Alena Mornštajnová


2020 | Parthian Books

Chapter Two

February 1954

Next day, first thing in the morning, I sneaked into the pantry to check if there was a left-over cream puff for me, but there wasn’t so much as a crumb. I wondered for a moment if I should go into a sulk but then thought better of it as that could have earned me the promised thrashing from Dad. I generously decided to forgive my parents and pretend that none of this had happened. By way of consolation, I snatched up a few pieces of hard gingerbread Mum kept on the top shelf for grating as a topping for plum dumplings, porridge and noodles. Mum would hide them behind the jars of stewed fruit and thought I didn’t know about them. Then I found a bag of peas and pushed it into the furthest corner, just to be on the safe side.

By Friday Dagmar couldn’t get out of bed. I urged and prodded her, pulled the duvet off her, but she just wouldn’t get up. When she clutched her head and started crying, I realised she must be ill and not up to going to school. I ran downstairs to the kitchen and told Mum that Dagmar wasn’t feeling well and that I had a headache coming on, too.

Mum felt my forehead. ‘Have a bite to eat and off you go to school,’ she said, pointing to a seat at the kitchen table next to Dad. I sat down, annoyed, and tried to force a cough but gave up when Dad shot me a menacing look.

I was famished by the time I came back from school at one o’clock because in the morning commotion I’d forgotten to pack myself something for elevenses. Dagmar was running a temperature and no one took any notice of me. My sister couldn’t recognise anyone and kept shouting something about doorbells while Mum, with the help of old doctor Janotka, was applying compresses.

‘It’s probably mumps,’ the doctor said. ‘Be prepared, your other two will probably catch it too,’ he said, pointing to me and Otto. To be honest, seeing how poorly Dagmar was, I’d much rather have gone to school.

The doctor was right. Otto also fell ill the next day and he seemed to be even worse than Dagmar. The doctor came every day and he seemed more and more concerned, since two days later their temperatures were not going down and although my two younger siblings still had a headache and were still too weak to get up, the bulges behind the ears, typical of mumps, failed to appear. The doctor tried to make them bend their heads to their chest to see if they had meningitis. Mum was crying with fear and exhaustion, Dad tried to do his best to help but just wandered aimlessly around the kitchen, while I kept waiting to fall ill as well.

In the end it wasn’t me who fell ill but Mum and Dad. By then we knew that we weren’t the only family afflicted by this strange disease, as the number of sick people in town kept growing. It became clear that this was some kind of infection and that the sick would have to be isolated from the healthy. Since there was no hospital in Meziříčí, my entire family was taken to the isolation ward in the district hospital in the nearest big town.

‘Go to Aunt Hana’s,’ Mum said. Her cheeks were burning, she had difficulty talking and her tongue had taken on a strange brown hue. ‘Don’t forget to lock up. And don’t get up to any mischief.’ She stroked my cheek and let herself be taken down to the ambulance. Her head was bowed and the listless look in her eyes reminded me of Aunt Hana. She sat down next to Dad, resting her head on his shoulder. Dad opened his eyes and asked: ‘Did you wind up the clock?’ and closed them again. Mum closed her eyes without answering.

A man in a white coat slammed the ambulance door shut and I was left standing alone on the pavement in front of the watchmaker’s. There was nobody around to stop me going to the attic, the cellar or down to the river. Nobody to care about me.

I climbed the stairs and sat down on the sofa in the empty kitchen which suddenly seemed huge, listening to the loud ticking of the clock. I didn’t feel like going to Aunt Hana’s, but what else was there for me to do? I took a deep, determined breath and then, all of a sudden, I heard shuffling upstairs. I froze, dug myself deeper into one corner of the kitchen sofa and pulled a cushion onto my lap. No, it was just my imagination. I realised I had never before been at home alone. I reached for the bag Mum had helped me pack, and then I heard the noises again. As if someone were walking up and down in the attic. I shot out of the kitchen, snatched my coat off the hook by the front door, grabbed my shoes and rushed out. Not until I got to the Square did it occur to me that I hadn’t locked up.

Aunt Hana lived in the house where she and my mum were born and grew up with Grandma Elsa and Grandpa Ervin. Four large windows opened onto the Square and I used to envy her for being able to sit on the wide windowsill and watch the hustle and bustle outside. Our house had two floors but in order to see further than the narrow street I would have to climb to the attic from where you could see the whole town, but of course I wasn’t allowed to go up there. Besides, I was quite sure that Aunt Hana never looked out of her window as she didn’t like people and had not the slightest interest in them.

I dragged myself to my aunt’s flat one step at a time, imagining the face she would make when I told her I was going to stay with her for a few days. She wouldn’t be best pleased, there was no doubt about that. She was so used to her solitude that she had almost lost her ability to speak. She never left the house except to buy the bare necessities or to pay a rare visit to my mum. Actually, I wasn’t even sure she knew my name. I couldn’t recall her ever addressing me by name. She couldn’t have done, as a matter of fact – she had never spoken to me at all.

I rang the doorbell but there was no response. I rang again, this time more firmly. But no sound came from inside. I pressed my ear to the door. It would be just my luck not to find my aunt at home. I tried the handle. The door wasn’t locked.

‘Auntie?’ I called through the door but there was no sound. ‘Auntie, it’s me, Mira. Mum told me to go to yours.’ I imagined Aunt sitting at her table with that strange look in her eyes, not taking any notice of me. I went into the hallway, peered into the kitchen and, finally, the bedroom.

That was where I found her. She was lying in bed, in the same clothes she wore when she last came to our house, including her black headscarf, except that it had now slid off her white hair to her shoulders. She was lying on her back, strangely twisted, as if convulsed by pain, with her chin turned sideways, her eyes wide open and a strange rattle coming from her mouth.

