the indigo bookmark
Back then, when we were just starting to spend our lives together, or we may have already lived together for some while, though nothing had seemed that certain yet, you asked me several times why I was actually with you. You were sitting in a white armchair next to the bookcase, above your head some coloured book marks were poking out of their books, fluttering in the slight draught, and you asked: “Why are you actually with me?” I smiled and declined to answer, or I may have just said something silly like Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies. In fact I was slightly offended by the question, disappointed that you could really believe there might be some specific reason that I could extract from the Great Card Index of Reasons, show it to you and then put it back in place, like carefully returning a card to a tarot deck. Why are we actually with one another? Maybe you wanted to hear me name some quality that you thought particularly apt, though for me it could be quite trivial, or perhaps I was expected to mention the manifold pleasures afforded me by the lustre of your youth and the bounties of your body. But I said nothing, sensing there really was no specific reason for my being with you, that there might be some purpose to it, that it was just as it should be and that there really was nothing to add on the subject.

That notwithstanding, if I am now getting round to saying something, it’s for reasons that aren’t easy to explain. We take it that questions of the heart find themselves with no answers, but it could be that the questions and their answers fatally pass each other by in time. I watched you sitting there, looking slightly vexed in the white armchair, then I took a book off the shelf and opened it at the point where the pages were separated by an indigo ribbon. A certain constancy of despair will eventually induce joy. And the same men who live in the monastery of Saint Francis in Fiesola with red flowers in front of them also keep a skull in their cells to nurture their meditation… As for me, if ever I sense that my life is about to take a new turn, then the reason for that is not something that I have newly acquired, but something that I have lost. That was what I read that time from Albert Camus’ Notebooks, but the air ruffled by the words merely joined hands with the slight draught and wafted off into the gardens, where it drew in the green fragrance of the grass. Clearly, we’d been given the answer to a different question from the one you had asked. Today I know it was the answer to what I was to ask you several years later: Why are you leaving me? But you said nothing. Did you sense that there was no specific reason, that there might be some purpose to it, that it was just as it should be and that there really was nothing to add on the subject?

And that’s about it. Better, I think, to tell you again, so as not to keep you all in suspense. My only point being to bring back our story as lived.


And so Nina and Jan began living together. And for others they became so objective as to be referred to in the third person.

Just before he left to visit Nina in Rome, our hero moved from Pellico Street in the Old Town of Brno to Královo Pole. He had to give up his original flat with its wide window ledge and a view over the old city, unwillingly, but it was too expensive to keep on; but there you have it, dear children, in those days editors didn’t exactly have money to burn. However, at the corner of Červinka St. and Mečíř St. there was this nicely done-up detached house nicknamed Patricia’s Villa, because it had belonged to a certain Patricia, a young lady architect who lived in the first-floor maisonette. The novel’s protagonist had moved in there years previously with some fellow students from the Janáček Academy, but they turned it into something more like a hall of residence, and so, advisedly, he left them to it. But now he’d come back to his old corner room – and gladly. One window looked out on some tall, dark-green fir trees, and the large french window led onto the patio, which afforded a view into the gardens large and small of the communal green space, where birds were constantly a-twitter. His room was exceptionally bright and our hero had no intention of spoiling it: he whitewashed all the interior walls, cleaned and polished the dusty windows, set out the light-wood furniture and finally put on a Noir Désir album.

Nina would regularly come out to see him. The house was entered by an old wooden door with a single round window in it, better suited to a steamer, and our heroes relished that instant when they saw each other through it. She would ring the bell, he would open the door to the flat and let his finger hover on the intercom button like a trigger. He put off letting her in, prolonging the moment: if up until then he’d been impatient for Nina to come, now that their meeting was certain, he could afford to delay it by a few seconds. The round window framed her face like on an old photo; she shaded her eyes with her hands and stared into the dark tube of the corridor like into a kaleidoscope. She usually kicked off this game of pleasure postponed by playing with him, planting her nose on the glass or flattening her pursed lips against it so that she looked like a baboon, then she’d put her hands together as if begging to be let in and if that didn’t help she turned her back on him as if to go somewhere where she was wanted. Our two just couldn’t deny themselves this larking about, this minor improvisation, this dumb show, played out in the seconds before either he trotted down the couple of steps to open the door and they fell into each other’s embrace, or he finally pressed the buzzer and she ran up the steps and they fell into each other’s embrace. Same ending, all was well.

