Marie was alone in the flat, which was in an old, prefabricated block. She stood between the Formica walls of the bathroom, looking at her mirror image with stinging eyes, in the light of the small electric bulb over the washbasin. The blue-tinged lips, the pale, tired face, the bags under the eyes. The frown. Cloudy skies of days gone by over Český Krumlov. The plague.
She began to undress, her movements quick and neat. The made-up face in the mirror reminded her of a commedia dell’arte mask. A character from the walls of the Masquerade Hall of Krumlov Castle. She laughed out loud before attacking Columbine’s mask with a cotton ball.
The tiredness seemed to gather in her temples. When she swallowed, thirst grabbed at her throat. Her tongue, too, was blue.
A ringing cut into the silence. It was coming from the back pocket of her trousers; the vibration rose from her buttock along her spine. She pulled out the telephone, which promptly slipped from her hand into the washbasin. The yellowed porcelain was dry.
“Soukal, Czech Police. Am I speaking to Marie Solecká?”
“Yes.” Her voice was hoarse.
“Are you the owner of a black Subaru, vehicle registration number 5A4 6132?”
“Yes, that’s my car. Has something happened?”
“That’s what we were wanting to ask you. Were you driving the car?”
“Today, you mean. No.”
“We need to speak with you. Where are you now?”
“At my sister’s flat.”
“And where’s that?”
“Good. Tell me the address and I’ll send someone from the Krumlov force to pick you up.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
When the squad car pulled up at the kerbside, Marie was sitting on the steps in front of the building, squirming under her trench coat as she adjusted the T-shirt and sweater she had dragged back on. Her phone was back in her handbag. No one was picking up; the phones of her father and her mother appeared to be switched off. Her temples were throbbing. The autumn wind was chill to the point of keenness. Standing up, she felt a little dizzy. The policeman opened a back door of the car. He was older, his eyes knowing.
“I’m going nowhere.”
“You’re the owner of the car,” said the policeman.
“But I wasn’t driving it. Just tell me what happened.”
“I must ask you to take a breath test.”
“Yes, I’ve been drinking. Red wine. Is that against the rules?”
“Let’s do the test, shall we?”
“Has something happened to my sister? She’s not picking up.”
Marie felt the patient gaze of the policeman on her. She gave up the idea of resistance, accepted the breathalyser, blew hard into the mouthpiece. Then she sat down in the back of the car. As they descended the hill from the Plešivec housing estate, she felt slightly sick. The night beyond the side windows was almost bright. The ride to the station took just a few minutes.
“Forty-seven years old, divorced, permanent residence in Prague-Dejvice.” These words were dictated from behind a desk by the older, uniformed officer who was holding her identity card. The other officer tapped away at a computer keyboard.
“University teacher. Aren’t you going to tell me what’s happened?”
The officer didn’t answer. With a telephone pressed to his ear, he was making notes on a pad. He ended the call before looking over his notes and then at Marie.
“Do you know a Ladislav Kořenský? Resident in Markvartice, house number 15?”
“He’s my brother-in-law.”
“He says he was driving your car.”
“That would be right. I lent it to my sister. Theirs broke down.”
“Well, Mrs Solecká, your car stands abandoned in a meadow near Přídonice. Where a serious injury has been reported besides. A police patrol from Kaplice is on the scene.”
“My parents live in Přídonice. Will you please tell me what happened?”
“Your brother-in-law claims he can’t find the car keys,” said the officer. She saw that he was greying at the temples. He referred again to his notes. “His breath test came back negative.”
“Which isn’t something we can say of you,” said the other, glancing at Marie. “One point eight per mille alcohol.”
“Have you been celebrating?”
“That’s right. Saying goodbye to Krumlov.”
“Saying goodbye to Krumlov,” repeated the older officer wearily, but with a little smile for his own benefit.
“Look, what’s going on? I need to get to Přídonice.”
“We’ll take you there, Mrs Solecká.” That patient look again. That quiet voice.
“I’ve got another set of keys for the car,” said Marie, as she fumbled in her handbag.
The black SUV, up to the windows in mud, appeared starkly in two cones of light from the headlamps of the squad car. It was in the middle of a wasteland of flattened, yellowing grass, tilted forwards with its front in the soil. Feeling the closeness of the dark sky, Marie shivered. She was at a loss. She spotted her brother-in-law, man-mountain Ladislav, with his wreath of blond hair on an otherwise bald head, with two more uniformed officers. The two groups came together – the patrol from Kaplice and the officer from Krumlov with Marie in tow. The heels of her shoes pierced the earth. The brown grass was cold against her ankles. Marie tried to read her brother-in-law’s face; he gave a little shake of the head, as if to tell her something. There were two officers from Kaplice, a thin one and a fat one; like Laurel and Hardy, it occurred to Marie. They were not happy. The stout one was wearing his flat hat, waving his arms about as he spoke to his colleague from Krumlov.
