(translated by David Short)
When you’re twenty, flat-sharing with two others of the same age can be quite
fun, but at thirty-one it ceases to be a joke.
Occasionally, you might be woken by thirst and the makings of a hangover, so you get up for a drink of chlorinated tap-water, since there’s no point looking for a bottle of beer or water in the fridge. You’re too lazy to find your slippers in the dark, so your gloomy expectation of feeling prickly dried breadcrumbs, paprika-flavoured crisps, Skippy’s nail clippings, squashed olives pickled in garlic-vinegar and God knows what else under your bare feet is fulfilled. Then you slip on some Eurotel brochures left lying around by Skippy. He gets a new mobile three times a year, changes his payment plan every month and never stops counting how many free minutes he’s got left despite having no one to phone. And I’m no better – we’ve both got more free minutes than we know what to do with. You can hear your flatmates in One and Three snoring away, and on the cork notice-board in the hall you can make out the faint glimmer of the sheet of A4 with your latest vain attempt at setting up a flat-cleaning rota. You silently open the bathroom door, grope for the rubber vagina that Skippy replaced the light switch on the wall with one wet weekend two years ago, you pinch its lips together and the light comes on. Then you slowly open your eyes: you see the three razors lying on the unbelievably filthy washbasin. The mirror above is spattered with so many kinds of toothpaste that it puts you in mind of a less than successful abstract painting. You turn on the tap, let it run and gaze at your wrinkled forehead and baggy eyes. You listen to the water streaming down the plughole: in the silence of the flat at night the sound strikes you as oddly more meaningful than in the daytime. As if it carries some coded message – a message for you: Not so good, is it, pal? And it’s going to get worse.
You aren’t even very surprised. You might even nod in agreement, turn the tap off and haul yourself back to bed. Your own bed. In room Two.
Now she’s divorced she’ll stay single.
They’d all told her that at twenty-nine and with her physiognomy (how she hates that word) she would have no problem finding a bloke, but she isn’t actually looking for one. She might accept the odd invitation for coffee or the theatre – but nothing ever comes of it. Mostly she senses from the outset that it’s sort of… forced. The men all try so hard, and that’s probably where things go wrong. She smiles, takes in their expensive ties and listens to one witty story after another (Jeff used to insist that her lack of a sense of humour made her almost mentally defective), but inside she can’t wait to get back home, run a bath with mandarin-scented foam and listen to her new U2 CD. Does any of this make sense? Most of her friends (not to mention her mother) would say that it doesn’t.
But she can’t help herself. Her good looks seem to debilitate men in advance. She uses the expression good looks in the same matter-of-fact way as rich people talk about money – to the less well-off it obviously sounds snooty. But it isn’t really. She isn’t snooty and compliments only tend to irritate her. Why the hell does this guy go on as if he’s just discovered America? Okay, she’s beautiful, and she knows it – so what then?
She’s not sure she can explain it. Many of the men who have danced attendance on her since the divorce go in for all manner of romantic gestures: giving her diamond rings that she apologetically returns; buying plane tickets to London, which they then have to cancel at some considerable cost; laying their entire lives (sometimes including the wife and children) at her feet. They pretend to be ready to burn all their bridges – apparently believing that she is only to be won over by whoever makes the greatest sacrifice. Sometimes she feels like a luxury apartment – for sale to the highest bidder.
Everything is so predictable. At first they’re all bubbling over with confidence, but once they see there’s no change in her reserve, the bubble bursts. They start treating her the way they would a boss and begin to be afraid of her. They keep asking if she’s enjoying the meal, if she needs anything or if there’s anything they can do for her. They’ll do anything. They might even go down on one knee. How can men like that impress her? It’s so tiresome. So ridiculous. Skippy probably put it best one time: We’re all shit-scared of you. She would never put it like that herself (vulgarity isn’t her thing), but there was some truth in it. Can it really be that there is no one who isn’t… shit-scared of her?
Her idea of things would be different. You’ve got no bloody idea, Jeff had shouted at her one time before their divorce, beside himself with rage. Sometimes she has this weird dream: someone rings the bell and she goes to the door in her dressing-gown. Outside there’s a stranger, who greets her with his eyes only. She stands aside, the man enters and starts helping her pack; she opens her wardrobe, takes out the hangers and he folds the clothes away into suitcases. Neither of them speaks the whole time. Her daughter Alice eyes her enquiringly, but she indicates by a look that it’s all okay. The man closes the suitcases, picks up the larger one and takes Alice by the hand. She takes the other case. Unhurriedly, they go down to the waiting car and the man drives her to his house…
It’s so hard to explain everything. It’s all down to communicating, Jeff used to say.
“Communicate with me. Talk to me. How can I begin to understand those mysterious feminine feelings if you won’t even try to describe them? How the hell can I make sense of you?”
Alice complains that she’s been spending more and more time in the bathroom
of late. She could be right at that; she hasn’t been keeping check herself. Now
she’s passed forty the list of cosmetic failings that need treating, or at least
concealing, every morning is growing at such a rate that it’s beginning to make
her uneasy. At eighteen she needed barely five minutes in the bathroom: she
would clean her teeth, dash some cold water on her face, apply the first cream
that came to hand, run a brush through her hair – then all day long they’d keep
saying how beautiful she was. On Saturdays, when she came down for their family
breakfast, her father’s face would beam with surprise, almost awe. To the extent
that she felt it was a bit tactless vis-à-vis her mother. Sometimes he even
set down the newspaper he was reading in order to watch her as she attempted to
assemble the food processor in order to make some fresh juice out of three
greeny-yellow Cuban oranges.
“You know, Alena, I can hardly believe we could conceive something so pretty in that scruffy bungalow on the Jugoslav Riviera,” he says.
He gets up, gently pushes his daughter aside and assembles the juicer for her.
“I don’t get it either,” Eva’s mother replies with a smile.
“It wasn’t dirty at all,” she whispers to Eva. “Your dad’s just making it up…”
It seems like only yesterday. Nowadays she spends an hour in the bathroom and when she does reach the kitchen Alice tells her she should get her teeth whitened and treat the bags under her eyes with a green tea-bag.
