(Excerpt of a novella)
By Irena Dousková
Translated from Czech by Melvyn Clarke
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 didn’t know by name, and that fat Švejnohová, who they said was a teacher. Of course, he had to obey: hedidn’t have any work to do at all and he had read his book sometime before lunch. This was a really boring temp attachment– hisstepfather’s 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 didn’t 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 anybody’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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. “That’ll 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 you’ve 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...that’s what they should have written.That’s 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.
But everything has its time.
He was about to close the window when he noticed that the wife of the chimney sweep Kynštekr was approaching together with Podzimek’s 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 weren’t 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 Kynštekrová’s 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, you’d better shove off,”the barkeeper said to Schwarz, blocking the entrance with his bear-like physique.
“And what if I don’t feel like it?” the old man growled. “I’m not going to be ordered around by you, you sod.”
“I’ve told you to shove off, you understand? And I mean it.”
“You mean it, eh? You mean it?! You’re just shit scared. Shit scared up to here! And they’re stupid pricks anyway, both of them, Fencl and Podzimek, and I can say whatever I want. I’m not afraid of them, not like you.”
“Clear off and get lost.”
“And you’re 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 didn’t 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.“Let’s try to lift him.”
“I’ll help you,” Jarda offered.
Podzimek rushed out of the House of Culture, followed by Fencl and the others. The children stopped playing and gathered round curiously.
“But his head’s bleeding,”said Mrs. Podzimková,“we can’t just…”
“Take the boy and go home. I’ll be there shortly.”
“Eva, I have asked you to do something.”
Mrs Podzimková obeyed and so did the boy; he didn’t 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.
“What’s to be done with him?” Fencl looked at Podzimek inquiringly. “Should we… should I call them?”
“Leave it. See you tomorrow then.”
With some hesitation the group broke up.
“Easy does it...easy.” Mrs Kynštekrová helped Schwarz first to his knees and then to his feet.
“I’ll come along with you,” she smiled a little absurdly.
“I’ll come with you too, shall I?” Jarda hoped that he wasn’t blushing.
“Come here at once!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll 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 hadn’t 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. Let’s hope for God’s sake I don’t 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 don’t give a shit about the nutter.”The Chairman rubbed a fresh cigarette between his fingers. “Okay, Schwarz is not right in the head, but what’s to be done with him? Ever since forty-three – whenI was ten years old – helost his mind.”
“Doesn’t matter. And next time don’t 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.”
Good heavens, what had he said? Did he really want to ask why she’d 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 wasn’t 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...I’ve 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. That’s the way a man ought to look. And that’s 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 there...so I thought...”
“Oh yes, that’s his, do come in. It’s very kind of you.”
He had the impression that she’d 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 —”
“Shut the door, lad, and take a seat.”
Jarda 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 sweep’s cigarette, which was more acrid.
“We don’t 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 himand 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 it’s due for demolition in the spring. That’s why he’s going crazy. It’s 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…
Marie had one, too. They clinked glasses and she blew a kiss. To the chimney sweep.
“Aha, you’re thinking of that time? Yes, it’s true. She was Jewish.”
“A beautiful Jewess.”
“Come on. Sure, they say she was beautiful. But it’s all gossip.”
“You go on! Sorry, I’m being silly. It isn’t really funny.”
“Schwarz tried to protect her, he wouldn’t 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 you’ll be missing out on the main thing here, if this is where you’re 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.
“What’s 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. “I’ve 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 don’t have just the famous big caves, which by the way they only found after the war, but there’s 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. It’s 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. That’s it. Dear me, Marie. Yes, it’s 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 he’d 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 you’ve said it very nicely. I couldn’t 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...”
Drunkenly 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 hadn’t torn up his notebook.