“We can’t come out here every time there’s a scrap in the pub!”
“What about the serious injury?” asked the officer who had come with Marie.
“They took that back. The guy who called in isn’t telling us anything now, and he’s pretty tanked up. The landlord says nothing happened. The villagers are in their cottages, quiet as mice. No one knows anything. We’re leaving.”
“But the message I got said someone was taken off in an ambulance to the hospital in Krumlov.”
“That’ll be my father-in-law.” These were Ladislav’s first words.
“Dad? What happened to Dad?” blurted Marie.
“My father-in-law has a heart complaint,” Ladislav explained. He was facing the officers, turned away from Marie. “He had one of his episodes.”
“What in God’s name was going on here?” demanded the Krumlov officer, his eyes fixed on the solitary black car in the middle of nowhere.
Ladislav gave no answer. Marie couldn’t figure him out.
“If nothing actually happened, I can’t even issue an on-the-spot fine,” raged the stout officer from the Kaplice patrol. The thin one nodded and cursed.
“I just wanted to try it out in heavier terrain,” Ladislav said calmly, with a glance at the car.
The Krumlov officer shone his hand torch at the zigzag marks of the tyres, crazy arcs in the unmown grass of a village green.
“So where are the ignition keys?”
“I must have dropped them when I went for a tractor to pull me out. I was in a bit of a panic.”
“You’re talking rubbish,” snapped the officer from Kaplice. “That car’s a match for the tanks at Boletice.”
Marie handed the keys to her brother-in-law, whose bald head was gleaming in the darkness.
“And no more pissing about, okay?” said the Kaplice officer, to drive home his point. “If you don’t get that car out of here pronto, this little escapade will cost you dear, you can trust me on that.”
Marie and Ladislav were left alone for a moment as the three officers moved off together to confer. Marie couldn’t catch what they were saying, but by the way they were throwing their arms about she could guess.
“So Dad’s back in hospital?”
“What’s all this business with the car, then?”
“I can’t tell you anything here and now,” he spoke quietly, out of the corner of his mouth, a wary eye on the officers. “The car’s fine. I’m sure we’ll find those keys.”
“How’s Mum? And where’s Veronika?”
“Your mother took a pill, so I trust she’s asleep. Veronika’s there with her.”
“What did the doctors say about Dad?”
“They took his blood pressure and said he’d have to go with them. He had something like 200 over 150.”
They turned to watch the Kaplice officers return to their car. The Krumlov officer was on his way back to them.
“You look terrible. Come to ours for coffee,” said Ladislav to Marie, while the officer was still out of earshot.
She shook her head.
“Need a lift back to Krumlov?” the officer called to her.
“Yes, please, if you don’t mind.”
They got into the squad car. The officer switched on the headlights. Before they pulled away, they watched the black Subaru reverse slowly out of the soft hollow and make its way across the green to the road.
“Makes no sense to me at all,” said the officer, with a glance at Marie. “You?”
They drove slowly to the narrow blacktop, in the tracks of the SUV. The officer turned the car around.
“I’m glad the Kaplice guys will write this up,” the officer told Marie. “I’ve got more than enough on my plate already.”
They passed the fifteen minutes of the return journey in silence. As they reached the intersection, Marie asked to be dropped in the town centre.
“I don’t mind taking you up to the estate,” said the officer, with a look of concern.
“No, thanks. I need a walk.”
“At this time of night? On your own? Well, if you say so…”
Some days are so miserably long that the night runs into the morning. Marie got out of the car at quarter-past three. She made her way into the tangle of historic lanes, her heels slipping on the cobbles. She came to a squat house on a corner. The key, she muttered. I must give back the key. Silence, every window dark. She took the key from her key ring. As she was reaching for the letterbox, she looked at the door. She changed her mind about dropping the key into the slot. After a moment’s hesitation, she tried it in the lock. It turned easily. She unlocked the door, entered the dark space, closed the door behind her, waited and listened, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. Then she called out. “Anybody there?” The first time, her voice caught; the second, it was clearer. It bounced off empty walls. Her arms out in front of her, she stepped left, reaching two steps, which she ascended. Her foot crashed into something; the noise of empty bottles frightened her and gave her pause. She activated the torch on her mobile phone. The sofa was pushed against the wall; she saw two empties lying on their sides. Much relieved, she reached for the handle of a narrow door, which stood ajar. In the gloom, the faint white of a washbasin. She took a long drink from the tap, before backing out of the space and sinking onto the sofa.
Of the Krumlov season nothing remained but empty shelves and a dusty, abandoned sofa. And the sales counter in the front room. Which Filip would never again stand behind. Henry James, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, all gone, with a few cobwebs where they had stood. Faded rectangles on the walls, where framed portraits of Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Woolf had hung. Exhaustion from the sleepless night caught up with her at last. Marie struggled out of her autumn coat, drawn to the sofa by her weakness. She kicked off her muddy shoes, lay down on her side, and pulled the coat over her. An associate professor of literature on a scuffed couch. On the floor, a dried cake of melted wax, a black wick at its centre. A hint of woman’s perfume from the upholstery. Consciousness and dream drew together. Sleep came quickly.
When she next looked at her wristwatch, it was ten o’clock. She had been woken by the cold and the distant sound of a ringing telephone. The stranger’s perfume seemed to have attached itself to the left side of her face. She stood up, staggered to the open door, feeling the itch of dry sweat under her clothes. Her parched mouth recalled all the wine she had drunk. She rummaged in her handbag for her mobile. A missed call from her sister. She longed for a shower, but the basin/sink was the only washing facility. She put on her coat and sat back down on the sofa.
An inglorious exit from Krumlov… With a headache and a roiling stomach. Her memories of the past evening and night were far keener than she would have wished.
It all started with that text message. Having tapped it in, she had left it in Drafts for a few hours. She had thought about him, she had thought about Katka, she had thought about her summer in Krumlov. She had finally sent the text in the afternoon.
Shouldn’t our story be told to the end? Doesn’t it deserve a goodbye and good luck? I’m in town this evening.
The reply came about half an hour later.
We’re clearing the shop. I’ll be there till very late.
She had left the bar and her Krumlov friends – the hairdresser Petra and the woman who worked in the bakery by the castle – early, under the mysterious pretext of returning a key. Having salvaged an unopened bottle of red wine, she had gone to see Filip. How’s Shakespeare? And how’s Shakespeare’s son? Questions she muttered to herself on the way to the Inner Town. A stylish parting, if nothing more. A return to the mood of their meeting, half a year ago.
The ground-floor windows were dark. Of course they were, the electricity was switched off. The books had gone. She pressed her nose to the glass. There was a flickering light in the passage above the stairs, presumably from a candle. She reached into her handbag, pulled out her keys, and tried the lock. She couldn’t get the whole key in; it wouldn’t turn. She tapped on the door. Then she knocked, gently. And again, with greater force. Leaning against the wall, she pulled out her phone. Pulling up ‘FILIP’ on the screen, she pressed the green receiver icon. Yes, Filip’s phone was inside the house. Having slipped her phone into a back trousers pocket, she pressed her nose and forehead against the glass. As the lambency came into the front room, she saw long white legs descending the stairs. A candle-bearing girl with long fair hair and a man’s shirt held together by two buttons. Walking towards her. Marie stood stock-still. She made out the subtle pattern of Filip’s shirt. Her eyes met the girl’s. The girl squealed, turned on her heel, fled. The shirt flew apart, giving Marie a glimpse of a naked white backside. She turned away. The girl was one of the guides from the castle.
The castle had been closed for weeks now. Marie hurried from the house, before stopping in the middle of the lane. She was still holding the bottle. All shops in darkness, all windows shuttered. Rather than returning to the bar, she crossed the town centre and took the road up to the housing estate. Back in the flat, she opened the wine and sipped it straight from the bottle. Before she could empty it, her mobile rang. The police.
Her father was pale, but his eyes moved keenly from face to face. His daughters stood either side of the adjustable hospital bed. Veronika, just turned fifty, blond highlights in her hair, a slight stoop. Husband Ladislav behind her, taking up much of the room. As Marie straightened the blanket, her father grabbed her hand and gave the fingers a little squeeze, surprising her. Then, a weary smile on his face, he closed his eyes. Veronika and Marie exchanged looks.
“You need rest, Dad,” said Veronika. “We’ll be back tomorrow, with Mum.”
Her father nodded but didn’t open his eyes. “How’s Hanzal doing?” he asked, as if from sleep.
“Not too bad,” said Veronika. “They took him home in the end. It was the ambulance meant for him that brought you here. But don’t think about Hanzal now, Dad. You need to sleep.”
The three visitors went out into the corridor. Marie was bothered by the hospital smell, which she’d had a lot of recently but still couldn’t get used to. The mix of chemicals and the idea of others’ pain and uncertain futures made her anxious. Hope at trace levels. She had to sit down on a bench by the wall.
Veronika sat down next to her. “What the hell were you doing yesterday? You’re very green about the gills.”
