Extract from chapter three
Alice was born in 1950, just a few months before they arrested, tried and imprisoned her father. Alice didn’t remember any of it, she only learned about it through the stories and recollections of her relatives. Mother went to see him every month. Alice sometimes went with her, although they never let her inside, so she stayed with an aunt in a neighbouring town. And then after ten years her father turned up at their house. Alice knew him from the stories and from photographs. She had received letters from him which her mother had read to her at first and then when she had learned to read, she read them herself. She didn’t like him sending them letters, for even though she would hide it, Mother would usually cry, and Alice knew it, even though Mother tried not to show it. And then, just after her tenth birthday, they released Father. She was looking forward to it, everyone was looking forward to it, and everyone was nervous and happy. At first Mother had to go along to an office, and then there were more and more frequent visits from friends and relatives, who would read through heaps of papers, which they would then fill in and discuss in a language that Alice didn’t understand. And then one day Mother said to her that she had a big surprise for her, the surprise being that Father would be home in exactly two weeks, that they were releasing him after ten years, and not after thirteen as it had been in the original verdict, and that he would be with them once again. Alice didn’t understand Mother too well because according to Mother, Father was to come back, he was to return, but as far as Alice could remember he had never lived with them, so for her it wouldn’t be a return because she had never seen him leave. Father was to return from prison on Thursday. Those two weeks with Mother were almost unbearable. Alice couldn’t understand what was wrong with her. She was glad that Father was returning to her because he had been in prison and she hadn’t been allowed to talk about it too much. Alice understood, at least from what Uncle Antonín said, that her father was a brave man who stood up to injustice, and that was why they had imprisoned him, because in that regime, continued Uncle Antonín, they were all criminals from whom you couldn’t expect anything good. Alice didn’t really understand what this regime was, but she thought it was probably someone who was as important as the school inspector who frightened not only the class teacher, Miss Svobodová, but also the headmistress, Mrs Krausová, which was really something. Alice also knew that there were things which she could only talk about at home and not at school, in a shop or on the street. She was looking forward to her father coming home even though Mother was always washing, cleaning, rearranging things and dusting. Alice once heard her talking with Uncle Antonín about whether they should paint the flat or not. Uncle managed to convince her not to by saying:
“Calm down, Květa. Josef is coming and he will do the painting. You can paint together if you want.” Mother cried as usual, though Alice really couldn’t understand why Mother would cry because of painting.
Uncle Antonín also brought tablets which Mother sometimes took, and afterwards she would be calmer, although from time to time, for example when standing in the queue at the baker’s, tears would start running down Mother’s face, and when Alice tugged at her sleeve, Mother either wouldn’t want to talk to her, or she’d just say that in the baker’s they had such and such a cake, for example Sachertorte, which her dad liked. Everything connected with Father was sad, and so she slowly but surely began to dislike him, because when Mother thought of him she cried and it was never at all clear why. The flat had been cleaned, the windows washed, the flowers repotted, and even Alice’s toys were checked thoroughly by Mother at least four times. It was becoming unbearable with her and so Alice preferred to stay as long as possible at her friend Tereza’s. Mother would leave her there from time to time because Tereza’s grandfather was also in prison, though in a different one than Dad’s. There was a picture of the grandfather in Tereza’s living room. He was a great giant of a man with a huge belly, a large moustache and a look which would go right through you. He had one hand in his waistcoat, from which hung a watch chain, and Tereza’s grandmother said that he was a very good man who didn’t deserve all this. Alice didn’t believe Tereza’s grandmother because in the photograph he looked very stern and unkind. And also his belly was so large and looked as stern as his moustache and his grim stare.
On Tuesday Tereza came over to Alice’s house to do some homework in the afternoon. Over the past few weeks Mother had been buying a lot of things which they had never had at home before, there was lipstick, hairbrushes, powder compacts and even several small bottles of perfume. Alice and Tereza tried some of them. Alice’s mother had given them permission although at the same time she warned them to be very careful because they had cost a lot of money. When the doorbell rang it was certain to be their neighbour, Mrs Poláčková, who would either want to borrow some flour, eggs, milk, baking yeast or something else, or she would want to return flour, eggs, milk, baking yeast or something else. Both the girls looked at each other, sniggered and Tereza said:
“Poláčková?” Alice sniggered again and said:
“I don’t suppose you have any baking yeast, sweetheart?” and went to open the door.
When she looked out through the peephole she didn’t see anyone. It couldn’t be Poláčková because Poláčková always stood where she could be seen through the peephole, and so Alice turned and went back to Tereza.
“Who was it?” asked Tereza.
“No-one,” answered Alice, “no-one’s there, and even if no-one is there we’re still not allowed to open the door to anyone, so…” After a while the doorbell rang again. This time both the girls got up and went to the door to look.
“There’s someone there,” said Tereza. “Look.” Alice looked and there was a man standing in front of the door, his back turned to the door, with a bag in his hand. The girls looked at each other again and Alice opened the door. Her father stood there. She recognised her father immediately because photographs of him were all over the flat, especially in Mother’s room. However, he was much, much thinner than in his photographs. When he saw Alice he said:
“Hello, Alice.” Alice stood holding the door handle and said:
“I am your dad, Alice,” said the man.
“I know, sir,” said Alice.
“May I come in?” asked Father.
“You may, sir…Father,” said Alice and looked at Tereza uncertainly. Tereza stood in the corner of the hall, watching everything, but she didn’t say anything. Father walked into the hall and saw her. He looked at her and said:
“You must be Tereza, right?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Tereza and after a moment’s hesitation asked: “Are you Alice’s dad?”
“Yes, I am,” said Father.
“Ah,” said Tereza. The man came in, closed the door, bent down and grasped Alice in his arms, and when he lifted her up Alice was almost touching the ceiling. Alice didn’t know what to do, but whenever Uncle Antonín, Aunt Šárka or Uncle Bedřich lifted her up like that she would always grasp them around the neck. So she did the same. The man began to laugh, which Alice liked, but at the same time she felt he had made her face wet, which she didn’t like so much because she and Tereza had just been trying out some new blusher and a beautifully fragranced face powder. She pulled herself away from him and tried to sneak a look at him while he was holding her high above the floor. After a while Father put her back down on the floor, took out a large handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Alice was fascinated by the handkerchief because neither she nor Mother ever used such large handkerchiefs. Large handkerchiefs like this were ironed and laid flat in Mother’s wardrobe amongst Father’s things. Handkerchiefs like this were only used for skinned knees or if you had cut your finger when chopping onions or carrots – you didn’t blow your nose into such a handkerchief. Handkerchiefs like this were then put in with the dirty washing, boiled, ironed and then folded away in the wardrobe in Mother’s room. So Alice turned around and ran to Mother’s room, opened the wardrobe and took from a pile of similar handkerchiefs two large, newly ironed handkerchiefs that smelled of soap and returned with them to her father in the hall and placed them in his hand. Father glanced at her, now he wasn’t smiling, but he suddenly and unexpectedly looked her straight in the eye so that Alice gave a start and almost stopped breathing and she knew that if she had been eating she would definitely have choked. He looked at her so sternly that she couldn’t breathe. Later she concluded she would have to discuss with Tereza why he had looked at her that way. You don’t look at a person in such a stern, odd way when they haven’t done anything wrong. Then the man raised his eyes, looked all around the hall and ran his fingers through her hair. Alice knew that adults did this when they didn’t know what to say and wanted to be nice to children. Meanwhile, Tereza put on her shoes, bowed to Father, said goodbye to Alice and went home. She felt superfluous even though she didn’t know exactly why.
Father went into the kitchen, opened the sideboard and took out a large earthenware mug which stood in the second row and which no-one up until then had used, and then without hesitating reached for a large tin of coffee from the shelf. He knows his way around, said Alice to herself. My dad, she thought to herself, my dad knows his way around here, here in my house, in the kitchen of my house.
She had been looking forward to seeing him so much, had been so frightened and so angry at him, and now she didn’t know what to do with this big, tall man. So she just stood there, looking up at him, because he was much taller than Mum, and he looked down at her until it became slightly unpleasant for her and she started to feel slightly dizzy from having to look up at him.
“Where is Mum?” he asked once he had made his coffee, sat down and looked at his daughter.
“She’s sorting something out,” answered Alice. “And she also, she also told me that you were coming on Thursday.”
Neither Alice nor Father could remember how long they sat in the kitchen. She spent some time showing him round the flat, where nothing much had changed during those ten years. He wondered why she addressed him formally when she had always been so informal in her letters, and thought to himself how big a girl he had for a daughter, even though the last photograph he had seen of her was only half a year old. She also thought to herself that despite being so tall, he never bumped into anything, skilfully avoiding the lamps in the kitchen and in the room, and that he would sometimes run the dry palm of his hand over her hair, which would occasionally be caught by his calluses. She also noticed that when he stroked her arm and her shoulders, the material of her blouse would catch on his toughened skin, and Alice was a little worried that he would tear it with his hands. His hands were a bit like a grater and definitely needed a manicure, or at least to be properly oiled with a very oily cream such as Mum and Aunt Šárka used, but she couldn’t say that out loud. She could have said it to anyone else, but he was Dad and that was something completely different. Neither of them remembered how long she spent showing him the room, the kitchen and the hall, neither remembered how many times she repeated the names of her three dolls, which vanished from his mind as quickly as she said them. Alice noticed immediately that he did strange things, like when he would sit on the floor in the room and lean against the bed, which is something that everyone knew wasn’t the done thing, because you didn’t sit on the floor, even if there was a rug on it, you sat on chairs or armchairs, you played on the floor when you were a small child, not at the age she was at now. Alice didn’t know how she should tell him because he was so big and she was still a little afraid. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, it was evening and he was sitting in the dark on the floor, where you’re not supposed to sit, leaning against the bed, and she was sitting on his knee, and it was nice, and even though she was always a little afraid in a darkened room, she wasn’t afraid of it now, and even though she was still a little afraid of this tall, thin man, that was also nice. Then suddenly there was the sound of keys in the door and she felt his heart beating loudly beneath his jacket and shirt, and he suddenly squeezed her till it hurt, clenching both his fists and looking in a strange way towards the door which led to the kitchen, which was ajar. And he suddenly got up, and without saying anything took her in his arms and squeezed her even more than was necessary, so that Alice tried to pull away a little, feeling like a fish caught in a net. And he opened the door to the kitchen a little more and through the other half-open door to the hall you could hear Mother taking off her shoes, putting on her slippers and asking where Alice was and whether Tereza had already gone home. And then she turned round and saw them both standing in the doorway. He, her husband, holding her daughter, and still she bent down once more, from habit, to adjust the strap on her slipper, but then she was no longer looking at the slippers and she was going towards him, saying only: “Josef, Josef…” unable to finish the sentence like you are supposed to, something for which she always scolded her daughter. And she went over to him and stroked his hair and put her face to his, and Alice had the feeling that in a moment Mum would definitely start crying, which wouldn’t be so nice, but surprisingly she didn’t cry, she just put her arms round her husband and he embraced her, and Alice noticed that her father’s heart, which just a moment before had been beating as fast as a running herd of gazelle she had once seen in a zoo, now beat slowly and almost discreetly, but then she felt again a small warm current from Mum’s hands that pulsated, that pushed her blood to the fingers which grasped and stroked her, and this current changed and became stronger and calmed and stirred. And then Dad put her on the floor, and then somehow it became clear that it was time for dinner, and so she went to sit on her chair and he sat opposite her and Mum started making some sandwich spread, and he looked at her, devoting the same amount of time to his wife and daughter, and Mum would occasionally come over and stroke her hair and his hair too, just as you would with small children, but she would also occasionally, discreetly – though it was as fast as lightning, as if she didn’t want to be seen doing it – stroke his hands which lay on the table and which were much bigger than Mum’s. And so they ate, and because Mum had counted on Dad arriving in two days she hadn’t prepared any food because she had ordered everything from the shops for the next day so that everything would be fresh, and so they had cheese spread with chives, and although Alice didn’t really like it very much it didn’t matter to her that day because, to tell the truth, she didn’t really know what she was eating. She looked at her dad and at her mum, who seemed completely different from how she had ever been before. And once they had finished eating they sat through in the living room and Mum showed Dad two records that he really liked, and you could tell because it brought out a wrinkle across his forehead which made it look as though he was frowning, but as she discovered later it just looked like he was, but in reality it meant that he was unspeakably happy. And on the cover of one of the records were some men dressed up like penguins on parade, as Dad said later on, and at the same time he looked very serious, only he winked at her so quickly that no-one except her noticed, and she could have laughed at that, and on the cover of the second record was the head of another man who had very curly hair and small, funny glasses, and there was a piano there too which had been painted entirely in gold. And then Dad asked Mum to put on the record with the man in the funny glasses, and he said to her:
“Květa, I haven’t heard this in years.” And Mum said to him:
“Josef, now you can listen to it as often as you want – twice every day if you want.” However, she didn’t like Mum calling him Josef and so she went over to them, looked at Mum and said to both of them:
“That’s my dad – not Josef.” And he looked at her once again with that look which almost gave her a start, but this time it didn’t, because she had already been through it once before and she was brave and he sat her on his knee and said:
“Mum, Alice is right.” And she was glad that he had sat her on his knee because the music that was coming from the record with the man with the funny glasses was starting to be really sad, even though it also seemed beautiful and uplifting to her, but it was getting sadder and sadder. And then all she remembered were two big strong hands carrying her through the air to her bed and laying her down there, and then two smaller hands taking off her dress and putting a nightgown on over her head, and she had liked being carried through the air, and even though Uncle Oldřich sometimes carried her, these were her dad’s hands and that was completely different, and then before she fell asleep she said that she and Mum would have to buy a good hand cream for Dad because the one that Mum had was too perfumey and he wouldn’t like that as he would probably smell more of tobacco, and she could smell that as well as she fell asleep, even though Mum didn’t like tobacco and everyone who smoked had to go out on the balcony, but Dad didn’t have to go on the balcony, she was sure of that, and that was all she remembered of that day.
Translated by Graeme Dibble.