It was after lunch on a Sunday when Augustin Zimmermann rose to leave, his rickety chair clattering in the process. His wife asked him where he was off to this time and where he had got the money for booze. By way of reply Zimmerman, a tall man with piercing blue eyes, merely spat out some abuse. “Why are you always fucking going on at me?!” He opened the door and headed out into the Sunday afternoon, muttering something about an old bitch.
The old bitch followed his retreating figure with a sigh. It would be a waste of words, which would run through him like water through a cleaned-out fish head. She placed her veined arms on her lap, then something snapped inside her and she threw an earthenware mug at the door. With an annoyingly loud noise it smashed into several pieces. For a few minutes there was silence. The woman stared into space for a while before getting up to collect the shards, which made a tinkling sound as they spread across the floor like mercury. It was the last decent cup they’d had. She threw the remains of the cup onto the street; they could end up killing someone for all she cared.
Her husband, Augustin Zimmermann, walked along the street in the direction of the pub, though he wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. He loosened his red scarf and for a moment toyed with the idea of going home to his wife, having a chat with the neighbours, letting the day go by, giving the kids a thrashing for good measure and going to work sober in the morning. He felt a strong desire for harmony, a lazy afternoon and a drawn-out Sunday. But how? At home? With his wife? With his neighbours? Or even in the pub? For a moment he thought he could hear festive music being played – the annoying creaking of a barrel-organ and the rattling of a tired old accordion. It all sounded very distant and inhuman. As distant as this day.
It’s this damned thirst, you can’t help it, he said to himself. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so rough on Františka, but he couldn’t control himself. It was always money, money, money. She constantly went on at him about money and drink – as if he didn’t have enough to deal with already. Alone – he was alone in the world. He would sit by himself today. He had a feeling that the drink wasn’t going to improve his mood, that he wouldn’t join in with the carefree singing or bang his glass on the table. Today he would get darkly, grimly drunk. This Sunday owed him something. The whole world, which was constantly making promises, owed him something, and with interest. But no payment or special rate of interest were forthcoming. They were certainly taking their time about it. Instead his life was a succession of blows. Drudgery and a shortage of everything. Where was the joy in it, why was there none left over for Augustin? And why was there none left for his wife, whose ribs stuck out from under her blouse like a rake from straw?
Augustin kept expecting the world to come rushing up with a sack full of joy and, as if by magic, arrange for he and his missus to have a better life. If only that sack existed, he would be able to find at least an ounce of joy for his eternally sour-faced wife. His wife, for whom nothing was good enough, for whom nothing was sacred, his wife who had no respect for her husband and merely ridiculed him. But the sack was empty and full of holes. And where would the world get this sack of plenty from and why would it give it to him of all people? his wife would laugh at him if she could see into his head. What makes you think that you could be a success? she would ask. Just be glad that you’re still alive.
A sharp stab of indignation passed through Zimmerman. He was struck by a sense of injustice and his head was filled with dark thoughts. He kicked a stone, passed by some people, doffed his cap and loosened his scarf until it fell to the ground. Cursing, he picked it up and put it back on. He’d just as happily hang himself with it. He looked at the woman in front of him – she had broad hips and a fat behind. She waddled like a duck – like a miller’s wife he had once known. Prudent and cautious with money. Expansive, as though you were standing alone in a meadow.
But one day all of her nice chubby flesh was crushed by a mill wheel. During one unfortunate storm she was mercilessly swept between its blades, which tossed her around as though she was not a beautiful, fat, pink human body, but a pile of manure. No-one was able to stop the relentless motion of the wheel. It turned and turned, crushing the body of the plump miller’s wife to a pulp.
It took three pairs of strong arms to extricate the waterlogged body of the miller’s wife and the body of her son, who had jumped in after her. When they pulled them out, they averted their eyes. It was a horrendous sight. Where was the beautiful miller’s wife with the wide hips? Why was there this sack, drenched in water, without beauty or form? Fat millers’ wives should die tucked under their quilts, attended to by distraught relatives and well-wishers, surrounded by daisies and bladdernut rosaries, bathed in sunlight, glory and eternity. Their bodies should ascend to the heavens in a dignified manner with a divine smile. They had no business resembling a rotten, mouldy potato sack, or some poor wretch who’d popped their clogs in the middle of a damp cottage. They dragged her into an outhouse and the abating water, which just moments before had been casting up a furious foam, washed the stones of the river clean of guilt.
It silently wept and regretted. It couldn’t help it. Once in a while the storm would take hold of it and destroy whatever it could until it had worked off its anger, until it had reached such a peak of fury that it could rest again for a few years in the aftermath of its convulsions. One brief, powerful summer storm was all it took to cause the accident which broke the miller’s wife’s neck, the miller’s spirit and all of their son’s limbs. Zimmerman then travelled the countryside telling people of the accident. They wanted to know the details. They wanted to know if the wheel had really pulverized everything.
Zimmerman didn’t know exactly what had happened before the jaws of the water had swallowed her up. How did she get so close to the wheel? She had always been careful, and the children had been forbidden from going within several metres of it. She had sometimes argued about it with her husband, who reproached her for keeping the children away from their trade. The miller’s wife ruled the mill with a firm hand, but she was afraid of it. It is so big, so much bigger than me, she thought as she looked at the large, noisy structure. Water can kill as well as heal, she used to say. It awaits your fear like an alert dog.
