(translated by David Short)
Let’s not mince words: most of our missions are doomed to failure. What we
saw yesterday in North-East China was pretty dispiriting. Not to mention the
fact that elsewhere on this wretched planet millions of people manage to die
without us… We can’t be everywhere, as Hachamel is given to saying.
I sometimes wonder: who selects that happy band whose final moments are
graced by our solicitude? God? Or some UN selection board? Ha! In a nutshell,
those little acts of kindness we angels perform strike me as rather down to
chance. They lack system. Chance is God’s anonymous way of performing miracles,
Hachamel tells me time and again. He won’t have anything to do with questions.
Our mission is not, he says, to ask questions, but to supply answers that offer
at least some satisfaction. We’re just messengers. Couriers of mercy. Yet can
there be a satisfactory answer for a thirteen-year-old girl dying of cancer?
Tchou-tchung. Headaches. She lay there dying alone — if that can be said of a
nine-bed hospital ward in Kashgarh. For all our feeble efforts, her parents
didn’t come. We can’t force them. If she’d been a boy, perhaps… Just
before she breathed her last, she called out faintly. None of us understood
what. Hachamel has been crying.
Today it’s Central Europe for a change. Let’s hope the change of climate will do him good. He takes all this dying too much to heart. The toughest form of idealism, I’d call it. And yet he reads so much. I don’t get it: either novelists don’t write the truth about life, or Hachamel doesn’t really understand them.
“So,” he announces, “Karel. Driving-school instructor.“
He falls silent. We’re sitting on the wire safety-netting on Nusle Bridge in Prague, with the rising sun blazing straight into our faces. If the drivers of the passing cars could see us, there’d be ambulances on their way to save four would-be suicides. I look down: the curve of the railway, skylights in roofs, dormer windows, backyards, satellite dishes, the butcher’s on the corner with its red awnings. A billboard advertising beer. I don’t like the twenty-first century. Flat TV screens and courtyard galleries… The eighteenth, shall we say, strikes me as so much purer stylistically.
“Age fifty-two,” Hachamel says.
Ilmuth sighs mournfully. This is her very first outing. We may have no admittance to certain juicier parts of the human experience, but even so her youth and innocence give me some idea of the meaning of the word lecherous. Obviously, I keep this thought to myself.
“Well, fifty-two’s better than thirteen,” I observe.
Hachamel passes it over. He keeps his reproaches for when my blaspheming crosses the critical limit.
“Wife Marie, a teacher. Son Filip, part-owner of a car dealership. Karel and Marie have been together for twenty-seven years, so we all know the score.”
Nith-Haiah and I nod. Ilmuth blushes.
“Or at least let’s try imagining it,” Hachamel smiles indulgently.
Once again, determination was getting the better of him — as if he hadn’t been let down a million times before.
“The key landmarks in Karel’s life to date have been a Škoda 1000 MB, a Škoda 120, a Škoda Favorit, a Škoda Felicia and a Škoda Fabia,” he lists almost waggishly, watching Ilmuth. “A new Fabia has been announced for next year and Karel’s excitement is positively childlike, as he’d be the first to admit.”
“But he won’t get to drive it now,” I remark.
“As cynical as a surgeon on M.A.S.H..” That’s Nith-Haiah, who has recently taken a liking to television.
I can’t shed the impression that both older men are flirting ever so slightly with Ilmuth. Nith-Haiah is only half a century younger than Hachamel. Whenever he makes a joke he stays poker-faced; only his pepper-and-salt eyebrows ride up slightly.
“Why do there have to be four of us to one driving-school teacher?” I ask.
“Have you never heard of teamwork?” Hachamel replies. “We are a team.”
Hachamel deals me a reproving glance.
“And then we’ve got that Zdeněk as well,“ Nith-Haiah informs me.
I can’t believe my ears.
“I didn’t think we did suicides.”
Ilmuth blinks, horrified.
“Ah, but we do,” Hachamel looks disapproving, “his mother…”
“I see,” I grimace. “But do we have to hold our briefings at the scene? Why do we have to keep meeting on bridges?”
Sometimes I get this self-loathing, but I can’t help myself. I’ve had it up to here.
“Do you know the word conspiracy?“ Nith-Haiah asks, looking at Ilmuth. There are hundreds of tiny wrinkles round his eyes.
“Conspiracy won’t help us much. Let alone that Karel. Hearing about people in good time – that would help. In time,” I repeat and point towards the digital clock at the end of the bridge, “not twelve hours before a death!”
Nith-Haiah stares at the clock. The noise of the passing traffic disappears in an instant and the entire valley below sinks into silence. It’s obvious: the old man is showing off to Ilmuth. All six lines of traffic stand motionless, the people inside don’t stir. Ilmuth looks astonished. There’s something in her face that would make even a cynic like me start believing in God.