I didn’t know what to do. I edged forward a few steps. ‘Auntie?’ But by then I could see that her face was the same colour as Dagmar’s. She was bleary-eyed and trembling all over – even more than I was after falling into the icy water.

‘Mother,’ she shouted all of a sudden. ‘Mother, I knew… I knew you would come back.’ She shook her head from side to side abruptly. ‘They’re not here, they’re not here.’ Tears rolled from her eyes. I had never seen anyone shed so many tears, even Otto who was really great at throwing tantrums.

I don’t know what frightened me more, her violent feverish shivers, the convulsions of pain, her cries or her tears. I ran out of the flat, bounded down the stairs and once outside got hold of the first passer-by, pulling at his arm in desperation. ‘Please, please, tell me what to do, tell me what to do! My aunt is really unwell!’ To sound more serious, I added: ‘She’s fainted.’

The man in a long overcoat pushed me aside unceremoniously and moved away from me. By then everyone knew that the contagion had invaded our town. Stopping at a safe distance, he asked: ‘Where is she?’

‘Upstairs, in this house. She’s there all alone and I don’t know what to do.’

‘Follow me,’ he said and walked through the open door of a baker’s. ‘Don’t touch anything.’

It was warm inside and the place smelled deliciously of freshly-baked bread. The bread that Aunt Hana used to buy here and cut into thin slices and carry in her pockets.

Ignoring the alarmed looks of the women in the queue, the man in the long overcoat went straight up to the counter and asked the shop assistant: ‘Is there a phone I could use?’

‘It’s only for official business,’ the woman snapped. ‘This is not a post office.’

‘Call an ambulance,’ my rescuer said. ‘The little girl will give you the name and address.’

The shop assistant was about to open her mouth, but the man yelled at her: ‘Or do you want to go and take a look at the sick woman yourself first?’

The people in the queue shrank back to safety. I don’t know what they were more scared of, the contagion or the angry man. The first thing that occurred to me was how lucky I was to have picked him to grab by the sleeve. I was sure he could tell me where I should go now that I’d been left all alone. Suddenly I felt safer.

Two women left their place in the queue, giving us a wide berth, and walked off. I told the shop assistant my aunt’s name and she went into the office at the back to make the call. I was told to go and wait outside my aunt’s house.

The ambulance arrived in no time. The front door opened, and a rotund doctor clambered out. He hesitated when he saw the stairs, gave a resigned sigh and started waddling towards the house, then stopped, took a deep breath and disappeared indoors, swearing under his breath. My aunt was carried out on a stretcher. I could tell she was still alive because the blanket they had thrown over her was trembling. The stretcher was loaded into the ambulance, the fat doctor climbed in, panting, slammed the door, the vehicle revved a few times, emitted a foul-smelling grey cloud and drove off jerkily.

I watched the white ambulance disappear and waited for the gentleman in the long overcoat to come back so I could ask his advice again. But he was nowhere to be seen.

I hung about for a good ten minutes, getting more and more chilled. It dawned on me that no one would help me and that it was up to me to find someone to look after me.

The first person who came to my mind was my golden-haired friend Jarmilka Stejskalová. Her equally fair-haired mother had always been very nice to me. I was sure she would let me stay at their house for a few days.

Once again I was standing in front of someone’s flat with my hand on the doorknob, asking for help. This time the door opened after the first ring, but only just.

‘Hello, Mira, Jarmilka is not going out today.’

‘I haven’t come to see Jarmilka. My Mummy and Daddy have been taken to hospital and I’ve been left alone. Could I stay with you until they come back?’

The gap grew even smaller. ‘Not right now. We’ve all got a cold, you might catch it.’

‘So where should I go?’ I asked, but the door had already closed.

I looked up and down the street. In the windows, lights were being turned on; every now and then a shadow appeared behind the curtains, but I couldn’t see anyone I knew anywhere. Slowly I started walking towards our house but slowed down even more as I remembered the strange shuffling noises I had heard coming from the attic. I passed the shop window of the watchmaker’s, grown dark at the end of the day, stopped outside the front door and waited for something to happen. But nothing happened, except that the street was getting darker and on top of being cold I was getting increasingly scared of the approaching night.

I must lock up at least, I told myself. And once I’ve done that, all I can do is try knocking on a neighbour’s door and ask for their advice. I’ll go from house to house and hope someone will help me.

Having a plan gave me some courage. I pressed down the door handle. I was sure I wouldn’t have to go in as the key was usually left in the lock. I would just have to reach inside, grab it quickly, slam the door shut again and turn the key in the lock. I felt for the other side of the door but the key wasn’t there. How could that be? I was sure I’d seen it there. It could only mean that it was hanging on a coat hook a few steps from the door.

I poked my head into the unlit corridor. I didn’t dare switch on the light for fear of attracting the attention of an intruder whose presence I sensed. The faint light from the darkening street suddenly made my shadow so long that it reached all the way to the narrow stairwell and seemed to climb the stairs with every step I took. The coat hook was barely visible in the dusk. If I didn’t know it was Dad’s winter coat on it I would have thought that a shadowy figure stood there, with his back pressed against the wall. What if there really was someone here?

I stood stock still and tried to make out the keys in the gloom. Suddenly I heard steps. They were coming closer and closer, and then another shadow joined mine on the stairs. Without trying to work out where the steps were coming from, I turned on my heels and made for the door. But the steps weren’t approaching from upstairs as I thought. They were those of the figure that was now blocking my way out. I tried to slip past, but she grabbed me by the shoulder. ‘Mira! You gave me a terrible fright.’

Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood