(Translated by O.T. Chalkstone)
1/ Quido’s birth, according to Zita’s calculations, was due to take place the
first week of August the year nineteen sixty two in Podolí Hospital.
By then his mother had completed twelve seasons of her theatre career, though she did regard the majority of her roles, which were mostly as children in plays by Jirásek, Tyl, Kohout and Makarenko, as embarrassing sins of youth. After all, she was in her fourth year of law studies at the University, and viewed being an extra in the Czechoslovak Army Ensemble at the Vinohrady Theatre as a mere game of little consequence (on the other hand, this did not prevent her from presenting the more or less accidental circumstance by which the birth of her child was to coincide with the theatre company’s seasonal break as an act self-evident professional discipline). Paradoxical as it may sound, under the patina of her amateur histrionic zeal, Quido’s mother – a one-time star of school productions – was actually very shy and allowed nobody except Zita to examine her. Zita, chief obstetrician at the maternity ward in Podolí Hospital and long-standing friend of grandmother Líba, had known Quido’s mother since her childhood, and tried patiently to satisfy her quirks by promising to rearrange the doctors’ schedule so that on the critical day there would be no men in the childbirth theatre to attend her in labour.
“Zita makes giving birth
in Podolí a painless mirth,”
jingled grandmother Líba over lunch. Even Quido’s father’s father, grandfather Josef, although a priori sceptical of all things communist, not excluding health care, naturally was willing to admit that the probability of Quido’s head being squashed by obstetrical forceps was somewhat narrower than in other times.
The one element that no-one took into consideration was the bedraggled black alsatian that appeared on the twenty seventh of July one scarlet-hued sun-lit evening on the banks of the River Vltava just as Quido’s mother was struggling out of a taxi, and which – after a short, inaudible bound – pinned her against the warm facade of the house on the corner of Anenské Square. The stray dog’s intentions could not be described as openly antagonistic – first of all the animal did not leave her with a single bite, although enough was achieved by landing its entire weight on her slender shoulders, snuffling all over her face with – as mother herself put it in a less fortunate manner – “a rancid stench of long unbrushed teeth.”
“Aaahhh,” yelled Quido’s mother, having partly recovered from the initial shock.
True to his word, Quido’s father was waiting for her in front of the Theatre on the Balustrade, and on hearing the scream he immediately charged forth. He was not quite sure to whom the panic stricken voice belonged, yet it at once planted him a gnawing suspicion which he did his utmost to ignore.
Aaaahhh! The scream of Quido’s mother grew ever more piercing since by this point, the dog’s front paws were literally crushing her brittle collar-bones. Quido’s father was regrettably correct in his suspicion. His body stiffened, paralysed by some unknown force which he subsequently managed to shake off as he set towards his dearest of voices. Filled with wrathful tenderness, he sprinted across the granite paving stones of the square. His wife, he assumed, was being assaulted by another of those innumerable drunkards whose company – ever since performing the role of Hettie the waitress in The Kitchen by Wesber – she quite simply did not exercise caution enough to avoid, preferring instead to convince them of something or other. The very moment, however, that he beheld his wife on her last legs trying to fend off the enormous black burden weighing in upon her, he did something which in Quido’s eyes forever lent him a stature far beyond his five foot six inches. In full flight he grabbed the nearest garbage can, lifted it up and with the bottom edge bashed the dog to death on the very spot.
Later, Quido’s mother confirmed that the garbage can was full to the brim, which as a fact can be, I think, positively discounted. Still worse, however, is that a conscious part in the whole incident – and hence also the right of testimony – is claimed even by Quido himself.
“Of course I am not denying I was then – as any other foetus in the womb – most probably blind,” he maintained later, “but I must have a way of perceiving all this, because how else to explain my being so strangely moved every time I watch the garbage collectors do their job.”
Presumably the effort to better Leo Tolstoy, whose memory allegedly reached the very threshold of his infancy, Quido ventured even further: for instance, he tried over the years to manifest to his younger brother – with somewhat chilling seriousness – his accurate recollection of that sombre Rembrandtesque image of the maternal egg attached to the uterine mucous membrane like a swallow’s nest.
“For Christ’s sake, Quido, you’re such a bullshitter” objected piqued Paco.
“Omitting the dog incident, I must say, pregnancy is to every single foetus with at least an ounce of intelligence a sentence to unimaginable tedium,” Quido went on unperturbed. “I deliberately stress the intelligent foetus – unlike those bare-skinned, semi-paralysed cave olm fish, as happened to be your case even a few days after your birth when I had the ill-fortune of having to endure the look of your foul purple face. Perhaps you will at least be able to imagine the horrendous tedium of those 270 utterly uniform days, during which the already awakened consciousness is condemned to eyeing the foetal water, occasionally kicking the abdomen walls to spare them up there any unnecessary panic. Two hundred and seventy long days which a young intellectually-minded man has to spend like an aqua-ballet dancer training for the Olympics! Two hundred and seventy days without a decent book, a single written word, unless I take into consideration the hardly original insignia engraved on doctor Zita’s little ring. Nine months in an aquarium with the lights turned off. I spent the last three months just praying for my mother to take a ride on a motorbike down a bumpy country lane or send me a couple of deep draws on a cigarette, if not a double shot of white vermouth. Believe me one thing, brother: that dog was heaven sent!”
The first time Quido overtly demonstrated his impatience was shortly after his mother, now crying hysterically, had collapsed into father’s open arms. The dead dog, however, drew considerable attention from the incoming audience, and for mother the thought of even more scandal this time in the form of premature birth was clearly too much. So she dried her eyes and answered all the concerned questions with a courageously beaming smile that she was perfectly, really perfectly all right.