“Please let the clock start before someone notices,” she begs Hachamel impatiently.
She hasn’t even got the whole sentence out and the cars start whizzing by again — only now, thanks to the preceding silence, do I realise what a dreadful noise they make.
“Obviously, boss, I’m not questioning that He has his reasons and all that. I understand that His intentions are inscrutable — I’m just complaining about my working conditions. With all due respect: has He ever heard of logistics?“
I suddenly realise I’ve been shouting. Hachamel doesn’t respond. Ilmuth is watching us suspiciously.
“Give me at least a month — and I’ll give you miracles!“
Hachamel says nothing. That’s always the way.
“Or at least a week,” I sigh.
“We’re only messengers. Nothing less, nothing more,” Hachamel reminds me for the thousandth time.
“Not even the staff at DHL complain that they get too much work at Christmas,” Nith-Haiah adds in his support. “They just get on with delivering their packages and don’t dwell on it.”
“While we’re on the subject of couriers,” Hachamel says to Nith-Haiah with a twinkle in his tired eyes, “take a look at that one there…“
We all look down at a young man on a motor-bike.
“This afternoon you must know everything that he knows.”
So Karel’s last meal will be a pizza.
The sky above Havlíček Gardens — of course Ester has never called them anything but Grébovka — is almost cloudless and the morning air is quite warm, so she’s having her breakfast outside. What if hope were hiding in the tops of the trees on the far slope? she grimaces. The situation is grave, but not hopeless. You have to think of the gravity of a situation, not its hopelessness. Her head’s full of such precepts. What more can I expect from life? Wrong question. Not what might we expect from life; it’s life that still expects something from us! OK. Anyway, a drop of morning sunlight can’t do her any harm, she muses. The flat faces north-east and by evening, when she comes in from the hospital, the terrace has long been deep in shade. The word terrace is a by-product of the uncritical euphoria in which Tomáš found himself at the time of the move — Ester had never been in any doubt that it was just a largish balcony. The few dwarf conifers that they’d bought at the garden centre are untroubled by the lack of sunlight, but the rambling roses and clumps of lavender in ceramic containers are none too happy. Ester touches those tiny purplish flowers a bit too often, rubbing them idly between her fingers, which she then puts to her nose. Sometimes she doesn’t realize she’s doing it — another reason why the lavender is rather sparse. During the summer she would have breakfast in her nightie and Tomáš’s size XXL dark-blue dressing-gown, but now, in September, she gets properly dressed and then wraps a woollen plaid around her. Today she is wearing an olive-green skirt with huge pockets and a one shade darker cardigan over a figure-hugging white top. She’s got all the time in the world, as she’s not going in to work, so she’s having fried eggs. They taste exceptionally good — and it dawns on her that they’re her first eggs in over six months. She sips her coffee and scans the sheet of paper with its list of jobs to do, the reason she has taken a day’s unpaid leave (obviously, she’s no paid holiday left). With the ragged tip of her tongue she keeps unconsciously testing a broken tooth. She always referred to days like this, with their accumulated multiplicity of tedious things to do, as lost, though since Tomáš’s death she has tried to approach them positively. Carpe diem. Sieze the day. What other lesson can we take from the premature death of one dear to us? She sometimes imagines that she has died too. Along with him. The last two months have therefore been a great gift. Each new day something like a bonus… In objective terms, she has to recognise that widowhood (ghastly word!) is, in a certain limited sense, even enriching. Being widowed is like travelling alone: in a group it’s much simpler, less obvious and above all more fun, but the lone wayfarer can concentrate better, see more and experience things in greater depth… That’s exactly how she sees herself: a lone wayfarer. As if fate wished to offer her at least something in compensation. Ester looks down at the irregularly patterned black-and-white paving beneath the balcony and the iron grills over the drains, then reaches for the newspaper that she had made herself go and pick up from the mailbox some twenty minutes before. New PM compares himself to the first man on the moon. Cardinal Wolf mocks Christianity. Stingray kills famous animal-lover. Archive photo: The Falling Man — the man who fell from World Trade Center… In most cases she can’t get beyond the headline. She feels nothing but abstraction. Indifference. Women in burkas learn to sing again. By way of exception she reads the whole of that short piece: In Afghanistan under the Taliban singing was banned, so now women are beginning to learn again. McDonalds considering hedgehogs. Ester has a renewed sense that the world has gone mad. Quote of the day – Woody Allen: If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. That figures. Fatal accidents down. Not my impression, Ester laughs bitterly. Fifty per cent of us suffer from lack of rest. Too much silence can be disturbing. That’s something else she knows about. The daily round at Podolí Maternity Hospital or: Thirteen babies a day. She skips that one, obviously. Have your teeth pulled by a robot dentist. Ester puts the paper down. Underneath the balcony, there’s a woman standing with a dog on a self-retracting leash. A widow? she wonders at once. Sometimes Ester and Tomáš would swap notes on each other’s patients and laugh at them together. Now her thoughts about other people are always bleak. Today’s trip to the dentist is going to be awful, she thinks as she stares at her list. Not to mention the visitor from the hospice. She suddenly starts to choke. Gasping for breath. Unfortunately this isn’t going to go away. But she’s actually quite looking forward to her last practice lesson before she takes her driving test.
Karel and Marie are woken at six-thirty by their red electronic alarm-clock.
Marie lets out a couple of heavy sighs and forces herself up into a sitting
position. She looks in silence at the joins in the sprung laminate floor that
they’d bought together when it was on special offer at Baumax. She thinks the
boards are beginning to expand, but Karel can’t see it. The new floor, like most
of the improvements they’ve done to their ancient Nusle apartment, leaves her
with two very clear feelings: on the one hand she’s glad it’s there, on the
other she realises that the shiny newness of the boards puts the tattiness of
the furniture into stark relief. She wiggles her feet into her cork sandals and
without a glance towards Karel shuffles off to the bathroom. On the way, she
throws the other window wide open (one is kept half-open all night). Ilmuth is
fascinated as she watches this ritual of the human getting-up process.
I can understand it; she still hasn’t lost the capacity for amazement.
Karel starts to feel cold. In the morning, the bedroom can drop to as little as twelve degrees. Once he had made an effort to get out of bed and show Marie the thermometer. This isn’t a bedroom, he’d said, annoyed, this is hibernation. But she carried on opening the second window anyway… If he really felt like it, he could make himself rebel (and not just against this matinal ventilation), but he’d given up such ideas long ago. He sometimes feels that, along with his salary, he has surrendered part of his personality to her. With a resigned, understanding smile he carries out even those of her wishes or commands that he considers pointless – in the vague hope that she will eventually see their absurdity. A conjugal Schweik, I suddenly think. Karel automatically hauls his wife’s duvet across him. Ilmuth bursts out laughing.
Karel is thinking about that woman. He closes his eyes despite knowing he
won’t drop off – other things apart, he’s being prevented by the rising pressure
in his lower abdomen. He’ll have to wait until Marie frees up the bathroom. God
Almighty, what’s she doing in there? By now he is reconciled to the fact that
the time women spend in the bathroom in the morning lengthens with age – but the
forty minutes that his wife reached at the start of this academic year is beyond
his comprehension. Not even a facelift operation takes that long! For his own
benefit he feigns spite, but in reality his wife’s ageing affects him quite
“Do you know why we’re here?” I whisper to Ilmuth. “It’s because his heart hasn’t crusted over yet.”
As usual, Karel only needs quarter of an hour in the bathroom – and that
includes showering and shaving.
“You’ve had a shower,” she notes instead of returning his greeting. Karel knows she’ll go back to the bathroom to check it after him. Twenty-five years ago she’d have done no such thing; now it’s automatic. You have to take things as they are.
“And you’ve even wiped up after you!”
He smiles at her. She warms him some frankfurters, pouring herself a bowl of corn-flakes. That will be followed by a fat-free yogurt. Another dieting attempt doomed to failure, Karel thinks. As on any other morning, the television is on.
“I’m making beef olives this evening,” Marie says. “Filip’s coming by for dinner.”
When did we last have a hot dinner, Karel muses. Ah well, having a son does have one benefit.
“He phoned. Yesterday.”
He nods. Marie appears not to be bothered, but Karel knows how happy Filip’s phone-call had made her. He mentally awards his son a restrained commendation. On the table, at the place where Filip sat for years, there’s a capacious red box-file with her lesson materials and a mountain of exercise-books. The pyramid is topped by an old cassette tape of Karel Hynek Mácha’s May, as Karel notes from the scratched case.
“Just so you know and don’t come in late.”
“I’ll be there.”
Karel nods. Marie heaves a sigh.
“When they first met, she thought Karel was one of those men who are said to weigh their words,” he explains to Ilmuth. “And in those days that impressed her. She thinks voluble men girly.”
She knew one or two of this type at uni. Faculty of Education. Karel didn’t talk much, but when he did say something, it counted. In those days, his taciturnity wasn’t a problem: if he was quiet, she would do the talking, and she even felt that he was a good listener.
“Not only does he not speak any foreign languages,” she says about him these days, “he doesn’t even speak Czech!”
It is her impression that Karel just doesn’t have the words for certain opinions and emotions. His face is fairly ordinary and his figure nothing special either, though his eyes, say, are hugely attractive. But that’s Karel: overall he’s almost prototypically average, but his individual qualities go far beyond the average in one direction or the other. His ambition is extremely low, but his sexual appetite is disagreeably high. She thinks of him as almost mute, lazy and permanently sex-starved – but actually quite a good man.
“The list’s on the fridge,” she informs him. “Make sure you don’t forget the veal, that’s the main thing.”
Since his divorce, Zdeněk has moved back in with his mother, to her small
ground-floor flat in Mečislav Street. From somewhere inside the dark shaft of
the skylight comes the cooing of a pigeon; the frame of the slightly open window
is completely rotten. The old enamel bath is so small I can only sit up in
it, and then only with my knees hunched up. The bottom of the bath is scratched
and rusting metal shows through at several spots round the plug-hole. Poverty in
somebody who’s dying usually spurs on my efforts. I asked Hachamel if
I didn’t think that was a bit lefty, but he insisted that it’s only
natural. Zdeněk is squatting on the loo, leaning forward, his pyjama trousers
gathered round his knees, and surveying his toes in amazement. I know this
fascination. I know what it means. Compassion and love rise within me. Just
as on any other morning, his mother’s praying can be heard coming from the
“Dear God, help me to understand my son. I beg Thee to surround my child with love, wisdom and intelligence.”
Zdeněk has given up. By now, these mutterings of his mother’s are just another of the inevitable sounds of morning — like the whistle of the kettle, the clatter of bin-men or the banging of the front door of their block of flats. Now, by way of a change, he is examining his arms, tensing his biceps and the muscles of his forearms, then inspecting his palms. His life-line. I don’t have to bother cutting my nails any more, occurs to him. He is fascinated by how one fundamental decision can change everything. Down to the slightest details. Everything is suddenly different.
“I beg Thee, lead him towards sensible decisions based on love, and not on fear or wrath.”
She’s put in the wrath herself; it isn’t in that dreadful book. He keeps up his inspection. His own hands are making him uncertain. The question isn’t whether, but when.
“I beg Thee and St Michael the Archangel to cleanse my son of all ties and impediments that might prevent him from being happy. I thank Thee.”
Zdeněk’s mother Jarmila is a cook; she works in the dinner-hall of a primary
school. She’s a stout, fifty-three-year-old blonde with a pretty face, slow
metabolism and chronic gynaecological problems. She looks younger than she is,
sometimes has ringing in her ears and is extraordinarily sensitive to all manner
of chemical substances. These symptoms have brought her to the view that she is
an earth angel. She made the discovery in a book by the American therapist
Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., who works with the realm of angels, archangels and
fairies, as the book’s fly-leaf informs us.
“Having read Doreen Virtue’s books, she began to feel wrong as Jarmila and so she chose the name Kelly,“ I explain to Hachamel later. “Ever since, she has felt incomparably more liberated. Living a new life. She’s given up binging on food, because she knows now that her layers of fat were an unconscious defence against hostile environments, so now she protects herself solely by means of colours.”
“Yes. She imagines herself surrounded by an impenetrable aura of a particular colour which acts as an energy shield. She’s found a pink aura particularly effective at spreading vibrations of love to anyone she is talking to and acting as an impermeable barrier to anything but positive thoughts and loving energy. If that’s not enough, she usually aids herself by praying: Archangel Michael, descend to me and release me from anything that could be draining my energy or vitality. And the Archangel Michael obliges at once.”
“Oh my God,” Hachamel sighs.
Jarmila mother calls her son Scott. At first and for some time he protested,
but later became resigned to it. It was never going to be easy living here, but
despite his not exactly favourable starting conditions (as he invariably put it)
he went to university and taught himself English, German and French. For several
years he worked in the HR department of a large multinational, but they kicked
him out after he got divorced. He knows it was his own fault. He can see now
that not all of the firm’s 115 employees longed to listen to his righteous
Now he is a driver for a company that sells small electronic goods over the internet. On the dashboard of his aging pick-up he has one of his mother’s angel cards.
“Angel cards are charged with the energy of Divine Light and Love and enable us to receive clear messages from God and His angels,” I quote to Hachamel. “One pack costs three-hundred and eighty crowns.”
I show him the card that Zdeněk keeps in his vehicle: a portrait of the Archangel Uriel in a richly folded robe and with six-foot-long, brilliant-white wings.
“He looks like Mel Gibson,” I say, drawing attention to the likeness to my favourite actor.
“More like a goose,” Hachamel says.
Your emotions are healing, which enables you to open to greater love.
I will help you release anger and unforgiveness from your heart and mind,
the Archangel Uriel on Zdeněk alias Scott’s dashboard reminds him daily.
“You’re not Scott, you’re an idiot,” Filip mocked Zdeněk after he had stolen the children and Lida from him.
Lída was also laughing.
What little of life was left to him Zdeněk had decided to give over to revenge.
“A Count of Monte Christo from Nusle…“ Hachamel frowns.
Yes; Zdeněk lives solely by the thought of getting his own back. He trains regularly at the Oasis Fitness Centre. He concentrates on the muscular parts of his arms, shoulders and abdomen, not bothering much about his legs, because he won’t be needing them.
“Oh my God!” Hachamel groans.
As he waits at the lights, Karel calls up an image of that woman giving him a
blow-job. Unfortunately I have no means of comparison (ha!), but to judge
by the way this saucy image re-appears time and again in Karel’s mind, it must
be a hugely pleasant idea… Obviously I understand that expressions such as
blow-job and the like may strike women as vulgar and tasteless – but let it be
said at once that Karel is more or less innocent of any charge. It’s more like
some accident in childhood: during his four years at technical college and two
years of military service he heard perhaps a thousand times more dirty words
than most women hear in a lifetime. He doesn’t use them in the presence of
women; that much is obvious, but he can’t get rid of them completely – and
there’s the rub. To this day, they sometimes come thrusting their way onto his
tongue with such urgency that he can scarcely choke them back: tits, cunt, twat,
fuck… Get given a blow-job… By that woman, as Karel consistently calls her in
his mind. In his work diary all he uses is her surname, for obvious reasons, but
now he’s incapable of thinking of her like any of his other pupils. She excites
him, so he cannot think of her as Nováková — but equally they haven’t known each
other long enough for him to link her automatically with the name Ester. The
impersonal that woman also liberates his sexual fantasies. (Marie would probably
describe them as perverted, but as far as I know, they’re pretty ordinary
male daydreams — you surely can’t describe a copulating horse as a filthy pig,
can you now? The way women are shocked by this I find amusing.) The
apparently negligible difference between Ester and that woman is a difference of
principle where Karel is concerned: the former is someone he is beginning to
love, the latter someone for whom he has no liability. Imagining Ester giving
him a blow-job smacks of abuse of a friend’s trust, while that woman can give
him the works without a hint of guilt on his part. Ha!
“Straight across at the lights,” Karel finally says something.
He speaks with a degree of severity, but in good time. An Audi passes us going the other way, the latest model, a silver Q7. Karel views it with interest. In under ten hours he’ll be dead.
“Straight ahead,” the young man at the wheel repeats, nodding for good measure.
The false humility of beginners — a year from now he’ll be impatiently overtaking driving-school cars, possibly cursing under his breath. Karel can at least sense as much, but he’s reconciled to little betrayals of the kind. They strike him as inevitable. That’s the way it goes. I’m squeezed into the back seat behind him, my legs splayed so as to fit in at all. I must remember to ask Hachamel what angel missions were like in the days when wings were compulsory… I look about me: the dashboard has no adornments, nor is there anything hanging from the rear-view mirror; there’s not a speck of dust in the door pockets, let alone an empty Coke bottle or a crumpled sandwich packet. Karel is a stickler for tidiness. But then there’s no air-conditioning either, so his greying temples are ever so slightly bedewed. The young man is sweating profusely. The lights are at red. Karel’s mind is on Ester’s cunt. Because of his silence, the atmosphere inside the car is rather tense, but Karel understood long ago that if he is to maintain even the illusion of superiority and authority he should refrain from talking. And that goes far beyond his relationship to his pupils. He’s too good-natured to be able to enter into conversation. Don’t ask too many questions and be sparing with any replies. Above all avoid laughing. His genial laugh invariably lets him down. We’re heading down from Budějovice Street into Nusle. The lesson is coming to an end. A hearse enters the crossroads from the left.
“Be absolute for death…,” Hachamel recites to us from time to time. “… either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life: If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing that none but fools would keep.”
Driving-school instructors and Shakespeare. Ha! Karel glances to check that the hearse is giving way to them, and that is the sum total of the attention that he pays to this fourteen-foot-long reminder of man’s mortality. For Karel, death is an issue that he has dealt with long ago and is quite uninteresting — can you credit it? His parents are still alive, and he can’t remember the deaths of his grandparents — so what’s the bother? It’s nine years since he’s been to a funeral. He had never got on with his colleague from the driving school, who received an electric shock and died. They hardly gave each other the time of day. At the crematorium Karel’s face had looked hilariously grave. He was nervous, didn’t know how to convey his condolences to the widow and was afraid of making an ass of himself – and that was all he had felt. Only a total idiot would rig up a cable with a light-bulb next to his garden pool, he thought (and unfortunately I have to agree with him). To Karel’s way of thinking, all deaths are the outcome of something wrong — such as fatal ignorance, a bad diet or excessive speed. He himself gets nothing wrong. Of course he also allows for death as the natural consequence of serious illness or old age, but such deaths are too remote for him to be able to take them seriously. In a nutshell, death is an irrelevance to him. He reaches forward and turns on the radio; the news is just starting. Nine hours before he’s due to die and he’s still interested in Czech politics — you can laugh at his expense, but we have to show compassion.
The pupil parks ineptly in front of the driving school, the end of Karel’s
first lesson of the day. Two more and he’ll be off to the Banseths’ for lunch
with one of his colleagues. He loves traditional Czech food: sirloin steak in a
spicy sauce, beef olives, goulash, meatloaf with eggs, pork and sauerkraut,
boiled bacon with creamed potatoes, and suchlike. He won’t turn his nose up at
cauliflower au gratin either, or chicken risotto or mushroom mêlée.
Conversely, he can’t stand Italian, Chinese, Mexican or Greek things, and quite
literally at that: sometimes a couple of drops of olive oil, a whiff of salsa or
a pinch of curry powder is enough to send him to the toilet for the night. The
idea of a holiday in Turkey or Tunisia gives him nightmares. Which is why all
these years he has never gone any further than the Giant Mountains or the
Bohemian Forest. And other such places. For now he has a twenty-minute break, so
he goes into the gloomy office and timidly asks the receptionist for a coffee.
“Only yesterday I was doing him a coffee,” she’ll be saying tomorrow morning.
She will be crying, because she’s quite fond of Karel. Meanwhile, the deceased of tomorrow goes to the toilet and freshens up. He’s wondering if he’ll be any use in Strašnice… This makes me laugh. The morbid charm of the unintended. But he likes the way the pretty doctor trusts him. They’ll go round by the bottom way, via Cuba Square and then up along Murmansk Street. The Želivský Street crossroads is always chock-a-block and the stopping and starting on that fairly steep ascent to the lights could make her nervous, Karel muses practically.
Marie holds her right hand away from her body so as not to get chalk on her
skirt. Ilmuth and I are sitting among the dusty pelargoniums on the window
ledge with the mid-day sun beating at our backs. I wanted Ilmuth to see
Marie teaching. I thought it would give her a better understanding of Karel
— but of course she’s thrilled with Marie. I should have guessed. Marie is
well-liked, as they say, by most of the pupils. They think they’re fond of her,
but in fact, from the first, they’re scared of her obese resolution, so out of
the range of all possible attitudes their subconscious makes a calculated choice
of fondness… Sometimes, when I’m talking to myself, I catch myself being
just as cynical as Jofaniel.
The boys and girls at the desks below us are aged thirteen. Like the beautiful Chinese girl yesterday. To them the future is something they have a natural right to. Thirteen… As I embraced her among the junipers, the grave was already slipping beneath her back. Lines that no one reads today but that keep going round and round in my head. I’m forever quoting bits of poetry or a novel at Jofaniel, who is as dear as a son to me. It troubles me to think that he’ll soon be washed irrevocably away on the tide of his own doubts. In view of the kind of world God created, it would be utterly godless to believe in Him. John Banville. Obviously I don’t quote things like that at him.
It took me literally less than a second to fall in love with Ilmuth and she
was just as quick to sense the fatherly love I was holding back. She repays
it more openly, more candidly, with all the directness of youth. After this
lesson, though, she will take the part of tomorrow’s widow, Marie. Tomorrow and
the day after Marie’s lessons will be taken by colleagues. On Friday, she will
turn up at school swathed in a cloud of bewitching perfume, the main ingredients
of which will be calamity and concentrated misfortune. The young headmaster will
force himself to embrace her. Enough. We don’t have to believe in God, but we
must never give up hope.
“Goodness, do open a window, someone!” Marie commands.
With an air of martyrdom, she takes the hem of her neckline in her left thumb and forefinger and tweaks it. At eighteen she used to be too shy to admit to Karel that she needed the loo. She also used to insist – and she meant it – that she adored Prévert. In those days she was a mere wisp, but today she weighs three stones more. At home she dries her huge greying knickers on one of the radiators. For fun, Ilmuth holds her breath and her deft boyish hand reaches through Marie’s body for the handle of the window. Marie inserts the cassette and waits for the class to quieten down.
“In the azure vault of heaven the blanching mists are dancing, / In light dissolving zephyrs tattered, / And on the far horizon scattered / White cloudlets over the placid sky go glancing. / The grieving prisoner greets them as they race”
Ilmuth glances my way, gratefully. She is the most attentive in the class. I scan the desks, my eyes, with the innocence of an old man, pausing a second longer at the prettier girls. I could so easily evoke the story of their lives to come — but why add more bucketfuls to puddles of hopelessness? Lovely girl, a fallen angel.
“Yet one more time the prisoner lifts his eyes,/ Worships the sweet, encircling world – once sighs – / And on the approaching death his soul makes steady. / His breast and throat he bares, kneeling to earth he leaves it.”
The boys smirk at the word breast, and Ilmuth trembles in horror.
Zdeněk is still not admitting that he might be going to die today and so in
the dark, cramped hallway bids his mother the most fleeting of goodbyes. Jarmila
hasn’t the slightest inkling and is none the less smiling sweetly, just as on
any other morning.
“’Bye, Scott. We’ll be having macaroni with tomato sauce – are you coming?”
She strokes her only son’s face, which he puts up with glumly. She’s got no one else. If I discount her obsession with angels, she doesn’t have any hobbies either. I try to think of something that would please here, but I’m all out of ideas. Her life is like a blank map. Buying her a birthday present must be quite beyond Zdeněk. — unless he’s the one who buys her those dreadful angel cards.
You are protected from all types of harm. The worst is now behind you. I ask you to relax and feel safe, is today’s message for Jarmila from the female angel whose name is Zanna.
A pale face, white hair and an ethereal translucent body with a heart outlined on her breast. And wings, of course.
Oh my God!
In January 1976, when Jarmila discovered she was pregnant, she hadn’t wanted
to tell Zdeněk’s father: she was afraid he would leave her. He was only
nineteen. But the tall, raven-haired waiter took paternity in his stride and
started planning for the wedding, while Jarmila’s unspoken fears persisted.
Hadn’t she heard countless tales where the groom got cold feet a week, a day or
even as little as an hour before the ceremony?
Only after the ceremony did she relax. She was four months gone and brimming with happiness and youth.
Zdeněk’s father did abandon her – that very evening, during the wedding breakfast.
She next (and last) saw him at the divorce proceedings, seven months after the wedding.
He never once came to see his son.
Jarmila’s main preoccupation for the next thirty years has been trying to fathom this mystery.
“Not a lot today,” the dispatcher smiles at Zdeněk.
He would reply, but he can’t find any serviceable word, so he just nods. I must act normally, he tells himself stubbornly. If I can get through the next few days acting normally, all sorts of things will be easier. Everything will be like it always has been and I’ll be able to think in peace. If that’s how to put it.
“Did we get out of bed on the wrong side?”
What’s her name? Eva? Jana? Something like that. How old is she? Forty? Fifty? Can it possibly matter? he thinks. He almost laughed. The woman is expecting him to say something. Whatever her name is. If life were a computer game, he’d probably kill her at this point, I realise. Civilisation is a thin veneer, you can take my word for that.
“Teeth,” Zdeněk mutters, pointing to his left cheek.
He hasn’t the foggiest idea where that came from. He feels as if someone has supplied the answer for him. The dispatcher seems satisfied anyway.
“Right. Teeth can be a real nuisance. Tell me about it!“ She pokes her index finger inside her mouth and feels her gums. Yet Zdeněk doesn’t believe she’s ever really had toothache.
He feels that the world is a ghastly place.
He checks over his delivery: two mobile phones, one DVD player, a digital camera and video-camera, digital binoculars and a Sony GPS navigator. He shuts his case, gets in the driving seat and starts leafing through his delivery notes. His ideal route is easy to work out: first up to Žižkov, then on to Strašnice and finally to Říčany. There’ll even be time to pop into the gym before lunch. In the afternoon he’ll take all the west in one go: Břevnov, Košíře and Nebušice. He turns on his own satnav and taps in the Žižkov address.
The Archangel Uriel promises him that this day, too, he will release anger and unforgiveness from his heart and mind.
Ester feels robbed. Poor thing.
She realises, however, that if she had children it would be much worse. For one thing, I wouldn’t be able to kill myself, she grimaces. On the other hand, they would force her to enlist a minimum of her vital powers and cook from time to time. If she did have children, she wouldn’t have lost so much weight. If she did have children, she wouldn’t have snapped half a tooth off on a three-day-old sesame roll.
A colleague at the hospital has given her the phone number of what he described as a slightly grumpy, but good, middle-aged lady dentist. For years her teeth have been looked after by Tomáš, so she hasn’t needed any contacts… She’s been putting it off for the best part of two weeks, but the pain in her soft tissue (if she hadn’t married a dentist, she have just said ‘gums’) caused by the wiggly stump of her tooth has been getting worse and worse, so now she’s dialled the number and made an appointment. If this isn’t saying yes to life, then I don’t know what is, Ester thinks. Suicides don’t make appointments with their dentist. She stops short. Once again she’s found herself acting as if someone were watching her. She isn’t a believer – so why, for Christ’s sake, has she assumed, all through her life, that someone is checking up on her daily?
In the crowded waiting room she leafs through a women’s magazine, but isn’t
up to reading. She isn’t afraid of pain — her fear stems from all those
intimately familiar things that will forever be associated with Tomáš. She’s
afraid of the light above the chair. She’s afraid of the thin trickle in the
spittoon. She’s afraid of the grumbling noise the chair makes as it tips and of
the inclined posture it promptly puts her in. She’s horrified in advance at the
eyes of another in such close proximity to her face. She’s horrified at having
someone else’s fingers in her mouth.
“Come in, doctor.”
Doctor, that’s me, Ester registers with a second’s delay. Watched by the other patients she stands up, staggers and enters the surgery.
