Agnieszka Dale, 40, is a Polish-born London-based author and UX designer. She moved to the UK in 2003.
My first thought after seeing a picture of a laminated hate card on Facebook was: who laminates a hate card? It seemed ridiculously quirky, like trainspotting at Clapham Junction on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the summer, but wearing a woollen hat.
I see a lot of trainspotters on my way to work. I once interviewed one for a Polish magazine. He – I think his name was Lenny – said trainspotting was like watching a beautiful woman. Just watching. There is nothing wrong with watching, he assured me. I like to watch. Just watch.
I wasn’t afraid of Lenny then. He wasn’t very open but he was polite, engaged in our conversation.
I thought of him again last weekend, his care and obsession not unlike the care and obsession of the hate-card maker.
Maybe someone like Lenny is responsible, I thought. Or maybe Lenny has a friend called Nick, a trainspotter too. Nick has a large black umbrella, he always expects rain. He is afraid of me. I’m the outsider he's watched for almost 15 years – like a train – and now decided he doesn’t like, not really, not very much. Because it’s my fault, he decided maybe. The trains never arriving on schedule. The rain never stopping. His benefit payments frozen. Everything. My fault. Maybe, or for sure? For sure. Nick is sure now, I feel. Nick is handing me his permanent hate card. Deep, laminated hate: “Leave EU Polish vermin”.
Leave the EU? I suddenly think. Surely, you want me to leave the UK, not the EU. I am still in the EU. I still have my Polish passport which allows me to travel anywhere and work everywhere: Germany, Italy, Spain. I also have a British passport.
I imagine Nick sweating over his iron, laminating the card. I once helped my daughter laminate a message for her special school friend, with an iron, too. Her card said, “Best Friends Forever”. The friend was half-Moroccan and half-Korean. She could speak two languages. Oh, and English, too.
I then re-read the message on the card. Vermin.
The card is on Facebook, but I don’t believe it is real. I still have high hopes for Nick. We all do. The entire Polish community in the UK wants to like Nick; we understand him after years of watching him watching trains; we want to come with him to the station. We want to meet his mother. What is his mother like? A lady, surely, with two little Union Jack flags in a basket above her front door. She waters her geranium and her flags every morning, hoping Nick finds himself a nice girlfriend, and a job. Watering is like a prayer. Immigrants. Please, please take them away, she prays. They are watching Nick watching trains. They are laughing at him. They are taking away his girlfriends, his jobs, his trains.
No, we are not laughing. We are sorry for Nick. I share Nick’s card on Facebook. I am not offended. I want to turn it into a joke: “I am so offended I expect a five-book deal from a top British publisher, immediately, so that I can feel a little better.” Nobody likes it (or offers me a book deal), but people comment as if the card had arrived on my doorstep.
“Agi, this breaks my heart,” says Geezer in Hat. He produced my short story on BBC Radio Four last September.
“So sorry this is happening.” An Englishman. A man.
“Just awful. I’m sorry.” A Scot named Scott.
“So sorry, Agnieszka, that we’ve all somehow let this happen.” A fellow writer. From London.
Sorry? I thought. But why? It’s a joke, right? Why are Polish people, in Poland, not writing to say they are sorry, only the Brits? Some English. Some Scottish. Some I-don’t-know-what. Slovenian Brits. Slovakian Brits. Slavic Brits.
More sorry messages. I could feel tears. Embarrassment. Deep embarrassment. Tribal embarrassment. Emotion. Lots of emotion, as if somebody died. Grief.
Or maybe sorry we have this stupidity in our world, and on our minds. Sorry for Nick’s lack of self-awareness. Sorry for Nick not being mindful. Sorry for Nick’s unhappiness. Sorry for everybody involved, including two flags in the hanging basket. And in Poland? Nobody even takes much notice. We have been through much more serious stuff than this. My generation was born in communist Poland; we grew up with Solidarity; we saw the Berlin Wall come down as teenagers. We are used to changes. We like changes. We don’t react as quickly any more, I hope. We’ve learned something, I hope.
Still, I don’t want anyone apologising to me directly. Of course I am not vermin, you all know I am not! Perhaps I’m the Polish you have no idea about. The Polish you would maybe like more if you saw its greatness. I work in new media, in London. I have a sense of humour. I wear fashionable trainers. Are you apologising because it crossed your minds? Vermin? Like a town fox. Who is controlling their population? We had these thoughts. Dirty thoughts. But now we are deeply embarrassed, Agnieszka, Agi. We are sorry. Please don’t dislike us. We are nice. Please can you like us?
My first reaction was: of course I still like you. My second: do I? My third: can this perhaps mean that you now start coming to me? You’ll start knocking on my door, uninvited, all of you, like I have done all these years? Knocking on doors was just something we did in the Poland I grew up in. You knocked at your neighbour’s door’s to borrow an egg. To say hello. To have a shot of vodka after a hard day. To get tipsy, not drunk. Just a little tipsy. And often not on vodka, but beer. Żywiec, Okocim and Tyskie. Just one beer which I often share with my London neighbours now. We say, “You want a Tyskie?”
Is that a little strange? Yes, in England, I knock at people’s doors, and they let me in. Uninvited. I don’t always carry beer. I don’t bribe my neighbours with Polish sausage.
And they knock on mine, too. Uninvited.
Oh, even now. A loud knock.
“I came to give you a hug, Agnieszka.”
“You mean, you are sorry?”
“Yes. But actually. No. Because I noticed this before. In Polish, you only say sorry when you did something wrong, don’t you? I learned that much from you. There is no reason to apologise all the time. It’s better to say ‘Thank you’. Here, I brought you beer. And cupcakes. Fresh from the oven, Agnieszka. For you. And for the kids. Cupcakes, not beer. But can I stay? Can I say thank you again?”
“Yes, you can.”
“Oh, thank you. What a relief. Thank you so much.”
“No, thank you. These are delicious.”
“Not at all. And really: thank you.”