(excerpt from chapter 3)
The last free table was right next to a pensioner who exuded the stench of old age. While my sister was telling me in a hushed voice about a documentary about the death of some celebrity on Channel Two last night – in a hushed voice because the pensioner was straining to listen – I watched as the old man, with a certain refinement though with a trembling hand, brought a cup of mint tea to his lips, which were the same colour as his skin. His thinning hair, which was more yellow than white, had been combed backwards and there were tracks running through it which had no doubt been made by the teeth of a small comb, which he probably kept in the breast pocket of his white shirt, now almost as yellow as his hair. He had three liver spots on his temple and his face was wrinkled, particularly his forehead. He gazed out of the window somewhere into the distance – perhaps he was looking back on the years gone by, as it was difficult to look to a future where nothing much awaited him. He had a wedding ring on his finger, an ordinary wide gold band, which didn’t necessarily mean that his wife was waiting for him at home. Maybe she was waiting somewhere else entirely. My sister had her hand in front of her nose and mouth and all I could hear was yabba-yabba-yabba. Did the old man know he smelled so bad? Could he tell? The stench not only said, I am old, it said, I am as musty as the pages of an old book that someone has left in a loft, which no-one is interested in reading. My soul has been covered in mould. I looked around at the others and wondered what it would smell like in here if the stench of their souls was all around them. And back to the yabba-yabba-yabba. What would my sister smell like?
And what about you, Anna? What do you smell like?
“Are you even listening to me?” she asked.
I nodded. I sought out her scent. All I could smell was a mixture of patchouli and pink pepper from the perfume I’d bought her for Christmas last year.
Jakub often smelled of fabric conditioner. And after one of his eight-kilometre runs in the park he mostly smelled of the wind and sweat. He would return and disappear straight into the shower. Sometimes I would block his way and watch as he pulled his t-shirt over his head. I’d look at the swollen veins in his hands as the blood coursed through them. I’d watch everything pulsate under his skin. I’d watch the process of him living and I’d feel both calm and slightly aroused.
The drain washed the memory away.
The morning sun shone through the bedroom blinds in narrow strips.
Slowly I climbed onto the toilet seat.
I started to awaken. I stretched my hands, legs, spine, and the sound of creaking joints breaks the silence.
Slowly I reached for the valve.
Jakub was lying on his stomach, eyes closed, but he was smiling so I knew he was semi-awake, that he was enjoying my old bones. “Morning, old girl,” he said quietly, and I rumpled the hair on his forehead.
Slowly I released the valve.
He frowned and put his arm around me as a sign that I should lie closer so that we could enjoy this sleepy moment.
But now I was turning it and turning it. It was almost there.
His hand ended up on my shoulder. I put my head under his arm and stuck my nose in his armpit. “Pervert,” he whispered, smiling.
I banged my palm against the underside of the table and my lighter fell from my other hand to the floor. I extracted my injured hand and leant down to blow on the burnt patch, but the thoughts in my head burned even more.
“Urgh, Mummy, what’s that stink?” asked Karolína when she came to the table for a drink. My sister just hissed loudly at her so that Karolína understood she had done something wrong, but it was hard for her to grasp what exactly. I always thought that this was the craziest aspect of bringing up children. Karolína probably did too. But that didn’t count for shit. And the old man probably wouldn’t even have reacted to Karolína’s question or made the association with himself, but my sister’s terse reaction caused the old man to turn towards us. He caught my gaze and I looked away. My sister was fumbling for some hankies in a plastic bag behind the hood of the buggy when some cemetery candles fell out.
“Planning a nice little evening out?” I asked.
“Oh sure,” she smiled stiffly, stuffing the candles back in.
“Did someone die?”
“Yeah, a few years ago…” she said, and she began to blow her nose, even though she had brought the hankies out for Karolína.
“Don’t you know whose anniversary it is?”
“You mean the anniversary of someone’s death? Is that what they call it?” I guffawed.
“Cut it out. Where were we?”
“So whose anniversary is it?”
“Dad’s, Anna. Dad’s,” she said with sudden emphasis, I’ve had enough of this, Anna, I’ve had enough! and she gave up the false nose-blowing.
“Dad…right,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
“What is it? What? Just tell me,” she said throwing her hands up. “Go and play, Karolína,” she said, patting her daughter on the back.
“You’re not seriously going to the cemetery for that piece of shit? Next you’ll be taking him a wreath with In Loving Memory on it!”
“Stop it. I can still show some respect, can’t I? He was our dad after all.”
“And he was so fucking respectful, wasn’t he?”
“I know…” she shrugged her shoulders and sipped her tea. She smoothed out the tablecloth. “Someone has to go to his grave.”
“No, they don’t, Dana. They really don’t. What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with you?! And don’t shout.”
