(Excerpt of a novella)

By Irena Dousková

Translated from Czech by Melvyn Clarke


The meeting had ended a quarter of an hour earlier and the area between the Peoples Council offices and the House of Culture slowly emptied. Now only little Podzimek and even littler Kynštekr were sliding down the railings there, while little Kynštekrová was thudding a ball alternately on the House of Culture wall and the ground. But all rather casually, without any real application. Jarda Fabián watched from the first floor corridor of the Peoples Council. He was smoking at an open window, first with the postmistress and then on his own. He was just as bored as the children, but there was nothing else for it but to hang on and wait for Podzimek, if that was what Podzimekwanted. Both offices and the conference room gaped empty and the postmistress was closing up too. She just waved to him – theyd already said goodbye. He stubbed out his second cigarette and thumbed his chin. It was there again. He clearly felt its painful tautness and in his minds eye he saw the scarlet volcano with its sulphurously yellow peak. Damn it! He couldnt do anything about it now;there wasnt a single mirror in the entire stupid Peoples Council. Not even in the toilets. As if the place were full of vampires. The reflection in the window panes was too indistinct for such a delicate operation. He would have to hold on.

After the meeting Podzimek had sent him upstairs to speak with him later. Nobody
unauthorized was allowed to remain behind for a Party Cell, or whatever it was called. Only Podzimek as the Chairman, Secretary Fencl, a couple of other chaps that he didnt know by name, and that fat Švejnohová, who they said was a teacher. Of course, he had to obey: hedidnt have any work to do at all and he had read his book sometime before lunch. This was a really boring temp attachment– hisstepfathers idea. Really stupid, like all his ideas. The worst part of it was the complete lack of activity. Everything they gave him to do was finished in a short while and they simply didnt have any more work for him. In vain he asked for more. He soon understood that he was really getting on their nerves with his busyness, so he stopped. He was no model worker and he didn't want to get into anybodys good books that way, but this idleness was hard to deal with. He took messages, ran errands for snacks, and made coffee for them. He even cleaned up a bit. But it was all so little. He couldnt even fill up half his worktime and nobody even wanted him to.

So go off somewhere for a bit,Mrs Šecová said, sending him out just so that she didnt have to stare at him all the time.

She didn
t have any work to do herself, so what on earth was she to do with him? 

Except where? Here?

Here you are, take this Labour Code and tuck yourself up with it somewhere, Fencl suggested. Thatll come in useful for you. You do want to get into law.

Another time he thrust the constitution at him, or some decree from the heaps of them lying around.

So when should I come in?

When youve been through it all properly. No hurry. 
He usually took it off with him into the woods. Climbing up to the triangulation point at Ostrý, he gazed at the countryside and then sat down beneath a pine tree.

All power in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic belongs to the working people.

Jarda couldn
t see any working people around, which he sincerely regretted, as it was all getting hard to take...

Work in a socialist society is work for the benefit of the community as a whole, as well as work for the benefit of the worker himself.

Work, work, work. If only there were any. The devil finds work...
thats what they should have written.Thats what it all seemed to turn around. He rarely got beyond the work for the benefit of the community as a whole. Either he fell asleep or he sat on the triangulation stone, lit a cigarette, and stared down at the dwarves in the village, as he called them, at the fields, and then farther at the opposite slopes and the cliffs far beyond the church and the pond. Sometimes the village seemed to him to be a mirror image of itself. A church above and a church below, a pond above and a pond below. Just like a playing card. The harvest was over. He smoked and watched as nothing happened, and only the air above the baking asphalt shimmered and blurred the image.

Timeless time

But everything has its time.


Andrhymes lined up in his head. When he had put a poem together, he wrote it down in the tiny octavo notebook that he carried around everywhere with him in his back trouser pocket. Poems were the only thing that reconciled him to the stupidity of the world and his own existence. The verses that he read and the verses that he wrote. Particularly the latter,  which he poured all his hope into. There wasnt much of it, but at least there was some.