“Me? What were you up to? Well, Dad and Ladislav anyway.”
Ladislav looked up and down the corridor before sitting down on Marie’s other side.
“You’ve seen that the car’s okay, right?”
“I wasn’t asking about the bloody car!”
He looked at Veronika. When he spoke again, his voice was low.
“He was in the pub yesterday. He got into a fight with Hanzal.”
“Dad? A fight?”
“The landlord called me and told me to get over there. Said my father-in-law wasn’t well. I leave the car out front, go in, and find your father with his hands around old Hanzal’s throat. I pull them apart and Hanzal goes off. As I’m asking the landlord what the hell, I hear a car start outside…”
“Dad knocked Hanzal down in your car,” Veronika chipped in.
Marie swallowed. Her throat was dry. White-clad hospital staff were interspersed with patients in slippers shuffling along the corridor. In this gloomy, windowless, low-ceilinged space, the pale figures in hospital gowns might have been ghosts. Marie thought of the B-movies her sister liked to watch on TV and the cheap horrors she read. Marie tried to read in Veronika’s face the words she was holding back.
Ladislav picked up the thread. “So Hanzal’s running for home across the green, zigzagging about to stay out of the car’s way… I see the wing on the passenger side take Hanzal down. By the time I reach them, your father’s punching Hanzal in the face.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“They can’t stand each other,” said Veronika.
“We all know that. They haven’t been able to stand each other for fifty years.”
“Young Hanzal came running up in a panic. He was the one who called the cops,” Ladislav added.
“Old Hanzal’s not well either, though, is he?” said Marie, looking from her brother-in-law to her sister.
“Not well at all,” Veronika confirmed. “He’s just had colon surgery.”
Marie was relieved to get out of the hospital. The keen, cold wind on her forehead did her good.
“So we can really hold on to the car for now, then?” said Ladislav.
“Of course. I’ve got a return coach ticket.”
“Thanks,” said Veronika. “We’ll drop you at the coach station. Take this water. Do you want an aspirin?”
Marie watched the landscape pass beyond the window, although the sight – fruit trees and falling leaves, yellowing roadside meadows – did not engage her. She closed her eyes to the sight of crazy tyre tracks and divots in the grass. The gentle rocking of the coach was making her feel sick. The nauseousness wasn’t helped by the thought of one old man at death’s door harassing another. Men whose families had lived for a hundred years in cottages just a few metres apart punching and wrestling in the cold autumn grass. Cardiac patient versus cancer patient. Mutual hatred through the generations. Marie sipped from the plastic bottle her sister had given her at the hospital. Then she leaned back in the seat, hoping to be lulled to sleep by the ponderous rocking and monotony of the journey.
Sleep didn’t come. Her inglorious exit from Český Krumlov. Her anger at herself. All her own doing. Two hours of this torturous journey, with no way out, no narrow lanes to flee to. Every seat on the coach taken. Next to Marie a man in a suit, tapping away at the black keys of a laptop. Marie clutched her mobile phone, helpless. The dark surface of the little flat screen was unmoved. The steward came down the aisle, offering cups of coffee and newspapers. Marie closed her eyes – the young woman’s blonde hair was of a similar shade and length, the cut almost the same as the one she had spied in the dark of the cleared-out bookshop. One a steward, the other a castle guide. Both around twenty-five. Lovely young women of twenty-five everywhere she looked. Where the hell did they come from? It was like a frontal attack. She tried to unpick the sense of injustice and threat, making herself feel ridiculous in the process.
They had almost reached Písek when she gave in to the lure of her mobile. She flipped through photos of that summer. Paintings of the Madonna, the altarpiece of Vyšší Brod, a copy of a Gothic panel painting, a trip to Zlatá Koruna with Filip.
As the coach pulled out of Písek, she closed her small private gallery. Pictures that could be deleted with one finger-tap. Nothing really. Like the trips they never took. Big plans. A train to Vienna and on to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. A plane to Lisbon for an exhibition of Madonnas from a Vatican collection. Nothing but summer chatter. All gone now.
At last she tapped in the text message. She read it over and over, sending it only as they were approaching Příbram.
So that was the parting you had in mind. Happy now?
She put the phone back in her bag. It pinged as the coach was leaving the motorway. She reached for it with a sigh.
Mum, Are you still at Aunty’s place in Krumlov? If so, I’ll stop by tomorrow.
Marie felt a flood of relief.
Heading back to Prague. Semester starts Monday. Grandad back in hospital, go and see him. I’ll call in the evening.
Having left the coach at the Na Knížecí stop, she took a bus from Smíchov to Dejvice. Still no message from Filip. No message that evening. No message the next day.
Translated by Andrew Oakland