The old man stared over at us.
“I have to go to the toilet,” I said, leaving the table.
When I returned the children were already lined up in front of my sister. Zdenda was tangled up in his scarf and tripping over his own feet.
“We have to go,” said Dana.
“Hmm.” I nodded and sat down.
“Are you staying here?” she asked, busily doing up coats.
“Well, have fun. I’ll pay at the bar. I’ll call you.
“Bye,” and after they had gone, the old man and I looked at each other for a moment. I ordered a vodka.
So it was my dad’s anniversary. I guess that big day had slipped my mind, or been pushed out of it, or suppressed, or forced out and flushed away. Just as well I had my sister to remind me. To remind me of the person who beat her up – of course, someone like that had to have a place in her heart, someone had to pay their respects to a person like that, and who better than her. At least he had paid her some attention, and probably fostered the need within her to appreciate only that form of attention. Kuřinec wasof that. And yet no-one from the social services or from the ranks of psychologists and lawyers bothered her much, she only had to tell each of them once. They listened to her, took notes, didn’t ask her anything, felt sorry for her and let her go. With me, everyone asked me at least a hundred times what he did to me, if he beat me, if he tortured me, if he swore at me, if he abused me, if he stubbed cigarettes out on me, if he touched me here and here, if he kissed me here and here, show us on the doll. They spoke to me as if I were a freak, even though I had already reached puberty. And I told them a hundred times no, that he had never even touched me, that he hardly ever spoke to me and hardly ever looked at me. But they wanted to hear that I had been raped and abused as a little girl, they couldn’t explain it, and so I almost started to make up stories for them because that’s what they wanted to hear and maybe I wanted to hear it too, maybe it would have been clear to us all then and they could feel sorry for me and let me go. But he loathed me so much that he never touched me. He had my mother for that. And my sister. One doll wouldn’t have been enough for them. But I didn’t need one. I’d never even owned one.
With a trembling hand the old man offered me a clean cloth handkerchief, and when I didn’t react, he laid it in front of me on the table. And then he left.
I smell of dust and decay. Like a damp cellar, like a deserted cottage.
I looked over at the window of a nearby shop which had a cream or maybe beige coat on display. But my view was obscured by a long dark blade of grass which suddenly sprouted and grew in my field of vision. Viktor Kavi walked quite slowly towards me, and when he reached the table neither of us said hello.
“She’s just left,” I said.
“Don’t you have another date with my sister?”
“Were you out shopping?”
“Anna, I came to see you.”
“Have you been following me?”
“Either I’ve been following you or I know that you meet here on Mondays.”
He was so serious and unflappable and strangely dramatic with those staring eyes and thick eyebrows that it made me want to tickle him or lift up my sweater in front of him just to see some kind of reaction on his face, some kind of emotion. He towered above me, looking even more ominous from below.
“Why did you come to see me?”
“I think you know why.”
“Have you changed your mind?”
“What? That prescription? No, I definitely haven’t changed my mind. That’s out of the question.”
“Sure,” I nodded, knocking back the vodka. “So what do you want?”
Would I cut myself if I touched him? He leaned over towards me with his long, pointed nose and sharp cheekbones. The blade of grass bent over. He sat down uninvited where my sister had been.
“I want to set up a meeting with someone I know.”
“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I want to be on my own right now,” I said, throwing in the cliched phrase of an emancipated woman.
“He’s a therapist. After two sessions he’ll see if you need medication.”
“I don’t need any sessions for that. Cool it, Doctor, I can find tablets without you. D’you know about all of the things people can buy on the internet?”
“Are you sure you want to try this on with me?”
“Try what on with you?” I asked him.
“Doesn’t it seem a bit transparent to you?”
“What do you mean?” I lit a cigarette. You couldn’t look into those strange eyes of his for long.
“I know what you’re trying to do.”
“And what am I trying to do? Analyse me, Doctor.”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“So what am I trying to do, Mr Mediator?”
“Do you often try to manipulate people?”
“Am I manipulating you?”
“You’re trying to.”
“And in what way, may I ask?” I said, leaning on my chin.
“No, we’re not going to play that game here. Don’t make me responsible for your self-medication.”
“Hmm, so what else then?”
“You should flick it.”
For a moment I tried to decipher what he meant, as if he was using some kind of psychological metaphorical jargon for mad people, but then I realized I just had to flick the ash from the end of my cigarette.
“You just can’t help it, can you?” I said to him after a moment’s silence, which was filled only with me smoking and him watching angrily as the ash flew everywhere.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that I put the responsibility on you, but you took it on yourself in your not-well-done office.”
He stared at me, a frown of incomprehension appearing on his forehead then quickly disappearing. “Ah, medium, I get it,” he said almost like a robot. “Why would I do that?”
“Some kind of deformation from your psychological practice.” Or from parenting, I thought to myself.
“All you need to know is what a person does and whether they have children and then you think you know them and can judge them, right?”
I hadn’t kept that to myself.
“You’re on fire.”
“You’re burning your sweater.”
I stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray. We were silent. A waiter came to ask Viktor what he wanted, but he said he was just leaving.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What should I be doing?”
“Didn’t my sister tell you?”
“Maybe, I don’t know.”
“Really?” he asked. His tone was surprised, but his eyes weren’t. “Could you find out something for me? That is, if it’s possible…”
“I often get phone calls from an unlisted number.”
“That could be anyone. It doesn’t even have to be the same person.”
“I know that, but each time I pick up there’s a moment’s silence and then the person hangs up. Can you find out what number it’s from?”
I shrugged. “I doubt it. We definitely don’t do that.”
He nodded and stood up. “Goodbye, Anna.”
“Is that it?”
“Is that it?”
He raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“You went to all that trouble to see me and that’s it?”
“I didn’t go to any trouble, and, yes, that’s it. I wanted to offer you help, but you’re an adult, I’m not going to force you.”
Help? asked the narrator? Help, I said to myself. “Help…” I said aloud.
He looked at me, down here, exactly where I am right now.
I had already seen that cloud from my hutch after the first hour of clearing calls, after the first hour of watching heads opening and listening to heads opening, after the first hour of the working day when I almost threw up as I opened the internal mail, which included a group email with motivational material (a PowerPoint presentation with photographs of kittens and baby chimpanzees accompanied by sayings about solidarity and friendship) and an invitation to some kind of training course about the ergonomic arrangement of work duties and equipment. They hit the mark precisely – with the training. If I am anything at the moment, then I am completely and utterly non-ergonomically arranged. I am the product of one of those high-school group collage from art class, where you cut up a poster of a figure with a face and then glue on parts of the body where they don’t belong. A hand instead of a head, an ear on the belly and so on. Everything wrong, everything different, a work of art it most definitely is not.
I had seen that cloud – it extended from my boss’s face when she stood up there on Mount Olympus, while the others beside her on their thrones pretended to be working, pretended they weren’t browsing the internet and sending round emails with chimpanzees and kittens, that they were maintaining order and overseeing operations, and that without them the whole system would collapse.
So when she sent one of her Marine/Scouts’ gestures in my direction, this time a decidedly non-sunny one, to finish my last call and come over, it occurred to me that something was wrong. I could see her squeezed into a soldier’s uniform with Vaseline under her eyes, making a gesture with her right hand to indicate a telephone receiver at her ear, and then putting it down on an imaginary table somewhere in front of her, tapping on her wristwatch, tugging her ear and sticking out her tongue, and finally drawing the back of her rigidly extended hand slowly across her neck. I nodded my head, which is still in place – albeit completely non-ergonomically, but it was still attached to my neck. I took out a Kalashnikov from under the desk, shot her by way of greeting and then hid it again.
“Is something wrong?” I asked her, ascending towards her, up there in the heights.
“Yes, Anna, there is something wrong. Sit down. I’m going to play you something,” she said without a hint of a smile. I sat down on a throne, was given a set of headphones which any operator in the world would like to have on their ears, and listened to clicking and two voices – my own and the stranger’s from yesterday afternoon.
“What can you tell me about this?” asked my boss after three minutes, when I took the headphones off.
I knew she was going to play me that conversation.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“So you don’t know?” she said, her eyebrows rising up to the scalp of her coiffured hair.
I remained silent.
“As you know, I came across a similar call yesterday. What is the meaning of this? Why are you doing it?”
“Why am I doing what?”
“What? Are you trying to make fun of me? Did you listen to it?”
Her eyebrows were two slow-worms on a trampoline.
“Do you realize what could have resulted from that call? Does that seem normal to you?”
Slow-worms are reptiles, but not snakes, even though they are often mistaken for them, and they are an endangered species.
Despite all of the junk that had a life of its own in my living room, kitchen and bedroom, you would have been hard pushed to find any photographs. I only had three which I knew of. And one of them wasn’t even mine. Unlike my sister, I never had a photo album. She still went to get photographs developed from every holiday and all her kids’ school events. They were beautifully arranged according to the person and the event. For example, “Zdenda – birthday” and each year she’d add a few more photos of her son blowing out the candles on his birthday cake and opening his presents. And the white album full of cringeworthy moments entitled “Wedding”, or that orange album full of lies called “Mum and Dad”. And then there was another – her last remaining claim to secrecy after she started that big white album – containing photographs of childhood sweethearts and teenage loves. I can still see her going through those photos, wondering which of them could have given her a better life.
