The mobile store stopped coming to us in the new year. Petr said nothing about it. Two days later he brought another big box in the green van. Together we dragged it into the hallway. By the door to the small pantry there was a power socket.
“We’ll leave it here,” he panted, as he cut the box open to reveal a white deepfreeze about a metre high. I was looking at a brand-new cabinet that would purr quietly.
“It’ll be in the way here.”
“How else do you want to survive here, cut off from everything?”
“We’ll bump into it when we go from the bedroom to the kitchen.”
“So let’s put it in the room next to the bedroom. There are sockets in there as well.”
“No, I don’t want a deepfreeze in the children’s bedroom.”
He just looked at me in silence and carried on folding up the box and the polystyrene.
Third year, same ritual. I scurried along the icy, unkept path from the village to the crossroads. The frost drove me on and rang out under the soles of my shoes. Over my shoulder a handbag containing a couple of white envelopes bearing typewritten addresses.
A car zipped along the main road. At the stop I tap-danced and sneaked a look at the cooling towers. They were grey, and even at this distance I could make out the form of their concrete casing; they were surely completely covered in ice. The cold had started me shivering when a car stopped. The steamed-up window slowly wound itself down; the man at the wheel was wearing a stocking cap.
“You’d have a long wait. There’s been no stop here since the first of January.”
It was only then that I took a proper look around. The pole with the timetable of the Czech State Road Transport company had gone.
I got into the car and we moved off along the wide new blacktop in the direction of Budějovice. The car’s heating didn’t work; when we spoke, steam came out of our mouths. He was coming from nearby Týn, but he knew nothing of us. He thought that the village was already closed. I was overcome by a strange feeling of hopelessness. I told him that although there were only fourteen properties where people were still living, until the bought-up cottages were demolished we would continue to hope for the village’s salvation. I spoke of petitions and marches that opposed the nuclear power station. Then the conversation faltered. He wasn’t interested. In town, I got out beyond Long Bridge. On my walk to the post office I warmed up enough for my toes to unfreeze. Then I called in at the newspaper office to see Adam. He was on the phone, sitting next to a notice board plastered with notes and numbers. He gestured to me to wait until he hung up.
“Got the article?”
I handed him the manuscript. The next column in the series From the Epicentre. He read it quickly, liked it. He told me that he wrote for magazines and a national newspaper on the side.
“You ought to go to Prague, Adam. You’re wasting your talent down here.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a year, Hana. But leaving things isn’t so easy. My family’s here, my wife’s job …”
I stayed with Rýderer a little longer than I’d intended, so to make it to the centre in time I had to rush. The old cake shop where Milada and I had sat a year ago had been converted into some sort of boutique. I looked at the clothes arranged in the window. A smooth black polo-neck, a cashmere sweater, a fleece modelled by a mannequin, price tags and remnants of Christmas decorations. At that moment Milada slapped me on the back.
“I forgot to drop you a line to tell you that it’s not here any more. There’s a place around the corner we sometimes go to after work.”
In the bistro we drank tea with lemon and thawed out slowly. Milada chatted away; her gloom was gone. I watched and listened as she told me how much had changed in the last year. She was in a new relationship, with another lawyer. Eleven years older than her. They wanted to open their own solicitors’ office. Dark pinstripe business suit. Handbag of black patent leather with a silver buckle, out of which she took cigarettes and a lighter. Her lipstick was of a different, paler shade, her rouge more respectable, the cigarettes of a different brand.
“In the end Dad stayed at the court. Things calmed down,” she said, blowing her smoke out to the side. “What’s new with you?”
“Another month’s wait before we hear from the power station bosses. Always freaks me out …”
“Petr and I would like one, but no luck so far.”
It seemed to me that her eyes were unusually penetrating. They studied the coat I’d thrown over the back of my chair, the same one as last year, its lapels a little more worn. No make-up, skin reddened by the frost, lips chapped. I didn’t need to run to a mirror to know what she was seeing.
In the winter they cut the street lighting in our village.
One day the three posts with sodium-vapour lamps did not come on. The first was by the pond, the second by Berták’s place, the third by the access road to the square. We supposed they were broken, although we did think it odd that all three had gone off at the same time. Then Mr Tušl showed us a document sent by the mayor of the central village authority. The lampposts had been disconnected from the power source. They would be pulling out the wires and
uprooting the posts.
“It’s obvious what they want: to get us out of here once and for all,” said Petr. He handed the document, which bore the village’s stamp and the mayor’s signature, back to Tušl.
“They can turn our electricity off altogether, and then what’ll happen?” asked Mr Berták. Of those of us left in the village, almost all were standing on Tušl’s doorstep. It was as though we were afraid even to talk about it. Everyone felt
that our helplessness was growing. I stood with my arms folded in the heavy knitted sweater, shivering, frowning at
the village. At first sight all did not appear to be lost. The cottages were still there and would be until next January, as
a letter from the power station management informed us. I looked up at the sky. The layers of grey cloud above our
heads seemed low enough for snowfall.
“It’s still not as bad as all that. We can get by without lights on the square,” said the man from the cottage opposite
“But isn’t that what we always say, that it’s still not as bad as all that? What’s going to happen next?” I said. Everyone
looked at me.
“They cancel the postman, but so what, we can deliver the post ourselves. They cancel the bus service,” I went on, “and we say, OK, we’ll take the car or walk back from Hluboká. Now they switch off the power, and again we say, OK, we can get by without it. There’ll come a time when we realise we’ve got absolutely nothing left…” Mr Tušl made a sweeping gesture with his hand.
“So what are we supposed do, according to you?” said one of the crowd. “The fact is, these cottages haven’t belonged
to us for ages. Every year we beg them to let us stay living here. We can’t make demands. There’s nothing we can do.”
“Go on, then, Mr Tušl, say something.” I wasn’t going to give in.
“Whenever I talk to the officials at the central village authority, they tell me straight out that they want rid of us as soon as possible. We’re a headache for them.”
“They want to stay on the right side of the power station,” Petr put in, “and with us around that’s difficult.”
A few seconds later the assembly broke up and Petr and I were left alone in the square. Already there were yellow leaves floating on the surface of the pond. We returned to the cottage in silence. I wondered if Petr would take my hand, if all our troubles would draw us together. But each of us reached the open gate to the yard alone.
Translated by Andrew Oakland