“Good morning. How are you?”
Conventional greetings, the last link with the land of the living, she thinks. The dentist has her sit in the chair and places one hand on her thin forearm.
“Let me have a look at that tooth, then. Open wide. Goodness, you’re not going to faint on me, are you?”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Do you ever eat, young lady? Have you had breakfast?”
Her fingers are in Ester’s mouth.
“Eggs,” Ester mumbles.
“I hope you’re not fibbing!”
The dentist doubtless knows that the woman in her chair is a recent widow. She’s not at all grumpy; on the contrary, her actions are so assiduous and so well-intentioned that Ester soon wishes she would change. This kind of non-stop joviality can end by giving you the creeps, she thinks.
“I hope you’re not fibbing!”
The dentist wags a finger at her. Ester knows that this pretence of concern will last as long as the procedure — and not a moment longer. Though who knows, she could be doing her an injustice. Maybe she’s also lost someone. After all, it happens to everyone. Or will happen. Ester attempts a smile, but the result lacks conviction. She is reminded of something she recently read in one of those books about dying: grief as a morbid lack of self-discipline. Admiration is reserved for those grievers who conceal their grief so successfully that no one would ever guess what has happened. She must try harder.
“We must get rid of that stump. Don’t worry, it isn’t going to hurt. I’ll give you an injection. You’ll feel a slight prick, that’s all.”
“I’m not afraid of pain,” Ester responds, truthfully.
“No? Then you’re the exception.”
The nurse is already handing her the needle. The dentist raises an eyebrow and gives a slight shake of her head.
“So, here we go, doctor!”
It sounds something like a challenge.
In her third year of medicine, an abscess – actually a dental cyst – formed
beneath her number seven at Christmas and resisted all attempts to treat it. She
would see Tomáš every week. They hadn’t known each other before then. Several
times over he meticulously cleared out both root canals and filled the tooth
with a temporary disinfectant inlay. But that little lump in her gum kept coming
back a few days after each visit. When the pressure pain got too much, she would
prick it with a needle. Her friends in hall would turn away in disgust, but
Ester just smiled.
In the middle of January Tomáš finally got through to the apex using a Hedstrom file. A stinging pain shot right through her body, but she controlled herself. He stepped back. To this day she can recall his exaggeratedly focussed expression — there was more at issue than mere professional prestige. Yes, her eyes conceded, this time it really did hurt.
“So maybe we’re getting on top of it,” he said with satisfaction. “We’ve opened up the socket and we can fill the canals.”
Each time she went he wore a friendly smile, but he never once resorted to flirting (he was ten years her senior and tried to make the age difference show). There’s reason to hope the cavity will seal up, he went on earnestly. Ester, by contrast, hoped it would take a long time to be absorbed. Except in her early childhood she had never been afraid of dentists — and now she even looked forward to each successive appointment. She couldn’t wait for Tomáš to lean over her again. She longed to hear his soothing voice. She longed to feel his breath. Her tongue looked forward to the touch of his fingers. Only half-joking, she told her friend Johana that a gum infection might be a psychosomatic indication of love. Anyway, in the end the tooth had to come out. Tomáš took great pains to explain all the various reasons. Ester joyfully nodded her agreement.
On the offending day she was quite alone in the surgery; she thought the absence of any other patients a bit odd. After a quarter of an hour, the nurse, a plumpish Slovak of about fifty, summoned her from a different door from usual — Ester realised that the her number seven tooth was to be extracted in the operating theatre, though that fact left her quite unmoved. Following the nurse’s instruction, she stripped to her panties in the ante-room. She wasn’t wearing a bra, but she wasn’t embarrassed; on the contrary she found the entire situation surprisingly exciting. She wondered momentarily if she wasn’t a masochist: in a few minutes her mouth would be full of blood – yet here I am, thinking of sex, she thought, to her own amusement. She wriggled her arms into the green gown and someone behind her tied the coarse tapes for her. At first she assumed it was the theatre nurse, but then caught sight of her in front. She turned — and bumped against Tomáš. This was the first time she saw him in his theatre garb. The mask was too small to conceal the reddening of his cheeks. The nurse’s face bore the happy expression of a woman watching the last instalment of a soap opera. Ester had never experienced anything so romantic. No future foreplay would ever match this.
“What is to be expected of a marriage that started with an abscess?” Tomáš joked later at the reception. “The very cradle of our love was full of puss.”
She laughed along with everyone else. There were no other terms in which to talk about it. Irony and disparagement as an admission of lying… Genuine passion cannot be reduced to a socially acceptable anecdote. Could he have told the guests – as he had admitted to her – that he was turned on even by her saliva? They were both right in suspecting that most of those present had never known anything remotely like it. Speaking truthfully of how their relationship began would have been as tactless as boasting of one’s wealth to the impoverished.