He was about to close the window when he noticed
that the wife of the chimney sweep Kynštekr was approaching together with Podzimeks wife Eva. Both of them were holding jugs. Podzimková was also swinging a string bag in her hand while Kynštekrová towed a bag on wheels behind her. Kynštekr probably consumed more. Taking one thing with another, Podzimek was more of an ascetic. At least it seemed that way. Except that he was a chain smoker. Both women were lightly dressed. Kynštekrová wore just a nylon button-up sleeveless pinafore, open three buttons at the top, and buttoned up below around her broad hips. Her legs and arms were bare and tanned. Podzimková hid her legs beneath a long canvas skirt and her short-sleeved t-shirt was just a little whiter than her skin. As if she’d not been outdoors all summer. They were no sylphs, but then again they werent at all bad-looking. For a moment he closed his eyes while the women disappeared through the open pub door. Eyes shut, he tentatively undid another of Kynštekrovás buttons and then another. The idea could be worked on. Pale Podzimková with her sad, faraway eyes had a particular appeal for him, apart from those breasts, which were too big. Definitely too big for her to be able to move within the fragile landscape of his poetry and too big for her to be included in his erotic visions. And the two ultimately overlapped. Her eyes and face were just hinted at behind the curtains, billowing for a moment in a gust of wind. That worked for him.

The old man who lived up in the forest appeared
in the bar doorway. Schwarz was his name. And behind him stood the barkeeper.

Here, youd better shove off,the barkeeper said to Schwarz, blocking the entrance with his bear-like physique.

And what if I dont feel like it? the old man growled. Im not going to be ordered around by you, you sod.

Ive told you to shove off, you understand? And I mean it.

You mean it, eh? You mean it?! Youre just shit scared. Shit scared up to here! And theyre stupid pricks anyway, both of them, Fencl and Podzimek, and I can say whatever I want. Im not afraid of them, not like you.

Clear off and get lost.

And youre the biggest pr…

The barkeeper stepped forward and gave the old man a slight push. Schwarz tottered, fell down two steps
, and went sprawling over the concrete below like a squashed frog. The barkeeper went back inside the bar. The old man didn’t move. Jarda Fabián ran downstairs, even though he didnt know what exactly he was going to do. Mrs Podzimková and Mrs Kynštekrová were already there. The old man lay still, a little pool of blood forming beneath his head.

Mr Schwarz, can you hear me? Is anything the matter? Mrs Podzimková looked helpless.

Wait.” Mrs Kynštekrová put down her jug and her bag.“Lets try to lift him.

Ill help you, Jarda offered.

Leave him!

Podzimek rushed out of the House
of Culture, followed by Fencl and the others. The children stopped playing and gathered round curiously.

But his heads bleeding,said Mrs. Podzimková,we cant just…

Take the boy and go home. Ill be there shortly.


Eva, I have asked you to do something.

Mrs Podzimková obeyed and so did the boy
; he didnt even have to be told. Again she looked round and saw the old man slowly sitting up as Mrs Kynštekrová gave him a handkerchief. I ought to get a divorce, she thought, knowing that she never would.

Whats to be done with him? Fencl looked at Podzimek inquiringly. Should we… should I call them?

Leave it. See you tomorrow then.

See you.

With some hesitation the group broke up.

Easy does it...easy.” Mrs Kynštekrová helped Schwarz first to his knees and then to his feet.

Ill come along with you, she smiled a little absurdly.

Ill come with you too, shall I? Jarda hoped that he wasnt blushing.

Come here at once!


Dont worry, Ill manage.” Mrs Kynštekrová smiled at him.

He didn
t even dare look at her any more and stumbled off after Podzimek, beside himself with rage that he hadnt managed to resist for more than a couple of seconds.