In general terms, once they’d met thus, one of two things could happen. Either she’d be slightly unsure of herself, sitting uncertainly on the carpet as if it were a lurching raft and saying she needed to get used to their being together again. Or they might simply hurl themselves at each other and make love, at which point she would usually realise that she’d forgotten to bring some spare knickers or that she’d ripped her tights, which called for a trip into town, where they went for a coffee and chatted happily about this, that or the other over it.

According to the Standard Chronology of Relationships these two were in the tête-à-tête phase. At the time, they each had a narrow single bed in their respective rooms, but for the entire first year that didn’t bother them. They would entwine their eight long limbs like a spider, sleeping in a close embrace, and their bodies learned to turn in the night in synchrony, like meat skewered on a double spit. Our heroine would fall asleep on our hero’s chest, he would have a thigh threaded between her legs, then usually she would turn on her side so as to free up her breathing, legs bent and with her bottom parked towards him, though by then both had been caught up in the broad current of sleep. The only things that inevitably bothered them were whiskers and hair: his stiff bristles that scratched her if he happened not to have shaved, and her fine hair, which used to tickle him; sometimes she would pin it up for the night to teach it some manners, but by morning the pins were either under the pillow or behind the bed, or they’d got lost in the course of some dream: “They must have come adrift when I was running away from that horrid three-legged dog and my hair got caught in a branch.” They would also often wake up in the morning with one limb deadened, an arm or a leg of one of them having been imprisoned too long beneath the body of the other, which called for its reanimation. They would treat their legs to heart massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, except that sometimes they overdid it and spent so long fooling about that for breakfast they had lunch.

In other words, their friends had to write them off for several months. Our players spoke only in the first or second person and had eyes only for each other. About them they created an elastic bubble, like all people in love, they tendered each other their happier countenance, saw themselves each through the loving eyes of the other, and they were as happy as two little children playing at mummies and daddies. In their corner rooms flowers began to appear, either brought with them or bought in in anticipation of the other’s imminent arrival. Our heroine got rid of the sharp angles of her pageboy hair, which had flashed about her head like stars, and let her hair grow down to her shoulder blades, her pretty face gaining from a delicate fringe. More feminine garments began to appear in her wardrobe, Pippi Longstocking having begun to shop at Calzedonia and Intimissimi, which could surely have only thrilled our hero as she paraded before him in new balcony bras, or when she first adopted suspenders. “Pippi in suspenders from Intimissimi, OMG.”

The one lucky thing was that they lived in different towns, otherwise they could scarcely have continued with their day-to-day lives. This pair hardly ever exchanged phone calls, nor did gaggles of text messages go flying between them, but when they actually met, hardly anything else existed than the other. One afternoon, they went right back to the start and he re-read to her Jan Balabán’s short story “Pyrrhula pyrrhula”, just to check out the truth in the claim that a book is never the same at its second reading, because what has changed in the interval is us. And then they went on to more of Balabán’s stories, reading them on trains, on the carpet, on park benches or just before bedtime, reading on and on, and having once exhausted Balabán they sashayed smoothly into stories by foreign writers, Lawrence and Hemingway and Cortázar and Ionesco and Marguerite Duras, picking their way through this literary jewellery box of cut and polished human experience, on and on…

While our hero would reveal to our heroine meanings and their nuances, our heroine would show our hero something much more precious: she would show him how to live lightly, though she herself may have had no inkling how, because that itself was part of her lightness – having no inkling of certain things. But how, for instance, she inhabited her own body, how diffused she was within it, how naturally and with what self-assurance! It was enough for her to take two dance steps and he sensed that she was now somewhere where he would never go, despite it all happening in the middle of the room or at a tram stop. Yes, she would beckon him to her, but he couldn’t budge, at best he’d take a supporting role, just like, at certain times, everyone else. For it hadn’t taken long for Jan to understand that Nina’s existence was somehow quite different from his own, indeed from that of most people. This had to do with something that was as banal as it was momentous, so, above all, it was profoundly ambiguous: at certain moments, our heroine was truly awfully beautiful. Nature in its generosity had decreed she should be a striking blonde and had given her a body on which the united workshops of Seventh Heaven had collaborated with all the devils in Hell. And that was quite tricky, because the Weird Sister who showed up on behalf of the Arts and Culture Division immediately trotted out all the qualities attributed to striking blondes, shrewdly adding that, in our times, beauty only brings trouble. Whereupon the third old biddy, something of a punk in her field, gave a weary shrug and declared that it was more of the same old thing and that the other two crones should, in the interest of future generations, decide once and for all whether origin and appearance do epitomise a person, or not, otherwise everything’s just a mess, which was why she was giving the tiny tot a solid outer shell and a sharp tongue, to be tipped with a touch of venom.

It’s true that our heroine was forever having to shake off attributes ascribed to her by others. Sometimes she and he would play the stereotyping game together: “Aren’t you the proper blonde bitch…,” our hero might tell her earnestly after she’d done something really nice for the benefit of others.

As for him, he’d never dreamed of getting a tall blonde who’d won the genetic jackpot. That would have been asking a bit much… And for her part, our heroine would almost gladly have had her nose pierced with an earring, so she’d no longer be a silver screen blonde and would finally be left alone. At the end of his travels, Odysseus was advised to go inland, where no one knew about seafaring, and there he rammed his paddle into the ground. That was the only way, they said, that he’d get some peace. For our heroine to get some peace, she’d have to dig a hole somewhere deep in the forest and bury her likeness under the soil. She did so want to be loved for who she was, yet for most people it was impossible to get over how she looked. Everyone saw in her, above all, their own desires and complexes. Her likeness was like the windows of tourist coaches: affording a clear view from inside, but acting like a mirror from without.

In the company of others, our heroine usually tried to be open and amiable, just like some unobtrusive brunette, or even – would you believe it – like a girl who’s a bit chubby. But what was to be done about it if she turned up at a party and the company split along an invisible seam into those who fancied her one way or another and those who, on that very account, despised her, each after their own fashion. Obviously this was governed by good old sex, though there was also a handful of mesmerised lesbians and a number of fairly insecure males. In the radiance of her presence, individual characters often exposed themselves, which anyone focussed solely on her might miss. Some women, for whom beauty should have been a matter of indifference, suddenly couldn’t stand her presence and showed as much with extraordinary disdain, while men would variously weigh up their chances, showing their hand as and when they thought they could be in with one, which, for Nina, became a major source of entertainment and the highlight of the tales she told. “Then the guy from T-Mobile accidentally on purpose dropped his credit cards all over the floor and, what an idiot, he had the gall to ask if I wouldn’t mind helping him pick them up, Visa Gold cards they were of course. See what I mean?” Only women who, like our heroine, were sure of themselves, and men who didn’t swap the ready cash of passion for the small change of lust, treated her with a degree of equanimity, which she rewarded with due magnanimity.

