How Olinka was no more

Yesterday was an important day. Yesterday I heard this lovely poem on the school intercom about a certain gentleman called B. Proudew. He was very brave and persevered, even though he had all kinds of difficulties. I have difficulties too, mostly ‘cos I’m fat and everyone laughs at me. But yesterday I told myself I wouldn’t give up. I’m going to be like Mr B. Proudew and persevere.

Yesterday I had this rather unpleasant matter to deal with as well. An unpleasant matter – now that’s what the Director at the theatre always says. I know him ‘cos Mummy acts at the theatre and so does Daddy, so when the Director wants to tell the actors that something’s wrong or something, he says: “Comrades, this is a rather unpleasant matter.” I don’t actually like him very much, ‘cos he looks like a skull that’s smiling. I’m afraid of skulls and bones more than anything else. I’m also quite scared of devils and dogs too, ‘cos I was once bitten on the leg by one, but that was in Zákopy at Grandma’s and Grandad’s. But an unpleasant matter – I do like that. That is how they say it.

Yesterday when we got to school, our teacher Mrs Koláčková told us…well, not actually when we got to school, but when school finished, she told us to remain quietly seated, as she had something to tell us. And she was so serious that I thought straight away it would be some unpleasant matter.

Like when she recently said she had something to tell us and she called out Hrůza to the front and gave him a choc-ice and Hrůza looked around oddly, but Hrůza always looks around rather oddly like that. And she said: “Children, your classmate Láďa Hrůza is leaving us and going to a special school, so we are all going to applaud him nicely.”

And again yesterday she said: “Children, something very sad has happened. Your schoolmate Olinka Hlubinová has died, because she had a very poorly heart.” So we all had a fright and then we went home. And now I just keep thinking about it.

Olinka isn’t from 2B like me, she’s from A, but all the same! She has short, black hair and she draws awfully well. I don’t even know her very well, but our teacher’s often shown us drawings done by Olinka, ‘cos they’re so nice. Now she’s died, so I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing her again, but our teacher might well keep showing us her drawings. That is rather odd.

I told them at home straight away and I asked how it was that she died when she’s a little girl, ‘cos I already know that some people die and don’t go back home or anywhere, but mostly when they’re old. And I also asked what a poorly heart meant, and I was told that a poorly heart is the worst illness you can have. If somebody has a poorly heart then they will almost certainly die. Then Mummy gave me two biscuits – probably ‘cos I’d been as sad as a dog. So now I’m happy and I’m still sad.

The same thing happened to me before the holidays too. I was happy ‘cos I got a one in my report, so we went out for some cakes. Other times I’m not allowed to have cakes ‘cos I’m fat, so I was happy, and then there were the holidays too, but I was sad, ‘cos they told us that our after-school helper Olga Jeřábková had died. But she died all herself. They didn’t tell us – I was told at home that she poisoned herself. You see, she poisoned herself with gas and she exploded, and the building where she lived exploded too, so some other people died as well. And I don’t know why, ‘cos she was kind and cheerful and I liked her, ‘cos she hid me when I bit Zdena on the hand, ‘cos I didn’t want to walk double-file with Zdena to lunch, and she wanted to and she wouldn’t be told that I didn’t want to. And then I was afraid what her mother Mrs Klímová would do to me when she came to the after-school centre and saw her bitten hand. Mrs Klímová is also a teacher at our school, but she teaches the big boys and girls Russian. And Zdena cried and I thought I’d better sit under the table in the after-school centre and I cried too until the after-school helper hid me.

Except that Kačenka – that’s what I call my mother – Kačenka didn’t know why the after-school helper did it either. Then in the kitchen she said to Daddy that those swines had hounded her to death. I think she meant the Russians or maybe the Communists, ‘cos the Russians and Communists are swines, though you aren’t allowed to say so. But Kačenka and Andrea Kroupová keep saying it anyway, they sing the anti-Russian song, “I’m Lenin on a lamppost”, and Kačenka doesn’t want to let me go to the Sparkies, ‘cos the Sparkies and the Pioneers are supposed to be little Communists. So I don’t know, out of our class the whole class goes and I’d like to go too. I already go to German, drawing and ballet. ‘Cos I’m fat I have to exercise. But I’d like to go to the Sparkies too.

