Friday 8 February 2019

Clueless in Kraków

To paraphrase the old TV crime show Dragnet: "Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to read is true. Not even the names have been changed to protect the innocent." 

Yes, the following events really happened to Narrelle Harris and me in 1994. 

I wrote it up for a newspaper some years ago; but as that account has disappeared from the Web, here it is again for the record...

“We have here the homicide.”

These aren’t words you want to hear while you’re travelling overseas.

Nor do you want to glance over the shoulder of the man who’s just spoken them, to see a pile of bloody surgical gloves and the body of your dead landlord in the living room.

Your absolutely stark naked dead landlord.

Narrelle and I were taking some time out from the blur of travel. To replenish our funds, we’d taken English teaching jobs at a private college in Kraków, Poland.

This was just a few years after the fall of communism, and housing was generally cramped and expensive, but we had been lucky enough to land the top floor of a house. We lived up top, our landlord and his elderly father lived below.

One chilly evening in November, we returned from work to find a police car at the end of the street, and people swarming up and down our stairs. Strangely, our mental alarm bells didn’t sound. "There's been a domestic," we figured, and headed on up.

Stopped at the first landing, it was quickly established that neither of us spoke much Polish. Thus the immortal words mentioned above, followed by the interesting sight of a deceased naked body whose modesty was covered by a small cloth. How thoughtful.

Thinking about it now, I don’t think the city’s finest had anticipated the arrival of a couple of clueless Australians on the scene, and were unprepared to deal with this twist in the plot.

It was also quite unreal for us, like an unfathomable foreign cop show without subtitles - CSI: Kraków. Our thoughts shifted between horror, pity, curiosity, and concern that the unreliable heating system would never be fixed.

A policewoman who spoke reasonable English turned up at 11pm. She translated while two men went through a few of our cupboards which contained some of the landlord's possessions.

They seized an old address book, and a business card for something called "The Viking Club". Now this was more like the movies. A Nordic connection, maybe? A cartel of ruthless reindeer rustlers, or gangsters trying to smuggle horned helmets past Customs?

Then they left, requiring our presence at the police station the next day.

Arriving bright and early, we surveyed a dreary brick building that looked just the sort of place that difficult suspects disappeared from. And we’d had had no chance to rehearse our stories. Would we be tripped up on our links with the exclusive but shadowy Viking Club?

We gave our statements. Of course, we knew nothing, and had visions of the cops tearing up the pages in disgust after we left.

Well, that was sort of that. I’d like to tell you we resolved to make up for our cluelessness by becoming fluent in Polish, brandishing our magnifying glasses and tracking down the landlord’s killer no matter where he had fled to.

No bolthole would be safe, no refuge secure for this heartless criminal once we vowed to hunt him down. No, not even the headquarters of the Viking Club.

But it was not to be. We never had to give alibis, fingerprints, any of the exciting stuff. And with the passage of years, the disturbing incident has faded to a point where it seems like the plot of an unconvincing and meandering foreign film.

If only we’d been blessed with subtitles.

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