“My mother,” Quido later maintained, “would never in her life have excused herself to the ladies room while in company, unless she could do so entirely unnoticed. And frankly speaking she would always get embarrassed just simply blowing her nose.”
To this most intimate shyness which lent her an aura of girlish grace, Quido’s mother owed the protracted bouts of inflamed sinuses and inflamed bladder, the so-called habitual constipation, and since the twenty seventh of July the year nineteen sixty two, also the ‘in-theatre’ child delivery. The first contractions had already started when she took off her checked paletot at the theatre cloak-room, yet she still managed to resist Quido – under the slant of father’s hypnotic gaze – until the curtain came down, but not a minute longer. As soon as Vladimir and Estragon exchanged their concluding lines and a brief silence fell as it usually does preceding the applause, the first plaintive cry slipped from Quido’s mother, immediately followed by a series of them. Quido’s father leapt from his seat and forced his way to the foyer across the way of stultified spectators, darting out into the open night to make with calm and poise whatever arrangements necessary, or so he undoubtedly thought. Luckily, some elderly lady to the right of Quido’s mother came quickly to her rescue: two people sitting next to her she sent off with the task of calling the ambulance whilst herself trying to get the woman in labour out of the crowded and stuffy auditorium. Quido’s mother was clinging to the woman with all her might, scarcely daring to entertain the thought of giving birth in full view of so many men whilst simultaneously – she claimed later – finding it discourteous to destroy the Beckettian ambience of existentialist despair by something as optimistic as giving birth to a healthy child. However, despite all her resolve she collapsed at the feet of her escort precisely when passing down the aisle below the stage – onto which she was lifted by two men. They put her straight under the feet of actors Václav Sloup and Jan Libíèek who, about to receive the applause, went stiff with fright. Apart from the dozens of women hurling themselves at the stage without a second thought for their evening dresses, in order to share some of their own experiences with a young mother-to-be, the spectators remained seated, probably assuming the delivery scene about to take place was part of the experimental approach to the staging of the theatre play.
“Water. Hot water!” shouted someone to show initiative. “And clean sheets!”
“Vacate the auditorium,” ordered one of the two medics present when he had finally jostled his way to the woman in labour.
“Go away!” he implored with urgency, but nobody moved a muscle.
“Aaargh!” groaned Quido’s mother.
Within a few minutes the auditorium was filled with the screams of a new-born baby.
“And so he has arrived,” declaimed Jan Libíèek in a sudden bout of inspiration which for Quido almost became prophetic.
“Godot, Godot,” chanted the enraptured audience, while the two doctors took the credit with modest bows. (Fortunately the nickname did not stick.)
“We are redeemed,” bellowed Václav Sloup.
“Quido is the name,” whispered Quido’s mother, but nobody heard. From the embankment came the sound of an ambulance siren approaching.
2/ “To put things straight,” Quido told the publisher’s editor years later,
“I have no intention whatsoever of depicting the whole so-called family tree and
persistently shaking its overladen branches until some dead building contractor
or Count Thun’s estate keeper drops off to tell me who I am, where
I come from and that Masaryk had the workers shot at!”
“We better leave Masaryk out of it,” said the editor in a conciliatory tone. “Your grandfather on your father’s side was a miner?”
“You picked on the right one,” Quido laughed. “He wanted to be a hotel proprietor! You should have heard him! When they got an unexpected visit from the party headquarters in the Tuchlovice mines and it was too late to reschedule my father’s shift, the comrades decided that it was better not to let him come out of the pit. While the other miners debated with the party delegation, grandfather, abandoned deep underground, cursed and banged the piping system in fury. The miners called him Cinderella.”
“That’s good,” said the editor. “But what of it….”
“Exactly,” said Quido. “What of it….”
Quido’s father was born highly intelligent into lowly surroundings. For
twenty one years, he confronted it day in day out: the ever-unmade bed, the
odour of gas and warmed-up leftovers, emptied bottles and bird-feed scattered
around. Directly beneath the windows of their one bedroom apartment on the
ground floor on Sezimova Street, the drunkards would vomit as they were leaving
the adjacent Baseth’s restaurant. The dirty facade was often smeared with the
blood of the gypsies from Nusle. Grandfather used to leave home early in the
morning or straight after lunch in a miner’s bus to Kladno; when back home he
would pace up and down the room smoking, with the bird-feed crackling under his
“Fucking life,” he often say.
On other occasions he would spend hours feeding the budgies or playing Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald records at full volume. Grandmother, a fur-coat seamstress, spent all her time at home sewing from dawn to dusk. Dragging her feet across the creaking parquet floor around an old clothiers dummy, her mouth full of pins. Quido’s father did his best to stay out of the house. Together with his friend Zvára, they would climb over the battlements at Vyšehrad. They played hide and seek in the carriages on the sidings at the Vršovice train station. Sometimes they stayed over night at the great hall at high school. Later they would sit in the college library, as Quido’s father wished, or in Demínka coffee car, as Zvára wanted. They would do voluntary jobs and two evenings a week Quido’s father attended classes at the school of Foreign Languages. Coming home late at night and reading under the small desktop lamp from an English textbook which he propped up against the cage covered in budgie excrement, he would at times experience a feeling tantamount to that of reciting the words of a mysterious prayer.
At some point towards the beginning of the fourth semester at college, Zvára bought Quido’s father a theatre ticket. To judge by the expression on Zvára’s face, it was obvious that the girl for whom the ticket was originally intended had for some reason turned it down.