Nobody except me goes to German, to Mrs Freimannová, who taught me last year in the first form and then retired or something. She stopped teaching us at the school and now she only teaches me at her home.

Lots of children go to ballet, mostly girls, but they’re all very pretty and nobody there is fat except me, so they laugh at me when I practise – and all the time. I have a friend there too, but she’s the woman who teaches us dancing, ‘cos Kačenka knows her from the theatre, where she says who is to go onstage on the intercom. She’s what’s called a stage manager. Before her, there was a proper ballet dancer, but now she’s fat too.

Best of all is the art circle with Mr Pecka in the House of Culture. I’m fine there, drawing and painting and especially model-making. Then I fire it in the kiln and it’s a statue. Other kids went there too, but Mr Pecka liked what I said and painted, and he persuaded Kačenka to let me go in the evening, when the adults go. So now I do statues with the adult painters instead of with the kids, and with Nečka Pacák – he’s another youngster who Mr Pecka wanted to join us. Mr Pecka has a record player and when we’re painting, he plays Mozart. He’s said to be the best music composer in the whole world. Something like Bedřich Smetana, but much better even than him. And it really is very nice. Even though Andrea Kroupová, who’s another actress from Kačenka’s theatre and Kačenka’s friend, said it isn’t true and that the very best is someone else beginning with b. Bachoven, I think. They talk about interesting things there and I think I’ll be a sculptor when I grow up.

Yesterday Mr Pecka said he’d heard that people are going to start wearing trousers that look like bells; narrow and thin at the top and broad and very colourful at the bottom. He also said that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself and that he’d only wear those trousers over his dead body. I don’t like the idea either and Mr Pecka is from Prague and he’s a sculptor.

Andrea Kroupová is already wearing these trousers and she’s very nice, but Kačenka is a lot prettier. Andrea told me that women can’t be sculptors, but Mr Pecka says that a clever woman can be everything she wants to be.

I think that Mrs Freimannová, who taught me in the first form and now teaches me German, is very clever. Mainly ‘cos she can speak German and also ‘cos she can say things that help me when I have troubles in my head, like yesterday with that Olinka. In the first form, Kačenka wanted to enrol me at the church for religion, but Mrs Freimannová put her off, saying that I’m going to have enough troubles as it is. She was thinking about the troubles in my head and they might well be something that I have.

Yesterday when I came home from German, it was already dark and the weather was really lovely, ‘cos an awful lot of snow was falling and the wind was blowing and all the shop windows were lit up and there were Christmas decorations inside them. So I walked along very slowly to enjoy it all and I ate a little snow – I can do that, it’s not a sweet at all, and I made tracks. And then I stopped for a while at the stationer’s, ‘cos that’s what I like best of all and I looked at all those nice-smelling crayons and the sheets of paper and all the different colours and the things I love. The bottom of the shop window was all frosted over with flowers and stars, so I took my gloves off and wrote with my finger on the glass: Dear Santa, please bring me the felt-tip pens that they have such a lot of, and pink and orange and modelling clay if you can. I’ll be really good. Thank you, Helena Součková, 429 Antonín Zápotocký Street, Ničín V. And I wanted to look for a little while longer and sniff the snow, but all of a sudden there was Olinka Hlubinová standing behind the shop window and frowning at me. She had a long white dress and a white face and she was holding a piece of paper with no picture and it was all white too. And I wanted to run away but I couldn’t.

Olinka said, “Give me my water colours back or I’ll haunt you until you’re a dead body too.” And I said, “Olinka, I’m really sorry. I haven’t taken any water colours from you. I’m not even in your class. I only have the old ones that Kačenka gave me for the first form.”

“Someone has stolen my water colours and I can’t paint any more,” Olinka said and she was quite cross. “So I’ll give you mine if you want,” I said and I took off my satchel and gave them to Olinka. “All right,” Olinka said, “and promise you’ll never draw as nicely as I do.” “I promise,” I said and ran off home, ‘cos now I was able to. And I fell twice.