Podzimek was now smoking at the window where Jarda had been listening to the old man cursing again as he left the bar. Wordlessly
Jarda went up and stood beside him, waiting to see what would happen. But nothing happened for a long time. He had an awful complexion, Jarda noticed from close up. A little wrinkled already, and at the same time there were still traces of old pimples, wide-open pores and some kind of unpleasant furrows. Unwittingly, he again touched his chin. Lets hope for Gods sake I dont end up like that. How could that nice Mrs Podzimková have married him? 

Fencl would like to squash him like a bug,”said Podzimek.

Maybe he sees me as some sort of bug too, Jarda thought. He never looks at me when he talks to me.  But he is talking to me
; who else would he be talking to?

But I dont give a shit about the nutter.”The Chairman rubbed a fresh cigarette between his fingers. Okay, Schwarz is not right in the head, but whats to be done with him? Ever since forty-three whenI was ten years old helost his mind.


Doesnt matter. And next time dont you get involved in anything, all right?Podzimek stubbed out his barely lit cigarette and locked up the office. Now what? Just close that window and clear off.

Your wife...

ood heavens, what had he said? Did he really want to ask why shed married him? He had no idea how he was going to end that sentence.

What about my wife?

Your wife…is very nice.

Aha. All women are very nice. Until they drive you mad like what happened to Schwarz.” 

Not a soul was left outside the House of Culture, except in the right-hand corner where this time the little ginger-haired girl that all the boys called Papapa was pounding a ball against the wall. That was obviously not her actual name. She was pounding a ball against the wall and saying something to herself all the while. Perhaps she was playing
school. Boom bang – an awkward clap and then again. Boom, boom, boom. She wasnt doing it very well. She was wearing awfully thick glasses, perhaps that was why. Poor girl, how ugly you are, Jarda commiserated to himself. Almost like me. All ugly people reminded him of himself, but then, in awful contrast, so did all the beautiful people. It was hard to say which of the two aroused greater panic in him. On the steps in front of the bar he saw a crumpled black hat. Picking it up, he went inside to gather his courage over a beer. Then he headed for the blocks of flats.

He expected a smiling, tanned face, but the door was opened by the surprised chimney sweep
, now long washed and groomed for the evening, and looking rather pale and quite freckled, as redheads often do.

Good evening, I am...Ive brought...Is Mrs Kynštekrová in?

Course she is. Where else might she bloody well be? Kynštekr instantly saw that he had overdone the humour and immediately added: No, I was just...sorry, good evening. Do come in. Marie!

He had unusual blue-green eyes, slightly aslant, as if
they were always poking fun. No great looker, not very tall and rather thickset, but all the same, Jarda knew it quite for sure. Thats the way a man ought to look. And thats the way he never would look. And Marie, still in the same pinafore, a great tract of bright flowers, undulating and with a little path of three buttons down the middle. She extended her bare arm towards him.

I er...this hat was lying I thought...

Oh yes, thats his, do come in. Its very kind of you.

He had the impression
that shed used less formal language with him that afternoon.

Come in, do come in, at least for a little while.

I wouldn’t want to disturb you, so if

the door, lad, and take a seat.

obediently followed him into the living room and parked himself on a stool. Marie brought him a beer. He knew that jug already. Both kept smiling, at him and at each other. They had just closed a door on a place where he smelt the alluring smell of childhood over the chimney sweeps cigarette, which was more acrid.

We dont actually know each other at all, but you must be a good sort. Nobody here would have bothered.

She put a plate of ham and cheese in front of him
and added a couple of rolls. The chimney sweep wore a black t-shirt with Drutěva Co-opon it – nothing from his work, where everything was clean and fragrant. But Jarda would have been happy to touch him in any case, and take home a bit of good luck from them. He drained his glass.She poured him another and he would rather have looked elsewhere. But he did manage to ask…  

Aye, he used to be a forester,” she said, “might even have been the head forester. He still lives up in that house, though its due for demolition in the spring. Thats why hes going crazy. Its just a ruin now like him, but you know…

How about a snifter?” the chimney sweep asked. “Do have one with me, just the one. Marie, please…

He couldn
t resist anything.

They want to run a road through that corner of the forest. Cheers! Not that they ask anyone about anything…

had one, too. They clinked glasses and she blew a kiss. To the chimney sweep.

Aha, youre thinking of that time? Yes, its true. She was Jewish.

A beautiful Jewess.        

ome on. Sure, they say she was beautiful. But it’s all gossip.

You go on! Sorry, Im being silly. It isnt really funny.

Schwarz tried to protect her, he wouldnt let her go and he hid her. First maybe in the cellar or somewhere, and then when things got worse, apparently in a cave up in the cliffs.

You know the cliffs, eh? Have you ever been up there? No? Oh, then you really must, or youll be missing out on the main thing here, if this is where youre stuck. As it is below, so it is above and vice versa. You know that, surely.

He did, but how on earth did this chimney sweep know it too? How on earth could somebody who looked so ordinary know that? He felt for his notebook in his rear trouser pocket and had a good mind to tear it up, but he didn
t want any dramatics here. Not here.

The chimney sweep noticed how bewildered he looked.

Whats to do? he smiled. “I like mysteries – you too? I like reading myths and legends and all those things. Especially the local ones, the ones that are to do with us in some way, like the Golden Mare or the White Elephants and that...

White elephants?Marie exclaimed. Ive never heard that one. Oh, you are well-educated. He went to technical college, you see, and he wanted to go even further, only...but no matter. So you dont have just the famous big caves, which by the way they only found after the war, but theres lots of other smaller ones and some fairly small but accessible ones. So he made one of them into a hiding place for her. You know, a hide-out. Its hard for us to imagine, but apparently it was almost a home, a little room – as much as it could be, of course. Damp and cold and...excuse me she had to blow her nose well, basically...

Basically, somebody sniffed it out anyway and informed on them. Thats it. Dear me, Marie. Yes, its stupid, but what can you do?

Nobody ever saw her again. They say she was pregnant and

Then they took him away, too, only he...came back in forty-five. But hed lost his mind.No longer the same man.

Just as we were no longer the same people. It was the first thing that Jarda had said in half an hour, and he was proud of it for a long time afterwards.

We were no longer the same people – there you have it. Sure, we were only little then, but youve said it very nicely. I couldnt have put it that way.

The chimney sweep
s wife stroked Jarda at the door. In front of the chimney sweep, who said: No more for me. But you are quite right...

Jarda stepped out into the darkness towards the school. The heat and those crazy stars were out in his honour. Fortunately everything was so conveniently close. He was glad he hadnt torn up his notebook. 


“Marriage” is excerpted from White Elephants, a novella originally published by Druhé město in 2008.
Copyright © Irena Dousková, 2008. Copyright © Druhé město, 2008.
Translation copyright © Melvyn Clarke

Irena Dousková (the author) is a novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter. At home and abroad, she is best known for her tragicomic trilogy: B. Proudew (translated by Melvyn Clarke, Pálava Publishing, 2016), Oněgin Was a Rusky (translated by Melvyn Clarke, Pálava Publishing, 2018), and Darda (as yet untranslated into English). She is the author of ten books of fiction, and more than 100,000 copies of her books have been sold in the Czech Republic alone. Her books have appeared (or are due to appear) in 15 languages. Irena Dousková was born in 1964 in Příbram. She graduated from the Faculty of Law at Charles University, but never entered the legal profession. She has worked for the most part as a journalist, as well as a librarian and a dramaturge at a cultural centre. Since 2006 she has made a living from writing books, dramas and filmscripts. She lives in Prague. More about the author and her books:

Melvyn Clarke (the translator), born in 1956, is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, where he studied Czech and Slovak language, literature and history. Recent published translations into English include Onegin Was a Rusky and B. Proudew by Irena Dousková, Bohemia Docta, edited by Martin Franc, and Samizdat Past and Present, edited by Tomáš Glanc.

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