“What is it for?” asked Quido’s father. “Who wrote it?” He was not a theatre-goer and the play’s title could not be expected to mean much to his ears. Still he wanted to have an escape route in case the ticket proved too expensive.
“It’s for a load of rubbish,” said Zvára as if seeking acknowledgement from passers-by. “Shakespeare, I guess, who else?”
But he was wrong. They were showing Lorca’s The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife. During the interval they met Zvára’s former girlfriend who introduced them to her companion, a slim bespectacled girl in a dark blue velvet dress with a lace collar.
“And with no budgie strains,” Quido would always add.
It was Quido’s mother.
Three months later Quido’s father won an invitation to a flat on Paris Commune Square. He obviously noticed the size of the two rooms, the height of the ceiling, the French polished concert piano and the many paintings, but was most impressed by grandfather Jiøí’s study: the whole stretch of the far wall was lined with mahogany book shelves with at least a thousand volumes, and in front of them stood a so-called American bureau, also in dark wood, with a rolling arched top covering the typewriter and other innumerable stationary items, including sealing wax, a family seal and a knife for opening letters.
“Do take a seat,” grandfather Jiøí motioned him to a leather easy-chair.
“Would you object to some carrot spread?” grandmother Líba hurried in from the kitchen to inquire.
“For over twenty years indeed,” said grandfather with gloom in his voice and lit a Dux brand cigarette.
“I am not asking you,” grandmother laughed teasingly. “I am asking Mr. Graduate.”
“I eat anything,” said Quido’s father, being honest. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Don’t worry,” said Quido’s mother somewhat ominously, “my mother doesn’t in the least.”
Although neither grandfather nor grandmother altogether abandoned their guarded edge (after all, Quido’s mother was their only daughter), the visit exceeded all expectations. Quido’s father proved to be a young man of mild manners, who weighed his words with honesty. Eventually grandfather came to find him a more sympathetic listener than most of those young actors, poets and scriptwriters who came there to read their own pieces, blaming grandfather for the horrors of the fifties and spilling red wine on the table.
“Come again,” he said rather curtly as he bid them goodbye, though Quido’s mother knew there and then that Quido’s father had passed with flying colours.
3/ “I was a premature baby then,” Quido maintained. “Both grandmothers were
alarmed. When I was one year old I weighed fourteen kilos, but they
went on making every effort to keep me alive. Even when I was five they
continued the struggle by means of chocolate-coated bananas to safeguard my mere
Quido was the first grandchild for both families, and therefore was caught in a constant tug-of-war. All (with the exception of grandfather Jiøí), tried to outpull each other in who was going to take little Quido to the zoo with most frequency. For a long time, hippos, ostriches, and kangaroos were considered by Quido to be domestic animals….
Where to go from the zoo but to a cake shop.
“What’s that gorgeous smell, little Quidee?” grandmother Vìra would ask.
“It must surely be coffee,” obese little Quido would answer in tones mellifluous that everybody in the cake shop was overtaken by a feeling of unpalatable dismay.
When Quido’s mother introduced her son to somebody in the theatre, a note of defiant caution crept into her voice.
“Especially after one well-known documentary director asked whether she’d mind me performing in their upcoming educational project about the advantage of hormonal contraception,” maintained Quido. However – I do realise – it was the only period in my life during which I received maximum affection in return for minimum reason. They simply loved me for who I was. Blessed days!”
Grandfather Josef would take Quido along when he went fishing, to a football match or to feed the seagulls.
Here we go!” grandfather hollered in the Eden Stadium.
“C’mon, scoff it down,” he called at the seagulls by the Vltava.
“Stay stuck, or I’ll tan your hide,” he ranted when the writhing earthworm refused to be pricked onto the fishhook.
All of this would happen in a horrendous, and to Quido then inexplicable, hurry. When they were at home, grandfather was already rushing to be at the football match as soon as possible; before half-time he was already racing it buy a sausage at refreshments on the outside terrace, and before they finished eating they were already dashing back so that nobody could take their seats – and twenty minutes from the end they jostled through the cursing spectators on their way home. Grandfather used to go fishing and back from fishing, rushed to work and back from work, to the pub and back from the pub. The moment he reached one place something drove him elsewhere. It took Quido a long time to comprehend the source of that inner restlessness: his grandfather was in a rush to have this fucking life over and done with as soon as he could.
Quido, unlike his father and grandfather, was fond of the little flat in Sezimova Street. He did not live there, and grandmother Vìra often took care of him, and so he did not have to go to day care. Instead, he could play with soft furs and there were three budgies flying about. Then Quido would contemplate how whilst his equals in age were on some boring educational programme, he could lounge around on a sheepskin pillow, watching the budgies climb the smoke-stained curtains. Grandmother had them so well trained that she could leave the window open without having to worry about them flying away. They used to stroll along the window sill and only when one of the thousands of noisy local pigeons swooped down to join them would they fly back in panic to their guardian, to settle on her head and shoulders. To protect herself against their claws, grandmother would fix empty pin cushions on her slip straps in the summer.
“When all three birds took their positions,” Quido maintained, “two on her shoulders and one on the crown of her head, she acquired a symmetrical effect approximating an alter.”
What drove Quido mad, on the other hand, was grandfather’s habit of sharing his food with the budgies: grandfather would first diligently chew up the respective portion of food, open his mouth wide – and the birds immediately landed on him and began pecking against his yellow false teeth to claim what was theirs.