Kačenka got very cross with me and used some foreign words: “Helena, you look like a Polish Jew again. Your coat buttons are all askew, your scarf’s trailing on the ground, your cap’s in your pocket and you’re soaked through. A clever girl like you, going around like somebody from a special school!” But that was nothing. When a lady came and brought my overshoes in a bag, my gloves and the water colours that I’d given to Olinka, it got a lot worse. I’m told I’m going to have to think very hard about myself, but I’m already thinking awfully hard as it is.

How Pepíček went to hell

Now I’m all into Christmas, though it’s still an awful long way off, actually, in about fourteen days’ time. But I do keep thinking about it. I’m only sorry that Kačenka is in a huff with me again, and just before Christmas Eve I really cannot be doing with her thinking that I’m being very naughty, when I’m not being naughty, I’m just having all kinds of misunderstandings. That’s how it was with those things I’d forgotten, and before that, with those pencils and erasers, only they weren’t forgotten, they got stolen at school, but I didn’t tell, ‘cos if I had, she’d have visited the school again and I can’t be doing with that.

Then they’d like me even less than they do anyway. Mostly ‘cos I’m fat and ‘cos I’m from the theatre, but Jarda Lagrón and Robert Lagrón are from a shooting gallery and that doesn’t bother anybody, ‘cos they’re only in class with us during the winter and sometimes they let the boys go shooting or riding on the merry-go-round for free.

And also because of those names. ‘Cos I’m not really called Součková like Kačenka is, but Freisteinová like Karel Freistein, who was something like my Dad. But then he wasn’t my Dad, ‘cos I don’t know him at all and he doesn’t know me either and he doesn’t live here at all, I just have him in the blood somehow.

Once I only had Kačenka, but now we’ve got Pepa and Pepíček, and Pepa’s my real Dad. Only Kačenka is still called Součková as she always was, ‘cos she’s an actress, and that’s how they do things. And Pepa’s called Brďoch and Kačenka is sometimes Součková and sometimes Brďochová or also Součková-Brďochová. I’m the only one who’s a Freisteinová, but I don’t want to be one at all, and they laugh at me at school.

Our teacher, Mrs Koláčková, when she was completely new in September and she wanted to know what we were called, she knew already, but she wanted to know it from us, so when she came to me, she said: “We-e-ll, children, have you ever seen anything like this? Helena here is called Freisteinová, her mother is called Součková and her father is called Brďoch. Well, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s probably not all that important with theatre people. He’s probably her stepfather, isn’t he, Helena?” The whole class laughed at me, even though they’d all known for a long time and never laughed before – about that.

Kačenka was blazing when I told her about it. She said they were idiots and she went to ask Mrs Koláčková not to say that my Dad was my stepfather again and asked her to call me Součková, so that I’m not left all alone with my name. Mrs Koláčková promised. She isn’t a bad person, she just isn’t as fine as Mrs Freimannová, and she probably can’t even speak German. But I still have to be Freisteinová in the class register. Nothing to be done about that, they say.

So I call myself Součková, like when I write to Santa or somebody, or for sculpturing, ‘cos Mr Pecka uses that name. But the boys at school, and the girls, they’re always messing around and calling me Moby Dick, which is supposed to be some big fat fish. Or they call me atom bomb. And now, thanks to Mrs Koláčková, they’ve started calling me Frankensteinová. I don’t know what that means yet. I must ask Kačenka. But carefully, so that she doesn’t want to visit the school again.

So I thought I’d better not tell her about those stolen pencils and erasers, so now it looks like I’m being awfully naughty.

It also happened when I told Pepíček that he’d gone to hell. Pepíček was lying in his cot and he’d been asleep for a bit when I sat next to him and started repeating: “You’re in hell, you’re in hell. I’m an old devil and you’re in hell.” And it worked, ‘cos Pepíček believed me and started to cry. But then Kačenka came and heard everything, ‘cos by that time I was believing it myself and not paying any attention. So Kačenka got cross and still is. Only I didn’t mean it badly, I really like Pepíček. I just wanted to see if he’d believe me, even though he could see that it was me. ‘Cos a true sculptor must be able to convince everyone of her truth and must have imaginative power, or something. That’s what Mr Pecka says and that was meant to be imaginative power. Except that Pepíček is two and a half, and I’m told I’m never to try anything out on him again.

I’m glad we have Pepíček, though I’d be gladder if they called him Marcel. But Mum and Dad didn’t want to, ‘cos then he wouldn’t like them when he grew up. I really don’t know why – I think it’s a lovely name. I have a hare and he’s called Marcel. Pepíček is called Pepíček after his Dad and Grandad. After his Prague Grandad Brďoch. Grandad Souček from Zákopy is called Frantíšek and as for my Freistein Grandad I don’t even know what he was called. But he’s dead anyway, and his wife is too. She was called Helena like me – I do know that. Grandma from Zákopy said the Germans killed them in the war. They baked them in an oven or something, but I don’t know if that’s true. Probably definitely isn’t. Grandma thinks I’m still too young to have any sense and she says nice things about Freistein on purpose to make me like him. But I don’t like him, I only like Pepa. But then Grandma doesn’t like Pepa, ‘cos she likes Freistein and she writes letters to him and also ‘cos Pepa wants me to keep to a diet, so I’m not fat. And there’re always arguments. But I do have some sense and I think Pepa is right, even though I do like cakes and buns, which Grandma from Zákopy is always baking on purpose and jamming me up with.

Grandma from Zákopy is very nice, but she’s stubborn and throws her weight around a lot, even with Grandad. We visit Zákopy every Saturday and Sunday and there’s always a big row, usually between Kačenka and Grandma. So I’d possibly rather not visit, but I have to, ‘cos we like each other.

And all this is because of Freistein, ‘cos Grandma keeps writing to him in secret to say that I’m sad, that I have pneumonia, that I mustn’t have any buns, but that I’d like some, and it’s all like true but not true. Freistein is abroad, which is an awful long way away and called New York. And I’m always afraid that he might come for me. Mr Pecka laughed out loud and said I needn’t be afraid, when I once told him. But it doesn’t seem funny to me, even if it is a long way away. Grandma will keep writing to him that I’m sad, until he gets mad and comes over.

Once he sent me a doll, which is called Karla after him, but I don’t like her, so I call her Mrs New York. But this New York isn’t a country. It’s a town like Ničín, for example, but more people live there and the country is called America.

At the theatre they once had a play called Shame on America, or something like that, and Pepa and Kačenka played some wicked American people and said they didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t enjoy it either. I actually enjoyed Oldřich and Božena more, where Pepa played the murderer and I was terribly afraid. But I was still small then and Pepa was still Mr Brďoch, who only came to visit occasionally.

Oldřich and Božena was written by the famous writer František Hrubín, who wrote The Chicken and the Wheat, and Kačenka said he wrote it against the Russians. Like Jan Hus, for example. They also played him against them, but that wasn’t written by František Hrubín, but by Josef Kajetán Tyl, who also wrote the Czechoslovak Socialist anthem. František Hrubín died last autumn and we had him on the notice board. Now we have the Great October Socialist Revolution on one and Christmas on the other.

Yesterday they had a St. Nicholas Day Show at the theatre for the theatre children, but there was no Nicholas. There was Mr Dusil and Andrea Kroupová pretending to be Comrade Frost and Comrade Snow White and giving us Christmas chocolates. We had the real Nicholas with a devil, and it was really nail-biting, wondering how it would all end up, ‘cos Nicholas knew I’d told Pepíček he’d gone to hell, and he knew everything about Pepíček too and the devil growled horribly and Nicholas had a job making sure he didn’t bite us or really take us back to hell with him. We had to recite little poems and sing, and Pepíček cried and I was awfully scared too. But when we promised them everything they wanted, they left us alone and gave us presents. That was a relief! But it was also nice, the way Nicholas had this amazing smell, a bit like the theatre, but more a kind of holy smell to explore…

So now there’s just Christmas and then there’s nothing else to look out for. Before we go to Zákopy, Grandad Souček will come and take us to the manger scene at Holy Hill and I still have an awful lot of praying to do for everything to work out well with me and the modelling clay and for everyone to be still alive. Maybe I could also ask Santa not to be called Freisteinová any more, but Součková. I can’t be a Brďochová, because then they’d all call me Brrrrr-ďochová, or they might even call me Birdy Birdy, and that really wouldn’t be any help to me at all.


Translated by Melvyn Clarke; the full translation of available on request at Dana Blatná Literary Agency.