Fortunately, unlike most girls of her age, our heroine was unconcerned about her physical appearance as the most sensitive matter between her and the mirror. Though it’s also true that, unlike most mortals, she didn’t know what it was like to have to court the attention of another. In her economic system, the attention of others was a given, a bit like seemingly endless reserves of natural resources, and everything else merely depended on what she did with it. It was only with the passage of time that our protagonist began to grasp how different a personality might, in these circumstances, emerge through tectonics. Sometimes she put him in mind of Dubai: ordinary dreams meant little to her, since she could bring them about the very next day. And he also registered the intransigence that comes with physical perfection. Our heroine could be belligerent and implacable, and that was the basis for our hero’s starting to tease her by calling her Barbarella. In short, she became, now and again, a comic-strip heroine, flailing her arms about and tossing her head high because she had come to avenge all the world’s iniquities, or at least those things that she herself saw as iniquitous.




Whenever our hero travelled to Olomouc to see her, they would go to Café 87, a student haunt, for coffee, then to the Jazz Tibet Club for fried cheese balls. There, there were tasselled cloth lanterns hanging above the tables and the ceiling was dappled from the honeycombed lights above the bar, while the walls were decked with a fetching assortment of portraits: young Leonard Cohen in some coffee place in Montreal, wearing a coat and flat cap and with a lighted cigarette; Muhammad Ali with his fists clenched and looking more like a warrior for the rights of Afro-Americans than a boxer; Amy Winehouse, prone, her head propped up with one hand and staring into the camera with eyes outlined in black – as her whole life soon would be, as on a death notice; a drawing of Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and an iconic photograph of Ernest Hemingway wearing a polo neck sweater. Here they would spend their Friday evenings, whether or not there was a performance on, and pick up wherever they’d left off. One time, she was sipping wine and talking about her late grandmother and her maternal grandfather. She told him the latter had led a double life.

“What do you mean?” the protagonist asked.

“He had a family, but kept going off on business trips. And after he died, it transpired that those trips were to see his second family somewhere up north. He’d been keeping two women, but it only came out after he died. Probably because he needed to be fair to both in his will, though only one of them was his legal spouse, of course.”

“And was that your grandma at least?”

“Very funny!”

“So she had no idea about it, eh?”

“She claimed she hadn’t. Don’t you get it? She’d spent her entire life with a guy she couldn’t even slap across the face. Unless she wanted to give him one in his coffin.”

This made our hero chuckle. “Like something out of an Italian comedy, brilliant. I can just see it.”

“Obviously she couldn’t see the funny side of it. How can you live alongside someone for forty years and scarcely even know him?”

“So that’s why you always say you’ll never get married?”

She shrugged. “I don’t believe it.”

“Believe what?”

“What folk promise each other at the time. That they’ll stick to it. If today half of all marriages end in break-up, it means that every second one lies through their teeth at the ceremony. Actually more than every second one, because the fact that a couple stays together also needn’t amount to much.”

“I think that’s a bit harsh, to suggest they’re lying,” he objected as the more forgiving of the two. “They’re merely giving an undertaking that in the end they can’t keep. But surely they believe it at the time, don’t they?”

But our hero already knew how hard it was to debate such matters with our heroine – she had some peculiar reason for thinking that weddings were inauspicious events. He’d taken her with him to the wedding of some friends of his and during the ceremony she’d burst into tears, as if she were the groom’s jilted mistress. But she hadn’t been crying with either heartache or emotion; she’d cried without even knowing why.

If this couple we’re monitoring spent Friday evening at some night spot, on Saturday they had to go off somewhere. A particular favourite was Holy Mount just outside Olomouc. Customarily they’d buy some goat’s cheese, olives, bread rolls and a bottle of wine and have a picnic under a tree at the top, with Jiří Wolker’s house behind them and the flat expense of the Haná plain beneath them. Late afternoon, and they’d be looking out across the endless fields and chatting again – up there, overlooking the landscape and with the basilica close at hand, our antagonist-heroine was not nearly so antagonistic – and from the zoo nearby came the screeching of the animals, merging high overhead like when an orchestra is tuning up. They recalled the gibbons they’d watched at the zoo, sitting on a bench beyond the glass enclosure, picking sawdust out of their toes and occasionally looking out with a kind of mute pleading as if demanding an answer to a question they themselves could only pose in the form of a presentiment. At that moment, our two appreciated that they’d been given a special chance – that they’d been dealt a wild card by the organiser of this dubious tournament called human life – and were trying to make the best of it. A little later they’d stand in her student room, resting their foreheads – tête-à-tête – on each other’s and feeling the ocean of consciousness pounding against their cranium, the other one’s ocean in which they were never to get to bathe. It was only when they hit the glass surround of the pen of their own existence that they understood the mute pleading of the gibbons. What else could they do in their despair at that Infinite Proximity and Impassable Boundary but at least make love again?

Next morning, they were woken by the bells of St Michael’s summoning the faithful to Mass. Those idle Sunday mornings in Olomouc wanted for nothing. The bells rang out so loud that it even reached into our heroes’ bones, leaving them with a sensation of the church itself being inside their bones so that Mass could be held there and then within the temple of their bodies. When they eventually got up, they usually found there was nothing for breakfast, so they went out and, once outside, combined it into a stroll, because what else was there to do between breakfast and lunch on a Sunday?

They were just walking along a quiet street between detached houses with their front gardens, she was twittering away and he was considering delaying his departure until next morning – after all, he could go to his office straight from the station. At that moment, Nina mumbled something from which Jan understood, just as he was mentally sitting down at his computer and starting to work, that she loved the view.

“What view?” he asked.

She stopped in the middle of the street and blushed.

“You were saying you loved the view, weren’t you?”

She looked at him as if he were being perverse. “I was saying that I love you.”

He burst out laughing, but our heroine’s eyes filled with tears and in that instant something quite different hit him: “Gosh, have you never said that to anyone before now?”

She shook her head.

“Till now you’ve been an I-love-you virgin?”

She nodded, with a slight smile through her tears.

“I also love the view,” said our hero, clasping her to him as tightly as he knew how. “I shall love this view every single day.”




The odd thing was that the tide of events and discoveries they encountered bore them along with it, but at the same time it was as if these two were but the side walls of a channel along which it all streamed. And the days passed through them one by one, it might be said, and that might just capture that odd condition of simultaneous composure and frenzy. Our heroes felt like participants in events, while also being merely the setting for them.

In those days they were coming to know each other in many ways, and Jan learnt quite a bit about Nina even at his first visit to the place she came from. After she’d left to go to university, her room in the attic of the family home contained the previous period of her life like a sealed package. Propped on an easel an unfinished nude, perhaps a self-portrait, on one shelf a piece of pottery that she’d herself turned on a potter’s wheel, and also a roughly outlined bust, the as yet unknown man in her life, onto whose blurred face Jan projected his own. The bright built-in wardrobes, which took up one entire wall, were stacked full of clothes, some inherited, but most of them unworn, because Nina always went for the same few items, only rarely surprising our hero by turning up in trousers with braces or going for the risqué, garish red dress that she’d worn at her school-leaving ball. Perched on one long shelf were various books and above her bed hung a poster for the film The Firemen’s Ball. A table, perhaps once the desk at which she did her homework, now served as the dumping ground for anything and everything, and, this apart, the room had only enough space for her bed. And it was on that bed and beneath that poster our protagonist most enjoyed having our antagonist: it was the bed of her girlhood and it still carried the pink pepper tang of her young dreams.

The house – a solid house, the kind into which one needn’t be afraid to be born – stood in a well-tended garden and was the antithesis of all that our player knew. Jan had grown up in flats and all his grandparents had also lived in rented, multi-occupancy properties, though at Pohořelice it was easy to get out into the yard, which opened into strips of allotments. But this house was surrounded by its garden, and someone had plainly been at great pains to ensure that it furnished not only fruit, vegetables and herbs, but also privacy and several spots to have a lie-down. In addition it had a huge round table and, nearby, a built-in barbecue, the spot where the family would gather in summer and where every conceivable celebration was held. The house was multigenerational, and that was also something new to our hero: in his own family, they always had to travel to see the grandparents, whereas here grandpa and grandma would pop up at any moment on the patio, or join the rest at mealtimes in the garden, as, for that matter, did some other relations who had a house at the lower end of the site. In a nutshell, life here was so much more together, which our hero found half awe-inspiring and half discomfiting. And our heroine, too, switched between tones and moods on those visits home, though for different reasons. He was discovering a world where he’d never been meant to belong – his role here was that of an intruder, though it was mainly to show that his thieving intentions were honourable, while she was coming home, if belonging there less and less as time went by. The childhood ease that spoke of her presence here as natural would often alternate with the tension that followed if her parents had riled her, or she them. Here, as in almost any other family, there was a quagmire bubbling away with only narrow walkways across it that it was unwise to step off. Sometimes, if Nina’s foot slipped, her mother would start shouting at her, which Nina repaid with a lofty composure that refused to concede the real reasons behind the shouting, a somewhat inept and slightly desperate cry for help. Except that by this time our heroine could only manage being someone’s daughter with the maximum of self-repression – as with most people, there had been that moment when she made the subconscious decision to be her own and no one else’s offspring.

“Her constant attention-seeking really gets up my nose,” she would complain about her mother.

“Come on now, not everybody gets as much attention as you, so much they could loan some of it out,” he teased her. “And she can’t help it anyway. Can’t any of you see that she’s lacking something?”

“Like what?”

“What do you suppose? The very thing she keeps seeking. Attention. Some show of interest. Could she possibly make it any more obvious?”

“But it’s so annoying,” the other persisted.

“Of course, but what can you do about it? Give someone a thing and they no longer have to keep begging for it.”

“It’s all very well for you to talk, she’s not your mother.”

Nina’s mother had made a fateful mistake: from one particular moment she’d begun, subconsciously at least, to compete with her daughter. Clearly she wasn’t going to win, but losing was also our heroine’s loss, because that way she more or less lost her own mother. She would repay her in all sorts of ways, like when her mother phoned at the weekend, she would, instead of listening, wave the phone around her head and roll her eyes.

“Couldn’t you just break in instead of doing that?” our hero suggested.

“You think I haven’t tried that already? She won’t have it, she just rambles on and on whether I say anything or not, whether I’m there or not. She just wants to get it off her chest, and that’s all there is to it.”

“But what if, one day, you were to do the same thing to me?” he fired back.

Nina was slightly taken aback and for several weeks seemed to be trying hard to cope with her mother’s calls. But then she started covering the mouthpiece again, chatting to whoever happened to be around. Our hero was convinced that our heroine would be quite capable of being on the phone to her mother while at the bank, trying to sort out a mortgage.

For our hero, her room in the attic was an exciting discovery, like the garden a quite different world, but his attention was drawn most to the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Hanging there, framed, was the first verse of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci”:


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.


She loved reciting these lines, and also the nonsense verse of Christian Morgenstern. In another frame there were some black-and-white photos, actually enlarged frames from a film, complete with numbers and sprocket holes down the sides. He found a moment to examine them at every visit, almost ritually. The first showed a new-born, on its back, while the second was a shot of a tumultuous crowd, taken during one of the demonstrations that made the Velvet Revolution, and the two photos were taken only a few weeks apart. By then, Jan knew when Nina’s birthday was, and it was as he looked at those two photos that it first dawned on him what the difference of eight years between them meant. While during the events of that November 17th he was in grade three and could still recall the excitement that reigned, her eyes had barely opened, she was lying on her back and reaching her arms up towards freedom in the shape of the fuzzy thing from which her mother’s milk trickled. She could have no memory of socialism, he couldn’t recall his childhood as anything but socialist and it struck him that the end of socialism brought with it the end of his childhood. She hadn’t ever collected those little plastic letters, but from a very early age had been able to eat gooey Mars bars and Snickers; she hadn’t watched Vega and Magion on children’s TV, but had plumped straight for Nova, and these days she could see herself not just on black-and-white photos, but also on VHS tape, on which, as a four-year-old, she’d pulled funny faces and made everyone laugh. But the main thing was probably that she’d known no other than her life in the new age. She was like an incunabulum and her world was still a miraculous whole, unmarred by either twist of history or personal tragedy, with no principled rejection or no impossibility of anything that really mattered to her. It was in that untainted condition that her strength lay, but also her weakness, which is why our hero would sometimes say that she embodied both Heartrending Buoyancy and Frightening Impeccability.

A beloved’s being up to the point when we came to know him or her is one of the enigmas of existence. At least, that’s how it struck our protagonist. How could a beloved have been around for so long without our knowing a thing about them? Yet the house afforded plenty of evidence of and clues to Nina’s previous life, from photograph albums recording family holidays and featuring a pale little phantom of a girl, all arms and legs, through exercise books filled with a child’s writing that gradually grew faster and faster, the loops, as it did so, almost hormonally, gradually losing their inner calm and harmony, to Nina’s things in the bathroom, all those creams for her sensitive complexion that she’d bought at some stage or other, but that were irritants in their own right, and the sunscreen with a high UV filter, because that sensitive complexion naturally didn’t know how to get a tan, only sunburn.

Then on walks around the neighbourhood our heroine would herself start talking about her childhood here, how most of the kids she hung out with were boys, how she was forever grazing her knees, and how half the family, with Grandma in the lead, kept upbraiding her for not being girly enough, for not playing properly, not conducting herself properly. Then, of course, out of the blue, but in the natural course of events, our heroine grew up, which brought with it the opposite problem: she still mostly knocked about with boys, but by now she was all too girly – one glance said it all – and it can be no accident that the word rhymes with twirly and whirly and hurly burly… How appropriate, then, the surviving accounts of how, in the local club, around midnight one Friday, she danced on a table in her bra, after which, accompanied by a certain young man – our hero could never bring himself to repeat his name, but, by the merest fluke, it was the only male Czech name to rhyme with ‘cretin’ – she left the club and climbed the fire escape up onto the nursery school roof, where they had it off. Had it off, yes, her words exactly. At that moment, our hero was briefly sidetracked into analysing mentally all the depth and breadth of that ‘it’ and that ‘off’. Cursed be imagination!

The pair of them were never happier than when left in the house alone. Nina felt the greatest relief at being able, finally, to diffuse herself, as in days gone by. Suddenly, from out of the sleeve of the past she withdrew long breakfasts on the patio, exercises in the garden among the herb beds, and bike rides through the local fields and hills. There was always plenty of food in the house, which she started to cook after her own fashion, and in the cellar they could always find a bottle of wine from her father’s stockpile. Days like that could only ever begin and end with lovemaking in the honeycomb that was the heroine’s room in the attic, lined with its light-wood furniture.

Back then, I called her sex thing her little fish. Yes, it’s me again, because I don’t want to miss this bit. In my imagination, her little fish swam about inside her knickers, living a life of its own, a life we landlubbers don’t really know much about. But if one had the good fortune to hook it and toss it onto the bank, it was wet, its gill opened as it gasped for breath, its flesh was pink, with a slightly bitter taste. “My little Jan,” Nina would whisper, stretching an endlessly long leg towards the ceiling to make more room for me on the bed. The light of midday streamed into the room, from next door’s garden came the clucking of hens, I gripped Nina by the calves and opened her even wider so the little fish’s mouth was agape, waiting for what would come next. I put one finger in it to see if would bite, but it didn’t, her inside was completely smooth, like all those years of childhood that Nina had spent there.


Translated by David Short