“Never in my life, not even in those Blue Movies,” maintained Quido, “have I ever seen anything more disgusting than those three feathered heads awash with saliva, sliding their beaks intermittently into grandfather’s mouth full of beef sirloin in sour cream and root vegetable sauce.”
If grandfather Jiøí took to his grandson with a degree of restraint, it was
certainly not through lack of affection: firstly his job in the president’s
office kept him busier than the rest of Quido’s relatives, secondly he refused,
as he put it, to make a meal of competing for the child’s attention. He
preferred to wait his turn, and did not impose himself, let alone as was the
predilection of the two grandmothers – all but kidnap the boy surreptitiously.
However, every time he was entrusted with the boy he had a programme prepared
down to the last tee, as a consequence of which Quido never got in the least
bored. They flew to Carlsbad, took a steamer up the river to the dam at Slapy,
climbed to the top of dozens of Prague towers, visited one by one all the
museums, Petøín, Vyšehrad, the planetarium, and of course, Prague Castle.
Grandfather wielded a special permit which opened even closed doors, hence for
instance Quido saw the crown jewels several years before the other mortals did.
Apart from that, grandfather also had the rare gift of sensing the instant when
the concentration span of the otherwise very perceptive boy began to slacken: he
would then curtail the sight-seeing, take a short-cut through a ginnel or run
with Quido down an unknown street – and suddenly they would find themselves
right at a tram stop, heading for some place where they ordered a lemonade and a
big piece of meat with a little side dish.
Grandfather did not have a lot to say on these outings, but it became a frequent occurrence that his scant words were memorised by little Quido with relative precision.
“Everything matters,” he lectured his mother from the bathtub one evening, “but nothing matters that much.”
“Who told you that?” mother asked smiling.
“Grandfather Jiøí,” said Quido, as he bent his head down to a little red and white boat floating in the bath, three fords gathered under his chin.
Encouraged by similar evidence, Quido’s mother presumed – like the majority of mothers – that her son’s fat cushions concealed a unique talent which would sooner or later emerge. Thus, she declaimed to Quido in a loud voice all her theatre parts, not only those from kid’s plays, nor by a long shot only those she performed:
“My father is dead, and the first sword
Which Rodrigo ever wielded but his life cord.
Weep, weep, my eyes, and in tears yourselves do drown!
One half of my life to the tomb has sent the other down.
And by this mortal blow forces that avenged be
What is gone on what remains to me.”
She often, for example, recited to Quido. Naturally, she did not expect him altogether to understand Corneille’s verse, though she hoped that by virtue of them Quido would become at least a shade different to all those kids bred on the archetypal stories of Ferda the Ant and the anthology of Czech fairy tales.
“In the end she truly succeeded,” Quido maintained years later. “My psychiatrist and I never forgave her.”
The initial results of mother’s method of education through art were so inconclusive that at one point she grew riddled with doubt as to whether after all the child did not take after his father, and surrounded him just in case with “stimuli of a technical nature” as well, which subsequently nearly cost him his life. Among other gifts, she offered him a broken old radio, which was to become in her own words, “an indicator of Quido’s flair for electronics” – one turbid afternoon Sunday afternoon Quido secretly plugged the radio in, tore off the back cover and reached in for what was utterly and unequivocally the strongest impulse of the entire ontogenesis. The image of Quido with bulging glassy eyes and temporarily expired breath, prostrate on a Persian carpet under the table, proved so unbearable for his mother that henceforth she contented herself for many a long month with wholly conventional and – as she herself had earlier put it – intellectually sterile colouring pens and plasticine. However, Quido was very grateful, especially for the colouring pens; one of his most accomplished pictures was Parachutists Descending in the Rain.
“Look at these mushrooms in pine needles that he’s painted!” enthused Quido’s mother, thus anticipating unwittingly the pattern of his later dealings with editors of various publishing houses.
Still Quido did possess one indubitable talent – that of reading out loud.
Without a whit of help from anybody in this regard, (since everybody considered
it far too premature), he mastered the alphabet at the age of four. It was
finally revealed as a fait accompli at the beginning of September, the year
nineteen sixty six, in the course of one of the early rehearsals of Kohout’s
forthcoming play August, August, August. Although Quido had displayed his
reading ability twice before already, by reading a few short headlines from
magazines like Plamen and Literární noviny, both acts went unnoticed in the
chaos over mother’s graduation exams. Similarly on this memorable day Quido’s
mother, rather than learning the few simple lines of her role, dedicated herself
to a bulky codex of commercial law. Her son meanwhile crawled over red plush
seats in a dimmed auditorium, patted the gilt adornments of the theatre boxes,
and since the constantly interrupted plot dragged on for well over two hours, he
was frankly bored. Later Mrs. Bažantová, the cloak room attendant, took pity on
him and brought him a high stack of old theatre programmes from somewhere in the
office. Quido politely whispered his thanks and moved towards the stage where
there was more light. Just as he was sitting down, his lap full of the colourful
programmes, the play’s director Mr. Dudek turned towards him and gave him a
smile. Quido took this for a smile of encouragement.
“A strange incident or how to keep your daughter out of wedlock,” he read in a low voice from the first programme on the top.
“Hush,” the director admonished him immediately.
Pavel Kohout, watching the rehearsal from Quido’s left, rested his suspicious gaze on the boy.
“Listen Pavel,” whispered Quido and skilfully licked his index finger to facilitate leafing through the pages: “Oh mother of moths, mother of the people, mother of all, give moths the strength to return to this adverse world,” he read out loud with fluency.
“My God,” Pavel Kohout exclaimed, “blimey if the boy can’t read.”
The rehearsal had to be interrupted for a moment while the actors Vlastimil Brodský and Vladimír Šmeral eyed the obese child with interest.
“Excuse me,” apologised Quido’s mother who – with burning cheeks – hurried in to remove her son. “Pavel, I do apologise.”
“Wait,” said Kohout, “let him read on to the end.” He pointed his finger to the corresponding line in the text.
“…. meagre as they are and so much in need in a world where giant monsters wield…,”
Quido finished reading.
“Bravo,” Vladimír Šmeral voiced his approval. Some actors clapped their hands. There was no doubt about it: Quido could read.
4/ Quido’s parents room. Evening. Quido is asleep.
Father: (puts aside the Driver’s Manual) The main thing is that it doesn’t get slippery in January. That would be end of me.
Mother: (ironing) I still don’t understand how you could spin the car round three times while moving from one spot to another at a gas station.
Father: The Instructor got me so terrible nervous. He’s biased against me. Even at the driving school yard he kept on shouting he won’t let me pass the exam – perhaps because of that bag of meat I was supposed to stick in the boot…
Mother:(taken aback) And where did you put it?
Father: In the engine. I was so awfully nervous.
Mother: (laughing) When did you find out?
Father: On Èernokostelecká Street. The attending police examiner who sat at the back claimed there was the smell of burned shish kebab.
Mother: You didn’t tell me that!
Father: I forgot. You know, I simply can’t bear the notion of death being just a twist of my wrist away from the oncoming car. That’s the whole problem. A few centimetres – and that’s the end of it. A convalescent ward – at best. Just imagine – they don’t even allow visitors in there.
Mother: You mustn’t take it so hard. You simply have to believe in yourself.
Father: I have plenty of belief in myself going down a one way street. I love one way streets. Anytime I go down a one way street my driving changes completely.
Mother: Like at the gas station! Or the other day on the highway!
Father: The highway is something completely different. Never in my life will I get on one of those again. I am not a spaceman.
Father: Because you wanted me to.
“Modern man,” Quido told the editor, “cannot do without a car. By the way the meat reminds me of something.”
5/ “Grandmother,” grandfather Jiøí would occasionally say over dinner, “is
undoubtedly a very experienced and excellent cook. It’s just a pity that in nine
out of ten cases she lends her unquestionable talent to the preparation of
He was right: six meals a week consisted of mashed potatoes with semolina and poppy seeds, omelette soufflé, noodles with curd cheese, raw potato fritters, potatoes baked with eggs and apple charlotte.
“I really can’t buy any meat when your grandfather gives me so little to run the household on,” grandmother Líba defended herself on the verge of tears, while dejectedly pouring a delicious dill sauce over hopelessly solitary dumplings. “I simply can’t manage.”
However, as everyone in the family had long known, not only could grandmother manage on the money she received, but also she always had just enough left to be able to go abroad with Zita and other girlfriends on a package tour.
“We want to go to Yalta with the girls this year,” grandmother announced to her family in the spring of nineteen sixty seven and a charming, girlish blush suffused her face. “Have I told you yet?”
(“To Yalta?!,” grandfather Josef shouted on learning the news. “To Yalta!? She’s going on holiday just like that precisely where they sold us forever to the Bolshies?”)
“I don’t think you have,” said grandfather Jiøí very politely in turn, and with what was virtually an oriental sense of poise, he finished off his celery risotto.
Even many years later when spraying fully clothed Jaruška with cold water in the shower after a three hour argument, Quido in a sudden flash recalled the expression of peerless empathy reflected on that occasion in grandfather Jiøí’s face.
“Grandmother Líba was a devout tourist,” maintained Quido. “From her earliest
childhood she would spend every summer with the best French and English
families. Later she would be in the Swiss Alps for New Year’s Eve. Life at the
present held no real thrills for her: it was merely some kind of protracted
stop-over in one place, whereas – as she put it a number of times – her heart
belonged to thematic cultural tours. Grandfather, considerate as he might have
seemed, still proved at times an onerous guide.”
From Yalta – as indeed was the case with all her holidays – came grandmother’s black and white postcard inscribed with her own verses:
Near Yalta on a beautiful beach
We’re having a little feast
Swimming, telling stories
Crocheting, sending memories!
followed by her customary “love and kisses to you all, Líba!”
In an exceptionally good mood that day because once his grandmother departed, grandfather would stock up the refrigerator with ox tongue, calves liver and pork chops, Quido attempted a joke.
“Love and kisses from your misery Mrs.,” he exclaimed with alacrity.
His father let out a short snigger, but no smile came from grandfather. Mother raised her hand and slapped Quido’s face; it was one of those unfortunate blows that arrive just a few seconds too late to be considered pure impulse.
The corners of Quido’s mouth dropped but he was determined to stand his ground.
“Love and kisses from your misery Mrs.,” he repeated obstinately and another slap landed on his head.
His face grew sullen then, crabbed with a double effort: partly that of holding the sobs in – partly to come up with a still more audacious and truthful rhyme.
Grandfather, father and mother observed intently his plump chin as it moved into increasing vigorous vibrations.
“Love and kisses from your meatless dishes!” Quido exclaimed defiantly at last.
His mother pursed her lips, her hand raised for a third swipe, but was now detained by grandfather.
“A man shouldn’t be rude,” he told Quido, “not even when he’s possibly right. Will you try to remember that?”
Quido still managed to nod his head in agreement, but was overtaken seconds later by welling floods of tears.
“On that very day,” he maintained later, “I experienced for the first time – and by no means the last – the horrific consequences of the creative process when it turns remorselessly against the artist’s own family.”
By the way, the first person to have tentatively uttered a prophetic hint directly linked with Quido’s literary proclivity was his father. (Of course, this was a partly ironic remark, since – although he would not admit to it – all the young poets, playwrights and lyricists who kept dropping down to see his wife were beginning to get more and more on his nerves.)
“You think he was interested in seeing those animals,” grandmother Vìra complained to him about Quido after the first spring trip to the zoo. “Not in the least! The whole time he peered into that book granddad gave him at the entrance.”
“Well,” said Quido’s father, “he’s mad about reading right now.”
“And we go there to see how they feed him,” stressed grandmother.
She was in no way exaggerating: for while the real animals incarnate jumped, crawled and flew so close in front of them that they could inhale their smell and see each individual single hair of their coats, every glistening scale and every luminous little feather, Quido propped up the corresponding propped publication against the railings outside the cages and perused the text below the poorly rendered photographs. Grandmother was at a loss as to what to do. She was so nonplussed by Quido’s behaviour that this time – unlike during previous visits – she would even have been willing to set aside her principles of proper upbringing by pointing at a couple of mating monkeys, which, however, remained asleep.
“What kind of child is he?” she asked Quido’s father. “Just tell me, what’s to become of him?”
For a moment Quido’s father pictured his son reading a book about animals in those places where black and yellow giraffes chew on the highest treetops, lions tear on sixty pound chunks of raw beef and where eagles spread their wings to cast shadows even bigger than those of the parasols in the adjacent garden restaurant.
“Maybe a writer.”
“You know the only time he did not read?” grandmother added pensively. “When he stood by the dog pen.”
6/ The night before Christmas Eve the year nineteen sixty seven, grandmother
Líba and Quido’s mother were busy preparing potato salad. Quido’s father,
sitting by the kitchen table, read out loud to himself in a hushed voice some
English text from the last page of the Plamen literary magazine.
“We would like to call our readers’ attention to the following contributions in the December edition of Plamen -,” father read out.
“I’m just wondering,” Quido’s mother said, “if it’s perfectly normal when a Czech reader reads a Czech magazine just for the summary in English.”
“It is not normal,” grandmother Líba said.
“Why not?” said Quido’s father. “I love concise summaries. They say it all. How do you think I coped with my studies?”
“So when do we get down to the decorations?” Quido wanted to know. “You still keep putting it off. Can’t you see how frustrating it is?”
“As soon as you get the Christmas tree fixed into the stand,” mother informed him.
“Come on dad!” the youngster insisted and tried to take the magazine away from his father.
“Not until you’ve read something for me!”
“Hold on,” mother suddenly remembered something; wiping her hands dry on a tea-towel and then thumbing the magazine, she reached the text with marked text: “Read us this bit.”
“That long?” Quido feigned disappointment, but was in fact glad to display his reading ability again on a more or less coherent piece of text.
“One of the spiritual symptoms of Stalinism was the restraining of creative flux into an authoritatively regulated and de jure unbreachable trough of the one and only ‘correct’ and ‘progress bound’ method which found its footing in the formula of socialist realism,” Quido was outdoing himself. “Aesthetic norms and principles of this concept based themselves in actuality on the realist prose of the 19th century, which allegedly by dint of objective description achieved the depiction of life’s reality in its total wholeness, in particular that which was the most crucial for the Marxist approach to art’s function, to wit the movement and conflicts of social classes.”
“Brilliant, Quido,” his mother praised him. “Hot stuff, is it not?” she turned to father.
But his attention had been drawn some time to the culinary activities of his mother-in-law.
“Shouldn’t sliced salami go into it?” he asked.
“Into potato salad?” grandmother Líba was aghast.
“But your obviously not interested,” said Quido’s mother. “What arouses you is salami in potato salad.”
“Salami in salad does not arouse me,” said Quido’s father. “I was merely intrigued by the question of its possible absence.”
“Salami in potato salad!” grandmother shook her head. “What a daft idea.”
“So when do we start the decorations at long last?” exclaimed Quido.
“Come on,” father told him. Quido took hold of the tree stand and father compared the size of the trunk with the opening in the stand. Then he asked for a knife and carefully, almost lovingly started to pare down the appropriate section of the tree bark.
“What a scent,” he said, “I love wood.”
“More than concise summaries?” mother asked.
“But less than one-way streets?”
“Less indeed,” father smiled, “and less than I love you.”
A key rattled in the front door.
“It’s granddad coming,” exclaimed Quido.
“Good evening to everyone,” said grandfather Jiøí, when they came to meet him in the hallway. The brim of his hat and the shoulders of his winter coat were covered in wet snow. “František dragged me out for dinner.”
“I made burgers for you in the afternoon,” grandmother Líba said reproachfully.
“Cabbage burgers,” mother specified.
“Let me wash my hands,” said grandfather, “and I’ll be right with you.”
“Just one,” said Quido’s mother, sounding cheerful.
“And what did he say?” inquired Quido’s father, when grandfather came back from the bathroom.
“František? For instance, that people believe in us,” answered grandfather with a slightly enigmatic smile. “You mean people here at Vinárka’s restaurant? I was pulling his leg. No, he says, I mean people here in the Republic. Apparently we have an historic opportunity in our hands.”
“I do believe him,” said Quido’s mother. “And I like him. I believe all of you really. You, whom I hold dear, shake all cares and business off our state.”
“What did you say to that?” asked Quido’s father.
“What can one say to a political prognosis?” said grandfather with doubt in his voice. “Nothing. That I am a lawyer, that personally I don’t have any opportunity in my own hands and therefore cannot promise anything to anybody. That, of course, I would also be glad if it worked out, and that I will try to do my utmost towards it.”
“You put it to him so well,” said grandmother Líba. “Did he say anything about the visa?”
“No,” grandfather sounded somewhat surprised. “He’s got nothing to do with the visa.”
“Tell me,” grandmother suddenly remembered. “Do you put salami into a potato salad?”
“Well,” grandfather said slowly, and quickly cast his eye over the working top of the kitchen unit, “it depends on the cook’s individual taste.”
“You don’t,” said grandmother Líba.
“Things also started going on at work in the Academy Institute,” father hastily butted in. “Do you know what Mr. Šik had written on his door? INDULGENCES FOR ECONOMIC ERRORS AVAILABLE! Mr. Zvára showed it to me yesterday.”
7/ When Quido’s grandfather Josef got up in the kitchen at half past five in
the morning on August the twenty first the year nineteen sixty eight to prepare
for work, he heard a strange unfamiliar-sounding thunder descending on the flat
through the window from somewhere out in the dark sky. He put the kettle quietly
on the gas ring, but his considerateness was unnecessary, since thanks to the
din grandmother had not caught a wink of sleep anyway.
“What is it,” she asked, as if admonishing him, from the other room.
“How do I know?” grandfather snapped back at her. “Hardly the garbage collectors.”
Suddenly he stood stock still, realising he had not seen any of the budgies yet. He peeped into the other room, turned the lights off and then on again, and returning to the kitchen, looked above the cabinet and the curtain railing, parted the blinds – but not a trace of them.
“Where are the budgies?” he shouted, staring at the open window. “They’re not here!”
“Have you gone blind?” shouted grandmother, “where do you think they are?”
“How do I know,” shrieked grandfather irritated, as he looked round again. “Come and find them for me if you’re so clever.”
Regrettably, they were right: the birds were gone.
Quido woke up shortly before eight o’clock.
His eyes gummed up with sleep, he squinted at grandfather, who was supposed to have left long since for work, and who was sitting instead at the table, wearing his pyjamas and listening to the radio.
“The birdies are gone,” grandmother said sadly. “Something must have frightened them off.”
Quido tilted his head towards the ceiling and leaned forward in bed to see the cage. It was empty.
“How come?” he said.
However, he did not feel sorry as yet. Although he regretted not being able to see the budgies climb the curtains again, and swoop onto grandmother’s hair, he was at the same time also relieved that nobody was going to sit on the edge of his plate when he was eating and dab into his potato puree.
“How come?!” grandfather bellowed. “How come?! Because Comrade Brezhnev declared war on us.”
“Stop it, will you,” squawked grandmother in a way Quido had never seen her do before.
“Stop it!!… This is not a war, do you understand?!”
She gave grandfather a grilling look and sat down on Quido’s bed.
“The old man has gone off his rocker,” and kissed him on the cheek. He could smell the agreeable aroma of her almond face cream. “They’re shooting a war film here and the old man immediately thinks it’s a war for real.”
Quido got up and out of curiosity went to the window, but there were neither cameras nor soldiers to be seen. Grandmother poured some bird-feed on the window sill.
“Have some breakfast,” she told her grandson. “The pastries are in the fridge.”
She cleaned the bird cage, changed the water in the bowl and sat down on the kitchen couch, gazing at the vacant window. Quido, seeing his grandmother’s sadness, felt ashamed inside and started working himself up into an equal feeling of loss for the budgies. Concentrating with all his might, he spent the entire breakfast thinking so hard about their beautiful blue colour, their velvety feathers and bead-like eyes, that he finally burst into tears.
“Don’t cry,” said grandmother, visibly moved. “You can go round with the old man to put up some ‘lost’ notices.”
Grandfather peeled a cigarette brusquely off his lip: “What kind of notices again?!”
“What kind,” grandmother retorted. “That they flew away!”
“Now?!” shouted grandfather, “right now I’m supposed to bother with the budgies!”
“And when else? Is it my fault that they flew away right now?”
“I’d like to put the notices up,” said Quido, “if I can…”
“Stay stuck, or I’ll tan your hide!” grandfather shouted every time one of
the paper cuttings announcing the loss of three budgies from 2 Sezimova
Street came unstuck. His eyes glowed and strands of silver hair kept falling
over his sweating forehead.
(“It was only recently, when I came round to reminding myself of my grandmother’s line of business,” Quido was saying to the editor, “that I saw something double-edged in that favourite saying of my grandfather…”
“Mind that language,” said the publisher. “Don’t turn it into a porn novel. We shall chuck out the whole of this chapter anyway.”)
First they put the notices up on the streetlights in the road right outside and then in the square as well. They stuck one notice on the telephone booth, the tobacconists and the traffic bollard by the tram stop.
“Why are you worrying about the budgies now, for Christ’s sake,” some man shouted after them, having read their notice. “Call yourselves patriots?”
Without turning round, granddad just gave him a broad wave with his hand, and quickly mumbled some unintelligible curse. Quido did not grasp the man’s reproach but did not have time to think about it since he was vigilantly scrutinising the sky, the trees, the house ledges. But not a trace of the budgies. They crossed the Botiè River, went under the viaduct and took the Nusle stairway up.
“Shall we stick them up here?” Quido inquired. They put up the remaining little notices and sat on a bench for a spell in the Tylovo Square. Throngs of people were streaming by, not only on the sidewalk, but also down the roadway, and some in between the tram tracks.
“Look!,” Quido exclaimed all of a sudden: two green and brown armoured personnel carriers wheeled towards them from the direction of Karlovo Square; in comparison to the parked cars they seemed huge and terrifying to the little boy. Grandfather’s seated posture stiffened slightly, whereas Quido, who always took theatre and film actors for intimate friends, leapt up and joyfully waved at them.
“As a matter of fact I was one of those eight or nine people in Prague who greeted the interventionists with a smile,” Quido was telling his publisher.
“A waste of paper,” the editor shook his head. “Save our forests.”
Grandfather dragged Quido away and without any further explanation forbade him to wave at the film-makers. Quido promised to do as he was instructed, nevertheless he wanted to continue the search. But grandfather cut him short, saying he now had to wash that awful taste of the gummed tape off his tongue in the Valdek restaurant – and did as he said.
“So how do you see it, you little terror,” some older blond woman interrupted Quido who with a mixture of disgust and curiosity, observed how the beer level in the glass optically enlarged grandfather’s front teeth.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I have not seen it yet.”
“Oh well,” said the old woman, “but we have, haven’t we Josef. In March nineteen thirty nine!”
“That’s right,” said grandfather Josef. “They should hang them all. On their damn birch trees!”
“My words exactly,” said the woman.
When, an hour and a half later, they came out together on the street again,
Quido could see grandfather’s walk was strangely erratic. He already knew what
it meant, but politely tried to pretend he had not noticed anything and started
telling him about the hilarious difficulties involved in changing the name of AC
Dynamo Prague back to the present Slavie, as he heard the story once told by
Pavel Kohout in the theatre club.
“That socialist youth activist,” said grandfather with disdain. “You’d better not bring him up.”
To Quido’s not inconsiderable surprise, together with grandmother Vìra, the whole family was waiting for them in the Sezimova Street flat. It was rather unbelievable how they all managed to squeeze into such a tight space and still find a place to sit, if only – as in Quido’s father’s case – on the laundry basket. Grandfather Jiøí and Quido’s mother were smoking and the room was filled with a grey and blue haze.
“Here they are at last,” exclaimed grandmother Líba, who was the first to hear her grandson’s voice in the corridor outside the flat, and ran to open the door for them. “Where have you been all this time?” she thundered at grandfather at the doorway.
“They’ve been on a binge,” said Quido’s mother in the voice of Hettie the waitress. “If I’m not mistaken.”
“For God’s sake dad,” said Quido’s father in despair. “For three hours now we have been dying of fear here.”
“Where?!” shouted grandfather Josef and stuck his chin out at grandmother Líba. “Where?! To have a look at them – those cronies of yours from Yalta!”
“Don’t start, you hear me!” yelled grandmother Vìra.
“Excuse me,” grandmother Líba protested, “perhaps I may have said they were nice and sociable people, but that does not indeed mean that I would agree with everyone of them on everything. We spent whole evenings – you can ask Zita – having long hours of open polemical exchanges. Especially that Grigori – I think I told you about him – he was very adamant about his views. Imagine, he was even against….”
“Vegetables?” asked Quido’s mother.
“This,” sighed grandmother, “I don’t deserve this. This is what I get for -”
“Let Josef get some sleep,” said grandfather Jiøí. “Let’s all go home and I would be most grateful,” he added with emphasis, “if you all remained there.”
From somewhere in the centre of town there came the sound of shots.
“This is dreadful,” exclaimed grandmother Líba. “What shall we do? Did you try calling František?”
“Mourn,” said Quido’s mother. “All-embracing sorrow will now be our lot. Behind the prison wall we shall endure the ebb and flow of mighty seats ruled by moon power.”
“František,” said grandfather Jiøí slightly peeved, “is not going to help us – nor perhaps could Shakespeare himself.”
“Hang them,” said grandfather Josef. “That would help!”
“Mum,” exclaimed Quido’s father, “tell him to go to bed. We’re off. Tell him to lie down in the kitchen.”
“It’s also Quido’s fault!” Quido’s mother broke in. “He’s known how to tell the time since the age of three.”
“She gets jealous of the film-makers!” Quido whispered to grandfather Jiøí.
“What?” mother bellowed, hearing what he said.
“That you’re jealous of the film-makers!” Quido squeaked out and hid behind grandfather’s legs away from his mother as she swung her arm at him.
“For God’s sake. I’ve always thought he was a genius,” said mother in disbelief. “Today I can see he’s an idiot.”
“Leave the child out of it,” thundered grandfather Jiøí. “You’re acting like a real nitwit. How much more do you think he can take?”
“Tie him on a birch tree, bend it down and let go of it!” grandfather Josef bawled back from the deep recesses of his gloomy imagination.
“You can see him?!” grandmother Vìra started shouting. “You see what I mean, look at him!”
“That’s not so bad,” said Quido’s father with dejection. “The worst is, now we can hear him too.”
“I am sorry,” mother said suddenly. “Quido, forgive me. Everybody forgive me. Really…” She burst into tears. “It’s been too much.”
“Don’t apologise,” said grandmother Líba. “I have forgiven you already. Certainly, this is not a good time for any personal feuds. Troubled times lie ahead of us. We all have to grit our teeth and start saving. God knows what will happen to travelling.”
“Mother Mary of…,” said grandfather Jiøí, “shall we go or not?”
“Yes, we’re going,” said Quido’s mother now quietly. “But where to?”