The tall, blue-eyed man finally reached the pub. The first thing he did was order a caraway schnapps. Then a beer, a schnapps, a beer, a schnapps. He sat alone, staring at the crowd. The gaudy outfits of the spruced-up workers danced in front of his eyes. The clothes sparkled across the whole pub like glass stones from a fair, and everyone acted as though they were not made of cheap and nasty material. They wanted to give the impression that they were beautiful clothes designed for festive occasions full of hope. The female workers would find themselves male workers, with whom they would lead a miserable, squalid life filled with the hooting of factory chimneys, quarrels and the screaming of hungry children. What wonderful prospects awaited these poor women stuffed into their tawdry outfits, dancing to tired old ditties full of double entendres.
# Just you wait, Marie. Pepík, what for? #
They came here to choose for themselves a rather ragged young man, who would one day be the death of them, but even so it was worth it. To put on a dress, dance, drink and fornicate while you could still pretend that life still might turn out to be one big holiday.
# Just you wait, Marie. Pepík, what for? #
The hurdy-gurdy ground away and the young men shouted over one another, running about the pub like wild dogs, eagerly baring their teeth, clinking bottles, clutching one another. Augustin lost himself in the clamour and drank himself into oblivion. He sat alone. He had no-one to sit with and no-one wanted to sit with him. He wasn’t good company. He went from laughter to swearing and from swearing to laughter – it didn’t make for a great sense of camaraderie. And so he sat alone, staring at the bottle and trying not to sober up. He couldn’t take that kind of pain. A new week lay ahead and he had to make sure he was ready for it. A mild drunkenness would still be with him tomorrow, then he’d sober up, and he’d hold out for a while, but just so that the pain didn’t destroy him, and then he’d be back here again. Františka understood – she was a sensible woman who knew she couldn’t expect anything better from him anyway. A week is so unpredictable. You couldn’t even tell how long a week was going to be. When he had finally drunk away all his money, he paid up with a sense of relief and stumbled out into the street, but being so tall he banged his head against the doorframe on the way out. Cursing, he almost fell over. For a moment his arms waved slowly in the air before he regained his balance.
Trudging through the dark streets, he passed the elegant silhouettes of factory chimneys. They looked like those posh cigarettes wrapped in very thin paper, which Zimmerman would certainly never smoke. The strictly right-angled, classicist streets of the Karlín district undulated and merged into one another. For a moment Augustin really had no idea where he was. He pricked up his ears, but in vain. The roads were suspiciously expansive and yet closed-off at the same time. He found himself in a labyrinth with no exit, full of dead ends and false trails, each of which closed at precisely the moment you wanted to get out. A labyrinth full of dark forests whose thorns pricked his nerves. A moth flew around his head while from somewhere came the scratching of rats. For a moment it seemed to him that he could hear the murmur of the harbour, but it was too far from him. He drove away the idea that he was moving upon water and rummaged around in his pockets for his pipe. He had to have a smoke. This wasn’t normal. He drew in the stink of the cheap tobacco and his stomach heaved. Didn’t a train just go by this way? Leaning against a wall, he stopped and stared into the darkness. His head was splitting and he felt a severe pain just above his eye. He should have stayed in the pub. At least it was safe there. Karlín was far too expansive – it made you nervous, made you hear strange things.
His knees began to buckle under him and he felt very tired. He would have preferred to lie down somewhere and sleep, but then there would be a big fuss if someone saw him there in the morning. Františka would fly into a rage. “Children, just look at your father sleeping in the street like a pig.” He could do without having to listen to that.
He could have done with a drink – his mouth was burning like the fires of hell. Like the blazing furnaces of those awful buildings with their tall, thin, black chimneys constantly belching out smoke. At last he stood in front of his house. The windows were stuffed with rags to keep out the draughts, and in the courtyard the hens slept, bloated like footballs. A hovel which it was better to enter in the darkness. A cursed, rented home. He took hold of the handle and tripped over a bucket. He cursed, wondering who had done it. He decided that his wife must have left the bucket there as a trap for him. She wanted to make a cripple of him – she’d like that. He rattled the handle a few times and when he found that it was open he barged inside. He scooped some water in his cupped hands, slurped it down, undid his scarf and fell onto the mattress.
“Don’t pretend you’re sleeping,” he yelled into the darkness. He needed some respect. He was a working man and a father, and his wife was lying around when she should have been working, and his children were sleeping when they should have been helping.
No-one said anything. Any response would set him off and Františka had to work the next day. As well as making buttons, she was now mending clothes as well and had to work hard. If she replied, her husband would flare up and kick up a fuss until morning. That was what he wanted to do – to let off steam. Not even the hours spent drinking could quench his anger. Augustin sat for a while, rolling his fuzzy tongue around in his mouth, thoughts swirling around in his head, narrowing his eyes like a cat. His pupils darted restlessly this way and that, trying to catch hold of something. Even he didn’t know what, and yet he was sure of what it ought to be. Eventually tiredness overcame him and his stomach also started to bother him. He lay down and started to hiccup. This disturbed everyone. The children clenched their fists, closed their eyes as tightly as they could and tried to sleep. The cold floor was like a stab in the kidneys. The room began to fill with the stench of drunkenness and the drunk’s wife saw red. She bit her hand. Finally, however, after about half an hour, God had mercy on them and Augustin hiccupped for the last time before starting to snore. Meanwhile, the gently rolling hills enfolded Karlín, blowing onto the burning wounds of the endless night.
(Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble)