arms shoot involuntarily towards the mountain.
‘Wait!’ – his cry to Caracciola, but it is too late.
The car, unslowed by the threat of art up ahead, is careering down the incline. Caracciola is waving for space; artists, actors, musicians are exploding from the scene. Only two objects stick fast: Stanisław, and the roadblock. The waltz halts.
The collision is a Vesuvius of matte and gloss. A fountain of red erupts skywards, winged with saffron and corvid black, shooting off purples and flying tin. A sheet of violet floats towards the orchestra; turquoise and eggshell splatter over a reading of Othello. Caracciola is swamped in a brown amalgam, slows only to toss back a few curses in German. While the men and women of Zakopane wail, spasm, roll around on the hillside, Stanisław remains motionless, rainbowed from head-to-toe, watching the rest of the racers.
When the hum of the last trailing automobile has died, with poor, paint-soaked artisans still clawing at their faces, Caracciola chucking out his goggles and speeding panda-eyed into history, and Stanisław already formulating a fresh play (a new kind of Polish epic, heroes mounted on gleaming Austro Daimlers…), a stranger appears by the roadside. His accent is unmistakably American.
‘Well, the palette is invigorating, although the composition…’
Stanisław stirs. ‘Hmm?’
They stand looking at the paint on the road. Colours intermingle and coagulate; curls of blue and yellow circle in spilt oil; patterns emerge and hide away. It is a mess, a mixture, a pure abstract expression, surrounded by a halo of utter chaos. The American is nodding.
‘You know, I’ve got some friends who are really going to love this…’
There is always, it seems, a critic.
Joe Bedford is a writer living in Brighton, UK. His short stories have been featured in Adbusters, the London Journal of Fiction, the Nottingham Review, Sonder, Spelk, Spontaneity and Storgy, and have been performed as part of the Small Wonder Festival and Brighton Fringe. His work is available at joebedford.co.uk.
(Next story: It Only Hurts When I Smile by T. L. Sherwood)
(Previous story: The Black Leather Pants by Dylan Brie Ducey)
Feel like submitting? Check out our submission guidelines
Photograph from Bruno Guerrini’s collection