“And if you’re really not going to bother with your hair, you should wear a headscarf.”
Sometimes she thinks her daughter is starting to talk like Tom.
Most evenings she stays in. She used to go to a beginners’ yoga class, but
gave up after six months. She found the positions comical, and it cost her some
effort to keep her amusement concealed from their enthusiastic trainer.
Paradoxically, she finally lost interest the moment she got the hang of the
trickiest exercises. She was better at them than the others, the teacher would
praise her and hold her up as an example, but she never ceased to find those
unnatural postures embarrassing. So what if I can stand on my head, I’m
still going to be just some divorcee, she would tell herself.
She likes crosswords, knitting and watching television occasionally, whatever anyone else might think. Instead of films she likes documentaries, especially travel programmes. There’s one in particular that she hardly ever misses. She’s never been a great tourist and, truth to tell, she has no particular desire to travel (What particular desires do I have left? she’s prone to asking herself), but now and again she does find herself wondering what her life might have been like if she’d been born in some quite different country. If she’d gone to a girls’ grammar school in the Yemen, say.
“In the Yemen? You must be crazy, mum,” Alice laughs at her. “Where on earth did you get that idea?”
Eva doesn’t know. Is it her fault?
Television has filled her head with all manner of advertising slogans and jingles. Obviously, she has no desire to memorise that kind of stuff. It’s just verbal ballast that she can’t shed. Last week, on one of the squares nearby, she spotted some man peeing in the arcade. ‘Men only’ flashed through her mind. She averted her gaze towards the roof of the nearest house. ‘Bramac. A home for life.’ She sometimes wonders if this isn’t the onset of the menopause.
She goes to work by underground since during the morning rush it would take
her twice as long if she took the car. The carriages are usually packed, which
she heartily dislikes. If, as on rare occasions, she does find a seat, she leafs
through a newspaper. She only reads the back sections: Leisure, Culture, Health,
Money; she does no more than skim the headlines on the home and foreign news
pages. She has never succeeded in developing any interest in politics. She’s
ruled more by instinct, registering how this or that politician looks, speaks,
“You don’t vote for parties, or manifestos,” Jeff accuses her the night before the general election, “you vote for suits! Ties!”
“Not just that,” she protests weakly; she knows she can’t win this one. “I also go by their eyes, their smiles, and things…”
“So if Grebeníèek looked like Richard Gere, you’d vote Communist, would you?”
Sometimes she can’t focus on her paper at all and instead watches the other passengers – especially the women. Through her feet she can feel the tons of steel undercarriage jolting and vibrating. ‘How do you cope?’ she sometimes wants to ask them. ‘Don’t you find life unbearably hard? How come we’re still here? How come we haven’t ended up like Irena, down there on the rails?’
At sixty-two Vartecký is still looking good; from spring to autumn he cycles
to school, he plays volleyball twice a week, and every Friday he takes his wife,
sixteen years his junior, to the sauna. Some of the women teachers (and they are
in a majority of 80% plus) go out of their way to make up to him, but he remains
gloomily, but graciously unfazed. At these parties he’s more like a big, gentle
dog being bothered by children: he puts up with all the stroking, kissing and
sitting on his lap with impressive forbearance, and only when such signs of
affection hit the limits of what is tolerable does he get up, carefully
disengage his tipsy colleague and saunter off to a far corner of the staffroom.
I fetch him a chair, we clink glasses and chat of this and that. Mrs
Mrázová comes past; in both hands she is clutching a paper tray bearing nothing
but the greasy stain of two open sandwiches, a bit of gristle and a yellow arc
of lemon peel. I lean slightly closer to Vartecký.
“And now the young hostesses are bringing the teachers of the year their well-deserved awards,” I whisper.
Mrs Mrázová turns, measures us with her piercing eyes, then extends her mouth into a smile that she presumably thinks is a bit saucy; a piece of egg yolk is trapped in her brace. ‘She really ought to give up on saucy smiles,’ I tell myself. ‘She’d do better to pack them away in some musty old box on top of the wardrobe she stows her summer clothes in come October.’
“Lovely party, eh?” I observe to be sociable.
Twenty-five years ago we didn’t get on, but now we both do our best to disguise the fact. In those days she taught us maths and descriptive geometry. At one year-end test at the blackboard she had watched with unconcealed scorn as I struggled with some projection of a pyramid.
“But Thomas, I thought you had some imagination – since you call yourself a poet…” she had said spitefully.
“I do have imagination, just no sense of space,” I replied. “Those are two quite different things, miss.”
My impertinence had left her dumbfounded. Does she still remember? In her time she has had hundreds of such rebels – I wonder if that doesn’t take the edge of their glory. Inflation of rebellion. I recall the comic rituality with which she would handle her large wooden compasses, and cannot suppress a smile.
“Have you two got some secret?” she asks suspiciously.
Vartecký looks at me.
“Actually we have,” he says. “We both used to love the same girl.”
Mrs Mrázová sighs disapprovingly:
“Can’t you men ever talk about anything else?”
About an hour later, when I run into Vartecký again, I go back to
what he’d been hinting at – though I obviously wait for the right moment so
the change of subject isn’t too abrupt.
“One question about your private past – would it be in order?”
Vartecký has never be one to waste words, perhaps in reaction to his garrulous lady colleagues – and, talking to him, I’ve gradually adopted the same. He nods without hesitation.
“Did you sleep with her that time at Slapy?”
He doesn’t need to ask who I mean, nor does he pretend to be trying to remember. I appreciate that, but at the same time it makes me uneasy: over the years he has taught dozens, if not hundreds of pretty girls.
He doesn’t seem to be lying, but I’m not quite sure.
“And before then, or later?”
“Why not?” I ask in my blasé way.
His unbuttoned short reveals dense, only lightly greying hairs – my own chest is, by contrast, almost smooth, which is why, in his company, I usually adopt the posture of the ironising intellectual who despises that front-line mark of masculinity.
“When she came into my orchard / blossom time was nearly o’er. / Like some graceless vagabond then the sun did sleepy soar…”
Escaping into poetry, I thought at once.
“Your wife’s forty-six,” I object. “When you married her she was only a couple of years older than Eva.”
“Except she wasn’t a student. It’s not worth it with students. The pleasure is far outweighed by the problems.”
I wait, but no further explanation is forthcoming.
“You should know something about that yourself,” he merely adds, referring to Klara.
I still don’t quite believe him, but I’m not cross at him: he’s no reason to lie to me, so if he’s not being frank about that business twenty years ago, he’s just trying to show consideration. He knows that for me the past isn’t over.
“And did you?” he asks unexpectedly.
“Bingo!“ I exclaim. “The key question. The nub of the matter.”
“So you didn’t sleep with her either?”
He says nothing.
“No. Just two little letters, N and O – and there’s half a lifetime in them,” I say.
The wine in plastic bottles isn’t up to much, but I toss a whole glass down my throat anyway. Then I pour us a new glass each.
“But why not?” he enquires casually.
When I’d asked the same question there’d been a tremor in my voice. There’s the difference, I realise: Jeff and I used to flutter excitedly around Eva, while he stood quietly by. We would wheel and turn about her, never stop talking, sometimes reciting poems – he said nothing. We would avert our eyes, while his gaze was direct and uninhibited. I suspected it even back then: how could she be impressed by someone who was paralysed by her beauty? She needed someone who could simply take that beauty to himself. Outwardly, Jeff and I would make fun of Vartecký’s age (may we be forgiven!), whereas in reality we were scared of him. We were acutely aware that he had something that we, with the best will in the world, could never have.
“How would I know?” I exclaim. “Because you were there. Because she’d become Jeff’s girlfriend. And the like.”
Vartecký placed a finger on his lips. Marta, once my PE teacher, turned towards us with an amused glint in her eye.
“Aha, so we’re back to Eva Šálková, eh?“
Vartecký wears a phlegmatic expression, I maintain a stony silence like a boy caught scrumping (teaching at the school you once attended as a pupil is an odd perversion – it’s tempting to say that it’s almost incestuous. I used to put returning to my alma mater to teach down to a healthy conservatism or sentimentality; today I realise that it was due in part to social inertia: I simply couldn’t be bothered to look for another life than the one I knew so well). Marta shook her head in disbelief.
“Šálková forever!” she laughs at her own English.
“Spot on, Marta,” I reply earnestly. “Šálková forever.”
She does drive, but only on the two routes she knows by heart: the Friday
shopping trip to Hypernova, and once a fortnight to see her parents in Vrchlabí
– after retiring they’d sold their Prague flat and bought a little house there.
Otherwise she takes the car nowhere. For days on end her burgundy Renault stands
in the same spot (in winter it is often the only car in the street covered in
snow, and in summer, when she leaves it closer to the park, after a week it
usually carries a thick dusting of yellow pollen in which the local kids draw
dirty pictures). Last year – seven year’s after their divorce – she had got it
as a birthday present from Jeff.
“What are you after?” she had asked him.
“Nothing but your survival.”
It is said to be the safest car in its class.
She knows the way to Vrchlabí by heart, every road-sign, every bend;
whenever, like right now, she has to switch to a different lane from the one
she’s used to being in she is immediately thrown off-balance.
“Mummy?” Alice is about to tease her. “What will you do if ever there’s a twenty-mile diversion at this spot?”
Obviously, the possibility has occurred to her too. She watches the rear wheels of the Ford in front. Sixty per cent more siping than on other brand of tyre, she recalls and gets annoyed with herself.
“I’ll pull over to the side, switch my hazard lights on and call for a tow.”
She glances briefly at her daughter: something about the way the girl is smiling gives her an almost painful reminder of Jeff that first time she saw him. He wasn’t quite sixteen and a centimetre shorter than her. Since then, though, he had rapidly outgrown her in every respect.
As she is parking in the yard behind the house she spots her father standing behind the curtain – he doesn’t pull it back, as if there’s some reason for him to put off the moment of coming out and welcoming them. As if he needs two or three minutes to think something over. ‘Return of the prodigal only child,’ Eva thinks.
“You’re our everything. Our pride and joy. Don’t forget that.” That’s what her mother always used to say.
Obviously, it’s not the sort of thing you say about daughters at forty. She would love to believe she still is their everything, or almost everything, though they haven’t said as much for years. Perhaps because this almost everything has suddenly taken on the aspect of an aging divorcee with a child. She knows that she has disappointed them. They had brought her up the best they could. They had sacrificed everything for her. She had been literally pampered. Take just the endless expensive tanning creams and sun screens that they’d squandered on her every year at those Adriatic coastal resorts… And how had she repaid them? She got divorced, and to crown it all her age is starting to show. ‘Sorry, Daddy, your pretty little girl has got varicose veins…’ She takes a deep breath. As ever, the air is so much cleaner, crisper than in Prague. Just beyond the garage roof she can see the grey-green slopes of Žalý. Her father comes out – in his tracksuit, which briefly hurts her. Her mother follows him out, carrying a steaming saucepan that she sets down on the front steps. ‘For sixty years they lived in a fairly decent part of Prague – and now this,’ she thinks.
“Hiya!” she calls, making an effort.
Alice runs to her grandma and hugs her. Grandma smiles, but her eyes are on the saucepan.
“Give me the keys, let me straighten it up,” her father says.
She hands him the keys blankly; only now does she see that the car is standing at a bit of an odd angle, with half of one front tyre resting on the low sandstone edging round a bed of dahlias. Flowers for All Souls. Flowers for every occasion. Her father struggles to get behind the steering wheel, eases the seat back, turns the ignition and listens to the engine; then he puts it in reverse and in two simple moves has the car straightened up. He doesn’t get out yet and lowers the window.
“Pretty good car,” he says.
“Jeff was here yesterday,” her mother informs her.
She says nothing.
“You need a few more practice drives,” her father remarks as he gets back out.
“If you say so. Thanks for the warm welcome.”
He gesticulates with one hand and puts an arm around her.
“Hi,” he says finally with a smile.
When she was living with Jeff, he did nearly all the driving; like many other
married men he would only let her drive when he’d been drinking. She hated
driving when Jeff was drunk. Given her lack of experience, she needed him to
navigate and give her instructions, but either he treated her nervous questions
(Where now? Quick! Who’s got right of way? Me, or that lorry?) with all the
casual indifference of a drunkard, or he would start shouting at her in
One evening, after the divorce, when she was in the bath, she decided she would break out of the magic circle of just two familiar routes: she would go round to the nearest driving school, book half a dozen, or, better, a dozen, practice lessons, and learn to drive anywhere, not just to Vrchlabí. She had visions of going on day-trips with Alice at the weekend.
“How long have you had a licence?” was the first thing the instructor asked.
She’s already in the car.
“Twenty years, but until I got divorced my husband did all the driving.”
The instructor looks her over.
“Not another divorcee,” he mumbles. “Start the engine.”
Eva can’t strike the right response to his rudeness; her mind is focussed on the unfamiliar layout of the instrument panel.
“Let’s go then. What are you waiting for?”
The instructor’s bearishness reminds of something all too familiar. At the very next lights she looks straight into his ruddy features – and it hits her.
“You’ve been drinking,” she says, awestruck.
The instructor laughs in such a way as to kill off any lingering doubts she might have had. She switches on the hazard lights, pulls on the handbrake and undoes her safety belt.
“I’m not going any further,” she tells him. “You’re pissed!”
“I am most certainly not pissed.”
She gets out and leaves. People are watching her. The cars behind start tooting their horns.
“And you’re the same as all other non-drinkers: boring, exasperating and a cold fish!” the instructor shouts after her.
He’s never really been able to make Eva out. That is the one sure thing that
survives after all that’s happened.
Whenever he tries to look at it rationally, it gets him nowhere – except to a sense that if he carries on along the same lines for a few minutes more he’ll go mad. ‘If you’re thinking about women,’ he sometimes tells Tom, ‘you can forget anything that’s rational.’ That road goes nowhere. He can give him dozens of examples: Eva complains about the populism or lack of principle among Czech politicians, and when he asks her why, then, did she vote for the party whose chairman is the very quintessence of populism and lack of principle, she says it’s because he’s got ‘that something’, dresses well and has nice hands. And so on and so on. Whenever the subject arises, Jeff feels he’s going to choke.
“Look, we live in a logically structured world: continents, countries, districts and so on down the line,” he explains to Tom. “This is reflected in the relevant institutions. Whatever you think about contemporary society, there’s no denying one thing: it has a clear hierarchy.”
“Your meaning being?”
“I’m obviously not saying that all institutions work perfectly, but at least their structure is transparent: the organs of state, district councils, town halls. Pure logic. And now try and fit the family, the basic building block of society, into the system.” Jeff laughs bitterly: “One half of it can’t stick to logic even to discuss a Bruce Willis film… There must be a flaw somewhere, don’t you think?”
“Remember Klara,” Jeff says. “What is marriage? You love her sincerely – and yet after every second sentence she utters you could up and kill her. That’s marriage. That’s why you run away from her. Why you play volleyball every Tuesday evening and indoor football on Thursdays. Why you go skiing at weekends. Why you buy a bike and any chance you get you’ll head off somewhere just to get as far away from her as you can.”
“I thought you went cycling together?”
Jeff shakes his head.
“The fact that I sometimes took her with me doesn’t alter the principle of escape. When she was peddling away behind me in silence, it wasn’t really her – if you know what I mean.”
After a longish pause Tom nods.
“Basically it’s to keep them from talking,” Jeff adds gravely.
He’s fourteen-and-a-half and measures 162 centimetres.
He likes wearing plain open-necked shirts with a silk neck-tie. That brown suede jacket was made for him by his grandmother, Vera, a furrier. She is obviously pleased with her efforts: when the author puts the jacket on for the first time, she uses the word ‘stylish’ several times over.
“You’ve got style, lad,” she smiles.
The author senses that his schoolmates make fun of him behind his back and that Grandma’s assessment is somewhat over the top, but that word does have a certain allure for him. Suppose Grandma’s right? What if what’s so stylish about him partly rubs off on the girls in his class? To play safe, he wears his jacket and his shirt and silk cravat right through his first year – with the obvious exception of national holidays, when like the rest of the class he has to have his Young Communist outfit of white shirt and red tie.
Later on, one of his parents’ friends gives him a green-and-white anorak of latex-coated paper, picked up on the Grundig stand at the Brno Trade-Fair. It has a zip. Discounting the ladies’ Levis that his mother sometimes lends him (until his last year at school he possessed no other genuine denim garment), that promotional anorak is the most modern, most Western item in his less-than-modest wardrobe. He wears it all through his second and third year. In the final weeks the arms are somewhat out-at-elbow and look generally scruffy, but he won’t give up wearing it.
At the very beginning of the first year the author follows the example of his two closest friends and refuses to eat in the school canteen (who were those two imitating?) and all three of them have their lunch at one of the two delicatessens in the town every day for four years. For four years, five days a week, they have slices of warm meatloaf or Italian salad, with two bread rolls in either case. From time to time they treat themselves to a pair of de luxe frankfurters or even ‘Russian’ eggs. They drink lemonade or Czechoslovakia’s unique answer to Coke. They never eat or drink anything else – and they absolutely don’t mind. What’s more, if the author’s memory doesn’t deceive him, they actually enjoy it. Over the duration of their four years at secondary school, they are calculated to have had meatloaf four hundred times, Italian salad three hundred times, and the frankfurters or those dreadful eggs with their greeny-grey yolks a hundred times – and he never complained. With hindsight he doesn’t understand how, and at the recollection of all those kilos of greasy meatloaf and those litres of mayonnaise he even has a delayed sense of being about throw up, something akin to a metaphysical belch. Was it really he? He who these days can hold a generally informed discussion with the waiter in any Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian or Lebanese restaurant? He who can barely stand any other fish than sushi or any other pasta than home-made? He, whose evening can be ruined if his crème brulée comes without the caramelised topping or his tiramisu is made without genuine mascarpone?
Expressed in the terms of encyclopaedias of zoology: when they are young, theirs is a simple diet; in later years they become highly selective.
Is there a lesson in that? The author isn’t sure.
In his third year, the PE teacher, somewhat surprisingly, nominates him for
the school basketball team, which is about to enter some competition. He’s the
only one in the team who doesn’t play regularly; the other boys train several
times a week at the municipal sports club. They receive him with a measure of
distrust, but are soon persuaded that he deserves his place: his shooting might
not be the most accurate, but he’s a half-decent defender and it’s not unknown
for him to capture the odd seemingly lost ball.
In the final match of the competition they score in the last minute to lose by a single point. The overall standings are already decided (whatever the outcome of this match they will be third out of six teams), but this dramatic conclusion has all the spectators and both benches on their feet. During a breakaway, one of his team members is attacked and under pressure makes a fumbling pass to the author, but he manages to grab the ball at the last moment. “Shoot!” someone bellows at him. “You must shoot!” The author dribbles niftily past the nearest opponent, jumps and scores the deciding basket – which he remembers to this day.
He remembers his only basket from a trifling game in an insignificant tournament.
To the point: I’m not pretty. Not a bit, seriously. I’m really not much to
look at, which, unfortunately, is not false modesty, but the truth of the
matter. Show my photo (perhaps the ghastly one from my ID card, or even the
slightly better one in my passport, or the one on my driving licence – it makes
little odds) to ten randomly selected people and offer them four options:
beautiful, quite pretty, more plain than not, and ugly – and you can bet your
life that at least seven of them will instantly tick C, though any pubertal
pipsqueak, no matter how bad his own acne, will obviously go for D. So this is
what I have to live with – except that it’s not my photo that
I exhibit to people in the street, but the real thing. Even to pubertal
My ugliness is hard to describe: I don’t have a hunchback, a monstrous nose or conjoined eyebrows. It’s not the product of any such conspicuous, and so relatively easily removed, single feature; no, it comes as the simple product of several dozen minor, at first sight insignificant, physical shortcomings: my face could be more oval, my forehead higher, my hair denser, my eyes larger, my ears smaller, my gaze rather more penetrating, my teeth whiter and straighter, my complexion clearer and more radiant, my mouth better shaped, my lips fuller, my hips and bottom trimmer, my legs longer. And so on. There’s so much I can do nothing about with the best will in the world. As a certain architect said to a lady client who had bought an ancient house somewhere beyond the outskirts of Prague: There’s so much needs doing that the best solution would be to knock it down and start from scratch… That’s me to a T: laser treatments, liposuction and plastic surgery will solve nothing. My best solution is demolition.
In short I’m Plain Jane.
That’s all I’ve been known as ever since primary school. Regrettably I can’t remember whose idea it was first – if I did know, I’d run him down in my car (just joking!). It might have been Skippy, but I could be wrong.
Anyway, the name stuck. It sounds mocking enough and so it neatly encapsulates my then self: the permanent scowl, cheap specs, pubertal lip-hair and drooping shoulders. In a sense Plain Jane is brilliant shorthand for the whole me.
Vìtvièková — Plain Jane. My entire childhood is in those two names. Vìtvièková, her surname reduced rather unimaginatively to Vìtev, ‘the Branch’, or Twiglet as I preferred to think of her, is a mite worse off. In my objective view she’s as ugly as sin – I’m not really that bad by comparison. We take the same tram to school. Imagine the scene: two unattractive girls standing alone in the morning mist by the tram-stop. Obviously, I’m wearing the smile that goes with my sense of superiority, firm in my belief that I can’t possibly be as ugly as Vìtvièková. Aesthetically she’s the pits.
Except that as we enter Year Eight after the summer holidays a quite different Vìtvièková arrives: tanned, nice breasts, and with a remarkably fetching hairdo (as I register with a stab of envy the moment I spot her). Even now, she isn’t much to write home about, but one thing is clear to all: the much-loved competition for the title of Miss Classroom Ogress is for once going to have a touch of drama. Will Twiglet defend her title — or will she lose out to Plain Jane? In the event, I win by a whisker, but one lesson sticks with me for the rest of my life: if I let the care of my appearance slip for a second, I will be the premier Ugly Duckling. (Incidentally, you might try imagining how, faced with this certain knowledge, you could ever relax… Does it surprise you, then, that I have always found the idea of relaxing somewhat ludicrous?)
For unprepossessing girls like me beauty will sooner or later become the sole
criterion in all things. Even at the age of three I would choose the place
in the sandpit from where there was the nicest view. I never played among
dustbins – not me! I would choose ice-cream by its colour – so as not to
clash too much with what I was wearing. Don’t you see? A little girl
in glasses and shapeless blue cords is not going to buy a pistachio ice-cream
even if she fancies one, because she’s afraid of the colour contrast… Blue and
green must never be seen. Can you envisage the tribulation of a rather plain
twelve-year-old who can’t afford yet another failing?
At grammar school I gave every appearance of sharing the same values as my classmates, but deep inside I knew it was all claptrap. Friendship? Selflessness? Fairness? Truth? — Rubbish! The only thing that really matters in the life of a woman is looks. The simple truth is that selfless, friendly or fair-minded girls do not become recipients of love-letters.
I secretly watched them in class – my prettier classmates. Every morning I tried to guess what they would turn up in, fearful of the invisible glow that often accompanied their arrival. That glow might well have been invisible to the rest, but I could see it – and I bet Twiglet could as well. Incredibly, those silly geese looked fantastic no matter how ungainly their walk or untidy their appearance. Bleary-eyed, hair all squashed, T-shirts crumpled, even with a grimy head-band — paradoxically, all it did was enhance their charm. Their eyes stand out the more, their complexion seems even smoother. I can still remember every detail of their clothes. Don’t you see? After twenty years I still have the clearest image of the Wild Cat jeans on Eva Šálková when she came into the classroom in our second year: every pocket, every slit, even the red-and-blue label.
In class I never stop spying on her. During art lessons she sticks her
tongue half out and I keep trying to figure why she looks so tremendously
sexy even with her tongue out. If ever I do it with mine I look like a
mental case (though fortunately I have enough good sense never to do it).
“Oh God,” I whisper to myself, “why is it okay for her and not for me?”
I grow into a rabid atheist: all because God hasn’t endowed me with a better mug. From puberty on I never enter any kind of church — just as I’ll never go back to any restaurant where I’ve been cheated.
