(translated by David Short)
Summer had come, but Oskar was already married. He was pushing the pram with
one hand as if to suggest to the world at large that it had all happened too
At the level-crossing he stopped, having heard a train in the distance. He was barefoot and the fine, warm sand of the cart-track trickled between his toes. The corn wasn’t very high and mostly it was still green; beyond the railway-line the field merged into a meadow, which sloped down towards the river. In the past, he had been a frequent visitor to this spot – with its old, dilapidated weir. He would sit in the middle of the concrete sluiceway on a big granite boulder and the water would splatter against his sun-tanned back. All he could hear was the rushing of the water; nothing else. From time to time he felt the gentle buffet of a twig driven against him by the current. In the deep undertow downstream of the boulder two girls from Prague, whose parents had a cottage above the weir, used to enjoy gyrating. Sometimes, when he was only half-awake, Oskar would remember their sort of soft, lazy movements.
The clatter of train wheels grew near. He took his little boy by the hand.
‘Choo, choo,’ he said.
He meant the dark red bulk of the engine, the air shimmering over its hot plating, the sweaty under-arms of the engine-driver, the pounding of wheels, the open windows of the green carriages, the wind-blown hair of the passengers. Then it happened: the neck-line of the T-shirt of one of the girls leaning out of the windows got caught under the metal bar used to open it – exposing her breasts, which were as pale as the underside of raspberry leaves. It was one of those exceptional, photographic split seconds; there was just time for Oskar to catch the glint of amused shock in her eyes and the purely girlish gesture with which she immediately rectified this untoward event.
That night, in the bedroom, he vainly attempted to recount it to Zuzana, but no matter how he put it, it remained a banal story in which he figured as a sex-crazed adolescent.
He let out a sigh of irritation.
His wife turned her back on him.
In the morning he was woken by a sensation of cold. The bedroom was empty.
All the buttons on his pyjama top were missing; the threads looked cut.
The kitchen was awash with sunlight; Zuzana was feeding their little boy. Without speaking he showed her the pyjamas.
‘I thought it was a bit tight for you…,’ she smiled impishly.
She’s great, Oskar realised, as he bent down to kiss her. Again he remembered the girl on the train.
‘Will that be the end of it?’ he wondered.
One early Saturday morning in June, as Oskar turned over in bed and glanced
through his sleep-puffed eyes at his still sleeping wife, he was momentarily
struck by the notion that her face was rather unprepossessing, though he had
always thought it quite pretty. Goodness, that nose! How come he had never
noticed what a big pointed nose she had? He thought it better to close his eyes
again, sank his face in the pillow and tried to go back to sleep for a while,
but what he had just spotted kept going round in his head. He tried to treat
this almost brutal image as just another of those ordinary early-morning
unpleasantnesses, like flattened hair, bad breath or sand in the eyes, things
which irritate you from time to time, but disappear more or less reliably after
ten minutes spent in the bathroom – but he felt that he was just fooling
himself. He sensed that this was something different.
He propped himself up on his elbows and gazed once more at Zuzana’s nose, this time more attentively. What he saw woke him up for good: the nose was unbelievably large and pointed, with gigantic dark nostrils, and it dominated her entire face. Oskar was horrified. He could hardly assume that this ghastly hooter had sprung up overnight – so how had he failed to notice it before? Was he totally blind?
He didn’t get it. It completely ruined his mood. He lay there motionless, by turns watching the ceiling and his wife’s nose and dreading the moment when that big-nosed creature next to him woke up. He felt revulsion, distaste, but also love and pity. He loved his wife sincerely – and now this.
When Zuzana went to the bathroom and Oskar heard the sound of the shower, he popped into the living-room, grabbed their photograph albums and started quickly flicking through them.
It was there.
From the start. On every photo. Large and pointy. Unmissable to anyone except Oskar. The smiles of some of their wedding guests were uninhibitedly malicious. Oskar’s morning emotions were joined by another: now he also felt cheated.
At breakfast he forced himself into uncustomary jocularity, but Zuzana’s nose
continued to draw his gaze. He couldn’t help himself.
‘What’s the matter? What are you looking at?’ his wife eventually asked him suspiciously.
‘The way the joys of family life invariably light up those two little flames of contentment in your eyes,’ he let out with all the conviction he could muster.
His wife was smiling, but an unspoken question still lurked in her eyes.
It dawned on him that she must be brave: all her life having to carry such a monstrosity around on her face (and in the most visible place!) and yet never stop smiling! He imagined all that she must have had to put up with at school and he was overcome with emotion. He longed to protect her from the world. He got a grip on himself and gave her a kiss.
Their son giggled.
What are you laughing at? – was the message conveyed by Oskar’s severe look of annoyance. – You know nothing about life! One day you’ll realise that beauty is far from everything.
‘What have I done wrong?’ the lad said in pique.
That Saturday, they had originally intended to go to a computer technology
fair, in response to their son’s passion (and Oskar was also considering getting
a new computer), but the idea of thrusting his way through all those people with
his big-nosed wife was more than he could take.
‘You really feel like going? With all those mad crowds there?’ he said as breakfast came to an end.
His son shot a disgruntled look towards his mother.
‘So we’re not going, then?’ he pulled a long face.
‘We? It was your idea, in case you’ve forgotten!’ Zuzana objected logically.
He shrugged and escaped to the toilet.
He sat on the bowl and forced himself to remember all the nice things that he and Zuzana had enjoyed in their nine years of married life. It couldn’t have all vanished just like that… He decided that they would go. He worked out a strategy by which to deal with all those mocking looks that he was afraid of: he must not be forced onto the defensive; on the contrary, he must wear a happy, contented, even victorious expression – thereby calling their views into question. Their scale of values. They must be made to ask themselves why he, Oskar, had voluntarily hitched himself to a wife like that…
On the way, Oskar could easily pretend to be concentrating on the relatively
heavy Saturday traffic; he replied to Zuzana’s questions amiably enough, but
with his eyes fixed on the road ahead, yet each set of traffic-lights at which
he had to stop was, with his suddenly so fragile love for his wife, literally a
trial of strength. As they waited for the lights to go green he could not, with
the best will in the world, avoid her eyes, and, what was worse, he sometimes
had an impression that his wife’s giant nose was being inspected with amused
interest by the occupants of the cars in the adjacent lane.
The last remnants of his morning’s resolution fell at the petrol station. While he was filling up, Zuzana fortunately remained in the car, but just as he was going to pay, she unexpectedly got out and made to go in with him.
‘Do you want to buy something?’ he asked her with his most affable smile.
‘Hm-hm,’ she smiled lip-smackingly.
He knew what she would do next, and she did: she stuck out her tongue, ran in lightly over her upper lip, then bit it between her lovely teeth. Oskar had always found this gesture endearing (and in the early days of their relationship it had even had no small erotic attraction), but that morning he found it quite repellent. He had to exert considerable effort for Zuzana not to guess what he was feeling.
‘Ice-cream,’ he guessed, since he knew her fancies.
‘Hm,’ she smiled
She still had her tongue sticking out.
Oskar also smiled. It struck him as most courageous.
‘I’ll bring you one. You get back in the car. What kind of ice-cream do you want?’ he called into the car to his son.
‘Strawberry Cornetto,’ his son called back.
Zuzana clutched her hand to her breasts.
‘Yum-yum,’ she said approvingly, smacking her lips at their son’s choice.
‘So you want a Cornetto as well?’
If he could, he would have commanded her to.
Zuzana was thinking.
‘No. I’ll choose myself.’
She even linked her arm in his.
Oskar was slightly horror-stricken, but summoned to his aid the strategy that he had worked out in the loo, so they strode into the shop like the best of friends, smiling broadly. His wife detached herself and headed straight for the refrigerator chest; Oskar stopped by the magazine stand – which was the emptiest of gestures, since reading a magazine couldn’t have been further from his mind – then joined the short queue at the counter, behind a young couple in designer track-suits. Oskar had never really understood that weird fashion, but was prepared (as far as, for example, his son was concerned) to tolerate it; that morning, however, all those coloured stripes and piping almost made him sick.
Zuzana collected a Cornetto for the boy and chose a white chocolate-coated Magnum for herself.
‘I’m going to take the paper off right away, I can’t bear to wait!’ she warbled coquettishly, half to Oskar, half to the assistant. He was a stocky, but pleasant, bearded man of fifty or so, wearing a cotton T-shirt and blue dungarees. He cast her a brief glance.
‘By all means, madam, go right ahead. Some things you just can’t put off, eh?’ he smiled, but Oskar couldn’t fail to notice where his eyes came to a halt. The fact that the man was prepared to make a show of flirting he attributed to his professional demeanour – or maybe he was so bored after a long time on his feet that he was grateful for the slightest diversion, even, for goodness’ sake, a woman with a hooter like his wife’s, he thought. He paid the bill with a smile on his face, while at the same time keeping a close watch on the salesman’s face. At that moment, the man’s colleague came out from behind the curtain at the back of the store; he was a fair-haired, younger man wearing the same kind of dungarees, but instead of a T-shirt he had a black denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The bearded man registered him out of the corner of his eye and carried on with the business of giving Oskar his change – but his initially merely jovial expression was suddenly joined by a slight, though detectable smirk.
It caught Oskar like a cold shower. He tried to mobilise his powers and unsettle the man’s perception by means of his own inexplicable self-assurance, his mysterious sense of satisfaction, but instead, as each second passed, he felt that, against his very will, he was getting closer and closer to where his morning plan meant he most certainly should not be: on the defensive. He was now stuffing the notes in his wallet like a contemptible wretch whose best efforts at getting a pretty woman was this poor specimen… He couldn’t prove it, but he was absolutely certain that the minute the automatic sliding door closed behind him and Zuzana, the two men in the shop would drop all pretence: D’you see the size of that hooter? I say, Karel, explain one thing to me: How does a woman like that do a blow-job?
He needed time, so he dashed to the toilet at the back of the petrol station,
where he took a long time washing his hands and looking at himself in the
‘Are you all right, dear?’ Zuzana enquired when he got back to the car.
‘Perfectly,’ he said.
For a moment he wondered whether he could escape this entire family outing by pretending to be suddenly unwell, but in the end rejected the idea. It would have taken too much effort. He hit on something else.
‘I’m just not in the mood for people,’ he added, and drove off.
Zuzana didn’t understand: When had it come to him? At the garage? Why? The assistant had been quite nice, hadn’t he?
Oskar kept his answers as vague as possible. He was thinking. After a while he turned to his son.
‘I’ll be honest with you: I really don’t feel like going to this exhibition.’
In the rear-view mirror he saw his son’s disappointment – but he was ready for it.
‘I’ve had an idea: you go alone, I’ll let you have the money for some bits and pieces and your mum and I can go for a walk in the park, since it’s such a nice day – then we’ll come back for you. Will that do?’
The boy’s face lit up.
Zuzana looked no less satisfied.
‘But you wanted to pick up some catalogues, didn’t you…’ she objected.
‘I can get them,’ their son reassured her.
In the park it was truly beautiful: the sun gently warmed the cold air, the trees were a riot of colour, squirrels peeped out from behind them – but there were still too many people for Oskar’s liking. As soon as they left the path and set off across the grass, he gradually relaxed and even put an arm round Zuzana’s waist. He was suddenly ashamed at all his previous manoeuvring. How very absurd, he realised. How old am I, to be competing with others over who’s got the best-looking girl – seventeen? He was carrying on like a pubertal idiot. A solid marriage surely can’t be affected by anything as trivial as the size of one’s wife’s nose, can it?
He resolved to ignore the entire pseudo-problem. He had a discreet look round to check if there were any people nearby, then, breaking into a run, poked his wife’s shoulder.
‘You’re it!’ he shouted and ran in among the huge trees.
At first, Zuzana refused to join in something as infantile as a game of tag, but Oskar kept passing so close to her that he eventually provoked her into chasing after him. They stuck at the game longer that he would have expected, and during the breathless seconds when they stopped and rested before the next round, he took a long, hard look at her: her jumper was tied round her waist so that she was wearing just a T-shirt, under which she was bra-less; she still had nice breasts. Her face was red with the exertion, which produced the optical effect – or so it seemed to Oskar – of reducing the size of her nose. He let himself be caught, pulled her towards him and slipped his right hand under her shirt.
That evening they made love. Oskar put the light out. At first, everything
went well, but when Zuzana, despite Oskar’s somewhat lame protestations, took
his penis into her mouth, he lost his erection.
Even in the dark he could sense her expression.
‘Sorry,’ he murmured. ‘I don’t seem quite up to it.’
Sunday passed with Zuzana looking quizzical and asking cautious questions, to
which Oskar replied evasively or with laboured jokes. He had had so much work at
the college and had been coming home so exhausted that he fortunately had
neither the time nor the energy for any long investigation of his wife’s nose.
He gulped down his dinner, turned on the news, had a bath and, in bed with a
book, soon fell asleep.
But at breakfast-time on Saturday, there was the nose again: awesomely huge, revoltingly pointed, and, to crown it all, full of energy – it wanted to go for a walk in the town, to go out for dinner with Karel and Helena, and as if that weren’t enough, even to go to the cinema. Oskar felt he wasn’t going to be able to handle it. Of course he wanted to remain considerate to his wife, but for that he needed the strength to pretend – and that was what he lacked. He was powerless. He even gave her nose a forthright stare.
‘What’s up?’ Zuzana said at once. ‘What are you looking at?’
He didn’t have the strength to make up excuses, smooth it over, joke his way out of it – but nor did he have the strength to tell her straight out. But could he, anyway? A chap can tell his wife at breakfast to put on a different dress – though that is risky enough – but he could hardly ask her at breakfast to have a nose job.
‘But why Helen again, for crying out loud?’ he groaned instead.
Zuzana shook her head, puzzled.
‘Did we get out of bed the wrong side?’
He didn’t even try to reply.
Their son got up from the table and went to his room.
After a brief pause, his wife tried a friendly tack; after all, they had the whole of Saturday ahead of them, so they couldn’t afford to start the day with a row. She reached across the table and took his hand.
Mind you don’t poke my eye out, Oskar thought.
‘I’ve never noticed that you particularly mind Helen. Didn’t you say that she’s – and I’m quoting now – an exceptionally good-looking woman?
Oskar half-heartedly seized the opportunity.
‘She is a good-looker, but someone ought to tell her at last to do something about that ghastly double chin.’
For a moment he got the jitters: had he gone too far? Christ! It was so obvious!
‘Double chin?’ she said, tickled.
Oskar realised that it hadn’t got through to her. How could she be so blind? Couldn’t she see herself? Didn’t she see herself in the mirror every morning?
‘Double chin,’ he said coolly. ‘Haven’t you ever noticed she’s got more like three?’
His wife watched him in amazement.
‘I mean before dinner. After dinner she always has four. I’m merely saying that those chins make her into something quite different. She looks like a head dinner-lady. The owner of a small-town cake-shop… It just seems a shame – because otherwise she really is attractive. I can’t understand that she doesn’t see it – or that someone doesn’t tell her.’
Amazingly, Zuzana laughed; Oskar couldn’t tell whether it was spontaneous or forced laughter.
‘So you don’t want to go out to dinner with Helen because of her three, or four, chins!’
Oskar declined to make a joke of it and for a while they ate breakfast in silence.
‘By the way,’ he said eventually, ‘while we’re on the subject: is there anything about my behaviour or appearance that I ought to change?’
He said it without a moment’s hesitation, but he was well aware that with every word he was sliding deeper and deeper in those icy realms from which there might be no return. None the less, he finished what he wanted to say.
‘I mean anything that leaps to the eye but you’re afraid to tell me so as not to give offence, as they say?’
Zuzana gave nothing away, but something about her face told Oskar that she had seen through his game at last.
Suddenly, without warning, she lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye. Her smile had vanished.
‘There’s something about me you mind, isn’t there? My nose, isn’t it?’
Oskar swallowed and cravenly avoided her eyes.
‘Yes or no?’
He couldn’t speak.
‘I know it is.’
For the first time, the familiar twitch appeared in the corners of her pretty mouth – making her into a fair-haired little girl who had fallen in the playground, grazed her knee and was now on the brink of tears.
Oskar was dying to fall on his knees before her and tearfully beg her forgiveness – but she was the one who started to cry.
‘Did you think I hadn’t noticed? The way you kept staring? Do you think I’m blind?’ she sobbed, as the first tears trickled down her cheeks.
Oscar’s throat was gripped with emotion He wanted to take her hand, but she pulled away from him and ran into the bathroom, locking herself in.
After five minutes, which Oskar had spent in a torment of self-recrimination, she came back out; in the interval her nose had turned red and puffy.
God! Oskar was horror-stricken. I’m living with a monster! A fairground freak!
‘Do you think you’re perfect?’ she shouted at him. ‘Do you think I don’t mind your ever-expanding bald patch? Do you think I don’t mind your crooked teeth and those horrid black fillings in your molars? Or that I like your slackening belly? Do you think I don’t mind your ridiculously small hands? I do mind – but I’ve never said so! Never!’
‘Stop shouting,’ Oskar tried to pacify her.
This unexpectedly long list of his alleged failings upset him.
He tried to push her back into the bathroom.
‘Scram!’ he bellowed at their son, who was threatening to emerge from his room.
‘And do you know why? Because I’m not such a rotten bastard! Because I love you!’
Oskar was about to use Zuzana’s abuse as a welcome pretext for taking offence with justification, when in a single second he suddenly realised what it all meant: last Saturday he had begun to stop loving his wife.
He pressed his face to hers and started kissing it all over, nose or no nose, but deep down inside he knew that he was unlikely to be able to arrest the process that had begun.
An evening with a real bloke
Dana was supposed to be coming over after eight and Oskar decided that he would have a bath before she arrived; he lingered in the bath about half an hour, then he got out, rubbed himself down, dried his hair and finally – without thinking, as usual – rubbed a little cream into his hands. Suddenly he stopped short and looked at himself with surprise in the misted-up mirror: the way he used hand-cream (and it was the way he always did it) was unequivocally, beyond a shadow of doubt, feminine. It dawned on him with some surprise that this was exactly how his ex-wife had put cream on her hands, and his mother, and it was exactly how his present partner did it… It made him smile, but it was a rather uncertain smile. He screwed the lid of the cream back on and put it back in its place on the shelf, without taking his eyes off his hands as he did so; obviously he wasn’t seeing his slender wrists for the first time, and he was no less familiar with that delicate, sweetish smell of the Palmolive cream that he had been using for years (the back of his hands sometimes went dry) – but in spite of that he now looked at them with a kind of revived interest. The vast majority of his other habits, gestures and bodily movements, he mentally reassured himself, were by contrast quite demonstrably masculine in character – like the way he would wipe sweat from his brow or drain spaghetti… But it was still rather odd. To crown it all, in the next instant he remembered the unalterably feminine way he would apply salve to his cracked lips in winter: smearing a little on his mouth, then clamping his lips firmly together and rubbing one against the other several times in succession… He imitated that motion now, watching himself in the mirror. He really did look like a woman. Before deciding to dismiss the whole business with a joke, he experienced a second or two of panic. Most peculiar, he smirked.
Lest there be any misconception: Oskar had never (with the possible exception of puberty) suffered any complexes as to his masculinity. He did have fairly small hands and thin wrists and, for a man, teeth that were possibly on the small side, but on the other hand he was a good six foot tall and thanks to working out regularly he had fairly broad shoulders and a good rugged chest upon which more than one girl had placed her face at night with duly cinematic devotion, and so forth – in short, he knew he could make a decent fist of playing the male role. Where sex was concerned, he acted like a man, because that was what he felt, but in other situations, he now mused, he did so more because it was simplest. It was, in short, the line of least resistance. He knew that the male role was in a way best suited to him, though occasionally he had the impression that it might not be the sole option… There were moments (for example, in those first minutes after love-making during which the awareness of his physicality was temporarily suspended), when, much more than feeling like a man, he felt like a person, a human being. And whenever, as occasionally happened, he listened in on women lamenting that there are no real blokes around any more, not only was he not in the least affronted, but he even felt that it didn’t apply to him at all. After all, he hadn’t asked to be born a man – so he wasn’t going to have anyone else foist any notional obligations on him. He had signed no undertaking that he would behave like a real man. He had never consciously entered any Real Bloke contest – so why should anyone go around declaring the points he was allegedly worth?
Dana was in a weepy state when she arrived: she wasn’t coping at college, the
day before she had lost her quarterly travel card somewhere, and to add insult
to injury, when she was buying some jeans that afternoon, two young shop
assistants had passed audible and unflattering comments on the size of her hips.
Oskar was honestly furious at the silly little bitches and no less honestly
sympathised with Dana – he clasped her to him and, resorting to a few classical
tricks of psychology (Ask yourself: will this still matter to you a year from
now?), smoothed her distress away quite quickly. Then he suggested they could
eat out in a decent restaurant, but Dana didn’t feel like going anywhere, so he
just phoned out for two tuna pizzas and a bottle of wine; as he was dictating
the address he caught himself speaking in a slightly deeper voice than usual,
but Dana didn’t notice.
After dinner, he grabbed Dana round the waist, lifted her off her feet and carried her into the bedroom, where they made love for an unusually long time. Afterwards Dana placed her flushed face on his massive chest and Oskar stroked her hair, lost in thought and inspecting his small hands. You know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, he thought, if blokes could also lean on someone else, so to speak, from time to time.
Go on on your own.
One Saturday evening in May, sometime in the mid ’eighties, Zuzana put it to
Oskar that at least today they might not perhaps spend the entire evening in
front of the television as usual; she said it with peculiar urgency, and at the
very moment when the continuity announcer, Marie Tomsová, was giving a run-down
of the evening’s programmes.
‘What do you want to do instead?’ Oskar asked, not unreasonably – the local cinema was only open on Wednesdays and Sundays, they didn’t have the money to go out for a drink (Oskar was still at college, so they had to get by on Zuzana’s slender wages), and there were no other sources of diversion in their little home town.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Zuzana said, throwing her arms wide in a vague gesture of dissatisfaction. ‘What if we just went out for a walk? It’s lovely outside…’
Their son was staying with one of his grandmothers, so, in theory at least, there was no obstacle to the realisation of her suggestion, but that obviously wasn’t it, Oskar mused. After all, it was Zuzana who, for years now, had spent evening after evening watching every conceivable rubbish on the television, while he would be in the kitchen, with cotton wool in his ears, reading or writing – and here she is now, almost making him out to be some kind of tele-addict. It was, however, true that at weekends, when he could write during the day, he would almost always join her in front of the television for the evening; he couldn’t even remember when they’d last done anything different on a Saturday evening.
‘All right,’ he said intently, ‘let’s go for a walk.’
‘You really would?’ Zuzana asked in surprise, as if she had hardly dared hope that Oskar might agree.
Her joy was due to the near-fervour with which he had responded.
‘Of course. Why not?’ he said. ‘But turn it off now!’ he added assertively.
For a brief moment Zuzana hesitated, but then did switch it off at the box (they still didn’t possess a remote). Oscar had obviously seen his wife turn the television off scores of times, but this time the familiar action struck him as slightly different – less automatic, more deliberate, not to say ostentatiously sensible.
‘There!’ said Zuzana.
However, as they viewed the suddenly darkened screen, both she and Oskar had a few seconds of doubt about their decision, though each for a slightly different reason – Zuzana remembered that it was Saturday, with its relatively more attractive programme, including amongst other things the next instalment of the Italian crime serial, The Octopus, which they had been following together, while Oskar was thinking more about the attitude he should adopt to the several completely vacant hours that had suddenly opened up ahead of him; he wasn’t entirely sure if he was agreeably surprised or caught unpleasantly unawares by the prospect.
‘Or do you want to watch?’ said Zuzana. ‘I don’t mind.’
Oskar realised that this was probably the last moment when it was still possible to go back and, as so often before, slip together, with a guilty smile, into the sweet embrace of helpless resignation – but this time his determination was greater than it had ever been.
‘No,’ he said emphatically, thus driving his own doubts away. ‘We said we were going out, didn’t we?’
With feigned, almost boyish impatience, he shuffled his indoor trousers down onto the carpet (knowing full well that in the circumstances he would be forgiven) and went into the bedroom, from where he reappeared a few minutes later in clean jeans and a white summer shirt.
While dressing, Zuzana stepped over to the open window.
‘It really is glorious outside,’ she remarked.
It would be wrong to suggest that she was exaggerating: the setting sun gave an orange tinge to the tower-blocks opposite and a gentle warm breeze brought the manifold scents of a May evening in through the window.
‘Hurry up then,’ Oskar chivvied her with a smile. ‘The voice of the turtle dove is signalling love.’
As soon as they began getting changed it was certain that they really were going out – and the spirits of both rose, perhaps as a reward for the torment of having made the choice. They were still a little worried whether a walk without a purpose, a walk for its own sake as it were, would actually suffice as a worthwhile full-length evening’s entertainment, but once they were out in the warm crimson dusk their unspoken concern rapidly dispersed unbidden. All the things that had remained unuttered during countless evenings in front of the television now demanded to be said with such intensity that they kept interrupting each other: by turns they dealt with Zuzana’s problems at work, the prospects for a move (they were trying to get a flat in Prague) and their son’s imminent start at school, and although even now their views differed in many respects, they both opted for an amiable, conciliatory tone and continued holding hands. The walked along the deserted embankment by the river, crossed the bridge and went up the hill to the park surrounding the chateau, then sat on one of the benches and looked down on the town below. An entire forest of television aerials and satellite receivers was silhouetted against the evening sky.
‘Until now I never actually noticed how many of them there are,’ said Zuzana.
‘More and more,’ said Oskar.
For a moment he imagined that the electromagnetic waves of television signals fell on the town like invisible rain.
They spent over half an hour on the bench and then slowly made their way back. As the darkness intensified, the gaps in their conversation multiplied, but the atmosphere of serenity that had accompanied their unplanned outing from the start, remained unchanged.
But when they reached the edge of the estate, the insistent theme tune of the
previously mentioned Italian crime serial, which could be heard coming from
dozens of open windows, caught them unawares; at that moment, either of them, if
asked for an honest answer, would have had to confess that they did actually
want to see it.
‘The voice of the turtle dove is signalling love,’ said Oskar anyway, mockingly, and Zuzana gave a little laugh.
The tune brimmed over into a sweeping, alluring refrain.
Zuzana put on her coquettish look.
‘Why don’t we look in on Pavla?’ she hazarded, waving an arm in the direction of the relevant window, behind whose curtains the light from a television screen also glimmered.
‘No,’ said Oskar. ‘Certainly not.’
He said it with such exaggerated emphasis that he immediately looked rather silly, but Zuzana still skittishly cuddled up to him.
‘Oscar dear,’ she whispered, ‘let’s go to Pavla’s…’
‘Why not?’ she said, possibly unconsciously, automatically, but it still annoyed Oscar no end. How could she be such a hypocrite?
‘Because we’d just get stuck in front of that stupid bloody box again!’ he said. ‘That’s why.’
He didn’t fully understand where all that ferocity had suddenly come from. By contrast, Zuzana was still smiling teasingly.
Suddenly her embrace became unbearable and Oscar wrenched himself out of it rather abruptly. He took a step back and a deep breath.
Zuzana shook her head in dissent.
‘Listen,’ he said with forced composure, ‘I’m not going to watch television at anybody’s house. Do I make myself plain?’
It was starting to get serious, but he couldn’t help himself. For some reason, which he could not yet put a name to, it seemed important to terminate this walk.
‘You can be a real pain sometimes!’ Zuzana said, shaking her head again.
Oskar could not believe what he was hearing.
‘Me, a real pain?’ he exploded. ‘Me?’
The light in Zuzana’s eyes went out and hardened. A smirk appeared in the corner of her mouth, a smirk which Oskar had always loathed.
‘Why do always have to spoil things?’ she said sadly. ‘You always spoil everything.’
There was a pounding in Oskar’s head and ears. In his chest he felt that familiar tightness. If he hadn’t been embarrassed to, he would have bellowed for all the estate to hear.
‘I spoil things? I must be dreaming! I spoil things?’ he hissed angrily.
Zuzana watched him with disdain.
‘D’you know what? Go on on your own,’ she said finally. ‘I’m going to Pavla’s. You carry on.’
She gave one last uncomprehending shake of the head and stalked off in a huff.
‘You bet I will!’ Oskar shouted after her, by now beside himself. ‘Don’t you worry! That’s just what I will do!’
Just One Medal
It was getting dark. When Oscar left the house she was standing at the bus-stop. She didn’t have her skis with her that day either; her empty hands were hidden in the pockets of her pale fur coat. She was stamping her feet in cream-coloured high boots. He felt something akin to righteous superiority, but as he approached he began to yield, against his will, to a sense of scruffiness; he knew there were several stains on his ski-pants and that there were several places where white tufts of padding were spewing out through the flimsy fabric of his anorak. Defiantly, he stepped across the barrier of brownish snow at the edge of the kerb and crossed the road to join her.
He and Zuzana lived in the same street, they went to the same school (both
were facing their school leaving exams in the spring) and, until quite recently,
they had been members of the same ski club. Since childhood they had met all
through every winter at this bus-stop and travelled up and out of the town to
train. For years he had sat as far as he could from her because he could not
bear to see how her club ski-suit clung limply to her ever-so-thin hips and her
twiggy legs projecting from the prodigious carapace of her ski-boots; he was
embarrassed that the other boys should see him getting off the bus with this
Some time three years before, everything had changed. One day, he had seen her take off her anorak – that was when he started gloomily helping her with her skis. Later on, at one of the training sessions, he had, feigning indulgence, complied with her request and explained the technique of one particularly tricky move; that gave their conversation a sufficiently solid basis for them to grow quite close, though neither of them actually noticed. Within a single week they became friends. They would confide their sporting plans to one another, watch each other’s performances at competitions (with a kind of edgy attentiveness) and celebrate their occasional minor successes in the café at the foot of the ski-lift by drinking cola with a slice of lemon. Twice they had shyly kissed.
‘Hi,’ he greeted her curtly.
‘Hi,’ she replied circumspectly.
He didn’t say anything, because he knew that his silence was eloquent enough. She was the one who should speak. To apologise – or at least explain. He dropped the skis from his shoulder, adopted his habitual stance of leaning on his sticks and started fiddling with his binding. Each item of his equipment incriminated her, he mentally assured himself. As evidence of her betrayal. His skis, sticks, backpack, ski-suit – she knew all these things intimately; did she sense the mute reproach that they contained? When he raised his eyes briefly to her, he was none too sure that she did.
‘Go and change out of that silly get-up and come and join me,’ he said as scornfully as he could manage, but at the very moment of utterance he caught the falsity of the tone. In that fur coat she looked not just very good, but entirely natural, so natural that precisely this struck him as the real, true her and that all the previous anoraks and ski clothes had been no more than costumes adopted temporarily for that children’s game called downhill skiing… Her amiable, but seemingly indulgent smile merely reinforced Oskar’s doubts and simultaneously provoked him into one last attempt at regaining the upper hand: with a forced smile, but also too precipitately, he jerked away the collar of her fur coat, intending to dismiss her fancy clothes with a single look of derision – but instead he revealed the neckline of her dress, in the vee of which glinted the white lace trimming of her bra. Oskar’s momentary hesitation betrayed him and the intended gesture came to naught; for some unaccountable reason, however, he couldn’t let go of the coat. On the back of his hand he felt her warm skin.
She’s flirting, he realised. He withdrew his hand and she pulled the collar tight around her throat; the warm air which was thus expelled was pleasantly scented.
‘Change out of that silly get-up and come and join me,’ she said with a smile.
The year before, her attitude to skiing had begun to undergo some major
changes. There was no ignoring it. Talk of training plans bored her; by
contrast, she came visibly to life when the conversation turned to their
trainer’s love affairs. She would arrive late at training sessions and get
changed as soon as they ended. She refused to wear a woolly hat and skied with
her hair blowing free even when it was below zero; and sometimes she would even
put some rum in her cola.
At first Oskar thought little of it; as far as he knew, most girls in the club went through a phase like this. He had not foreseen, however, that she would start appearing at the bus-stop ski-less.
The bus was half empty. The handful of people on it headed, like Zuzana, for
the new wine-lodge at the foot of the ski tows and viewed Oskar with that
lukewarm indulgence with which people wearing ties usually view evening joggers.
It annoyed him that in their eyes the slopes were obviously no more than a
trifling appendage to the wine-lodge.
They had sat next to each other so often before, but this time it was different. He gripped his skis between his knees. When they had got them the year before, all bright and shiny, he was so thrilled with them that he took them with him to his bedroom; he lay them down by the bed and in the dark stroked their smooth running surfaces and finely honed edges. Zuzana used to do it as well.
She started asking about the approaching national championship; the trainer had told her that Oskar was in with the chance of a medal.
‘We’ll see,’ Oskar said stiffly, but inside he was pleased.
She carried on talking, but despite her speaking like an aficionado, using all the right slang, it sounded alien to Oskar – as if the words were misappropriated. He felt as if he were answering questions from some well-informed lady editor of a local newspaper. In the middle of the next sentence he fell grouchily silent and for the rest of the journey not a word passed between them.
They got off the bus and the snow crunched beneath their feet; there was slightly more here than down in the town. By now the dark had encircled the whole horizon and the floodlights on the slope glimmered faintly through the dark stretches of forest. The wine-lodge was a blaze of purple neon lights.
‘I’m not meeting anyone,’ she said as they stood outside the door.
The sound of music came from inside. Through the gap between the buildings you could see the yellow, here and there almost orange, snow and the anchors of the ski tow travelling up and down; the club juniors had just finished training.
‘Nor am I.’
Two couples passed them; they had noticed them on the bus. One of the men opened the door and the music was suddenly much louder.
With a smile she shrugged and raised her eyebrows.
‘So it’s cheerio then?’
He couldn’t understand where her sense of superiority came from.
‘Cheerio,’ he said coolly.
He tossed his skis over to his other shoulder, though he could scarcely feel their weight, and headed along the concrete walkway towards the ski tow. He didn’t look back, but as he passed beneath the window of the wine-lodge entrance lobby he saw Zuzana one more time: she was standing in front of a mirror, no longer wearing her fur; she was just raising her bare arms towards the hair at the back of her head. Her painted lips, in which she held a hairpin, were clamped tight shut, but there was nevertheless a light smile on her lips.
During his first trip, Oskar usually did a few limbering-up exercises on the ski tow, but this time he just let himself be pulled limply upwards; he dragged his sticks, looped round his wrists, behind him like some awkward encumbrance. The steel cable hurried towards the next pylon. His skis glided silently along the ruts in the snow, across which the branches of the spruces that lined the brightly lit slope cast strange distorted shadows. The championship was approaching and he did want that medal. He had never yet won the big one: he had won a few regional competitions, so he did have several of those flimsy aluminium medals (and, of course, a few certificates and two ghastly cut-glass vases), but no real heavy medal – the kind you get at national championships – had ever come his way. He clenched his fist as if he already had that hard, heavy chunk of metal in his hand.
At the top a cold wind was blowing. The trainer gave Oskar a few instructions for the day’s session, watched his first descent, praised him, then abandoned him early, since he was in a hurry to get to a dance somewhere. The last school-kids had also finished by now, so Oskar was left on the slope almost alone – except for two other club members and a handful of recreational skiers. God alone knew what he was doing here on a Friday evening, getting his hands bashed against bits of wood, when most people were out dancing and drinking… He was skiing well, yet he felt only a shadow of his usual satisfaction – all that remained was a strange kind of doggedness, but he was less than certain that it would hold out for the thirty descents prescribed by the trainer.
When he reached the bottom for the fifth time, she was waiting for him by the
ski tow. In the past, having done five descents, they would go for a drink of
tea – and this time too her thumb and forefinger were embracing a steaming
‘Drink it,’ she said, smiling.
He sniffed it and with a shake of the head declined: it had rum in it. How childish, he thought. Did she want to get him drunk on grog? It was by no means boiling hot, so he could have drunk it in one go. He silently handed her the glass back, pushed himself elegantly away from the railing and in a single motion pulled the nearest anchor towards him; the perfect coordination gave him an inner satisfaction. This time he did do his limbering-up exercises on the uphill ride, and immediately hurled himself with a zing back down from the top between the red and blue guide-posts. Medal, medal, medal, medal, medal, medal, he chanted aloud to the rhythm of each turn.
After the tenth descent, Zuzana was again standing down below with a glass in her hand. He had half a mind to refuse it, but then decided to play along with her: without a word, he downed the grog, straddled the anchor and rode off. Deep inside he had a pleasant warming sensation. What did she hope to achieve? Was she naively aspiring to drag him down to her level in her fall from sporting grace? Was she jealous of his possible success in the national championship? Or was it just a game, a manifestation of her sporting spirit, a kind of tug-of-war between the wine-lodge and the ski-slope? It also occurred to him that she might be testing her own allure on him. The pull of the anchor suddenly yielded; he was back at the top and had no time left for any more such pointless musings.
After the twentieth descent and four grogs she stepped onto his ski boots and
gave him a long kiss. Oskar returned the kiss, then tossed his gloves and ski
sticks into the snow and, with a deftness which surprised even him, slipped a
hand into one of her bra cups; in the next instant he took fright at his
temerity, but looking straight at her was relieved to discover that her
expression was still amiable. From that moment he considered downhill skiing the
most absurd discipline – he could see no reason why, for example, he should grab
that strange iron bar and let himself be hauled for the twenty-first time back
to the top of that thoroughly uninteresting, frozen-rigid hill.
He followed her ungrudgingly back into the wine-lodge and had to acknowledge that its denizens were all the most pleasant of people; the girls referred appreciatively to his mountain tan, and when, as time progressed, he danced with them (in stocking feet), they kept giving his muscular arms admiring tweaks.
‘Darling,’ Zuzana said on the journey back home, ‘I was proud of you.’
Not quite twelve months later, Zuzana fell pregnant and shortly afterwards
they got married.
Whenever Oskar retold this story, he tried to slant it more towards its comic dimension, and mostly he did achieve the desired effect.
‘Love conquers all,’ his audience would laugh, and Oskar with them, despite regarding that interpretation as somewhat simplified.
One evening, while he was massaging some cheap body lotion into Zuzana’s by
now considerably convex belly, Oskar jokingly accused her of ruining the one
thing he might have achieved in life.
‘You can’t mean the skiing?’ she responded skittishly, which annoyed him somewhat.
‘What else?’ he said, uncomprehending. ‘I was on form, everybody said so; I was doing good…’
In Zuzana’s eyes – Lord knows why – there was a malicious glint.
‘Doing good?’ she said. ‘In that case, show me just one proper medal…’
One of the Last Nice Days
The summer was practically over. Oskar and Zuzana were quite alone at the
weir. She was lying on her back, her eyes closed. The weir roared.
Oskar had rolled over on his stomach, folded his arms under his chin, and was waiting for one of the last boats of the year to appear in the bend of the river. The surface of the water gleamed silver so he had to squint. But the sun had lost much of its force, though it was still strong enough to release the smell of resin from Oskar’s kayak.
‘Give me a massage, will you? The cream’s there somewhere.’ Zuzana said, without opening her eyes.
He got up and slid the kayak into the water. Supporting himself on its sides he slipped deftly into it. The kayak twisted under his weight and a few wavelets splashed against the concrete retaining wall. As he pulled on his spray-deck, the current turned the boat round and began to carry it towards the roaring sluiceway. He waited, then when he felt the stern lurch on the first long wave, he leaned forward and with a few strong strokes guided the boat onto the smooth water above the weir. Then making a few rapid Eskimo strokes, he idled over close to the bank and steered into a sparse reed-bed; he liked the dry rustling noise it made. Water was still dripping from his wet hair onto his face. He spotted that Zuzana had sat up and was watching him, but he avoided her gaze. He felt he would not be able to stand it.
During the five years of their marriage this was the first time that she had cheated on him. He had had several more or less insignificant infidelities, but Zuzana had never found out – she was satisfied by any moderately sophisticated excuse. Not Oskar though – he wanted to know with absolute certainty. Zuzana obviously lacked the patient, deliberate methodicality by which he had brought her, the previous evening, to a contrite confession. Now he knew for certain, though the unyielding pangs around his stomach, which he felt each time he imagined specific details of her betrayal, surprised him by being much stronger than the pleasant sense of injury and moral superiority which had led him to conduct that ten-hour interrogation. Yet now, if anyone were to ask him a few similarly searching questions, Oskar would probably quickly admit that what he had so urgently desired to establish the day before he would rather not know today at all.
He returned to the weir and dragged the kayak out of the water; Zuzana made to help him, but with one quick move he forestalled her. The bottom of the kayak was plastered with wet leaves; the river was already full of them. Autumn would soon be here with a vengeance, Oskar realised. Everything was going down the pan.
A boat appeared in the bend of the river. He crossed the concrete island on which they had been lying and sat on the very edge of the sluiceway, with his back to Zuzana. The weir had been breaking up for years and long before this the water had worn the original sluice away and widened it out. The black-and-green current poured through in several long, only slightly frothing waves, divided roughly in the middle by a huge projecting boulder, or, more properly speaking, a great block of stone; the water crashed against it, splitting in two directions: to the left towards the foot of the cliff, and to the right between two smaller rocks.
The boat was getting nearer. It was a khaki-coloured ex-army inflatable dinghy; it looked sort of fat, chunky. Seated in it were two middle-aged couples; all four were wearing white T-shirts with the same design printed on them.
‘Ahoy there,’ called out, sailor-like, one of the men, bearded, tanned and with a red scarf round his neck.
Oskar did not reply.
‘Ahoy,’ Zuzana called, rather shyly.
Oskar imagined Zuzana having sex with the man. For a moment, the boat cruised indecisively above the weir before bumping heavily into the top edge of it. The man with the scarf got out into the shallow water and hauled himself up onto the wet concrete to get a closer view of the sluice. Zuzana opened her eyes for a moment and the man smiled to her. Then he went over to Oskar and bent down over the breach.
‘I suppose you know this spot, eh?’ he ventured and pointed with his chin towards Oskar’s kayak. ‘Which is the best way through?’
Oskar cleared his throat, as if he couldn’t find his voice.
‘To the right. Right past that big boulder,’ he said.
‘Between those two rocks?’ asked the man rather dubiously.
‘You have to steer right between them. Go left and you’ll get thrown against the cliff.’
They scraped their port side slightly, but otherwise got through safely. The man with the scarf waved good-bye to them and Zuzana again reciprocated.
‘You fancy him, eh?’ Oskar remarked.
He immediately turned away, but could still feel her looking at him. It irked him that by that stupid remark he had unnecessarily given her the upper hand.
‘I’m going home,’ she said dryly.
‘Go where you like, you whore,’ he replied.
She tossed her things into a straw basket and angrily ran off.
About half an hour later a blue canoe came up to the weir; the girl sitting
at the front was topless. She got out and stretched. The blonde chap at the
back, who could have hardly been twenty, dragged the canoe from the river and
went to take a look at the rapids. Meanwhile the girl applied sun-tan cream to
her shapely legs.
‘Portage,’ the boy came back to tell her.
‘You must be joking, Bob!’
She rolled back her eyes and glanced at Oskar, sitting at the edge of the breach. She set aside the cream and, fully aware of her nakedness, stood right next to him.
‘It can be done, can’t it,’ she asked.
Her fingers massaged the sore red stripes on her thighs.
‘Sure,’ said Oskar.
He had a marginally better physique than the pasty, gaunt Bob.
‘See,’ the girl told Bob.
‘Yeah? And which way, if you don’t mind telling me?’ Bob replied irritably. ‘I’m telling you, we don’t want to go smashing the canoe to pieces, because it’s not exactly ours to smash.’
What he said was undoubtedly meant for Oskar’s ears, though he wasn’t looking at him.
‘You’ve still got traces of cream on your leg,’ Oskar told the girl.
The girl looked dubious and provocative at the same time.
‘Oh yes?… Where?’ she examined her legs.
‘Here,’ said Oskar and slowly stroked the back of her calf with two fingers. ‘It’s gone now.’
Her skin was hot.
‘So, what’s it to be?’ Bob asked nervously. ‘Are we going to carry it, or what?’
Oskar despised him – yet he was also sorry for him in a way.
‘No. We’re going through,’ said the girl with a smile and turned to Oskar. ‘Which way do we go?’
Her leg was nearly touching his shoulder.
‘You’ve got traces of cream of your breasts,’ Oskar said gravely.
The girl jumped away, laughing.
‘Stop messing, tell us which way to go…’
Oscar looked into her eyes until she averted them.
‘To the left,’ he said, as if he’d lost interest. ‘Left past that boulder.’
He stood up, got his kayak and launched it – as he did so, he flexed his muscles more than was strictly necessary.
‘Left?’ said Bob. ‘Won’t that push us into the cliff?’
‘No,’ said Oskar. ‘If you go right, you’ll smash into those two rocks.’
‘So now you know,’ the girl said to Bob. ‘Let’s go.’
As she got back into the canoe she again glanced in Oskar’s direction and shrugged. Bob pushed off from the bank and making an unnecessarily wide arc aimed towards the left-hand side of the sluice. Before the current dashed them against the cliff the girl turned round to give Oskar one last wave, but Oskar didn’t reciprocate any more than previously. Levering his paddle against the stony river bottom he pushed off and with leisurely strokes set out upstream for home.
It had been one of the last nice days.
Stuff his eyes! (Boccaccio à la tchèque)
‘Make up your mind, is he coming, or not?’ Oskar whispered, so as not to wake
the baby, which had only just gone off to sleep. As late as yesterday Jiøina had
said on the phone that her husband wasn’t going to be in, but now it didn’t look
When he set off to see her that afternoon, he was in fine spirits – after twenty days he had at last got a walking-out pass. He didn’t feel like going beneath ground, taking the metro, so he went by tram, even though it meant a longer journey; he sat on the heated seat and watched the gulls circling over the Vltava in the freezing air and the weak January sun bearing down on the dusty fronts of the houses on the embankment, whose windows sent out blinding reflections towards him almost non-stop. As he made his way from the tram-stop, he had still felt something bordering on elation and looked forward to seeing Jiøina and even her son of nearly twelve months (the smell of chamomile bath-essence, which had dominated his previous visits to her little bed-sit, was another welcome counterweight to all those odours of the barracks), but now, after three hours in the small, over-heated and untidy room, his euphoria had totally evaporated. He had had to spend the entire time sitting in a most uncomfortable position on the unmade double bed, listening to a lethal combination of the baby crying and the noise from the television.
‘I told you, I don’t know!’ Jiøina hissed angrily, without taking her eyes off the black-and-white screen of the television, which was now turned down. ‘How the hell should I know?’
Oskar shook his head. Sometimes he could hardly stand her banality – at moments like this he told himself he would stop seeing her there and then, but the next time he got a pass he would come back again. He glanced at her. The neckline of her crumpled and, truth to tell, not particularly clean nightdress was torn at the vee – Oskar had already wondered whether that was down to breastfeeding or to Ruda.
‘I don’t understand why you keep on asking,’ she said.
‘Because I just don’t want him to find us here like this,’ said Oskar as quietly as he could, gesturing first towards the crumpled bed on which they were sitting, then at his rather untraditional visiting apparel – green army boxer shorts and a white vest. His walking-out uniform was suspended on a hanger from the handle of one of the windows, where he had hung it as soon as he arrived, so as to reduce somewhat the risk of Jiøina’s spilling red wine, nail-varnish remover or carrot juice on it as usual. ‘Is it that hard to grasp?’ he added.
‘But you know what he’s like,’ Jiøina whispered, tossing her head with something like disdain. Her gaze flew across to her own side of the bed, where, instead of a bedside table, stood the battered red cot in which her son was sleeping. She turned back to Oskar: ‘And if he does come – which I doubt very much – he’ll be in such a state he won’t even see you…’
Oskar did not love Jiøina (any more than she loved him), but he was quite fond of her in his way and sometimes – like now – felt a comprehending tenderness towards her. He had experienced something similar when, on his arrival, he had watched the unfeigned delight with which she had read to her uncomprehending little boy all those primitive rhymes in the shiny board-book which, together with the traditional pistachios and two bottles of red wine, he had bought on the way there. At moments like that he reminded himself that life had been none too kind to her. She had trained as a shop-assistant in Ústí nad Labem, then, barely having started on her first job, she was thrown out, allegedly for refusing to sleep with the manager – not exactly as a matter of principle, she admitted, more because she found him repulsive (Oskar believed her version). She claimed not to have found another job and to have lived for a while on benefit. During the day she looked after her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis (she had died the previous summer), and in the evening she would do the rounds of the Ústí discos to let her hair down – and when she got home late at night, her father almost invariably beat her, she claimed. So when Ruda suggested she marry him and