A beautiful day. Karel goes to the garage and for the first time in a while brings out the bike. He shouldn’t have bought it, it’s pretty pointless to have it when he’s not even that bothered about it, and he’s bound to lose money on it. But what else can he do with the stupid thing? That morning he had to talk himself into it – it being such a nice day, the kind of day that was made for going out on a bike, it would be a sin not to, wouldn’t it? He should make himself, particularly as the holidays are almost over and he’s been out only once this season. After some thought he decides to ride out to Pavel’s cottage – he’s been invited out there several times. Pavel is a bit surprised to see him and Pavel’s wife Jana is quite taken aback. She offers them beer but they prefer to go to the village pub. On the square there are two tall chestnuts with a beer garden underneath, and it is here that they sit. But while they’re still on their first beers it starts to spit with rain. They curse the weather – the day promised so much. Karel moves the bike so that it’s underneath the trees. It’s not raining much, and what rain there is won’t make it through the leaves so the bike won’t get wet. The two of them take shelter indoors.
By late afternoon, when they come out of the pub, the rain has stopped, but the leaves are wet and there is rain dripping on to the bike. Karel has had four beers but no shorts, and he considers himself sober. They say their goodbyes in front of the pub before Pavel makes a quick getaway – he doesn’t want to get wet and he’s afraid his wife will nag him for spending the whole afternoon in the pub. And he’s pleased Karel didn’t accept his invitation to stay the night. How could he have thought of such a thing? Just imagine what Jana would’ve said about it!
Karel does what he can to dry the bike. Its leather seat. He doesn’t make much headway.
An empty village square in the late afternoon of a summer’s day. Karel climbs on to the bike and rides away, slowly. Several times he’s ridden not quite sober – he’s cautious, at least he thinks he is. He goes slowly. But after a few kilometres his caution has evaporated. The bike’s cruising, and a bit further on the road is dry, at least it looks as though it is. Now even the sun has come out and it’s warming Karel’s face.
Karel puts his foot down. Down the road he goes, into a curve on a little bridge over a stream, or maybe it’s a small river. He’s going too quickly, and here the road isn’t altogether dry. In the curve the car goes into a skid. He flies off the road and falls down the bank. Then silence.
Karel groans. Everything is hurting. He’s broken some ribs for sure. He touches his ribcage and winces. One of his arms hangs loose at his side and is aching horribly. Shit, shit, I’m dying, he thinks. He draws a hand across his face – now the hand has blood on it. He paws at the ground, trying to get to his feet. The bike is half in the bushes, half in the stream.
Karel slips. He cries out in pain. He’s completely white. He takes deep breaths. What am I going to do, they’ll take away my licence, they’ll put me in prison, no, I’ll leave it here, I’ll flag someone down, they’ll take me to hospital, if it’s not too late, what if I’ve got internal injuries, I’m going to die, let them find me, not much hope of them finding me here, they’d have to see me first. These thoughts inspire Karel to try again, to get to his feet, and in the end he succeeds. Using all the strength left to him he scrabbles to the top. Where he passes out and slumps to the ground at the edge of the road.
Then he lies in hospital, his body in a shell, musing on how close he came to death. He wasn’t all that close but it seems to him that he was. He thinks back to mistakes he made long ago, makes up his mind to put them right. What if this was a sign? Yes. That’s what it was.
He gets a visit from Alena – he hears her footsteps approaching, from the moment she gets out of the lift at the other end of the corridor, the ominous clacking of those dreadful heels. Karel knows it’s her, and it is. She bursts into the room and yells at him, with no thought for the others in there, shrieks that he’ll never see Adam again, for God’s sake, Karel, you were on that bike drunk, how low can you get, you’re a criminal, that’s what you are, what if you’d had him with you, that fucking bike of yours, I’ll make sure the only way you get to see him is in photos, you’re pathetic, pathetic. Then she goes quiet and takes a look about the room, opens her bag and takes out some oranges in a net bag of their own, practically throws them at the bedside table, clacks off without another word.
Nice tits. Said with admiration by old Mr Jelínek in the bed next to Karel’s. That they are, Karel realizes with regret. First-class.
Then he stops thinking about Alena’s breasts and goes through the visit blow by blow. If he’s not going to be seeing Adam, and if he knows her as well as he thinks he does, she’ll fix it so that he doesn’t, that’s another reason to do what he has in mind.
I Don’t Eat Fat
But I don’t know anything about that. I’m cutting out. When I’m working with scissors I don’t think about anything except being exact, being straight, keeping to the line or whatever. You might say that when I’m cutting out, nothing else exists. Mum says that when I’m cutting out I just switch off. Sometimes she shouts at me and I don’t even hear her, not until she touches me.
She doesn’t really get it, but she’s got used to it. Pavla hasn’t, because she’s really thick. She goes to cookery school. And she’s really fat already.
Right now I’m sitting in my room, and it’s an afternoon like any other, only a bit better. I can hear the kids yelling in the playground outside and I’ve got the sun beating against my back, but I’ve still got my desk-lamp on to make sure, so that I can see better.
And today I’m starting off, and that’s always best, cutting into the card for the first time, separating out all the pieces and then cutting carefully around them to get them just as they should be.
I’m not saying, though, that other days are crap – I always like doing this.
I cut models of ships out of card. Then, of course, I have to stick them together. I don’t hear Pavla calling me, she has to come right up to me and nudge me, and my hand slips and I nearly miss the line. At that moment I want to kill her. Or give her a smack at the very least. But she grabs my arm and says, Have you gone deaf or what, don’t you think you’d be better off buying a deaf-aid rather than those kits? She’s an idiot – they’re not kits, they’re models.
“Get moving, your lunch is on the table.”
I’m not having school lunches – Mum gave me the lunch money but I spent it on a model. So I’m eating at home. Pavla cooks nearly every day. She keeps going on about how much she enjoys doing it, but if I happen to forget to say thank you she makes a scene – it’s as if she’s only cooking so we can sing her praises. So how can she enjoy it? I don’t get it.
We’ve got this little table in the kitchen where we always eat. The main dining table in the living room is just for special occasions. For Christmas or when we’ve got visitors.
So I sit down. There’s food out for both of us. I start eating. It’s good. We keep quiet for a bit, but she just never gives up.
Can’t he see how nicely I’ve arranged it? He doesn’t even ask what it is. Roast turkey roll. Pavla watches Vojta toying with his food. She feels like slapping him.
“What are you doing?”
What does she think I’m doing? I don’t eat fat. “I don’t eat fat,” I say.
“That’s not fat, it’s bacon. It has to be there for the taste.”
What am I supposed to say to that? Since when has bacon not been fat? Can she really be this thick?
“So you don’t like it, then?”
“Oh, I do.”
We look at each other. This is important to her. I try to look friendly.
“Thanks for this.”
I’ve steadied things for a while. Pavla carries on eating. And I really do quite like it. Apart from the bacon. I don’t eat salami either, or barbecue sausages because I have to pick all the white bits out. Or chicken skin, unless it’s nice and crispy. Or the stringy fat you get in meat.
I push my plate away because I want to get on with my cutting out. I’m glad that we don’t have any homework for tomorrow. But even if we did, I wouldn’t bother doing it.
“Don’t tell me you’ve finished already? You’re pulling my leg, right?”
It’s best not to say anything – I can see Pavla starting to get pissed off. She flares her nostrils, honest she does. I had a snack at school and I’m not hungry again yet.
“You’ve only picked at it. You eat like a pig.”
I’ve had enough of this. Can’t she just leave me alone?
“And you look like one,” I say, and I dart away. She’s too lazy to come after me. I’m nearly eleven and Pavla’s sixteen, but she’d never catch me because I can run quicker than she can.
Pavla stays where she is, at the kitchen table. Offended because she knows she’s fat. But that doesn’t mean he can tell her like that. And she’s not all that fat, anyway. Is it her fault that Vojta’s so skinny? Compared to him, practically everyone’s fat. Taken for granted, that’s what she is. She’s fuming – she did a proper garnish, chopped the cucumber into regular millimetre-thin slices, and that’s how he behaves. Not only does he not thank her, he calls her names. Can that be right? If only she had a sister. She puts Vojta’s helping on her own plate. I’ve made a good job of this, though, it’s great. It was a good idea to put the mushrooms in. Pavla worships food.
Pavla gets ready to have a good moan about Vojta when her mum gets home from work that evening. But as soon as she comes in, Pavla can see there’s no point. Mum looks really grim with that deep line down her forehead, and as she’s packing away the shopping she bangs the fridge door more than she needs to. She lights a cigarette and puts her dinner out on a plate. A piece of meat, some potatoes, and a cigarette laid down on the edge of the sink. Get out the cutlery and go into the living room to eat in front of an early-evening soap. It suddenly strikes Pavla that it doesn’t make any difference to her either, that it’s any old food to her. So gently she nudges her mum out of the way and arranges on the plate a green-salad garnish, so it’s like a meal in a restaurant.
“You’re really good at this, you are. You’ll see, one day you’ll be doing the cooking in a lovely hotel somewhere.” Mum gives her a wink and the line down her forehead has gone. Pavla gets this lovely feeling. She’s even prepared to forget her complaints about Vojta – she could go into the living room with Mum and they could watch the soap together. And Mum’s bought a mayonnaise salad and some fresh rolls, just the thing for an evening meal. But straight away Mum starts asking about Vojta – what has he had to eat, what’s he doing now, even though everybody knows what he must be doing. And in the end Pavla can’t keep it in.
But Mum’s shrugging it off before she’s even finished what she’s got to say. Just forget about it, he’s a little twit, it’s always the same. Then she says, come on, you’re older than he is, be reasonable. But Pavla won’t let it go, and in the end Mum starts on her – she’s got problems at work and when she comes home she wants to relax, surely Pavla is old enough to handle a trifling matter like this on her own.
Pavla sits on the sofa in a foul mood, saying nothing. Her mother praises the meal but this doesn’t mollify her. For a while the two of them sit there in silence, watching the news, then her mum remembers the slip of paper she found in the letter-box – there’s a parcel from America waiting for Pavla at the post office.
“I’ll get it out of my bag afterwards.”
“Really?” Pavla’s face lights up, and at that moment she’s pretty. If she lost a bit of weight she’d be a lovely-looking girl, the mother thinks.
Pavla nestles up to her. But the mother’s got things on her mind. There was something in today’s post for her, too. A third letter. Spouting nonsense.
By the time Pavla goes to bed Vojta’s asleep already. What a pity, now she has something to wind him up with. A parcel from America. Fantastic. As she gets into bed Pavla couldn’t be happier.
But at breakfast there’s no more escaping it. Mum’s about to leave – she has to go much earlier than we do – and there’s bread and jam and a pot of warm tea on the table. I’m sitting having breakfast and Pavla’s at the table next to me painting her face, but she’s so ugly it doesn’t help much.
“Guess what?” she says suddenly.
I don’t know what, but judging by her tone it’ll be nothing to raise my spirits.
“A parcel.” Triumphant.
As if it was any of her doing, the fact that her old man moved to America and occasionally sends her a parcel! She takes out the slip from the post office and shows it to me as if it was some kind of precious stone, but what does she expect me to see in a slip of paper from the post office.
“From my dad.”
I scowl at her. At that moment Mum comes into the kitchen and fishes something out of the fridge. I know that she’s heard it, but all she does is frown at Pavla and say Now, now, quite sweet and all, as if she was reminding her to put her plate in the sink when she’d finished with it. And anyway, straight after that she leaves, so Pavla’s free to start pulling faces at me. I make out it’s all the same to me, and anyway, it is.
Then I get so pissed off I drop some jam on my T-shirt. I try to wipe it off but there’s not much point.
“You’ll have to put another T-shirt on, won’t you?” she says, not in a normal way but with delight in her voice.
But she just laughs. I get up from the table and walk away.
“So there, you little prat!” she calls after me.
I go into the hall, intending to change my T-shirt, but when I look in the mirror I can’t see much of a mark on it. It’s on the writing and that kind of swallows it up.
It’s a light-blue T-shirt with a yellow cross on it and inside the cross there’s the word Sverige. It’s the Swedish flag and the T-shirt used to belong to my dad, who works on a ship somewhere.
So I keep it on.
Today’s a really rubbish day because the teacher starts picking on me for not paying attention and for doing my cutting out. Worse still, it’s the textbook that I’m cutting away at. And worse still, it’s the second time this year. I always get so engrossed in it – I’m such an idiot.
So I stand up and go all red while she goes on and on at me – is that what I think the textbook’s for, and even if the last teacher let me get away with it, she certainly won’t. In the end, after a performance lasting several minutes, she writes a note to my mum in my homework book.
When the class finishes, Franta and Mára come up to me and want to see it.
Show us, then, Flame.
So far they’re being nice to me – by calling me Flame they’re making out they think I’m normal. But then I say something about some model, barely mention it really, and straight away I’m Modelman again. And by the way they say it I can hear they think I’m a weirdo, so I hate them just as much as I always did.
It would have to be these two sickos, who have a Snickers bar every day at break and think that just because their parents have money, the whole world belongs to them. I’ve had a Snickers probably twice in my whole life. We usually buy cereal bars or chocolate wafers. Or bake something at home because it’s cheaper. And better, says Pavla, although I don’t think so. Most often gingerbread and jam.
But for the moment I’m Flame because they like my cutting out. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s cutting out. But I don’t want to show it to them because I don’t want them to start pestering me to give it to them – if I’m doing it for someone else, then only when I want to.
But then Beetle turns round, him who last week lent me a comic that I gave back with this figure inside that I’d cut out of it as a way of saying thanks. And Beetle liked it so much he practically crapped himself, and that pleased me. And now he’s turning round and telling them how I cut up a whole textbook and all that I did with it, soldiers or whatever on some pages but just patterns on others, and he keeps saying to me, Show them then, but I don’t want to because they’re trying to force me, and anyway, when they do see it, even though they’ll probably like it, they’ll still think I’m a nutter.
In fact Mára is already thinking it. “You cut up a whole textbook? Are you a moron or what?”
But he’s not trying to wind me up – they don’t think I can piss them off, just keep them entertained. I’m just this ginger weirdo who always wears the same clothes, so I might as well be from another planet. But I’m holding back, and that does piss them off. They snatch the book out of my hand and look at it, Beetle as well, and then, Hey, tell you what, I’ll give you five crowns for this, and I tell them I don’t want it, then I reach my hand out and snatch the book back off them and put it in my bag. And Franta says, You’re an idiot, you are, you haven’t even got the money for a new one. So I give him the finger and I can feel myself going red in the face because I’m so pissed off. For a bit it looks like they’re giving up on me, but then Mára grabs hold of my arm and twists it back, it hurts and it shows, and Franta takes it back out of the bag and then Mára lets go of me, and Franta says, You stink like a dosser, Swede, and Mára says, You look like one an’ all, then he slaps me on the forehead, just for the hell of it, meaning My brain hurts, and I could kill him. And then they walk off with my book. And Beetle says, You could’ve had five crowns and what’ve you got now, eh? So I go for him, and Beetle, fucking Beetle, gets the better of me.
And anyway, there’s no way that I stink, even if I have got a stain on my T-shirt. The Swedish one again. Brought all the way from Sweden.