Frequently during adolescence it occurs to me: if I didn’t have such big
breasts and bum, I could pretend to be sort of independent. Love? Sex? No
thanks, not interested. But with a D-cup? With the arse of a prize-winning Cuban
mother I’d never convince anyone I wasn’t made for love. Anyone can see
I was — but as soon as they look me in the face they can tell at once that
I’m desperately short of it.
I’m not independent, I’m just plain ugly. I can’t fool anyone.
I’m forty, yet I’m still measuring everything mostly in terms of allure — not just, shall we say, cars or mobile phones (obviously what matters most is an elegant shape and the colour, not the technology inside), but neighbours as well, or doctors or politicians. What use are beautiful visions to a politician if he’s got a crooked smile and a triple chin? I certainly won’t be voting for him. And anyway: I’ve only ever liked good-looking, or at least pleasant guys. You see the magnitude of this catastrophe? Me, Plain Jane that I am, and only drawn to blokes with charm.
You try living with this fatal combination — and surviving.
Working as a solicitor for a foreign company may at first sight seem
complicated, but in fact it’s just as primitive as one of those word-search
games: always the same words, the same phrases. And there are more similarities;
leaving aside the salary, she would say that the job is about as much use to her
in life as doing crosswords: a moderately sophisticated way of killing time.
She is considered able, even successful, though she’s never found it especially difficult: all you needed was good English, a measure of commitment, an ability to communicate with others and knowing how to prioritise the various tasks in hand. She still enjoys the work, though she’s long been aware that her job is worlds apart from real life. When, at a lunch, she meets all those perfectly groomed, self-confident young men in their Hugo Boss suits, she remembers Jeff back in the early nineties: he’d also believed that the job he had just landed was his great chance in life. She hears them ordering (two of the veal saltimbocca, one spaghetti vongole and one pasta al ragu di coniglio) and laughing, she sees them toss their jackets over their chairs and watches them chewing — and she thinks of Jeff. Sometimes she remembers Karel as well, and Irena. She’s never guessed how much space would be taken up in her head by dead people who didn’t strike her as particularly important when they were alive. She can even remember the exact dates when they died; those two years have become part of her own history for all eternity — much like her parents’ wedding-day or the birth of her daughter. But then she’s not alone: when, at a class reunion, she says, none too happily, that Alice was born two years after Karel, most of her classmates know at once what she means.
From the very start of their marriage Jeff comes in from work very late,
generally when Alice is already asleep. He’s usually tired and irritable. She
understands, he’s having a hard time: as ever, he wants to be a winner, but the
terms of this race are far from fair.
“How can I compete with people who can afford to buy whole factories for cash?” he says getting excited.
She’d love to talk to him, since she’s hardly exchanged a word all day with another adult, but he’s won’t open up, keeping to the shortest of sentences. He roams the apartment saying nothing, bends down with a groan and ostentatiously picks up the scattered toys.
“This isn’t a home, it’s a battlefield.”
“She carried on playing after kids’ television finished,” Eva explains, trying to be conciliatory. “I tidy up after her five times a day as it is.”
“In which case it looks as if you’ll have to do it six times.”
“Not likely! You can tidy up.”
Verbal dodgeball. Two captains.
“I’ve been slogging my guts out all day at work.”
“Do you suppose I’ve been sitting around doing nothing?”
They both sense how deep they’ve sunk. Jeff collapses into an armchair and rubs the bridge of his nose.
“I can’t stand mess,” he says quietly. “Can’t you grasp that?”
Jeff tries to make up for his weekday absence at the weekend. Alice still
isn’t quite two, but he’s already planning long days out walking.
“That’s crazy,” Eva protests as they crane over the map. “No child could walk that far.”
“Mine can,” Jeff insists.
Then of course for most of the way they take turns at carrying Alice.
The pair of them are forever holding Jeff back.
“Please, love, can’t you speed it up a bit?” he tends to say fractiously, whenever Eva is getting Alice dressed.
“Of course I can,” Eva smiles back bravely. “That is, if you don’t mind that it’s minus two outside and she won’t have either a jumper or her anorak.”
When they’re out walking, the girls dawdle. Jeff is always a few yards ahead and keeps looking back reproachfully.
“She’s a baby, Jeff,” Eva reminds him tetchily. “You can’t ask for miracles.”
“I’m not asking for miracles. I just want you to get a move on!”
And when they’re out on their bikes, they lag behind.
“For Christ’s sake, step on it, will you?” Jeff calls back, then rides in furious circles round and round them.
“We can’t, idiot!” Eva shouts back.
Jeff can’t take it any more and makes a break for it: he bears down on his pedals and within three seconds is out of sight round the next bend.
“Where’s Daddy gone?” Alice asks, worried; she has a fine sense for any tension in the air.
An hour later Jeff reappears from the opposite direction: hunched over the handlebars, covered in mud, sweating and content.
“You ride your bike beautifully,” he praises Alice. “I’m so pleased with you.”
Did you know that daddy penguins spend six months keeping their eggs warm with their own bodies while the mummies are away goodness knows where for that entire time? For six months the males stand there in the freezing cold and the wind. There’s one huge flock of them, slowly shifting their feet and working round in spirals so that the ones at the edge always get a brief turn in the middle, where I assume it’s less windy. I’ve no idea how they do it, but the egg is always at thirty-seven degrees, wherever they’re standing. And whenever the little guy inside wants something, he just squeaks to his dad through the shell. Then the mother comes back from her six-month gallivant. She can recognise her chick by its squeak. I no it’s no big deal really, but it does strike me as interesting. Anyway, it’s a damn sight more interesting than what I’m reading here in the paper, that 2004 will be the year of Putin and Bush. The KGB man and a man who favours the death penalty… These days they want your fingerprints at airports (mind you, I reckon it’s not for the prints themselves but so they can tell whether you wipe your arse with your left hand like the Arabs, ha ha), but when you get on a plane two years from now they’ll fix your boarding pass under your skin at the back of your neck. And when you go to take a leak on the plane, there’ll be at least four people in the Pentagon deciphering the sound. So that’s the world we’re living in, in case you were in any doubt. And you also shouldn’t be in any doubt that I couldn’t care less about politics. Not that I ever could. I’ve never been able to live a lie. It’s true I was the only one in my class who refused to join the Union of Socialist Youth, but why the hell see that as political, like our class teacher did? At fifteen? Are you mad, miss? It was only later that it dawned on me that she was chair of the school’s Party organisation. She couldn’t make me change and she never took her eyes off me. When the Fourteenth Party Congress came around, she came in person to check my ID card to see whether I hadn’t made a tear on page 14 as a token protest — but that just wouldn’t have occurred to me. A bit of attention, that’s all I was after. Not joining the USY was basically no different from pricking my face with a safety-pin or biting worms in half when I was at primary school. The girls would squeal ‘Ugh!’ and pretend to be going to throw up, but it was better than nothing. I’d caught their attention — and that’s always been the thing, hasn’t it? You need to stand out from the crowd, otherwise no one’s going to take a blind bit of notice of you. So when our Russian teacher in the first year at grammar school handed out the addresses of some Russian kids and wanted us to be good and friendly and write to them for a year, I told her I’d rather write to someone in Australia. Goodness, why Australia of all places? Because I’ve always liked kangaroos. She huffed and puffed and said she’d have to speak to the headmaster, but I reckon I carried it off pretty well. Fuck Vladivostok — Melbourne! Kindly ignore any swear-words; for me they’re like politics, they mean bugger all.
The facts: I was born on the twenty-second of November nineteen hundred
and sixty-three — the very day they shot John F. Kennedy (I sometimes
wonder whether that assassination didn’t foreshadow all those other premature
deaths…) – to a thirty-five-year-old divorced bus driver and a
seventeen-year-old commercial college student.
For years I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in my mother; most of what I know about her I only learned from my father last year and this year in hospital. If you’ve had any experience of regularly visiting people described as chronically sick, then you will know how the time drags for those of us who are well. Let’s not pretend: after six months, if not before then, our reserves of compassion and understanding have been largely exhausted and the warehouse of our heart begins to reveal the bare walls of duty and boredom (sometimes I catch myself speaking like Tom). Dad and I have been over every conceivable topic umpteen times, so that in recent weeks we’ve mostly said nothing, just staring at the blue stripes on the hospital bedding and exchanging the odd encouraging smile. Once a minute the clock on the white wall gives out a dry click. I think hard of what else to tell him — but what is there to tell someone who probably won’t be there in a couple of months’ time? Try talking to a dying man about the problems of finding a place to park or the latest trends in Scandinavian furniture… From the start the sense of this had me paralysed, so after a few weeks I was glad to latch on to any more or less thinkable topic of conversation — even one that was quite recently still taboo in our one-parent household.
“I don’t know this, you know, but where did you actually meet?” I ask him casually, though in reality the question is loaded with a perverse, masochistic excitement. “You and my mother, I mean?” I add with some irony.
At first my father looks surprised — and then he pulls a wry face. So this is all that’s going to be left, I tell myself: one wry look. I’m reminded again how the approach of death reduces proportions. A family drama of many years is suddenly just a silly story. Dad’s lips are dry, so I give him a drink of mineral water with a hint of orange. I feel sure he is focussing more on the plastic bottle than my question.
“I was asking where you met.”
“On my bus,” he says. “Where else?”
They took his bus to school five times a week — that whole group. In the morning, and again in the afternoon. For several months a couple of the girls had flirted with him. On the day in question she in particular had been playing up so badly that he nearly threw her off the bus.
“Exactly what you should have done,” I can’t stop myself saying. “Preferably while it was moving.”
Briefly he looks slightly outraged, but then despite his progressive mental degradation he must realise that rebukes of the order ‘That’s no way to speak of your mother!’ would sound pretty absurd in our case. He smiles a toothless smile — it doesn’t put me off, I’m used to the sight.
“Yes, perhaps I should have.”
I keep on with my questions and from my father’s terse answers I build up a mosaic of that February afternoon: after school, the two girls stayed on his bus all the way to the terminus, where they refused to alight. They offered him a cigarette as a sop. He took it. After all, he had a forty-minute lie-over. The taller one was the prettier of the two, but she had to go and buy her mother some distilled water before the shops closed.
I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“Hang on,” I gasp. “So if the mother of the taller girl hadn’t run out of distilled water, she could have been my grandma?”
It’s a while before he grasps it. Then he laughs and repeats my little joke several times over; at the same time he looks round to see if the other patients have heard him, but fortunately they’re both asleep. If only that chemist’s had closed an hour later, I might possibly have been beautiful, crosses my mind.
He watches me and apparently remembers what I do for a living, for which he’s proud of me — and because of which he also likes to take the mickey.
“So, have the Danes got round to inventing a five-legged chair yet?”
I shake my head with a smile, but I’m thinking about my mother. This year she’ll be fifty-seven.
“And Daddy?” I wink at him. “Did you make me that very first time. During that lie-over?”
He shifts his hand on the bedcover, as if he wants to flap my question away — so I know I’ve guessed right.
“And in the depot, or inside the bus?” I ask teasingly.
“You can’t expect me to tell you things like that!”
He backs up his refusal with a sigh, but I can see from his expression that he will tell me in the end. Ultimately this is not one of those subjects that have worn thin, so it has stirred his lukewarm interest — though I do worry that his interest has been sparked less by my conception than by the word ‘bus’. He is silent. Apparently reminiscing.
“Inside the bus?”
He nods, grabs the trapeze bar and lumberingly makes to sit up; he signals that discussion of my conception is at an end.
“Where exactly?” I persist.
“At the back!” he snarls, dying to be free of my questions. “Where there’s four seats together!”
So that’s the secret of my coming into being: in a bus, on the back four seats!
Jeff’s oldest surviving photo from his grammar-school days, obviously
black-and-white, was taken on a skiing course in year one, when we were
fourteen: fair hair reaching (like mine in those days) the limit of what the
times would tolerate, the comical hint of a moustache and that customary
quizzical expression in his lovely eyes. Things missing from the picture include
the inevitable lolloping walk that would keep breaking into a run, his habit of
tipping his head to one side as he talked and the short, deep furrow that would
appear between his eyebrows whenever he disagreed with something.
My friendship with Jeff, which goes back over a quarter of a century, began during that lesson in September when the geography mistress was showing us something or other on the overhead projector — can’t remember what it was, but I do remember that after the projection was over the blind on one of the windows at the back of the classroom jammed. Jeff, who sat at a desk beneath the window, shot up (his chair screeched horribly) and, unbidden, took a short run and leapt up among the flowerpots on the marble window-sill. He tottered slightly — the class howled — but then, his balance immediately restored and using both hands, he pulled the blind back up. Then he jumped down, bowed and went back to his seat.
For a fraction of a second the class seemed uncertain as to what to make of his performance: should they approve of it as a clever bit of misconduct and a worthy display of gymnastics, or should they incline towards the attitude of the teacher, who had sarcastically tapped her forehead, and laugh at him, given that the entire sequence had something undeniably apelike about it.
“Great!” I shouted (the particular intonation that goes with this expression of approval, which as boys we used very often — and which, incidentally, I use to this day, for instance when Skippy and I are watching football — is achieved by letting it out sharply and in a deeper than normal voice; it usually helps if you wear a frown at the same time).
Jeff grinned at me and waved his appreciation. Thus it was that a dusty blind that got jammed launched our friendship.
During the very next break, in the corridor between classrooms, he came up to
“What have we got next?” he asked.
I reckon he knew.
I was glad he had spoken to me and hurriedly tried to think of something to add to my reply so that it didn’t sound so terse — but at that moment we were stopped by two final-year boys.
“Stop!” they commanded.
One of them was wearing glasses, and the other one wasn’t particularly fearsome-looking either, but they were both a good few inches taller. We dutifully stopped. I recall that looking down at us from behind their backs were three more faces, on a notice-board. They were done in charcoal and even at first glance you could tell something wasn’t quite right with them (this obviously was no time to study them more closely, but since I go past something of the kind five times a week, I’m prepared to state that it was probably sloppy shading or something ordinary like proportion).
“We’ll have that off, you newts,” said the one without glasses.
Jeff tipped his head on one side.
“We don’t allow long hair on newts,” said the second one and tried to grab him by the hair.
Jeff ducked like a boxer. The fourth year boy paused and then went for an alternative, easier target, grabbing me by the hair. Jeff scowled, flung one arm forward and seized his wrist.
“Hands off him,” he said calmly, but amiably enough.
They eyed each other briefly — and then the one in specs surprised me by letting go.
“Who do you think you are?” the other one exclaimed.
His delayed outrage seemed not to be directed at Jeff — he too appeared to want to avoid direct confrontation. Jeff pushed him gently aside so that we could walk on.
“They were trying to bully us,” I said, emboldened by Jeff’s courage.
“’S right,” Jeff smiled. “But they couldn’t.”
Whenever we ran across those two in the days to come, they would avert their eyes and pretend to be doing something.
Jeff maintains that our time at grammar school was one long embarrassment.
“I can’t stand those photos. They’re nothing to do with the real me.”
I find the phrase offensive, though I understand what he means. We were no young knights of the Round Table — just little fourteen-year-old schoolboys. We couldn’t save each other’s lives or carry out some other such great feat; all we could do was share our lunch packs and save each other a seat on the coach during school trips — but that did not dilute our friendship. Puberty and the utterly unheroic environment of school may have made it a bit comical, perhaps, even awkward in a way, but it couldn’t reduce it.
“Memory is life, Jeff,” I tell him.
“Yeah, and I can remember I used to wet myself when I was little — but what great meaning does that have for today?”
“So you’ve decided to forget the embarrassments of childhood and adolescence as quickly as possible… That makes you born somewhere around age thirty.”
“Exactly. I refuse to acknowledge those two confused, virginal lads with the same terrible hairstyle, those same disgusting T-shirts with their amateur iron-on ADIDAS labels, who spent their days trying to out-belch each other after drinking gallons of lemonade.”
Skippy does a deliberate burp.
“Just because you can’t shake off all that banal puberty stuff,” I object. “But that’s only the props that went with the time. Who cares about T-shirts and belching? Is the massive significance of your first kiss marred by the fact that you didn’t have it in a prettily manicured French garden, bathed by the light of the silvery moon, but behind the vaulting box in a sweaty gym?”
I’m brought up short – what if I’ve given myself away by that rather too specific snippet of information? – But Jeff takes no notice.
“Did you get to kiss someone in the gym?” Skippy smirks. “Probably — Plain Jane at best, eh?”
I can tell he was about to say Twiggy, but stopped himself just in time. Jeff sighs, frowns, and that furrow forms between his eyebrows.
“Science has proved,” he pontificates, “that every five years all the cells in our bodies get completely replaced — which has happened roughly five times since we left school.”
He lapses into a pregnant silence.
“So you see what I’m trying to say. Back then it just wasn’t us. Not the us of today. Almost twenty-five years later.”
“You reckon?” Skippy says maliciously, surprisingly taking my part. “So why, twenty-five years later, do you go to Vrchlabí twice a month to visit the parents of a completely replaced girl you were once at school with?”
Then he points to me.
“And why, a few years back, did this guy marry her spitting image?”
For several years now Skippy has called round to see her every Wednesday and
they watch the football. In the early days they didn’t even put the television
on; they would chat for a couple of hours and before he left they would look at
the edited highlights, so that Jeff and Tom couldn’t catch him out – he tells
them he goes to watch the match on the big screen at Jágr’s Bar on Wenceslas
Square with colleagues from the hospital. It was Eva who later told him to go
ahead and watch the whole match — she has never been interested in football,
but, paradoxically, she finds the excited voices of the commentators quite
soothing. At first Skippy pretended to be offended (“Don’t we have things to
talk about any more?”), but in the end he was glad to adopt her suggestion.
So now he watches television and Eva either sits knitting in the armchair next to him or gets the board out and does some ironing. Sometimes, in the excitement of watching the game, Skippy completely forgets where he is and only when the ref blows the whistle for half-time does he come back with a guilty jolt, gets up quickly and chats to Eva for quarter of an hour.