I had a photo album in my mind for those men. But it wasn’t of their faces. I had my own porno album. I looked at the wall in front of me and imagined a brand-new shelf which would outdo all of the ones with stones and vases and porcelain and ceramics and metal, with statuettes and figurines from blown glass and wooden cubes and cork stoppers. I imagined a special display cabinet full of men’s penises. Not all of them had been inside of me, but I’d certainly had all of them in my mouth. For that, you see, was my domain. Even though I didn’t like anyone going down on me, I loved giving blowjobs. I preferred not to think about how long it had been since I’d seen one up close, how long it had been since I had slid one into my mouth, how long it had been since I had tasted that unmistakable, specific flavour of semen. While I was doing it to them I usually watched them, observed their expression and listened to their sighs.
I knelt down, raised my head and imagined a fictional head above me blissfully closing its eyes. That way, kneeling. On the floor. That was how I liked it best. At the level of a one-year-old child, frozen in the oral-dependency phase, satisfied only by suckling, sucking, squirting into the mouth, licking, gulping, yummy and slurp.
Like in a speeded-up film, I saw how the position of their hands changed: some of them put them on the top of my head – maybe they had seen that in some porno – others pulled my hair, and some of them pushed my head into their lap so hard that I could hardly breathe, their member stuffed into my throat and my eyes filled with tears. And then the shift to the closing act, to the sticky grand finale – one would come on my chest, one would come over my face, one even came into his hand and then rubbed it in my hair. But usually they’d come in my mouth and then leave me to deal with it.
“Eat it up or spit it out,” Mercedes would often sing to the tune I Do It My Way.
“That’s not what he sings there,” I corrected her.
“How? Frank sings: Eat it up or spit it out.”
“To start with, it’s Paul….”
“Paul Anka, Google it. And then it’s: I ate it up and spit it out.”
“I ate it up and spit it out.”
“Fuck, right. Fuck…”
“It doesn’t matter. My version’s better. Both Frank and Paul would thank me.”
I wanted that feeling. I wanted to be on my knees. I wanted him to look at me from that incredible height and spurt into my mouth.
Eat it up or spit it out.
I usually swallowed it.
According to the address, it should be right there. I sat in my car in front of his house, in turns smoking and eating sponge biscuits for kids.
You are what you eat. I am a frothy nothing that sticks to your palate.
I don’t even know how long I sat there, but I know that it was beginning to get dark when he came out of the door, closely followed by something small and asymmetric that jumped around as though on a spring.
In a state of paranoia, I sank into the seat and shifted myself lower. It felt a bit like I was in a television detective drama. It was a pity I didn’t have American donuts and coffee in a plastic cup, that I wasn’t wearing large sunglasses, a headscarf or a blue baseball cap. Instead, after eating the packet of biscuits I stuffed my face with gummy bears and watched the tall figure walk along the pavement with a ferret/lemur/cat/dog on a lead. When he was out of sight I slowly got out of the car and went to the gate of his house. It was a small detached house in an area full of small detached houses with a vanilla-yellow facade and white door, with a brown gate and a brown letterbox with a stupid nameplate next to a bell, small and metallic, and a card with his stupid name on it. I looked in his windows and a female figure flashed past one of them on the first floor. She was carrying something, disappeared, then came back again. She stood by a coffee table near the window. I had a good view of her in profile. She was holding a tablet, looking at it. Long brown hair, probably chestnut, definitely chestnut, came down to her shoulders. When she was talking to her husband a moment before, they were laughing at something. And here was me thinking that Viktor Kavi didn’t smile. But he just didn’t smile at me.
Twice she turned with a jerk in my direction and I fixed my gaze on the broken pavement and walked and walked and walked, and at the end of the street I saw Viktor Kavi in the distance with his catdog on a lead, turned around and headed back towards the car, which I started up straight away and drove off so fast that the bin wobbled and fell over. Viktor Kavi would have some cleaning up to do when he got back. When he got back to his wife with the chestnut hair which came down to her shoulders, hair which would definitely smell of apricot or almond or lavender shampoo, hair which Viktor Kavi enjoyed examining, poking about it with his fingers, embarking on long expeditions along her parting, hair which he’d bury his pointy nose into, hair which would gently brush against his face in the morning when his wife bent over to waken him.
At night I was wrenched out of my sleep by a hand shaking my shoulders. First a shaking and then a scratching against my neck from behind.
“What?!” I blurted out, striking my elbow on the bathroom doorframe as I lashed out – at a hand that wasn’t there.
“Anna?” someone whispered in my ear. I waited in silence. Even the dripping tap waited silently. There were only acrid vapours around.
“Hey, Anna, you weren’t sleeping with anyone. You just wanted it to be true,” came an ever-closer voice. I felt my skin crawl along my spine.
“And so you believed it,” laughed the narrator.
(Translated by Graeme Dibble)