They give me back the book with some of the pages ripped out, but I couldn’t care less because I’ve got to buy a new one anyway, two hundred crowns, no idea where I’ll get it from. I had my pocket money for October and I spent it on a new ship. And last time Mum went berserk. What do I mean by cutting up textbooks? Am I sick in the head or what? Maybe I am. Let’s say I’m sitting in the dentist’s waiting room feeling really shit and sick to the stomach because I can hear the drill – then it calms me down to cut something up. I’ve got these fold-up scissors I always carry in my pocket. And they have magazines in waiting rooms.
I’m sitting at home and getting on with things when Pavla comes back, but I don’t hear her until she comes into the bedroom because she makes a noise on purpose. So I don’t turn round on purpose.
“I’ve been to the post office.”
I don’t say anything because there isn’t anything to say. But when I turn round I see her face all lit up. She sits down and starts to tear at the tape the box is done up with, and then she looks at me, we look at each other for about half a second, and I know that she knows I feel bad about it, and I hate her for it. So I turn straight back round and make out that I’m carrying on with the scissors, but I can’t, all I can hear is rustling as Pavla unpacks all the things he’s sent her.
“Look at these,” she says after a while, and by now I’m happy to turn round. She’s stuffed herself into a red T-shirt. And she’s got on these pink Converse sneakers, pretty cool except for the colour. I’ve got low ones a bit like them, but they’re black and we bought them on the market.
“Fantastic,” I say, with heavy irony, but nothing’s getting through to her at the moment.
“They are, aren’t they?”
I turn back to the desk, but Pavla’s given it up too. She’s reading the letter.
“Wow!” she yelps, making me jump. I turn back round and she looks as if something awful’s happened to her.
“Wow!” she says again. “Dad’s invited me to stay with him for the summer. I’m going to America.”
She’s looking at me with a kind of clumsy delight and I’m looking back at her poker-faced.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I can’t believe it! I mean, wow, America!”
I can tell that she wants to talk to someone about it, but she can’t do that with me. And I can see how impatient she is – she’s rummaging in the box and throwing out on to the bed all these different sweets. He usually sends her things you can’t get here. I turn back to my ship and wait for it to be over. She’s going to America. To see her dad. I try to concentrate on the ship. Wishing she’d clear off.
Pavla needs to get out, so she writes a quick text to Lenka. She can’t wait to tell her everything. A last quick look in the box – lying on the bottom there are just a few postcards. Or are they? No, they’re photos – four of them, with a little note folded over them.
I found a few photos with your mum in them, it says. Thought they might give you a laugh. What did we look like, eh?!
Pavla glances at the photos, she hasn’t really got time for this now. But hang on a sec, this one’s just too good – Mum and Dad in the countryside, Pavla’s not sure where, sitting by a campfire, Mum looking into the flames, Dad managing just in time to look at the camera, he’s been taken by surprise, and he’s wearing Vojta’s Swedish T-shirt.
There’s a second when Pavla almost tells Vojta, but she stops herself just in time, with the ‘Vo…’ half out of her mouth. If he’d turned round, she probably wouldn’t have been able to keep it in. She looks at his light-blue back and then again at the photo. Then she puts the photo back in the box. She leaves everything else where it is on the bed. This box containing a photo of Dad in the T-shirt Vojta’s got on, the one he thinks is from his own dad, she shoves under the bed among other similar boxes. The new information pushes Vojta’s dad further towards the unreal. We hardly know anything about him as it is, thinks Pavla, and the little we thought we knew isn’t true. But it’s not her problem. She’s going out, taking her great news with her. Lenka’s going to be gobsmacked.
Before she leaves she puts a big bag of sweets, the kind you don’t see here, on Vojta’s desk. They look like big chocolate eyes.
Here. For you.
Thinking about what she now knows and the power it gives her over Vojta, briefly she has the feeling that this is even better than the lovely pink sneakers.
After she goes out I throw the sweets in the bin. It’s full of paper, so the bag falls to the bottom and you can hardly see it. But to make sure I put my hand in and pull a few scraps of paper over it so that you can’t see it at all. I’m not interested in booby prizes.
Translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland