I got another barber that comes over from Carterville and helps me out Saturdays, but the rest of the time I can get along all right alone. You can see for yourself that this ain’t no New York: City and besides that, the most of the boys works all day and don’t have no leisure to drop in here and get themselves prettied up.
You’re a newcomer, ain’t you? I thought I hadn’t seen you round before. I hope you like it good enough to stay. As I say, we ain’t no New York City or Chicago, but we have pretty good times. Not as good, though, since Jim Kendall got killed. When he was alive, him and Hod Meyers used to keep this town in an uproar. I bet they was more laughin’ done here than any town its size in America.
Jim was comical, and Hod was pretty near a match for him. Since Jim’s gone, Hod tries to hold his end up just the same as ever, but it’s tough goin’ when you ain’t got nobody to kind of work with.
They used to be plenty fun in here Saturdays. This place is jampacked Saturdays, from four o’clock on. Jim and Hod would show up right after their supper round six o’clock. Jim would set himself down in that big chair, nearest the blue spittoon. Whoever had been settin’ in that chair, why they’d get up when Jim come in and at” it to him.
You’d of thought it was a reserved seat like they have sometimes in a theaytre. Hod would generally always stand or walk up and down or some Saturdays, of course, he’d be settin’ in this chair part of the time, gettin’ a haircut.
Well, Jim would set there a w’ile without opening his mouth only to spit, and then finally he’d say to me, “Whitey,”–my right name, that is, my right first name, is Dick, but everybody round here calls me Whitey– Jim would say, “Whitey, your nose looks like a rosebud tonight. You must of been drinkin’ some of your aw de cologne.”
So I’d say, “No, Jim, but you look like you’d been drinkin’ something of that kind or somethin’ worse.”
Jim would have to laugh at that, but then he’d speak up and say, “No, I ain’t had nothin’ to drink, but that ain’t sayin’ I wouldn’t like somethin’. I wouldn’t even mind if it was wood alcohol.”
Then Hod Meyers would say, “Neither would your wife.” That would set everybody to laughin’ because Jim and his wife wasn’t on very good terms. She’d of divorced him only they wasn’t no chance to get alimony and she didn’t have no way to take care of herself and the kids. She couldn’t never understand Jim. He was kind of rough, but a good fella at heart.
Him and Hod had all kinds of sport with Milt Sheppard. I don’t suppose you’ve seen Milt. Well, he’s got an Adam’s apple that looks more like a mush-melon. So I’d be shavin’ Milt and when I’d start to shave down here on his neck, Hod would holler, “Hey, Whitey, wait a minute! Before you cut into it, let’s make up a pool and see who can guess closest to the number of seeds.”
And Jim would say, “If Milt hadn’t of been so hoggish, he’d of ordered a half a cantaloupe instead of a whole one and it might not of stuck in his throat.”
All the boys would roar at this and Milt himself would force a smile, though the joke was on him. Jim certainly was a card!
There’s his shavin’ mug, setting on the shelf, right next to Charley Vail’s. “Charles M. Vail.” That’s the druggist. He comes in regular for his shave, three times a week. And Jim’s is the cup next to Charley’s. “dames H. Kendall.” Jim won’t need no shavin’ mug no more, but I’ll leave it there just the same for old time’s sake. Jim certainly was a character!
Years ago, Jim used to travel for a canned goods concern over in Carterville. They sold canned goods. Jim had the whole northern half of the State and was on the road five days out of every week. He’d drop in here Saturdays and tell his experiences for that week. It was rich.
I guess he paid more attention to playin’ jokes than makin’ sales. Finally the concern let him out and he come right home here and told everybody he’d been fired instead of sayin’ he’d resigned like most fellas would of.
It was a Saturday and the shop was full and Jim got up out of that chair and says, “Gentlemen, I got an important announcement to make. I been fired from my job.”
Well, they asked him if he was in earnest and he said he was and nobody could think of nothin’ to say till Jim finally broke the ice himself. He says, “I been sellin’ canned goods and now I’m canned goods myself.
You see, the concern he’d been workin’ for was a factory that made canned goods. Over in Carterville. And now Jim said he was canned himself. He was certainly a card!
Jim had a great trick that he used to play w’ile he was travelin’. For instance, he’d be ridin’ on a train and they’d come to some little town like, well, like, well, like, we’ll say, like Benton. Jim would look out the train window and read the signs of the stores.
For instance, they’d be a sign, “Henry Smith, Dry Goods.” Well, Jim would write down the name and the name of the town and when he got to wherever he was goin’ he’d mail back a postal card to Henry Smith at Benton and not sign no name to it, but he’d write on the card, well somethin’ like “Ask your wife about that book agent that spent the afternoon last week,” or “Ask your Missus who kept her from gettin’ lonesome the last time you was in Carterville.” And he’d sign the card, “A Friend.”
Of course, he never knew what really come of none of these jokes, but he could picture what probably happened and that was enough.
Jim didn’t work very steady after he lost his position with the Carterville people. What he did earn, coin’ odd jobs round town why he spent pretty near all of it on gin, and his family might of starved if the stores hadn’t of carried them along. Jim’s wife tried her hand at dressmakin’, but they ain’t nobody goin’ to get rich makin’ dresses in this town.
As I say, she’d of divorced Jim, only she seen that she couldn’t support herself and the kids and she was always hopin’ that some day Jim would cut out his habits and give her more than two or three dollars a week.
They was a time when she would go to whoever he was workin’ for and ask them to give her his wages, but after she done this once or twice, he beat her to it by borrowin’ most of his pay in advance. He told it all round town, how he had outfoxed his Missus. He certainly was a caution!
But he wasn’t satisfied with just outwittin’ her. He was sore the way she had acted, tryin’ to grab off his pay. And he made up his mind he’d get even. Well, he waited till Evans’s Circus was advertised to come to town. Then he told his wife and two kiddies that he was goin’ to take them to the circus. The day of the circus, he told them he would get the tickets and meet them outside the entrance to the tent.
Well, he didn’t have no intentions of bein’ there or buyin’ tickets or nothin’. He got full of gin and laid round Wright’s poolroom all day. His wife and the kids waited and waited and of course he didn’t show up. His wife didn’t have a dime with her, or nowhere else, I guess. So she finally had to tell the kids it was all off and they cried like they wasn’t never goin’ to stop.
Well, it seems, w’ile they was cryin’, Doc Stair come along and he asked what was the matter, but Mrs. Kendall was stubborn and wouldn’t tell him, but the kids told him and he insisted on takin’ them and their mother in the show. Jim found this out afterwards and it was one reason why he had it in for Doc Stair.
Doc Stair come here about a year and a half ago. He’s a mighty handsome young fella and his clothes always look like he has them made to order. He goes to Detroit two or three times a year and w’ile he’s there must have a tailor take his measure and then make him a suit to order. They cost pretty near twice as much, but they fit a whole lot better than if you just bought them in a store.
For a w’ile everybody was wonderin’ why a young doctor like Doc Stair should come to a town like this where we already got old Doc Gamble and Doc Foote that’s both been here for years and all the practice in town was always divided between the two of them.
Then they was a story got round that Doc Stair’s gal had thronged him over, a gal up in the Northern Peninsula somewhere, and the reason he come here was to hide himself away and forget it. He said himself that he thought they wasn’t nothin’ like general practice in a place like ours to fit a man to be a good all round doctor. And that’s why he’d came.
Anyways, it wasn’t long before he was makin’ enough to live on, though they tell me that he never dunned nobody for what they owed him, and the folks here certainly has got the owin’ habit, even in my business. If I had all that was comin’ to me for just shaves alone, I could go to Carterville and put up at the Mercer for a week and see a different picture every night. For instance, they’s old George Purdy–but I guess I shouldn’t ought to be gossipin’.
Well, last year, our coroner died, died of the flu. Ken Beatty, that was his name. He was the coroner. So they had to choose another man to be coroner in his place and they picked Doc Stair. He laughed at first and said he didn’t want it, but they made him take it. It ain’t no job that anybody would fight for and what a man makes out of it in a year would just about buy seeds for their garden. Doc’s the kind, though, that can’t say no to nothin’ if you keep at him long enough.
But I was goin’ to tell you about a poor boy we got here in town-Paul Dickson. He fell out of a tree when he was about ten years old. Lit on his head and it done somethin’ to him and he ain’t never been right. No harm in him, but just silly. Jim Kendall used to call him cuckoo; that’s a name Jim had for anybody that was off their head, only he called people’s head their bean. That was another of his gags, callin’ head bean and callin’ crazy people cuckoo. Only poor Paul ain’t crazy, but just silly.
You can imagine that Jim used to have all kinds of fun with Paul. He’d send him to the White Front Garage for a left-handed monkey wrench. Of course they ain’t no such thing as a left-handed monkey wrench.
And once we had a kind of a fair here and they was a baseball game between the fats and the leans and before the game started Jim called Paul over and sent him way down to Schrader’s hardware store to get a key for the pitcher’s box.
They wasn’t nothin’ in the way of gags that Jim couldn’t think up, when he put his mind to it.
Poor Paul was always kind of suspicious of people, maybe on account of how Jim had kept foolin’ him. Paul wouldn’t have much to do with anybody only his own mother and Doc Stair and a girl here in town named Julie Gregg. That is, she ain’t a girl no more, but pretty near thirty or over.
When Doc first come to town, Paul seemed to feel like here was a real friend and he hung round Doc’s office most of the w’ile; the only time he wasn’t there was when he’d go home to eat or sleep or when he seen Julie Gregg coin’ her shoppin’.
When he looked out Doc’s window and seen her, he’d run downstairs and join her and tag along with her to the different stores. The poor boy was crazy about Julie and she always treated him mighty nice and made him feel like he was welcome, though of course it wasn’t nothin’ but pity on her side.
Doc done all he could to improve Paul’s mind and he told me once that he really thought the boy was getting better, that they was times when he was as bright and sensible as anybody else.
But I was goin’ to tell you about Julie Gregg. Old man Gregg was in the lumber business, but got to drinkin’ and lost the most of his money and when he died, he didn’t leave nothin’ but the house and just enough insurance for the girl to skimp along on.
Her mother was a kind of a half invalid and didn’t hardly ever leave the house. Julie wanted to sell the place and move somewhere else after the old man died, but the mother said she was born here and would die here. It was tough on Julie as the young people round this town–well, she’s too good for them.
She’d been away to school and Chicago and New York and different places and they ain’t no subject she can’t talk on, where you take the rest of the young folks here and you mention anything to them outside of Gloria Swanson or Tommy Meighan and they think you’re delirious. Did you see Gloria in Wages of Virtue? You missed somethin’!
Well, Doc Stair hadn’t been here more than a week when he came in one day to get shaved and I recognized who he was, as he had been pointed out to me, so I told him about my old lady. She’s been ailin’ for a couple years and either Doc Gamble or Doc Foote, neither one, seemed to be helpin’ her. So he said he would come out and see her, but if she was able to get out herself, it would be better to bring her to his office where he could make a completer examination.
So I took her to his office and w’ile I was waitin’ for her in the reception room, in come Julie Gregg. When somebody comes in Doc Stair’s office, they’s a bell that rings in his inside office so he can tell they’s somebody to see him.
So he left my old lady inside and come out to the front office and that’s the first time him and Julie met and I guess it was what they call love at first sight. But it wasn’t fifty-fifty. This young fella was the slickest lookin’ fella she’d ever seen in this town and she went wild over him. To him she was just a young lady that wanted to see the doctor.
She’d came on about the same business I had. Her mother had been doctorin’ for years with Doc Gamble and Doc Foote and with” out no results. So she’d heard they was a new doc in town and decided to give him a try. He promised to call and see her mother that same day.
I said a minute ago that it was love at first sight on her part. I’m not only judgin’ by how she acted afterwards but how she looked at him that first day in his office. I ain’t no mind reader, but it was wrote all over her face that she was gone.
Now Jim Kendall, besides bein’ a jokesmith and a pretty good drinker, well Jim was quite a lady-killer. I guess he run pretty wild durin’ the time he was on the road for them Carterville people, and besides that, he’d had a couple little affairs of the heart right here in town. As I say, his wife would have divorced him, only she couldn’t.
But Jim was like the majority of men, and women, too, I guess. He wanted what he couldn’t get. He wanted Julie Gregg and worked his head off tryin’ to land her. Only he’d of said bean instead of head.
Well, Jim’s habits and his jokes didn’t appeal to Julie and of course he was a married man, so he didn’t have no more chance than, well, than a rabbit. That’s an expression of Jim’s himself. When somebody didn’t have no chance to get elected or somethin’, Jim would always say they didn’t have no more chance than a rabbit.
He didn’t make no bones about how he felt. Right in here, more than once, in front of the whole crowd, he said he was stuck on Julie and anybody that could get her for him was welcome to his house and his wife and kids included. But she wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with him; wouldn’t even speak to him on the street. He finally seen he wasn’t gettin’ nowheres with his usual line so he decided to try the rough stuff. He went right up to her house one evenin’ and when she opened the door he forced his way in and grabbed her. But she broke loose and before he could stop her, she run in the next room and locked the door and phoned to Joe Barnes. Joe’s the marshal. Jim could hear who she was phonin’ to and he beat it before Joe got there.
Joe was an old friend of Julie’s pa. Joe went to Jim the next day and told him what would happen if he ever done it again.
I don’t know how the news of this little affair leaked out. Chances is that Joe Barnes told his wife and she told somebody else’s wife and they told their husband. Anyways, it did leak out and Hod Meyers had the nerve to kid Jim about it, right here in this shop. Jim didn’t deny nothin’ and kind of laughed it off and said for us all to wait; that lots of people had tried to make a monkey out of him, but he always got even.
Meanw’ile everybody in town was wise to Julie’s bein’ wild mad over the Doc. I don’t suppose she had any idea how her face changed when him and her was together; of course she couldn’t of, or she’d of kept away from him. And she didn’t know that we was all noticin’ how many times she made excuses to go up to his office or pass it on the other side of the street and look up in his window to see if he was there. I felt sorry for her and so did most other people.
Hod Meyers kept rubbin’ it into Jim about how the Doc had cut him out. Jim didn’t pay no attention to the kiddie’ and you could see he was plannin’ one of his jokes.
One trick Jim had was the knack of changin’ his voice. He could make you think he was a girl talkie’ and he could mimic any man’s voice. To show you how good he was along this line, I’ll tell you the joke he played on me once.
You know, in most towns of any size, when a man is dead and needs a shave, why the barber that shaves him soaks him five dollars for the job; that is, he don’t soak him, but whoever ordered the shave. I just charge three dollars because personally I don’t mind much shavin’ a dead person. They lay a whole lot stiller than live customers. The only thing is that you don’t feel like talkie’ to them and you get kind of lonesome.
Well, about the coldest day we ever had here, two years ago last winter, the phone rung at the house w’ile I was home to dinner and I answered the phone and it was a woman’s voice and she said she was Mrs. John Scott and her husband was dead and would I come out and shave him.
Old John had always been a good customer of mine. But they live seven miles out in the country, on the Streeter road. Still I didn’t see how I could say no.
So I said I would be there, but would have to come in a jitney and it might cost three or four dollars besides the price of the shave. So she, or the voice, it said that was all right, so I got Frank Abbott to drive me out to the place and when I got there, who should open the door but old John himself! He wasn’t no more dead than, well, than a rabbit.
It didn’t take no private detective to figure out who had played me this little joke. Nobody could of thought it up but Jim Kendall. He certainly was a card!
I tell you this incident just to show you how he could disguise his voice and make you believe it was somebody else talkie’. I’d of swore it was Mrs. Scott had called me. Anyways, some woman.
Well, Jim waited till he had Doc Stair’s voice down pat; then he went after revenge.
He called Julie up on a night when he knew Doc was over in Carterville. She never questioned but what it was Doc’s voice. Jim said he must see her that night; he couldn’t wait no longer to tell her somethin’. She was all excited and told him to come to the house. But he said he was expectin’ an important long distance call and wouldn’t she please forget her manners for once and come to his office. He said they couldn’t nothin’ hurt her and nobody would see her and he just must talk to her a little w’ile. Well, poor Julie fell for it.
Doc always keeps a night light in his office, so it looked to Julie like they was somebody there.
Meanw’ile Jim Kendall had went to Wright’s poolroom, where they was a whole gang amusin’ themselves. The most of them had drank plenty of gin, and they was a rough bunch even when sober. They was always strong for Jim’s jokes and when he told them to come with him and see some fun they give up their card games and pool games and followed along.
Doc’s office is on the second floor. Right outside his door they’s a flight of stairs leadin’ to the floor above. Jim and his gang hid in the dark behind these stairs.
Well, tulle come up to Doc’s door and rung the bell and they was nothin’ coin’. She rung it again and she rung it seven or eight times. Then she tried the door and found it locked. Then Jim made some kind of a noise and she heard it and waited a minute, and then she says, “Is that you, Ralph?” Ralph is Doc’s first name.
They was no answer and it must of came to her all of a sudden that she’d been bunked. She pretty near fell downstairs and the whole gang after her. They chased her all the way home, hollerin’, “Is that you, Ralph?” and “Oh, Ralphie, dear, is that you?” Jim says he couldn’t holler it himself, as he was laughin’ too hard.
Poor Julie! She didn’t show up here on Main Street for a long, long time afterward.
And of course Jim and his gang told everybody in town, everybody but Doc Stair. They was scared to tell him, and he might of never knowed only for Paul Dickson. The poor cuckoo, as Jim called him, he was here in the shop one night when Jim was still gloatin’ yet over what he’d done to Julie. And Paul took in as much of it as he could understand and he run to Doc with the story.
It’s a cinch Doc went up in the air and swore he’d make Jim suffer. But it was a kind of a delicate thing, because if it got out that he had beat Jim up, Julie was bound to hear of it and then she’d know that Doc knew and of course knowin’ that he knew would make it worse for her than ever. He was goin’ to do somethin’, but it took a lot of figurin’.
Well, it was a couple days later when Jim was here in the shop again, and so was the cuckoo. Jim was goin’ duck-shootin’ the next day and had come in lookin’ for Hod Meyers to go with him. I happened to know that Hod had went over to Carterville and wouldn’t be home till the end of the week. So Jim said he hated to go alone and he guessed he would call it off. Then poor Paul spoke up and said if Jim would take him he would go along. Jim thought a w’ile and then he said, well, he guessed a half-wit was better than nothin’.
I suppose he was plottin’ to get Paul out in the boat and play some joke on him, like pushin’ him in the water. Anyways, he said Paul could go. He asked him had he ever shot a duck and Paul said no, he’d never even had a gun in his hands. So Jim said he could set in the boat and watch him and if he behaved himself, he might lend him his gun for a couple of shots. They made a date to meet in the mornin’ and that’s the last I seen of Jim alive.
Next mornin’, I hadn’t been open more than ten minutes when Doc Stair come in. He looked kind of nervous. He asked me had I seen Paul Dickson. I said no, but I knew where he was, out duckshootin’ with Jim Kendall. So Doc says that’s what he had heard, and he couldn’t understand it because Paul had told him he wouldn’t never have no more to do with Jim as long as he lived.
He said Paul had told him about the joke Jim had played on Julie. He said Paul had asked him what he thought of the joke and the Doc told him that anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live. I said it had been a kind of a raw thing, but Jim just couldn’t resist no kind of a joke, no matter how raw. I said I thought he was all right at heart, but just bubblin’ over with mischief. Doc turned and walked out.
At noon he got a phone call from old John Scott. The lake where Jim and Paul had went shootin’ is on John’s place. Paul had came runnin’ up to the house a few minutes before and said they’d been an accident. Jim had shot a few ducks and then give the gun to Paul and told him to try his luck. Paul hadn’t never handled a gun and he was nervous. He was shakin’ so hard that he couldn’t control the gun. He let fire and Jim sunk back in the boat, dead.
Doc Stair, bein’ the coroner, jumped in Frank Abbott’s flivver and rushed out to Scott’s farm. Paul and old John was down on the shore of the lake. Paul had rowed the boat to shore, but they’d left the body in it, waiting for Doc to come.
Doc examined the body and said they might as well fetch it back to town. They was no use leavin’ it there or callin’ a jury, as it was a plain case of accidental shootin’.
Personally I wouldn’t never leave a person shoot a gun in the same boat I was in unless I was sure they knew somethin’ about guns. Jim was a sucker to leave a new beginner have his gun, let alone a half-wit. It probably served Jim right, what he got. But still we miss him round here. He certainly was a card! Comb it wet or dry?
From outside there came a soft knock at the door: once. Pause. And again—a bit louder and bonier: twice.
Sutulin, without rising from his bed, extended—as was his wont—a foot toward the knock, threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled. The door swung open. On the threshold, head grazing the lintel, stood a tall, gray man the color of the dusk seeping in at the window.
Before Sutulin could set his feet on the floor the visitor stepped inside, wedged the door quietly back into its frame, and jabbing first one wall, then another, with a briefcase dangling from an apishly long arm, said, “Yes: a matchbox.”
“Your room, I say: it’s a matchbox. How many square feet?”
“Eighty-six and a bit.”
“Precisely. May I?”
And before Sutulin could open his mouth, the visitor sat down on the edge of the bed and hurriedly unbuckled his bulging briefcase. Lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he went on. “I’m here on business. You see, I, that is, we, are conducting, how shall I put it…well, experiments, I suppose. Under wraps for now. I won’t hide the fact: a well-known foreign firm has an interest in our concern. You want the electric-light switch? No, don’t bother: I’ll only be a minute. So then: we have discovered—this is a secret now—an agent for biggerizing rooms. Well, won’t you try it?”
The stranger’s hand popped out of the briefcase and proffered Sutulin a narrow dark tube, not unlike a tube of paint, with a tightly screwed cap and a leaden seal. Sutulin fidgeted bewilderedly with the slippery tube and, though it was nearly dark in the room, made out on the label the clearly printed word: quadraturin. When he raised his eyes, they came up against the fixed, unblinking stare of his interlocutor.
“So then, you’ll take it? The price? Goodness, it’s gratis. Just for advertising. Now if you’ll”—the guest began quickly leafing through a sort of ledger he had produced from the same brief-case—“just sign this book (a short testimonial, so to say). A pencil? Have mine. Where? Here: column three. That’s it.”
His ledger clapped shut, the guest straightened up, wheeled around, stepped to the door… and a minute later Sutulin, having snapped on the light, was considering with puzzledly raised eyebrows the clearly embossed letters: quadraturin.
On closer inspection it turned out that this zinc packet was tightly fitted—as is often done by the makers of patented agents— with a thin transparent paper whose ends were expertly glued together. Sutulin removed the paper sheath from the Quadraturin, unfurled the rolled-up text, which showed through the paper’s transparent gloss, and read:
Dissolve one teaspoon of the quadraturin essence in one cup of water. Wet a piece of cotton wool or simply a clean rag with the solution; apply this to those of the room’s internal walls designated for proliferspansion. This mixture leaves no stains, will not damage wallpaper, and even contributes—incidentally—to the extermination of bedbugs.
Thus far Sutulin had been only puzzled. Now his puzzlement was gradually overtaken by another feeling, strong and disturbing. He stood up and tried to pace from corner to corner, but the corners of this living cage were too close together: a walk amounted to almost nothing but turns, from toe to heel and back again. Sutulin stopped short, sat down, and closing his eyes, gave himself up to thoughts, which began: Why not…? What if…? Suppose…? To his left, not three feet away from his ear, someone was driving an iron spike into the wall. The hammer kept slipping, banging, and aiming, it seemed, at Sutulin’s head. Rubbing his temples, he opened his eyes: the black tube lay in the middle of the narrow table, which had managed somehow to insinuate itself between the bed, the windowsill, and the wall. Sutulin tore away the leaden seal, and the cap spun off in a spiral. From out of the round aperture came a bitterish gingery smell. The smell made his nostrils flare pleasantly.
“Hmm … Let’s try it. Although …”
And, having removed his jacket, the possessor of Quadraturin proceeded to the experiment. Stool up against door, bed into middle of room, table on top of bed. Nudging across the floor a saucer of transparent liquid, its glassy surface gleaming with a slightly yellowish tinge, Sutulin crawled along after it, systematically dipping a handkerchief wound around a pencil into the Quadraturin and daubing the floorboards and patterned wallpaper. The room really was, as that man today had said, a matchbox. But Sutulin worked slowly and carefully, trying not to miss a single corner. This was rather difficult since the liquid really did evaporate in an instant or was absorbed (he couldn’t tell which) without leaving even the slightest film; there was only its smell, increasingly pungent and spicy, making his head spin, confounding his fingers, and causing his knees, pinned to the floor, to tremble slightly. When he had finished with the floorboards and the bottom of the walls, Sutulin rose to his strangely weak and heavy feet and continued to work standing up. Now and then he had to add a little more of the essence. The tube was gradually emptying. It was already night outside. In the kitchen, to the right, a bolt came crashing down. The apartment was readying for bed. Trying not to make any noise, the experimenter, clutching the last of the essence, climbed up onto the bed and from the bed up onto the tottering table: only the ceiling remained to be Quadraturinized. But just then someone banged on the wall with his fist. “What’s going on? People are trying to sleep, but he’s …”
Turning around at the sound, Sutulin fumbled: the slippery tube spurted out of his hand and landed on the floor. Balancing carefully, Sutulin got down with his already drying brush, but it was too late. The tube was empty, and the rapidly fading spot around it smelled stupefyingly sweet. Grasping at the wall in his exhaustion (to fresh sounds of discontent from the left), he summoned his last bit of strength, put the furniture back where it belonged, and without undressing, fell into bed. A black sleep instantly descended on him from above: both tube and man were empty.
Two voices began in a whisper. Then by degrees of sonority— from piano to mf, from mf to fff—they cut into Sutulin’s sleep.
“Outrageous. I don’t want any new tenants popping out from under that skirt of yours… Put up with all that racket?!”
“Can’t just dump it in the garbage…”
“I don’t want to hear about it. You were told: no dogs, no cats, no children…” At which point there ensued such fff that Sutulin was ripped once and for all from his sleep; unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion, he reached—as was his wont— for the edge of the table on which stood the clock. Then it began. His hand groped for a long time, grappling air: there was no clock and no table. Sutulin opened his eyes at once. In an instant he was sitting up, looking dazedly around the room. The table that usually stood right here, at the head of the bed, had moved off into the middle of a faintly familiar, large, but ungainly room.
Everything was the same: the skimpy, threadbare rug that had trailed after the table somewhere up ahead of him, and the pho-tographs, and the stool, and the yellow patterns on the wallpaper. But they were all strangely spread out inside the expanded room cube.
“Quadraturin,” thought Sutulin, “is terrific!”
And he immediately set about rearranging the furniture to fit the new space. But nothing worked: the abbreviated rug, when moved back beside the bed, exposed worn, bare floorboards; the table and the stool, pushed by habit against the head of the bed, had disencumbered an empty corner latticed with cobwebs and littered with shreds and tatters, once artfully masked by the corner’s own crowdedness and the shadow of the table. With a triumphant but slightly frightened smile, Sutulin went all around his new, practically squared square, scrutinizing every detail. He noted with displeasure that the room had grown more in some places than in others: an external corner, the angle of which was now obtuse, had made the wall askew; Quadraturin, apparently, did not work as well on internal corners; carefully as Sutulin had applied the essence, the experiment had produced somewhat uneven results.
The apartment was beginning to stir. Out in the corridor, occupants shuffled to and fro. The bathroom door kept banging. Sutulin walked up to the threshold and turned the key to the right. Then, hands clasped behind his back, he tried pacing from corner to corner: it worked. Sutulin laughed with joy. How about that! At last! But then he thought: they may hear my footsteps— through the walls—on the right, on the left, at the back. For a minute he stood stock-still. Then he quickly bent down—his temples had suddenly begun to ache with yesterday’s sharp thin pain—and, having removed his boots, gave himself up to the pleasure of a stroll, moving soundlessly about in only his socks.
“May I come in?”
The voice of the landlady. He was on the point of going to the door and unlocking it when he suddenly remembered: he mustn’t. “I’m getting dressed. Wait a minute. I’ll be right out.”
“It’s all very well, but it complicates things. Say I lock the door and take the key with me. What about the keyhole? And then there’s the window: I’ll have to get curtains. Today.” The pain in his temples had become thinner and more nagging. Sutulin gathered up his papers in haste. It was time to go to the office. He dressed. Pushed the pain under his cap. And listened at the door: no one there. He quickly opened it. Quickly slipped out. Quickly turned the key. Now.
Waiting patiently in the entrance hall was the landlady.
“I wanted to talk to you about that girl, what’s her name. Can you believe it, she’s submitted an application to the House Committee saying she’s—”
“I’ve heard. Go on.”
“It’s nothing to you. No one’s going to take your eighty-six square feet away. But put yourself in my—”
“I’m in a hurry,” he nodded, put on his cap, and flew down the stairs.
On his way home from the office, Sutulin paused in front of the window of a furniture dealer: the long curve of a couch, an extendable round table… it would be nice—but how could he carry them in past the eyes and the questions? They would guess, they couldn’t help but guess…
He had to limit himself to the purchase of a yard of canary-yellow material (he did, after all, need a curtain). He didn’t stop by the cafe: he had no appetite. He needed to get home—it would be easier there: he could reflect, look around, and make adjustments at leisure. Having unlocked the door to his room, Sutulin gazed about to see if anyone was looking: they weren’t. He walked in. Then he switched on the light and stood there for a long time, his arms spread flat against the wall, his heart beating wildly: this he had not expected—not at all.
The Quadraturin was still working. during the eight or nine hours Sutulin had been out, it had pushed the walls at least another seven feet apart; the floorboards, stretched by invisible rods, rang out at his first step—like organ pipes. The entire room, distended and monstrously misshapen, was beginning to frighten and torment him. Without taking off his coat, Sutulin sat down on the stool and surveyed his spacious and at the same time oppressive coffin-shaped living box, trying to understand what had caused this unexpected effect. Then he remembered: he hadn’t done the ceiling—the essence had run out. His living box was spreading only sideways, without rising even an inch upward.
“Stop. I have to stop this Quadraturinizing thing. Or I’ll…” He pressed his palms to his temples and listened: the corrosive pain, lodged under his skull since morning, was still drilling away. Though the windows in the house opposite were dark, Sutulin took cover behind the yellow length of curtain. His head would not stop aching. He quietly undressed, snapped out the light, and got into bed. At first he slept, then he was awoken by a feeling of awkwardness. Wrapping the covers more tightly about him, Sutulin again dropped off, and once more an unpleasant sense of mooringlessness interfered with his sleep. He raised himself up on one palm and felt all around him with his free hand: the wall was gone. He struck a match. Um-hmm: he blew out the flame and hugged his knees till his elbows cracked. “It’s growing, damn it, it’s still growing.” Clenching his teeth, Sutulin crawled out of bed and, trying not to make any noise, gently edged first the front legs, then the back legs of the bed toward the receding wall. He felt a little shivery. Without turning the light on again, he went to look for his coat on that nail in the corner so as to wrap himself up more warmly. But there was no hook on the wall where it had been yesterday, and he had to feel around for several seconds before his hands chanced upon fur. twice more during a night that was long and as nagging as the pain in his temples, Sutulin pressed his head and knees to the wall as he was falling asleep and, when he awoke, fiddled about with the legs of the bed again. In doing this—mechanically, meekly, lifelessly—he tried, though it was still dark outside, not to open his eyes: it was better that way.
Toward dusk the next evening, having served out his day, Sutulin was approaching the door to his room: he did not quicken his step and, upon entering, felt neither consternation nor horror. When the dim, sixteen-candle-power bulb lit up somewhere in the distance beneath the long low vault, its yellow rays struggling to reach the dark, ever-receding corners of the vast and dead, yet empty barrack, which only recently, before Quadraturin, had been a cramped but cozy, warm, and lived-in cubbyhole, he walked resignedly toward the yellow square of the window, now diminished by perspective; he tried to count his steps. From there, from a bed squeezed pitifully and fearfully in the corner by the window, he stared dully and wearily through deep-boring pain at the swaying shadows nestled against the floorboards, and at the smooth low overhang of the ceiling. “So, something forces its way out of a tube and can’t stop squaring: a square squared, a square of squares squared. I’ve got to think faster than it: if I don’t outthink it, it will outgrow me and…” And suddenly someone was hammering on the door, “Citizen Sutulin, are you in there?”
From the same faraway place came the muffled and barely audible voice of the landlady. “He’s in there. Must be asleep.”
Sutulin broke into a sweat: “What if I don’t get there in time, and they go ahead and…” And, trying not to make a sound (let them think he was asleep), he slowly made his way through the darkness to the door. There.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, open up! Why’s the door locked? Remeasuring Commission. We’ll remeasure and leave.”
Sutulin stood with his ear pressed to the door. Through the thin panel he could hear the clump of heavy boots. Figures were being mentioned, and room numbers.
“This room next. Open up!”
With one hand Sutulin gripped the knob of the electric-light switch and tried to twist it, as one might twist the head of a bird: the switch spattered light, then crackled, spun feebly around, and drooped down. Again someone hammered on the door: “Well!”
Sutulin turned the key to the left. A broad black shape squeezed itself into the doorway.
“Turn on the light.”
“It’s burned out.”
Clutching at the door handle with his left hand and the bundle of wire with his right, he tried to hide the extended space from view. The black mass took a step back.
“Who’s got a match? Give me that box. We’ll have a look anyway. Do things right.”
Suddenly the landlady began whining, “Oh, what is there to look at? Eighty-six square feet for the eighty-sixth time. Measuring the room won’t make it any bigger. He’s a quiet man, home from a long day at the office—and you won’t let him rest: have to measure and remeasure. Whereas other people, who have no right to the space, but—”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the black mass muttered and, rocking from boot to boot, gently and even almost affectionately drew the door to the light. Sutulin was left alone on wobbling, cottony legs in the middle of the four-cornered, inexorably growing, and proliferating darkness.
He waited until their steps had died away, then quickly dressed and went out. They’d be back, to remeasure or check they hadn’t under-measured or whatever. He could finish thinking better here—from crossroad to crossroad. Toward night a wind came up: it rattled the bare frozen branches on the trees, shook the shadows loose, droned in the wires, and beat against walls, as if trying to knock them down. Hiding the needlelike pain in his temples from the wind’s buffets, Sutulin went on, now diving into the shadows, now plunging into the lamplight. Suddenly, through the wind’s rough thrusts, something softly and tenderly brushed against his elbow. He turned around. Beneath feathers batting against a black brim, a familiar face with provocatively half-closed eyes. And barely audible through the moaning air: “You know you know me. And you look right past me. You ought to bow. That’s it.”
Her slight figure, tossed back by the wind, perched on tenacious stiletto heels, was all insubordination and readiness for battle .
Sutulin tipped his hat. “But you were supposed to be going away. And you’re still here? Then something must have prevented—”
And he felt a chamois finger touch his chest then dart back into the muff. He sought out the narrow pupils of her eyes beneath the dancing black feathers, and it seemed that one more look, one more touch, one more shock to his hot temples, and it would all come unthought, undone, and fall away. Meanwhile she, her face nearing his, said, “Let’s go to your place. Like last time. Remember?”
With that, everything stopped.
She sought out the arm that had been pulled back and clung to it with tenacious chamois fingers.
“My place… Isn’t fit.” He looked away, having again with-drawn both his arms and the pupils of his eyes.
“You mean to say it’s cramped. My god, how silly you are. The more cramped it is…” The wind tore away the end of her phrase. Sutulin did not reply. “Or, perhaps you don’t …”
When he reached the turning, he looked back: the woman was still standing there, pressing her muff to her bosom, like a shield; her narrow shoulders were shivering with cold; the wind cynically flicked her skirt and lifted up the lapels of her coat.
“Tomorrow. Everything tomorrow. But now…” And, quickening his pace, Sutulin turned resolutely back.
“Right now: while everyone’s asleep. Collect my things (only the necessaries) and go. Run away. Leave the door wide open: let them. Why should I be the only one? Why not let them?”
The apartment was indeed sleepy and dark. Sutulin walked down the corridor, straight and to the right, opened the door with resolve, and as always, wanted to turn the light switch, but it spun feebly in his fingers, reminding him that the circuit had been broken. This was an annoying obstacle. But it couldn’t be helped. Sutulin rummaged in his pockets and found a box of matches: it was almost empty. Good for three or four flares— that’s all. He would have to husband both light and time. When he reached the coat pegs, he struck the first match: light crept in yellow radiuses through the black air. Sutulin purposely, overcoming temptation, concentrated on the illuminated scrap of wall and the coats and jackets hanging from hooks. He knew that there, behind his back, the dead, Quadraturinized space with its black corners was still spreading. He knew and did not look around. The match smoldered in his left hand, his right pulled things off hooks and flung them on the floor. He needed another flare; looking at the floor, he started toward the corner—if it was still a corner and if it was still there—where, by his calculations, the bed should have fetched up, but he accidentally held the flame under his breath—and again the black wilderness closed in. One last match remained: he struck it over and over: it would not light. One more time—and its crackling head fell off and slipped through his fingers. Then, having turned around, afraid to go any farther into the depths, he started back toward the bundle he had abandoned under the hooks. But he had made the turn, apparently, inexactly. He walked—heel to toe, heel to toe—holding his fingers out in front of him, and found nothing: neither the bundle, nor the hooks, nor even the walls. “I’ll get there in the end. I must get there.” His body was sticky with cold and sweat. His legs wobbled oddly. He squatted down, palms on the floorboards: “I shouldn’t have come back. Now here I am alone, nowhere to turn.” And suddenly it struck him: “I’m waiting here, but it’s growing, I’m waiting, but it’s…”
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away.
Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said:
“What’s that you’re holding?”
And Masha said:
The manager said:
“How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.”
“You won’t put me to work.”
The manager said:
“Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till.
Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles.
The manager said:
“What are you fining me for?”
And the police replied:
The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said:
“Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.”
But the sales assistant in the fruit department said:
“No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.”
The police said:
“It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The police headed towards the cashier.
The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said:
“I won’t go.”
The police said:
“Why won’t you go, you fool?”
The cashier said:
“You’ll bury me alive.”
The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump.
“You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department.
“No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.”
The cashier said:
“Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.”
The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative.
The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading.
“But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha.
“Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?”
“And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant.
The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said:
“It’s just outrageous!”
“Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one.
Then the manager scratched his moustache and said:
“Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.”
They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold.
The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed.
“That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.”
But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad.
The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped.
“Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!”
The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next.
The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said:
“Who’s this sitting at your till?”
But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say.
The manager didn’t say anything either.
At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal.
The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.
31 August 1936
(From Pyotr Ivanitch To Ivan Petrovitch)
Dear Sir and Most Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
For the last two days I have been, I may say, in pursuit of you, my friend, having to talk over most urgent business with you, and I cannot come across you anywhere. Yesterday, while we were at Semyon Alexeyitch’s, my wife made a very good joke about you, saying that Tatyana Petrovna and you were a pair of birds always on the wing. You have not been married three months and you already neglect your domestic hearth. We all laughed heartily — from our genuine kindly feeling for you, of course — but, joking apart, my precious friend, you have given me a lot of trouble. Semyon Alexeyitch said to me that you might be going to the ball at the Social Union’s club! Leaving my wife with Semyon Alexeyitch’s good lady, I flew off to the Social Union. It was funny and tragic! Fancy my position! Me at the ball — and alone, without my wife! Ivan Andreyitch meeting me in the porter’s lodge and seeing me alone, at once concluded (the rascal!) that I had a passion for dances, and taking me by the arm, wanted to drag me off by force to a dancing class, saying that it was too crowded at the Social Union, that an ardent spirit had not room to turn, and that his head ached from the patchouli and mignonette. I found neither you, nor Tatyana Petrovna. Ivan Andreyitch vowed and declared that you would be at Woe from Wit, at the Alexandrinsky theatre.
I flew off to the Alexandrinsky theatre: you were not there either. This morning I expected to find you at Tchistoganov’s — no sign of you there. Tchistoganov sent to the Perepalkins’ — the same thing there. In fact, I am quite worn out; you can judge how much trouble I have taken! Now I am writing to you (there is nothing else I can do). My business is by no means a literary one (you understand me?); it would be better to meet face to face, it is extremely necessary to discuss something with you and as quickly as possible, and so I beg you to come to us to-day with Tatyana Petrovna to tea and for a chat in the evening. My Anna Mihalovna will be extremely pleased to see you. You will truly, as they say, oblige me to my dying day. By the way, my precious friend — since I have taken up my pen I’ll go into all I have against you — I have a slight complaint I must make; in fact, I must reproach you, my worthy friend, for an apparently very innocent little trick which you have played at my expense… You are a rascal, a man without conscience. About the middle of last month, you brought into my house an acquaintance of yours, Yevgeny Nikolaitch; you vouched for him by your friendly and, for me, of course, sacred recommendation; I rejoiced at the opportunity of receiving the young man with open arms, and when I did so I put my head in a noose. A noose it hardly is, but it has turned out a pretty business. I have not time now to explain, and indeed it is an awkward thing to do in writing, only a very humble request to you, my malicious friend: could you not somehow very delicately, in passing, drop a hint into the young man’s ear that there are a great many houses in the metropolis besides ours? It’s more than I can stand, my dear fellow! We fall at your feet, as our friend Semyonovitch says. I will tell you all about it when we meet. I don’t mean to say that the young man has sinned against good manners, or is lacking in spiritual qualities, or is not up to the mark in some other way. On the contrary, he is an amiable and pleasant fellow; but wait, we shall meet; meanwhile if you see him, for goodness’ sake whisper a hint to him, my good friend. I would do it myself, but you know what I am, I simply can’t, and that’s all about it. You introduced him. But I will explain myself more fully this evening, anyway. Now good-bye. I remain, etc.
P.S. — My little boy has been ailing for the last week, and gets worse and worse every day; he is cutting his poor little teeth. My wife is nursing him all the time, and is depressed, poor thing. Be sure to come, you will give us real pleasure, my precious friend.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I got your letter yesterday, I read it and was perplexed. You looked for me, goodness knows where, and I was simply at home. Till ten o’clock I was expecting Ivan Ivanitch Tolokonov. At once on getting your letter I set out with my wife, I went to the expense of taking a cab, and reached your house about half-past six. You were not at home, but we were met by your wife. I waited to see you till half-past ten, I could not stay later. I set off with my wife, went to the expense of a cab again, saw her home, and went on myself to the Perepalkins’, thinking I might meet you there, but again I was out in my reckoning. When I got home I did not sleep all night, I felt uneasy; in the morning I drove round to you three times, at nine, at ten and at eleven; three times I went to the expense of a cab, and again you left me in the lurch.
I read your letter and was amazed. You write about Yevgeny Nikolaitch, beg me to whisper some hint, and do not tell me what about. I commend your caution, but all letters are not alike, and I don’t give documents of importance to my wife for curl-papers. I am puzzled, in fact, to know with what motive you wrote all this to me. However, if it comes to that, why should I meddle in the matter? I don’t poke my nose into other people’s business. You can be not at home to him; I only see that I must have a brief and decisive explanation with you, and, moreover, time is passing. And I am in straits and don’t know what to do if you are going to neglect the terms of our agreement. A journey for nothing; a journey costs something, too, and my wife’s whining for me to get her a velvet mantle of the latest fashion. About Yevgeny Nikolaitch I hasten to mention that when I was at Pavel Semyonovitch Perepalkin’s yesterday I made inquiries without loss of time. He has five hundred serfs in the province of Yaroslav, and he has expectations from his grandmother of an estate of three hundred serfs near Moscow. How much money he has I cannot tell; I think you ought to know that better. I beg you once and for all to appoint a place where I can meet you. You met Ivan Andreyitch yesterday, and you write that he told you that I was at the Alexandrinsky theatre with my wife. I write, that he is a liar, and it shows how little he is to be trusted in such cases, that only the day before yesterday he did his grandmother out of eight hundred roubles. I have the honour to remain, etc.
P.S. — My wife is going to have a baby; she is nervous about it and feels depressed at times. At the theatre they sometimes have fire-arms going off and sham thunderstorms. And so for fear of a shock to my wife’s nerves I do not take her to the theatre. I have no great partiality for the theatre myself.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
I am to blame, to blame, a thousand times to blame, but I hasten to defend myself. Between five and six yesterday, just as we were talking of you with the warmest affection, a messenger from Uncle Stepan Alexeyitch galloped up with the news that my aunt was very bad. Being afraid of alarming my wife, I did not say a word of this to her, but on the pretext of other urgent business I drove off to my aunt’s house. I found her almost dying. Just at five o’clock she had had a stroke, the third she has had in the last two years. Karl Fyodoritch, their family doctor, told us that she might not live through the night. You can judge my position, dearest friend. We were on our legs all night in grief and anxiety. It was not till morning that, utterly exhausted and overcome by moral and physical weakness, I lay down on the sofa; I forgot to tell them to wake me, and only woke at half-past eleven. My aunt was better. I drove home to my wife. She, poor thing, was quite worn out expecting me. I snatched a bite of something, embraced my little boy, reassured my wife and set off to call on you. You were not at home. At your flat I found Yevgeny Nikolaitch. When I got home I took up a pen, and here I am writing to you. Don’t grumble and be cross to me, my true friend. Beat me, chop my guilty head off my shoulders, but don’t deprive me of your affection. From your wife I learned that you will be at the Slavyanovs’ this evening. I will certainly be there. I look forward with the greatest impatience to seeing you.
I remain, etc.
P.S. — We are in perfect despair about our little boy. Karl Fyodoritch prescribes rhubarb. He moans. Yesterday he did not know any one. This morning he did know us, and began lisping papa, mamma, boo… My wife was in tears the whole morning.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
My Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I am writing to you, in your room, at your bureau; and before taking up my pen, I have been waiting for more than two and a half hours for you. Now allow me to tell you straight out, Pyotr Ivanitch, my frank opinion about this shabby incident. From your last letter I gathered that you were expected at the Slavyanovs’, that you were inviting me to go there; I turned up, I stayed for five hours and there was no sign of you. Why, am I to be made a laughing-stock to people, do you suppose? Excuse me, my dear sir… I came to you this morning, I hoped to find you, not imitating certain deceitful persons who look for people, God knows where, when they can be found at home at any suitably chosen time. There is no sign of you at home. I don’t know what restrains me from telling you now the whole harsh truth. I will only say that I see you seem to be going back on your bargain regarding our agreement. And only now reflecting on the whole affair, I cannot but confess that I am absolutely astounded at the artful workings of your mind. I see clearly now that you have been cherishing your unfriendly design for a long time. This supposition of mine is confirmed by the fact that last week in an almost unpardonable way you took possession of that letter of yours addressed to me, in which you laid down yourself, though rather vaguely and incoherently, the terms of our agreement in regard to a circumstance of which I need not remind you. You are afraid of documents, you destroy them, and you try to make a fool of me. But I won’t allow myself to be made a fool of, for no one has ever considered me one hitherto, and every one has thought well of me in that respect. I am opening my eyes. You try and put me off, confuse me with talk of Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and when with your letter of the seventh of this month, which I am still at a loss to understand, I seek a personal explanation from you, you make humbugging appointments, while you keep out of the way. Surely you do not suppose, sir, that I am not equal to noticing all this? You promised to reward me for my services, of which you are very well aware, in the way of introducing various persons, and at the same time, and I don’t know how you do it, you contrive to borrow money from me in considerable sums without giving a receipt, as happened no longer ago than last week. Now, having got the money, you keep out of the way, and what’s more, you repudiate the service I have done you in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch. You are probably reckoning on my speedy departure to Simbirsk, and hoping I may not have time to settle your business. But I assure you solemnly and testify on my word of honour that if it comes to that, I am prepared to spend two more months in Petersburg expressly to carry through my business, to attain my objects, and to get hold of you. For I, too, on occasion know how to get the better of people. In conclusion, I beg to inform you that if you do not give me a satisfactory explanation to-day, first in writing, and then personally face to face, and do not make a fresh statement in your letter of the chief points of the agreement existing between us, and do not explain fully your views in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, I shall be compelled to have recourse to measures that will be highly unpleasant to you, and indeed repugnant to me also.
Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Dear and Honoured Friend, Ivan Petrovitch!
I was cut to the heart by your letter. I wonder you were not ashamed, my dear but unjust friend, to behave like this to one of your most devoted friends. Why be in such a hurry, and without explaining things fully, wound me with such insulting suspicions? But I hasten to reply to your charges. You did not find me yesterday, Ivan Petrovitch, because I was suddenly and quite unexpectedly called away to a death-bed. My aunt, Yefimya Nikolaevna, passed away yesterday evening at eleven o’clock in the night. By the general consent of the relatives I was selected to make the arrangements for the sad and sorrowful ceremony. I had so much to do that I had not time to see you this morning, nor even to send you a line. I am grieved to the heart at the misunderstanding which has arisen between us. My words about Yevgeny Nikolaitch uttered casually and in jest you have taken in quite a wrong sense, and have ascribed to them a meaning deeply offensive to me. You refer to money and express your anxiety about it. But without wasting words I am ready to satisfy all your claims and demands, though I must remind you that the three hundred and fifty roubles I had from you last week were in accordance with a certain agreement and not by way of a loan. In the latter case there would certainly have been a receipt. I will not condescend to discuss the other points mentioned in your letter. I see that it is a misunderstanding. I see it is your habitual hastiness, hot temper and obstinacy. I know that your goodheartedness and open character will not allow doubts to persist in your heart, and that you will be, in fact, the first to hold out your hand to me. You are mistaken, Ivan Petrovitch, you are greatly mistaken!
Although your letter has deeply wounded me, I should be prepared even to-day to come to you and apologise, but I have been since yesterday in such a rush and flurry that I am utterly exhausted and can scarcely stand on my feet. To complete my troubles, my wife is laid up; I am afraid she is seriously ill. Our little boy, thank God, is better; but I must lay down my pen, I have a mass of things to do and they are urgent. Allow me, my dear friend, to remain, etc.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I have been waiting for three days, I tried to make a profitable use of them—meanwhile I feel that politeness and good manners are the greatest of ornaments for every one. Since my last letter of the tenth of this month, I have neither by word nor deed reminded you of my existence, partly in order to allow you undisturbed to perform the duty of a Christian in regard to your aunt, partly because I needed the time for certain considerations and investigations in regard to a business you know of. Now I hasten to explain myself to you in the most thoroughgoing and decisive manner.
I frankly confess that on reading your first two letters I seriously supposed that you did not understand what I wanted; that was how it was that I rather sought an interview with you and explanations face to face. I was afraid of writing, and blamed myself for lack of clearness in the expression of my thoughts on paper. You are aware that I have not the advantages of education and good manners, and that I shun a hollow show of gentility because I have learned from bitter experience how misleading appearances often are, and that a snake sometimes lies hidden under flowers. But you understood me; you did not answer me as you should have done because, in the treachery of your heart, you had planned beforehand to be faithless to your word of honour and to the friendly relations existing between us. You have proved this absolutely by your abominable conduct towards me of late, which is fatal to my interests, which I did not expect and which I refused to believe till the present moment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance you captivated me by your clever manners, by the subtlety of your behaviour, your knowledge of affairs and the advantages to be gained by association with you. I imagined that I had found a true friend and well-wisher. Now I recognise clearly that there are many people who under a flattering and brilliant exterior hide venom in their hearts, who use their cleverness to weave snares for their neighbour and for unpardonable deception, and so are afraid of pen and paper, and at the same time use their fine language not for the benefit of their neighbour and their country, but to drug and bewitch the reason of those who have entered into business relations of any sort with them. Your treachery to me, my dear sir, can be clearly seen from what follows.
In the first place, when, in the clear and distinct terms of my letter, I described my position, sir, and at the same time asked you in my first letter what you meant by certain expressions and intentions of yours, principally in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, you tried for the most part to avoid answering, and confounding me by doubts and suspicions, you calmly put the subject aside. Then after treating me in a way which cannot be described by any seemly word, you began writing that you were wounded. Pray, what am I to call that, sir? Then when every minute was precious to me and when you had set me running after you all over the town, you wrote, pretending personal friendship, letters in which, intentionally avoiding all mention of business, you spoke of utterly irrelevant matters; to wit, of the illnesses of your good lady for whom I have, in any case, every respect, and of how your baby had been dosed with rhubarb and was cutting a tooth. All this you alluded to in every letter with a disgusting regularity that was insulting to me. Of course I am prepared to admit that a father’s heart may be torn by the sufferings of his babe, but why make mention of this when something different, far more important and interesting, was needed? I endured it in silence, but now when time has elapsed I think it my duty to explain myself. Finally, treacherously deceiving me several times by making humbugging appointments, you tried, it seems, to make me play the part of a fool and a laughing-stock for you, which I never intend to be. Then after first inviting me and thoroughly deceiving me, you informed me that you were called away to your suffering aunt who had had a stroke, precisely at five o’clock as you stated with shameful exactitude. Luckily for me, sir, in the course of these three days I have succeeded in making inquiries and have learnt from them that your aunt had a stroke on the day before the seventh not long before midnight. From this fact I see that you have made use of sacred family relations in order to deceive persons in no way concerned with them. Finally, in your last letter you mention the death of your relatives as though it had taken place precisely at the time when I was to have visited you to consult about various business matters. But here the vileness of your arts and calculations exceeds all belief, for from trustworthy information which I was able by a lucky chance to obtain just in the nick of time, I have found out that your aunt died twenty-four hours later than the time you so impiously fixed for her decease in your letter. I shall never have done if I enumerate all the signs by which I have discovered your treachery in regard to me. It is sufficient, indeed, for any impartial observer that in every letter you style me, your true friend, and call me all sorts of polite names, which you do, to the best of my belief, for no other object than to put my conscience to sleep.
I have come now to your principal act of deceit and treachery in regard to me, to wit, your continual silence of late in regard to everything concerning our common interests, in regard to your wicked theft of the letter in which you stated, though in language somewhat obscure and not perfectly intelligible to me, our mutual agreements, your barbarous forcible loan of three hundred and fifty roubles which you borrowed from me as your partner without giving any receipt, and finally, your abominable slanders of our common acquaintance, Yevgeny Nikolaitch. I see clearly now that you meant to show me that he was, if you will allow me to say so, like a billy-goat, good for neither milk nor wool, that he was neither one thing nor the other, neither fish nor flesh, which you put down as a vice in him in your letter of the sixth instant. I knew Yevgeny Nikolaitch as a modest and well-behaved young man, whereby he may well attract, gain and deserve respect in society. I know also that every evening for the last fortnight you’ve put into your pocket dozens and sometimes even hundreds of roubles, playing games of chance with Yevgeny Nikolaitch. Now you disavow all this, and not only refuse to compensate me for what I have suffered, but have even appropriated money belonging to me, tempting me by suggestions that I should be partner in the affair, and luring me with various advantages which were to accrue. After having appropriated, in a most illegal way, money of mine and of Yevgeny Nikolaitch’s, you decline to compensate me, resorting for that object to calumny with which you have unjustifiably blackened in my eyes a man whom I, by my efforts and exertions, introduced into your house. While on the contrary, from what I hear from your friends, you are still almost slobbering over him, and give out to the whole world that he is your dearest friend, though there is no one in the world such a fool as not to guess at once what your designs are aiming at and what your friendly relations really mean. I should say that they mean deceit, treachery, forgetfulness of human duties and proprieties, contrary to the law of God and vicious in every way. I take myself as a proof and example. In what way have I offended you and why have you treated me in this godless fashion?
I will end my letter. I have explained myself. Now in conclusion. If, sir, you do not in the shortest possible time after receiving this letter return me in full, first, the three hundred and fifty roubles I gave you, and, secondly, all the sums that should come to me according to your promise, I will have recourse to every possible means to compel you to return it, even to open force, secondly to the protection of the laws, and finally I beg to inform you that I am in possession of facts, which, if they remain in the hands of your humble servant, may ruin and disgrace your name in the eyes of all the world. Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
When I received your vulgar and at the same time queer letter, my impulse for the first minute was to tear it into shreds, but I have preserved it as a curiosity. I do, however, sincerely regret our misunderstandings and unpleasant relations. I did not mean to answer you. But I am compelled by necessity. I must in these lines inform you that it would be very unpleasant for me to see you in my house at any time; my wife feels the same: she is in delicate health and the smell of tar upsets her. My wife sends your wife the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha, with her sincere thanks. As for the galoshes you say you left behind here on your last visit, I must regretfully inform you that they are nowhere to be found. They are still being looked for; but if they do not turn up, then I will buy you a new pair.
I have the honour to remain your sincere friend,
On the sixteenth of November, Pyotr Ivanitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first envelope, he took out a carefully folded note on pale pink paper. The handwriting was his wife’s. It was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch and dated November the second. There was nothing else in the envelope. Pyotr Ivanitch read:
Yesterday was utterly impossible. My husband was at home the whole evening. Be sure to come to-morrow punctually at eleven. At half-past ten my husband is going to Tsarskoe and not coming back till evening. I was in a rage all night. Thank you for sending me the information and the correspondence. What a lot of paper. Did she really write all that? She has style though; many thanks, dear; I see that you love me. Don’t be angry, but, for goodness sake, come to-morrow.
Pyotr Ivanitch tore open the other letter:
I should never have set foot again in your house anyway; you need not have troubled to soil paper about it.
Next week I am going to Simbirsk. Yevgany Nikolaitch remains your precious and beloved friend. I wish you luck, and don’t trouble about the galoshes.
On the seventeenth of November Ivan Petrovitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first letter, he took out a hasty and carelessly written note. The handwriting was his wife’s; it was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and dated August the fourth. There was nothing else in the envelope. Ivan Petrovitch read:
Good-bye, good-bye, Yevgeny Nikolaitch! The Lord reward you for this too. May you be happy, but my lot is bitter, terribly bitter! It is your choice. If it had not been for my aunt I should not have put such trust in you. Do not laugh at me nor at my aunt. To-morrow is our wedding. Aunt is relieved that a good man has been found, and that he will take me without a dowry. I took a good look at him for the first time to-day. He seems good-natured. They are hurrying me. Farewell, farewell…. My darling!! Think of me sometimes; I shall never forget you. Farewell! I sign this last like my first letter, do you remember?
The second letter was as follows:
To-morrow you will receive a new pair of galoshes. It is not my habit to filch from other men’s pockets, and I am not fond of picking up all sorts of rubbish in the streets.
Yevgeny Nikolaitch is going to Simbirsk in a day or two on his grandfather’s business, and he has asked me to find a travelling companion for him; wouldn’t you like to take him with you?
Sometime in June, my back started to itch. I thought I’d been bitten by a mosquito or some other insect. That’s how it felt. It was always worst when I’d been out running and worked up a sweat. The thing was, the itch was in such an awkward place – right in the middle of my back and quite high up – that I couldn’t reach it properly with my fingers. I had a go with a pencil and a toothbrush, but that didn’t seem to help much.
I’d headed off to my holiday cottage in the countryside to chill out and find myself. Things were starting to get me down rather. I was forty-something, and many aspects of life had got much trickier since my thirties. Just drifting around wasn’t as pleasant as it had been. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to stop the things I wasn’t doing. What was the point?
I felt I needed some peace and quiet to work out who I really was and what my goals were. So I decided to go to the cottage all on my own, for the whole summer break – just me, my notepad and my running shoes.
For the first few days, everything was just as usual, except that I was on my own. I was used to having lots of people around all the time. Having plenty of company had become like curling up under a cosy blanket. I just liked people and didn’t mind leaving decisions to others. It was fine by me to go with the flow, taking it easy. I was happy to go along with any decision or opinion, no matter what the subject – football, politics, art or whatever. I liked just being in the midst of things, not having to make too much effort. The solitary life has never been my thing. I get restless and anxious, can’t be doing with that stuff they talk about, sitting alone with a book over a cup of tea, meditation, relaxation. I start to get the twitches. I want to go out and meet people, ask them round to my place, or just sit and chew the fat with someone or other. I’ve never been that particular about who I talk to. I used to plunge into random discussions pretty often. If there was a subject and someone had a definite opinion, I’d generally go along with them – or keep quiet. That worked out fine to begin with. We’d agree, and avoid rubbing each other up the wrong way, and most people found me likeable. Thought I was a nice guy, easy to get on with. But after a while I realised that people felt let down if they discovered I’d taken quite a different view when talking to others.
It wasn’t that big a deal as far as I was concerned. After all, what mattered most to me was having a chat for its own sake. But it ended up becoming hard to socialise except two by two. Then I found out that people were even avoiding talking to me one to one. They’d demand my opinion on something first. Things got so bad that some people thought I was unreliable, undependable, two-faced, that sort of thing.
So I decided to take some time out, head over to the cottage and think the whole thing through. Who was I? What did I stand for, what opinions did I have, and did I have any goals? I thought I’d take off and hang out with the wolves, as it were, work stuff out for myself. I did exactly what was recommended – wherever I’d got the idea from, probably some magazine or TV programme – I left my laptop and mobile at home and went off to the cottage without telling anyone. Just did whatever I felt like, went out for the odd run, quarrelled off and on with the gas stove, which stopped working at regular intervals. After that I’d sit there with my notepad, just staring into space.
It was mostly rather dull. I’d spend most of the day browsing through back numbers of ‘The Phantom’ comic and gazing out of the window, and no matter how I racked my brain, I never came up with any particular thoughts or feelings. Not beyond thinking that coffee tastes good, rain is wet, and that sort of stuff. I found my old guitar, which was short of an E string, and sat around for a while trying to tune it, but it wasn’t that easy, so I just let it be.
After only a few days I was already starting to regret the whole project. I’d pictured myself coming up with new insights into myself, one after the other, yet I didn’t seem to be discovering anything at all. I began to wonder whether all that stuff about finding yourself was just so much pretentious bullshit. Was it something people invented because they didn’t have much of a social life? It was then that my back started to itch.
When it had been itching for over three days and nights, I went and had a look in the bathroom mirror to see if I could spot anything. It felt as though the itching was coming from a small patch quite high up on my back, just to the right of my spine.
I stood for a long time with my back to the bathroom mirror, looking at the patch and thinking that it seemed somehow familiar. I thought I recognised it, like a birthmark or an old acne scar. Surely I’d glimpsed it before when I’d chanced to see my back in a mirror? That’s not something you do all the time, after all. Presumably, it had always been there, without my giving it a thought. Now it had started itching it was hard to think of anything else.
For a while, I tried to ignore it. I just tried to avoid thinking too much, despite the itching. I had a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts when I was supposed to be concentrating on something else. It was just like me to find something totally irrelevant to focus on when I was supposed to be chilling out and finding myself.
Anyway, a few days later I could feel that it had grown into a little bump. At about the same time, the itching calmed down, and for a short while, I found what was by now an oversized pimple quite amusing if anything. It wasn’t normal, of course, but I was so relieved the itching had finally let up that I wasn’t too bothered about having a little mound on my back. Surely it didn’t matter that much. And it wasn’t as though it was that big – although it was growing.
At any rate, it was easier to concentrate on other things now it had stopped itching so badly. I found I could sit for long periods thinking about myself and my doings. I even noted down the odd idea or two. Things I thought might be important, that I didn’t want to forget. I made a list of pluses and minuses, noting down the good and the bad – mostly individual words I liked the sound of and which somehow summed up who I was. I wrote down ‘roly-poly’, for example, not because I was at all overweight, but simply because the word appealed to me and gave me good vibes. It seemed to me that if only I could get a grip on something, no matter how insignificant, I could keep hold of it, and eventually I’d haul in something weightier and more definite, whatever that might be. I jotted down ‘mini, midi, maxi’, then I hummed the words to myself for half a day. That felt good too. ‘Itching’ went down in the minus column. ‘Mounds’, on the other hand, went into the plus column. ‘Mounds – good’, I wrote. ‘I like mounds. Especially grassy ones.’ Fun – I liked having fun. Being sociable. Company. Pleasant company. Good manners. Nice people. Good looks. Raspberry gums. Suddenly the words were pouring out of me into the two columns on the paper. I could fill half a page just with the TV programmes I liked or disliked, for instance. It was only now and then that I went past the mirror and looked at my own mound, the one on my back.
It grew a little with each day that passed until it was slightly bigger than a five-kronor coin. I was beginning to suspect that some kind of creature might have got under my skin after all – a tick or some other creepy-crawly that had dropped out of a tree on one of my runs. It was probably infected. I seemed to recall some jungle story or other about ants – or was it larvae? – crawling under people’s skin to lay their eggs. That wasn’t pleasant, of course, but somehow it struck me as the most reasonable explanation. Ants and larvae both went into the minus column.
It occurred to me that I should put something on it, but I had no idea what might work on a sore spot like the one I had. I tried splashing it with aftershave, and eventually I managed to lay my hands on an old bottle of acetone in what had once been the broom cupboard, which, over the years, had turned into a glory hole full of paint tins, tubes of glue and turps rags.
I splashed a drop or two onto a cloth and rubbed at the lump. But nothing happened, except that the skin around it got drier and began to sting.
It was rather annoying that I had no-one to talk to. It would have been quite something to show off such an amazing physical change. And maybe it would have changed my detractors’ minds. I wasn’t sure whether ‘detractors’ was quite the right word. But it gave me a warm glow when I thought of it; it was a good word to have in your vocabulary. I wasn’t certain whether it belonged in the plus or the minus column, nor was I one hundred percent sure of the spelling, so I didn’t put down anything at all. But I kind of savoured the word for the rest of the day. ‘Detractors’ – it had a certain style. I’d have to remember to use it once I was back among other people. Maybe I’d even look it up to see what it meant.
One morning the bump was so big and my skin so taut that I realised something was going to happen that day. The bump stood out like a sugar loaf as if someone’s finger was pushing at the skin from the inside. I kept running to the mirror, and in the course of the afternoon, a split started to appear.
A rift opened in the middle of the bulge, and in the middle of the weeping sore and the pus, I glimpsed something that looked like a tiny little … head.
It struck me as quite repulsive, and I stood stock-still for ages, staring into the mirror to see what was going on. I’d never seen such a small head before. Tiny though it was, it had a full set of human features: eyes, nose, mouth, even a wisp of hair. I realised straight away that it wasn’t an insect, but a new body part that had suddenly decided to make an unexpected appearance. It dawned on me that it must have been there the whole time, somehow – like a wisdom tooth. Complete with mouth, jaw, eyes, ears, nose, and forehead.
I took an instant dislike to it. I didn’t want it on my back – I just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I took out my toothbrush again and started scrubbing at the opening from which it had emerged, but neither the head nor the film of skin over it would disappear completely. All that happened was that my skin went red, and after a while it began to hurt a good deal.
That evening I couldn’t get off to sleep. Time and again I got up and stood in front of the mirror. I wandered round and round in the cottage, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote ‘I like heads’ in the plus column. And ‘But not on my back’ in the minus column.
I felt that summed up my views pretty well.
Staying in the cottage got more and more boring, and if it hadn’t been for the Head I’d have left a long time ago. But it was clear to me that I couldn’t show myself in public, disfigured as I was. When I woke up in the morning I hoped it would be gone, but when I checked in the mirror it was there as usual. After a while, I didn’t even have to get up. I could clearly feel its presence between me and the sheet. The Calor gas stove broke down regularly, and sometimes the smell of gas hung over the cylinder. Sometimes I’d thump it and get it to work for a while, but I wondered whether it was leaking a bit. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the raw patch on my back seemed to have got slightly infected, but I didn’t make any particular effort to get it to heal. I thought that might be a natural way to get rid of the intruder.
Gradually the Head grew bigger and bigger, and it generally kept itself hidden under its protective membrane. It would peek out just for an instant, then withdraw again. In early July it got up the nerve to pop out and have a look around for a little longer. Its features looked rather like mine, and I would often stand in front of the mirror waiting for it to peek out. Once or twice our eyes met momentarily in the mirror before it popped back inside the bump.
Sometimes I wondered what the Head thought of me. It must have been pretty striking to see its full-size alter ego, so to speak, towering above it on my neck and shoulders.
Since the Head had ears, eyes and a mouth, I soon started talking to it. I’d say ‘Hello’, ‘Hey’, ‘Hi there’ and so on. I’d threaten and cajole by turns, but mostly I chatted away to it as if I were talking to a plant or to myself. After all, in a way, I’d longed for someone to talk to, and now it turned out there was a head inside my back, I thought it would be a pity if we couldn’t hang out together now and then. I started telling it the names of the things around me. For example, I’d say ‘running shoes’ when I put them on to go jogging. ‘Mug’, I’d say when I took out my coffee cup. Then I’d add ‘cup’, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure myself which word was best. Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to give the Head an opportunity to learn some of the words and phrases people use most, so we could rub along together more easily. But it didn’t reply, and after a while, I stopped talking. I felt daft talking to someone who never said anything back.
It became harder and harder to sleep on my back. Sometimes, when I was lying stretched out, reading damp old Donald Duck comics in bed, the Head would suddenly move slightly behind my back. It was as though it were stretching out, or curling up into a ball. I’d always press a little harder when that happened. I don’t really know why. It just happened. Maybe it was a bit mean of me, but I wanted to make the point somehow that it was my back. After a while, the Head would start to resist, and we’d sometimes engage in a low-key wrestling match, which generally ended with my shifting onto my side.
I noticed I was getting hungrier and hungrier. There were days when I’d suddenly crave things I’d never liked before, such as boiled cod, peas in white sauce, grapefruit, muesli, and wholemeal bread. To my surprise, I also noticed that I was gradually becoming less fond of beer. I could see it was all the fault of the new head. It was taking in nutrients through me, of course, not through its own mouth. Now it was clearly trying to influence my habits, to bring them into line with its own tastes and its own aims.
I was annoyed that the Head was starting to take up more space and that it was kind of getting above itself in the evenings and at night, though it wouldn’t reply when spoken to and didn’t even have the guts to come out properly during the daytime.
I started to think the Head had something of an attitude problem. It would never look me in the eye. It wasn’t willing to learn anything about my habits or to repeat any of the words I tried to teach it. And then there was the way it took what it wanted, expanding more and more in the evenings. On top of that, the few times I caught a glimpse of its mouth, I detected a rather superior expression.
To begin with, I interpreted its behaviour as shyness. I thought it looked diffident, touching. It was, after all, so small, and if anything it came across as rather timid. In time, however, I came to think it was being pretty rude in keeping itself to itself. Just what was it scared of? I felt my approach had been quite respectful. Apart from the episode with the toothbrush and the after-shave, I’d been nothing but friendly and obliging, helpful even. Of course, you have to be careful in relations with other people, but the Head’s avoidance tactics sent a negative message, almost like disdain. As though it had no interest whatsoever in its – what could one call me? – host. Didn’t it like my company? I was quite sure I could detect a certain overbearing look in its eyes. Who did it think it was, this creature, to turn up and make silent demands on me? I was gradually feeling more and more determined to show it who was boss.
‘Listen here, you gutless little pipsqueak,’ I said one evening when I was sitting with a can of lager, staring at the wall. I was getting wasted out of pure defiance, just to show who was boss, though the lager was like vinegar. In fact, it tasted vile, and several times I was on the point of throwing up. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it must be worse for the little beast on my back. I’d laid in plenty of lager, but I had no TV, stereo or anything else that might have taken my mind off things. In the absence of any entertainment, I’d generally end up on the sofa in front of the big, empty wall. ‘Why don’t you come out and party a little?’ I said.
That wasn’t like me. It wasn’t my style to carry on and throw my weight about, but what I needed now was to find myself and deal with this uninvited guest. After all, I was over forty. I couldn’t carry on pussyfooting around. I was starting to lose my patience. I sat gazing at the damp around the broken electricity cables where the wallpaper had split.
Everything was silent and still behind me. Gulping down the last drop of lager in the can, I squeezed it in the middle and slung it into the corner where the TV should have been. Opening a new can, I wriggled my shoulder blades a little. I thought the creature might have gone to sleep. ‘Hey, you!’ I called again. ‘Come on out and have a beer, will you? Come on, try and be sociable.’
I raised the can over my head, held it carefully at an angle and let the lager run down the back of my neck. A small amount ended up in my hair, but the rest ran down over my skin, over the mound on my back. I’d thought the Head could just hold its mouth open and have a drink. But nothing happened.
‘Don’t fancy it? Well, it’s your loss,’ I said.
Then I sat there, the can in my hand, without a TV, while the lager gradually settled in a sticky mess between my skin and the leather upholstery.
I decided to try cutting my losses. If the Head didn’t want any contact, well, I was damned if I was going to carry on dancing attendance on it. I made it quite clear that I wanted peace and quiet. Staggering into the kitchen, I found a pencil. Each time I felt any movement inside my back, I jabbed at the opening with the pencil. It took several attempts to hit the right spot, but pretty soon I’d got quite accurate. The least sign of activity and I’d be onto it with the pencil, and as soon as the Head felt me jabbing at it, it would freeze. That gave me a power rush that was pretty cool. I’d have preferred to be on friendlier terms, of course, but with things as they were, there was no alternative. After a while, however, I realised the jabs weren’t having the same impact anymore. The Head would keep shifting around inside my back even after I’d jabbed at it several times, and sometimes I jabbed pretty hard.
I went out into the bathroom and sat in front of the mirror for a long while, quite light-headed and a little queasy from the booze. I nagged loudly at the Head to come out so we could agree on how we were to get on together. As usual, however, it refused to put in an appearance. At one point I got up, went out and pressed my back against the stove two or three times. Really hard. I felt the Head shrinking in on itself, seeking protection from each new impact. But there wasn’t the least sign of any willingness to communicate.
When I’d had no response for over an hour, and the Head had done nothing but keep itself to itself, I felt my patience coming to an end. I took the mirror off the wall and carried it over to the bed. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat down on the edge of the bed with the mirror leaning against the wall behind me, and waited. I breathed slowly, trying to steady my pulse.
Nothing happened for a long while, but then the Head’s curiosity must have got the better of it, for when I was completely still, I could clearly sense it slowly emerging. I stayed where I was, leaning forward, and let it continue for a good while. The longer I sat, the more distinctly I could feel the Head sliding in and out of my back. It was taking the opportunity to move around, thinking I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Maybe it thought I hadn’t noticed anything, and that was what really got me – the fact that it seemed to want nothing to do with me as if I wasn’t good enough for it. Presumably, it had discovered the mirror; it felt as though the thing was slipping out at regular intervals to look at itself. It was becoming bolder and bolder, taking longer each time. It must have thought I was asleep, as pretty soon it seemed to have stopped paying me any attention.
‘What’s that?’ I said, my tone of voice calm and measured, but with a note of surprise, as though I’d spotted something unexpected and was more or less talking to myself. I thought that would tempt the Head out to have a look. And lo and behold, it finally emerged, prompted by curiosity. I waited and waited, breathing calmly, biding my time.
When I thought enough of the Head was out in the open, I swivelled round as quickly as I could and snapped the scissors shut, just where I thought its neck must be. The Head must have had a terrible shock; its eyes were goggling like ping-pong balls. Somehow it had managed to start withdrawing, so the cut had sliced into its chin more than its neck. It was almost as if I’d cut through its mouth. A tongue slid back and forth over the blade, cutting itself again and again.
And a cry came from its mouth. It was all quite horrible. The blood and the tongue, those goggling eyes, and the cry, rising into a scream.
I tried to snap the scissor blades together and snip the whole thing off, but as I’d caught it at an odd angle, there were jaw muscles and bones in the way. It was a terrible mess.
In the end, I opened the scissors and let the creature take cover again.
Blood continued to flow out of the opening for quite a while, so I had to stand in the bathroom splashing water over it for a long time. The floor got messy, and I had to dig out an old 1950s vacuum cleaner to hoover up the blood and the water. The hoover crackled and sparked, and it had little suction power. I had to go over the floor inch by inch with the metal mouthpiece. The Head didn’t show itself.
The morning after, I woke up lying in an awkward position on my front, with my face pressed into the pillow. I had a headache and a bad conscience about the previous evening’s attack. I called to the Head to come out, but there was no response. I begged and pleaded, but nothing happened.
It stayed inside for several days, and I felt nothing at all beyond a dull pain in my back – unsurprisingly, as the Head was linked to some extent with my own nervous system. Though I looked in the mirror a few times, I could see nothing. I began to wonder whether it might have died from its injuries, but little by little, in the evenings, I once again started to feel tiny movements, a cautious scratching. It was if it was literally licking its wounds.
For a while I was afraid it would try to get its own back somehow, slide out when I was least expecting – who knew how quickly its neck was growing? Or maybe it would start eating me up from the inside?
Once again I cursed the fact that I was all on my own. I dared not turn my back on any knives or scissors that might be lying about, and I constantly tried to be aware of whatever was within reach each time I turned round. I developed such a keen awareness of what was behind me that I sometimes forgot to look out for what was in front. I started walking into things, bumping my head when looking through the kitchen hatches and stubbing my toes on the furniture. I should have brought someone along right from the start, I thought. It’s never a good idea to go off on your own as I’d done. If I’d brought someone else, I’d have had someone to talk to who would have witnessed the whole process and understood my plight.
At the same time, I could see it would be tricky to turn up anywhere with the Head as it was now. People would think it was peculiar, maybe even rather frightening. No-one would want to touch it. They’d think I’d done this to myself, that I’d had some sort of operation.
I’d have to deal with the problem on my own.
I started talking again. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably stuff like:
‘Hallo? Are you there?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Why don’t you answer? I know you can.’
But the Head kept mum. I had the feeling it might have learned its lesson, or at least grasped who was boss. Whenever it moved, its movements were very cautious.
I was gradually beginning to relax a little.
In a way, everything had calmed down considerably after the incident. Maybe being a bit rougher had been just the right thing? Maybe I’d held back far too much and given it far too much room for manoeuvre? Cut it too much slack for too long? Perhaps a firmer hand was needed to instil a natural respect for me in the intruder, and to put it in its place.
One day in early August, when I was standing in front of the mirror looking at the igloo-shaped lump on my back, which was growing larger and larger, its forehead and eyes finally emerged, and, for the first time, it looked me straight in the eye for a long while.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked.
It was still for a moment. Then it slowly shook in a way that might well have meant no.
‘How’s your mouth?’ I asked, and the Head’s gaze darkened slightly. It blinked a few times and breathed through its nose as if preparing for something. Finally, it popped out completely, stretching its neck. It gave me quite a fright, as I recall. The Head was already bigger than a fist, and its mouth had healed well. The only visible signs of the scissors’ treatment were a few pink streaks.
It withdrew after showing me its mouth, and neither of us made any further attempt to communicate for the rest of the day. A strange, oppressive atmosphere filled the cottage. Maybe it was angry about the scissors incident, but if that was the case it could have said so, always assuming that it could speak. Of course, my attack might have damaged its powers of speech, but I didn’t think it was that badly injured. After all, it had managed to scream.
Next morning I went straight to the mirror and tapped the bump on my back with a toothbrush. It took a while, but eventually the eyes peeped out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the Head had grown slightly bigger overnight.
‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘Shall we be friends, then?’
The eyes looked at me for a long time. We just stared at one another. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but in the end I thought I saw it give a cautious nod.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about that business with the scissors. That was unkind. I won’t do it again.’
Motionless, the eyes continued to stare at me. After a while, the Head decided to come right out, revealing a slightly distant, superior expression.
‘Can you speak?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head.
I was so astounded that I dropped my toothbrush on the floor. True, I’d heard it scream, and I’d suspected that it had a voice. But it felt strange to hear actual words. It changed something. I felt quite unsure of myself. It was as if it suddenly dawned on me that it had actually understood everything I’d said, which doubled the stress I felt. I tried to control my feelings and maintain a semblance of calm before the Head, which was continuing to stare at me as though amused by my confusion, though it didn’t give that away for an instant. It gave away nothing. And its very expressionlessness only reinforced the menacing impression it made on me. Its voice sounded just like mine.
‘Nothing, just wondering,’ I said. ‘You haven’t said anything.’
The Head said nothing now either but continued to scrutinise me with a slightly blasé expression. He was very like me.
‘Er… are you male or female?’ I continued.
That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out question, but I felt I’d better seize the opportunity to find out as much as possible, now we’d established some kind of contact, so to speak. What did I know? Maybe the Head wasn’t intending to come out again for another few months.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head again.
The voice was calm and steady, like a more stable variant of my own. At the same time, it sounded – how can I put this? – rather reserved and haughty. ‘I think you’re a man,’ I said. ‘And I really don’t like your snarky tone. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a little chat together, without getting on our high horses.’
The Head didn’t reply now either, but it seemed to roll its eyes briefly, exhaling rapidly rather as though it were sighing.
‘Oh, all right then, forget it,’ I said.
The Head said nothing. It just slipped swiftly back into its lair.
The next morning we stared at each other in the bathroom mirror while I was brushing my teeth. He stuck out his whole neck and head and yawned expansively. I could have sworn this was a minor demonstration of power. He’d got even bigger. Soon he’d be the same size as any other head. He was only very slightly smaller than my own.
I said nothing. I’d been feeling a little hurt since the previous day and rather anxious about how all this was going to end. The toothpaste tube slipped out of the washbasin and landed on the floor. My knees creaked when I bent down to pick it up.
A few days later, when I was in front of the bathroom mirror again brushing my teeth, the Head suddenly popped out again, and this time he managed to stretch up over one shoulder. It looked funny to have two heads the same size on the same body, and I couldn’t stop myself asking:
‘How big are you going to get?’
The other head smiled and replied:
‘What do you think?’
For the first time, it felt as though he was actually challenging me in some way, but I just didn’t understand how he was doing it or what it was he wanted. It was as though we were sizing each other up for a while.
Quick I could, I tried to come up with a flash of repartee that would answer that question once and for all. After all, he hadn’t exactly been wonderfully articulate himself. Yet, in just a few brief rejoinders, he’d managed to seize what you might call the rhetorical high ground. And however hard I racked my brains and struggled to think of something, it didn’t really work. Finally, I had to say the first thing that had popped into my head, and I still doubt whether it sounded very smart.
‘Hmmm…,’ said I. ‘What do you think?’
Obviously it was easier for him to inject that edge of ambiguity into what he said. After all, he had the advantage of surprise. Hell, surely anyone would be pretty taken aback if a head on their back suddenly started to talk? He could have said anything at all. Besides, he’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something. I now see I shouldn’t just have recycled what he’d already said; I should have come up with my own unique, quick-fire rejoinder. But that just didn’t work.
He merely smiled, and from that moment on he no longer seemed to pay me much attention. Increasingly, he didn’t bother to crawl back into his lair; instead, he spent more and more time next to my own head.
For several days I went around regretting that unfortunate exchange of words. It felt as though I’d lost something, without really understanding what it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all? Whatever I said, things only seemed to get worse.
‘Can’t we go out some time?’ he asked one day.
‘How would that look?’ I said. ‘Surely you understand it’d scare people silly to see such a monstrosity? No, we’ll have to stay in here till…’
I fell silent, not knowing how to continue.
‘Till what?’ he said.
‘Till we sort this out,’ I said, making it clear the conversation was over. I noticed him looking over my shoulder at the notes I’d jotted down, and sometimes he seemed to be scoffing at something I’d written. As his neck grew stronger, he pushed my head down closer and closer to my shoulder. He tried both sides a few times, but soon he’d made his choice, and there wasn’t much I could do when he made himself comfortable in the middle.
We did some things together. Now and then, out of the blue, he’d take control over an arm or a leg, as if for a joke. He’d make me cross out some new words I’d just written in the plus or minus column. He’d spill a glassful of juice just for the hell of it, so I’d have to wipe it all up before it ran over the chairs as well.
He’d take over for short periods without my noticing. If I didn’t watch out, he’d suddenly stow the coffee tin in the cupboard over the coffee machine, rather than the one over the stove where I’d always kept it. He’d throw rubbish straight into the bin instead of the sink, or turn the gas off. I generally took over control again as soon as I noticed what was going on, but sometimes I’d let him do his own thing, just to see what he’d come up with.
At any time, and without any warning at all, I could be struck by a sudden numbness. It was as if my arms had gone to sleep and it was nearly impossible to raise them – as if he’d decided we were going to take a rest. And once, when I was doing my usual twenty press-ups, just as I was relaxing after the last one I felt as though he’d taken over and was forcing me to do another one. My arms ached, and it was incredibly tough, but I had to go through with it, though I was tired and felt I’d done my fair share already. Once we’d got up again, and I’d sat down, I turned my head as far as I could and yelled straight into his ear, ‘Don’t you bloody well do that again!’
I knew full well how much it hurt when someone bellowed into your ear, but all he did was laugh.
‘What’s that?’ he said all of a sudden one day, looking down at the floor with a startled expression. I bent down to see what he was talking about. But before I’d managed to spot anything, I felt him wrapping one of my arms around my neck. I resisted, trying to push my head back up again, but he seemed to have locked it in place with my other hand. I was held in a grip under one arm. And try as I might to wave my arms about and gesticulate, it was his will that mainly commanded my muscles now. ‘When are you going to let go?’ I yelled as loudly as I could, muffled by the body and the clothes around me.
‘What do you think?’ said he.
When I got back up again I was livid with fury. I tried to punch his head, but my arms would only half obey me. They were directionless and weak, like the arms of a puppet. That felt even more humiliating if anything, so I left off pretty quickly and sat down on the sofa.
‘This isn’t working,’ I said.
As usual, he said nothing. We sat that way for a long time, without doing anything in particular. It was as though we were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
‘Hey, you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we go out?’
‘No chance,’ said I.
When we had our breakfast, each would have his own bowl of cereal, but we’d use the same two hands. I noticed the spoon went up to his mouth more often than to mine. But since I had little appetite, it didn’t matter much. We hardly ever spoke to each other, just exchanged brief utterances like ‘Mind yourself!’ or ‘Shift!’ and stuff like that.
A few days went by in comparative peace. It was getting easier and easier to synchronise our movements. We generally agreed on what our arms and legs should be doing. We’d go out for a short run, shower, sleep, eat – all the usual things. I noticed I no longer needed to think so much. I generally just went along with whatever he was doing, and that was quite agreeable in its way. I could sense that I no longer had the strength I’d once had.
One afternoon, when we were standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth – first mine, then his – he said, in passing as it were, his mouth full of toothpaste:
‘You can hardly see the scar now.’
Looking up, I realised I couldn’t tell straight away which of the two heads was mine. Each was the spitting image of the other. After a moment, it occurred to me to focus on the eyes. The face that gazed back would be me, of course. The whole thing was made more difficult by the fact that he was looking at me too, with an indulgent, almost contemptuous expression. I yelled at him to stop gawping and looked in the mirror to see which one of us was shouting. The tired, worn-out one – that was me.
The new head took over my body more and more, and began to do things differently. It felt unfamiliar and rather irritating. He forced me to climb on the roof to mend the hole in the roofing-felt. Then he’d be off round the whole building, taping up all the loose contacts, taking out the rugs to air, listening to discussion programmes on the radio – that sort of stuff. He dug out the brush and dustpan and set about cleaning the cottage from top to bottom. He started cooking and setting the table, rather than eating straight out of a tin. He’d pour milk into a glass. Then we’d have to stand around washing up afterwards.
My appetite dwindled. Everything went to the other head. He helped himself eagerly, while the flesh shrank from my cheeks and chin. My temples grew closer together, and my eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He picked up the guitar, gathered up all the comics, and put the lot away in the loft, where he found a book about birds and another about flowers that he dusted off and brought down.
Now and then I’d find the Head writing with my hand. I thought I might still be able to tell his handwriting from mine, so I made no particular effort to stop him.
He would write and write, sometimes for hours at a time, and I thought it all terribly boring. He used such complicated language, with difficult words and long sentences. For a while, I was rather impressed and felt a spark of pride at the thought that it was my handwriting it all down, after all. But all things considered, it was dull and hard to understand.
He never wanted to do anything fun. Just boring stuff.
The summer ended and autumn came. After a while, I realised I was finding it harder and harder to hold up my head. I wanted to kind of lie on one shoulder. It was as if my neck muscles had atrophied, and all of a sudden my neck was so scrawny, desiccated and skinny, shrivelled, withered in the middle, that I wondered how the oxygen could get through. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe my entire oxygen intake was now coming in through the new head?
I realised that I was gradually getting used to his dull, monotonous routines, and would often just hang to one side. For a while, he would help me by holding me up with his hands from time to time, but he tired of that soon enough. As he took on more and more activities, I would all too often remain hanging at an angle, unable to hold myself up, so that I viewed the world half upside-down. My neck had shrivelled into a thin thread that increasingly resembled a scrap of umbilical cord attached to newborn babies, which gradually dries out and eventually falls off.
One morning after breakfast he went out to the toolbox and fetched a pair of pincers. He clipped me off and laid me in the bed, on the pillow.
‘Want to be on one side, or facing upwards?’ he asked.
‘On my side,’ I said.
He laid me with one cheek on the pillow, so I could lie there and watch him getting undressed and smartening himself up. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard him turning on the tap and splashing water around. He came back into the bedroom, freshly showered. He’d put a waterproof plaster, such as you might stick over a shaving nick, on the tiny wound where I’d been attached. He opened the wardrobe and changed into smart clothes right in front of my face.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I saw from the calendar that we’ve got a table booked for lunch at “The Gondola”. Thought I’d go along,’ he said.
Before he went, he tucked me in with the cover over my chin. I took the opportunity to have a nap. It was so pleasant to be on my own again, even though my mobility was now severely limited, but it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t really noticed what was going on. Now that I was over forty, I thought to myself, I no longer placed such high demands on life. There was no need to win or to be a top dog all the time, or to have arms and legs and all that sort of thing. I was quite content with everything just the way it was. I wouldn’t have had the strength to creep around outside anyway.
By the time he got home again, it had been dark for a long time. I awoke when the door closed, and pretty soon I saw him looking into the bedroom. Apart from his wet hair, he looked just like me. He wore my clothes, was a little older, and had a slightly more pronounced widow’s peak. The scar had disappeared completely. No-one would ever think he was anyone but me.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Sure,’ I said.
We were both whispering, although there were only the two of us in the cottage. It was as though we didn’t want to disturb the night. Or maybe what we had to say called for a lower volume. He sat down on the edge of the bed but realised that the rest of it was empty. So he edged up further and leaned against the wall.
‘I’m thinking of taking up smoking,’ I said.
He sighed and looked at me. I rocked back and forth a little. I could feel something like a speck of dust settling on my nose. I grimaced a little, trying to get rid of it. Finally, he stretched out a hand and helped me scratch.
‘What’s it like out there?’ I asked.
He leaned back, sinking down against the wall. Shook his head slowly, as though he couldn’t decide whether it was wonderful, or terrible, or just too hard to explain.
‘It’s a different world,’ he said. ‘Trust me, pal, you’d never cope out there.’
In Mladá Boleslav there lived a stationer called Petiška. He was a man who respected the law and had lived, for longer than anyone could remember, across the road from the barracks. On the Emperor’s birthday and other Imperial and Royal occasions, he would hang out a black-and-gold banner from his house and provide Chinese lanterns for the Officers’ Club. He sold pictures of Franz Joseph to gin shops in the Mladá Boleslav area and to the police station. He would have supplied portraits of Our Ruler to the schools under the administration of the local education authority as well, but the dimensions of his pictures did not conform to the specifications approved by the Regional Schools Council. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Petiška,’ the Imperial and Royal Regional School Inspector said to him once when they met in the Sheriff’s Office, ‘but you’re trying to give us a longer and wider Emperor than the one prescribed in the Regional Schools Council Instructions of 20th October 1891. The Emperor as defined in the Instructions is somewhat shorter. Only Emperor is 50 cm high and 36 cm wide are permitted. Your Emperor is 50 cm high and 40 cm wide. You reply that you have two thousand pictures of our Monarch in stock. Don’t imagine that you’re going to fob off any old rubbish onto us. Your emperor is shoddy goods through and through. And the way they’ve got him up is a scandal. He looks as if his whiskers have never been combed, there’s an enormous splash of red on his nose and on top of it all, he’s got a squint.’
When Mr Petiška got home, he said irritably to his wife: ‘That old Emperor of ours has landed us in a pretty pickle!’ And this was before the war had started. Mr Petiška had been lumbered, in short, with two thousand portraits of the Emperor. When war did break out, Mr Petiška was overjoyed and full of high hopes of shifting that merchandise of his. He displayed pictures of the bloodthirsty old codger in his shop under the inscription: ‘A good buy! The Emperor Franz Joseph for 15 crowns!’ He sold six: five to the barracks, where these lithographed portraits of the Last of the Habsburgs were hung up in the canteens to whip up the fervour of the reservists, and one which was bought by old Šimr, the tobacconist. This Austrian patriot beat him down to 12 crowns and still complained in heartfelt tones that it was daylight robbery.
He took out advertisments and offered the Emperor for sale in National Politics and Voice of the People: ‘In these difficult days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our sorely tried Monarch, at 15 crowns.’ He didn’t get any orders, but he did get a summons to present himself at the District Seriff’s Office, where he was informed that in future, he had better avoid expressions like ‘difficult days’ and ‘sorely tried’. Instead, he should use: ‘glorious days’ and ‘victorious’. Otherwise, he would find himself involved in complications. So he issued the following advertisement: ‘In these glorious days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our victorious Monarch, at 15 crowns’. But that didn’t work either.
All he received was a number of obscene communications, in which his anonymous correspondents advised him with total frankness to put his portraits of the Emperor where the monkey keeps its nuts, and yet another invitation to the Sheriff’s Office, where the Duty Commissar told him that he must follow the guide-lines issued by the Imperial and Royal Correspondence Office in the wording of his advertisements. ‘The Russians are in Hungry, they’ve captured Lvov and got as far as Přemyšl. You don’t talk about “glorious days” in the face of all that, Mr Petiška. It sounds as if you are amusing yourself, indulging in sarcasm and irony. With adverts like that, you could end up in the Castle, in front of a Court Martial.’
Mr Petiška promised that he would be careful and composed the following advertisement: ‘Every Czech would be glad to sacrifice 15 crowns for the opportunity to hang our aged Monarch in his home.’ The local journals refused to take the advertisement. ‘Good God, man,’ said one Managing Editor to him, ‘do you want to get us all shot?’
Mr Petiška went home very upset. At the back of his shop the parcels containing his stock of Emperor’s portraits were lying about all over the place. Mr Petiška dipped into one and was horrified by what he found. He looked round anxiously and was relieved to discover that no one had seen him. He began gloomily to brush the dust off the parcel and found that some were damp and mouldy. His black tomcat was sitting behind the parcels. There could be no shadow of doubt as to who was responsible for their moist condition. In an attempt to divert suspicion from itself, the cat began to purr. Mr Petiška threw a broom at the treasonous animal, and it fell silent. In a rage the stationer stormed into the living quarters and growled at his wife: ‘That bloody animal has got to go! Who’s going to buy an Emperor that’s been pee’d on by a cat? The Emperor’s mouldy. He’ll have to be dried out, God dammit!’
Mr Petiška’s afternoon nap, which he took while his wife was looking after the shop, was very disturbed. He imagined that the police had come for the black tomcat and that he, too, was being taken along with it before a Court Martial. Then it seemed as if he and the cat had been sentenced to death by hanging and that the cat was the first to go. And he, Petiška, was blaspheming at the Court in terrible language. He gave a fearsome shout – and saw his wife standing beside him. ‘Heavens above!’ she said to him reproachfully. ‘The language you’re using! If someone were to hear you like this!’
She reported in an agitated voice that she had in the meantime tried to dry the Emperor in the garden, but that some stone-throwing hooligans had used him for target-practice ‘and now he looks like a sieve.’
Other losses were registered as well. The hens had come and sat on one picture of the Emperor, which was drying on the grass, while they were going through their digestive processes and in the condition they were in, had turned his whiskers green. The young Saint Bernard belonging to Holeček, the butcher, which was a naïve young thing and had no knowledge of Paragraph 63 of the Criminal Code, had attempted to eat two pictures. That pup had it in its blood, though. Its mother had been destroyed by the knacker a year ago for eating the banner of the 36th Regiment on the parade ground.
Mr Petiška was not a happy man. In the wine-cellar that evening, he said something about the Emperor. The burden of his speech was that the authorities in Vienna looked on the Czechs with distrust because they weren’t buying portraits of the Monarch, at 15 crowns a time, from the firm of František Petiška in Mladá Boleslav.
‘Bring the price down,’ said the landlord, when it was closing time. ‘These are hard times. Horejsek is selling his steam-thresher for 300 crowns less than he gave for it last year and the Emperor’s in the same boat.’
And so Mr Petiška wrote out the following announcement and put it in the display-case in his shop window: ‘In view of the economic crisis, I am offering a large number of beautiful portraits of the Emperor, normally priced at 15 crowns, for 10 crowns each.’
And once more all was quiet in the shop. ‘How’s the Emperor going?’ asked our friend the owner of the wine-cellar. ‘Poorly,’ replied Mr Petiška. ‘There’s no demand for the Emperor.’
‘If I were you, you know,’ said the landlord of the wine-cellar in a confidential tone, ‘I’d try to get rid of him at any price, before it’s too late.’
‘I’ll wait a bit longer,’ said Mr Petiška.
And so the ill-disciplined black tomcat continued to sprawl all over the portraits of the Emperor. After eighteen months, the mould had even reached the Emperors at the bottom of the pile. The Austrians were on the way out and Austria as a whole was like something the cat had brought in.
And then Mr Petiška took paper and pencil and worked out with a heavy heart that he wasn’t going to get rich this way and that if he sold the Emperor for two crowns he’d still make a crown on each portrait.
And he devised some effective publicity. He put a portrait in the display case and wrote underneath: ‘This ancient Monarch reduced from 15 to 2 crowns.’
All Mladá Boleslav came that same day to Mr Petiška’s shop, to see how shares in the Habsburg dynasty had suddenly fallen through the floor.
And that night the police came for Mr Petiška, and after that things moved swiftly. They shut down the shop and they arrested Mr Petiška and brought him before a Court Martial for committing an offence against public peace and order. The Ex-Servicemen’s Society expelled him at an Extraordinary Plenary Session.
Mr Petiška got thirteen months of hard labour. He should really have got five years, but it was argued in mitigation that he had once fought for Austria at the Battle of Custozza. And the parcels of portraits of the Emperor have been impounded in the meanwhile in the military depository in Terezína, awaiting the hour of liberation when, on the liquidation of Austria, some enterprising tradesman will wrap his cheeses in them.
Mojito sniffs through the bars of the gate. He gets bored and comes back with muddy feet. I pet his fur. The color of tea with milk, Brenda says, as the dog licks my hands.
She needs me to take care of him while she’s away. I’m hoping she’ll offer to let me stay at her house for the two months, but I don’t say anything and she doesn’t suggest it. Would I take a peek at her panties? Yes.
I try to count the number of living things I have in my apartment. No ficus or pet or even a cactus. Only bacteria and the rotting vegetables in my fridge.
I agree. The bag of dog food weighs more than the dog.
His whines and need for affection keep me up and when I finally fall asleep I sink into an elastic and sweaty confusion that there’s no escaping.
My dreams look like a scene from Counter Strike. The terrorism of old loves. You want to rescue your hostages but it’s too late.
Headshot and out of bed to go to work.
Eight hours in the office means eight hours on the internet. You can’t talk about that.
You can talk about the open carcasses of the computers, the heat of the server room, the coffee maker that sometimes spits out dirt, the shrillness of each ring, message, and alarm that a person hears every day.
The security guard shakes my hand after I swipe the magnetic card. Aníbal spends the night in the building; he’ll be getting off work soon. I know that he hides a mattress in the basement, next to the service bathrooms.
On his netbook he watches tutorials on how to make origami. More animals than flowers.
He makes them out of the gold wrappers of the cigarettes he smokes leisurely all night or quickly, secretly during the day. Every once in a while me gives me one of his animals.
The smoke sticks to his fingers and then to the paper and then to me.
I help with the systems. There are a lot of systems and my hand dips into all of them. Always under different users, like a glove that changes color. I imagine my work like a hand tying up cables inside a bucket of Jell-O.
I’m also the one who checks what my co-workers search on Google. Some are interested in clothes or in some zodiac sign or soccer team. In my opinion our individual identities are defined by the terms we search for.
This week I’m “can you eat banana peel,” “angelface redhead on the beach,” “song that starts with biribiribiribibí,” and “name for the white part of your eye.”
I also Google my name. It relaxes me. It gives me certainty. It’s objective: that’s what I am. My boss on the other hand reads about weightlifting, cocks, and fishing. He also has braces on his teeth. According to his CV he’s one year younger than me. One Friday working late he told me that he wanted to leave everything behind and move to Italy.
But I’ve never seen that in his searches.
There are people who don’t even dare to type their dreams in Google.
The secretary calls and tells me to go up to the boss’s office on the top floor. I say I’m on my way. She’s the vegetarian version of Catwoman who keeps an Excel spreadsheet on what she steals from petty cash. I don’t read her e-mails. One time when I used the boss’s bathroom there was a strong smell of raw fish from the trashcan. The lid was on.
The boss only calls me when his computer freezes or his antivirus expires; and also when they want to scold me for something I did right but they think I did wrong. All systems leak.
Of course only the worst ones sink.
The air-conditioning is always on. The janitors move around the building from computer to computer with buckets and jugs. I stare at the painting of Rosas until the secretary gives me permission to enter the boss’s office.
Without even greeting me, my boss asks me if I want to grow. I say yes. Perfect, he smiles, great. His braces sparkle like a white dwarf star. He hands me a Blackberry and says I’m a good kid. That’s it.
I need an app that will completely uninstall my expectations.
The rest of the workday slides by. I want to configure my Gmail account on my new Blackberry but it keeps giving me an error message. I restart and it seems to have been successfully installed, but then the error message again. I take out the battery, I put the battery back in and turn it on.
Error. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. In systems there’s never room to grow.
At least I manage to set the Tetris theme as my ringtone.
I leave work tired but as I begin to walk I feel my energies return. A little bit of air, unexpected cold, quick trip to the corner store where I make the rounds down the same aisles as always. I pay with exact change. I’m happy when I unlock my door on the first try.
The first thing I do when I get inside is turn on the computer. Then I turn on the light, the gas for the heater, I open Chrome, I start iTunes, I find a yogurt in the back of the fridge and shuffle takes me directly to Brenda’s favorite song. She must already be on the road, driving at night, the last CD spinning infinitely in her CD player.
Mojito falls asleep under my jacket.
Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. The repetition unravels until all of the updates are exhausted. And then again. And Again.
News, torrents, weather forecast, subtitles, 24 hour pharmacies, movie show times. Music. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Update. Delete. Share. Send.
Surfing the internet is like a workout routine.
Sometimes it feels like military training.
Just as I’m about to go to bed I get an e-mail. Not the one I was hoping for, never the one I was hoping for. One of my co-workers is mad about something that I supposedly did but I’m sure I didn’t do.
I mark it as spam.
Dried tea bags on my desk at work. Eye drops. Flash drives. Origami. Broken pens. A Plastic fork from the sweet and greasy Chinese takeout. The box my speakers came in filled now with I don’t know what. Breadcrumbs.
Systems are so clean in comparison, even when they don’t work.
But they never don’t work like they didn’t work today.
The chat windows in my Gtalk are full of sentences I didn’t type.
“YOU LIKE TO PUT YOUR FINGER IN YOUR ASS AND SMELL IT. FAG. AIRPLANE GREASE FAT-ASS.” Et cetera.
I try to avoid it but it’s impossible: as much as I move the cursor or sign out of Gtalk the ghost continues to send messages from my username. The majority of my contacts respond aggressively.
Some understand that it’s not me.
I try to explain to my friends what’s happening, but I don’t even know what’s happening. Most of them say okay. Not much else: okay. One of them tells me to post a message on my Facebook wall; I do it. Another one suggests I change my account; no.
I take lunch late and there are hardly any restaurants still open. As I chew a milanesa and cheese sandwich I realize that in my mass apology I must have also written to the person responsible for the messages. A co-worker, most likely.
I search the histories up to the last cleaning, but it’s too late. It’s no surprise. Links break. Servers break. Users break.
It starts with e-mails I never sent and continues with new avatars on my Facebook wall. I’m not sure if I should erase them; a lot of people have even liked them. The images came from my Tumblr account, but under a username no one knows. On the internet there are always traces for people who want to follow you.
I change all my passwords. I write them down in a notebook so I won’t forget them; my handwriting looks as foreign to me as what’s being written in my Gtalk.
For the first few days I forget I changed the passwords until sign-in fails.
Brenda took several days to get online or at least to sign on to Gtalk. It annoyed me to have to wait around in the same space that they’ve been hijacking, with me inside. There were many false alarms: whenever the computer would make any noise, like a hiccup, and it sounded like someone was trying to chat with me. Finally my status isn’t invisible and Brenda talks to me when she finally connects. She just asks me about the dog; but it makes me happy anyway.
She says that she received a pretty strange message from me on her phone, but she didn’t want to respond. It makes me sad somehow. How could she not have known that it wasn’t really from me? Then she starts telling me about her trip and we drop the subject but I’m nervous the whole time that they’ll take over my account in the middle of our conversation.
As the photos she sends upload I think about how every time we see each other she lets me use her computer, without passwords, without protests, without erasing the history. If I’d stayed at her house I’d be safe I think.
She likes to search recipes for carrot casseroles. The rest stays in her imagination. I would like one day to be able to Google “What does Brenda think about when she masturbates” and see the results appear in my browser.
Every once in a while my boss contacts me via Blackberry to tell me to hurry up with the systems I’m managing. Nothing or no one has written to him yet, but it’s possible that the secretary told him about it. I know they talk about me behind my back in the office because they talk to me to my face less and less every day.
At least Mojito barks at me when I get home from work.
Then I remember that he must be hungry.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize that this is happening to me, and not some stranger who’s telling his story on a webpage devoted to secrets. I wonder if the excessive light of the monitors might be driving me mad.
I need an app that impedes me from writing this at night.
I need an app that impedes me from reading during the day.
As I shower I think: I could also track the person who’s tracking me. Something always filters through. I copy all the e-mails, all the chat messages, and all the posts into one document. I use an Excel spreadsheet to record the origin and content of each message.
It has to be a group of people that secretly hate me. I look at the faces of my co-workers and I imagine them thinking up the messages together.
Even the ones who were the victims of the joke.
Some are just insults to my contacts, gratuitous but well-reasoned and true. But there are also the miserable ones. As if my account were drunk with a score to settle and all the time in the world.
The guy who took a drink from a water bottle that was in the trash. The girl who peed in a trashcan because the bathrooms were occupied. The man who has to take his dates to hotel rooms because he still lives with his mom. The lady who’s antsy all day because she has anal parasites that stick to her underwear. The guy who has purple marks on his hands because he bites them when he’s nervous.
Admit that she doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re ugly. All she sees is your bald head. She likes dick, little guy, you know what she does with your presents? Did you really think that you could win her over with those ingenious e-mails? You’re so small that you can’t see how pathetic you are. When you smile you look like you have Down’s. Even your mom has more sex than you. She gives you pecks but with him she watches movies where they stick things in their asses. Everyone knows you’re so desperate that you show up at the clubs you know she’s going to and then say it was a coincidence. Look in the mirror, your crossed eyes, your hands the size of your feet. You’re teeth are so yellow it looks like you eat plaque for breakfast. We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you.
I wake up feeling like there’s a telephone pole stuck in my back. I don’t know how I manage to get up, but I do. I serve Mojito his food and decide not to make any breakfast for myself.
Last night I left a book on top of the modem and now it’s hot like a piece of toast.
I rub it on my face. When I open it, the pages are cold.
The security guard offers me an origami of a cat made from neon green paper. He hasn’t figured out how to make the whiskers, he apologizes. Aníbal is the only employee in the office who still talks to me.
I don’t want to make the dog jealous. I leave the cat on top of the toilet in the boss’s bathroom.
I need an app that keeps me from accepting other people’s animals.
Brenda says I should get off the internet.
I can’t, I tell her, it’s part of my job. And how would we talk during your trip, I think.
It’s true that I can’t, I don’t know how. Is there any place where wifi still doesn’t reach? I wouldn’t know where to hide out. Internet is the next Soviet Union. Someday it’s going to collapse but in the meantime we’re trapped inside and subject to its whims.
Now I’m the one my e-mails are shaming. The precision of detail makes my stomach churn, as if the modem was connected directly into my digestive tract. No one could possibly know so much about me; there’s no one who knows the exact version of all my humiliations.
The computer exposes me like a nerve to all of my contacts, as if suddenly the search engine started showing all my thoughts and conversations when someone types my name.
Things I didn’t even know existed appear, things I thought no longer existed but still exist, things that remain in cache even when I know they don’t exist anymore.
The dog pissed on my collection of pirated DVDs, in the dirty clothes hamper, on my photocopies; also on the laptop. I should shut him in the patio, but deep down I’m happy to be with someone who doesn’t know anything about love, communism, or the internet.
I need an app that can clean the piss off this keyboard.
I try to erase all of my accounts, the ones that are linked to my name and the ones that aren’t. The ones for work and the ones for pleasure. Credit cards, newspapers, magazines, games, porn.
The pages either say they’re under maintenance, or an error message pops up when I finish the configuration, or there’s simply no way to delete the account.
I stop going to work. The computer’s fan sounds like the wind, or a snowstorm when it’s working hard. I’m tired like a computer that gets restarted every once in a while but hasn’t been unplugged in too long. For the first time, I make a place for Mojito under the covers. His snout is cold and his fur the color of tea with milk is warm.
My boss calls me on the Blackberry. Will the systems keep running without me?
I let the Tetris theme play.
I decide to turn off the computer. First I just want to reread one more time the last conversation I had with Brenda, but the connection is down. I keep trying for several hours.
When the internet returns it’s nighttime and all my contacts are connected. A video recorded on a webcam has gone viral from my Facebook account. As it loads I see the final image: it’s me, sitting in front of the computer; on my desk there’s an origami animal that I don’t have yet.
I hear myself squeal like a girl until I come. “Look, you have come all over your hands,” I hear Brenda’s voice on the video. I turn off the speaker but I know what she’s going to say: “Lick them.”
As I close the video the Facebook notifications continue to grow exponentially.
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.
Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf had been a Communist at university. After the fall of the Soviet Union he gave up on Communism for good. Or perhaps this was a rumour close friends spread about him. Nuru was then free to work as a Physics teacher and to concern himself with his family. But nobody could doubt the man’s love of Russia. He used to make trips of a few days to cities there – he and a group of his friends among whom was their leader, Salah ‘Amir, whom they used to call Capo, meaning “Chief” or “the Boss” in Italian. Capo was a man in his sixties who had never married and had spent his life as a hippy. He had a ring in his nose and the tattoo of a dragon on his arm. He tied his white hair back in a pony-tail, and allowed his beard to hang loose. He was into rock music, drugs and snake charming.
The trips they made to the Land of the Great White Bear were not normal tourist trips, like those when people visit museums, art galleries, ancient sites and the other usual travel clichés. Rather, their trips consisted of hanging out in a city other than Tunis. The funny things that happened to them there were enough to provide material for subsequent evenings, with the arguments and mockery, both of themselves and other people, which that demanded. For example, on their last trip, they looked for a restaurant that prepared Tunisian cuisine in St Petersburg and they got to know the chef who was a native of the country. Soon the man, who brought them plates of couscous with beef, became the butt of jokes. The word “country” in colloquial Russian meant “whore”, and Capo would thank him with the words, “a true son of the ‘country’”. The man would go along with a smile and his face would go red. He had doubts about what was intended, especially when he observed that the group were silent and not one of them laughed. They did it deliberately, so as not to spoil Capo’s joke. After the son of the country left to go to his kitchen, they doubled up in hysterical laughter, but not Capo. He made some comments on the side, which made them laugh all the more.
One year, Nur al-Din and Capo decided to go to Moscow – just the two of them, as the rest of their friends had other things to do. They spent their first evening at a nightclub, drinking vodka and watching Russian girls doing the striptease. As they were going back to the hotel in a rented car, Capo told Nur al-Din that they should go together the following day to a health spa where there would be beautiful Russian girls who gave an excellent massage for only forty roubles. After the massage session he would feel enormously refreshed and released from weariness and tension. Nuru agreed to the idea.
The following day Capo was at the steering wheel telling his friend again about the health spa, which he had been to many times in the past. He was silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, they don’t just do massage.”
Nur al-Din turned towards him. “Meaning what?” he asked.
“The lot, my dear friend, the lot,” Capo said with a smile.
Nuru struck his forehead in a high spirited way. “You’re a disaster, Capo,” he said.
“You have to give them an extra twenty roubles. You’ll see how things are done.”
At the health spa they each entered a warm jacuzzi, staying there for about half an hour. They got out, put on a bath robe and headed to the massage parlour where the masseuses were dressed in white coats waiting for their customers. The place was not crowded that day. They stretched out on their stomachs on massage tables leaving the masseuses to do their job. Capo flirted with his masseuse. First he asked her name. “Evrena,” she said. His Russian was good, and she laughed as he chatted with her. She asked him to place his head on the table and relax. Nur al-Din knew some words, but did not have Capo’s fluency in the language, and he smiled as he listened and felt the masseuse’s gentle hands passing over his back. Capo asked them to leave him alone with his friend for a moment. Nur al-Din was surprised at this; the masseuses moved towards the door and he whispered to Capo, “Why did you do that?”
“It was a sign,” he replied, and pointing his thumb behind him added, “It takes place in the bathroom.” He held his palm out towards Nur al-Din: “Have you got forty roubles on you?”
“Didn’t you say they only wanted twenty?”
“Yes. I mean for you and me. You’re paying.”
Nur al-Din laughed and grabbed his head with both hands. “Yes I’ve got the money,” he said.
“Go and get them, then.”
They both got off the massage tables, and went to collect their clothes. Nur al-Din took out his wallet and Capo took a packet of pills from his coat pocket. He took one out and gave it to his friend.
“What’s this?” asked Nuru.
“It’ll help you.”
“Screwing, of course.”
“Do you reckon I need it like you?”
“Just take it, man. You won’t regret it.”
Nur al-Din handled the pill with some hesitation, then swallowed it and tossed his head back. Then Capo said, “Follow me.”
Nur al-Din followed him and found the two masseuses really were waiting for them in the bathroom. Capo went in with Afrina after giving her the twenty roubles. Nur al-Din went in with his masseuse after giving her the same amount. She said her name was Oksana while she was licking his penis and gazing at him with her green eyes. When they were done, they got dressed and left. Nur al-Din was glowering. They got into the car and Capo was in a good mood. When he noticed that all was not right with his friend, he said, “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“Speak man, what’s the matter with you?”
“No . . . the pill . . .”
“The sex pill?”
“Has it made you ill?”
“It had no effect.”
“Just as I told you.”
Capo smiled. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
“Most likely, the blonde girl drained you dry.. Their woman aren’t like our women, Nuru, my good friend. One pill has an effect on our women but for their women we need a whole factory.”
“Do you really think so?”
They returned to the hotel. Nur al-Din had a shot of whisky which he drank from miniature he took out of the fridge. After nearly an hour he started feeling a pain in his penis. It had started to swell after he had slept with that girl Oksana and now began to grow erect. Capo was sitting there smiling and they talked about their programme for the evening. Nur al-Din suddenly began to fidget, got up and began to pace the room, his hands on his crotch.
Holding back his laughter, Capo said, “What’s the matter with you?”
“My prick, Capo. . .”
“What about it?”
Nur al-Din was moving with difficulty with pain etched on his face. Capo burst out laughing, gaining the attention of his friend. Capo had never in his whole life laughed as he was laughing at that moment. Nuru looked at him and felt that he had been victim of a trick.
“It’s the pill, isn’t it?” he said.
Capo nodded his head, his face red from so much laughter. He said with an effort, “The pill takes effect after an hour.”
“You knew that from the beginning, huh?”
Capo nodded in agreement. Nuru took a pillow and hit him hard with it, shouting, “Goddamn you, you rotten bastard.”
Capo tried to get his breath back. “Keep calm, it’s nothing serious,” he said. “Have another drink, and it will soon sort itself out.” He started laughing again.
After this incident, many of those who knew Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf began to debate the date he gave up on Communism.
After collecting the beer bottles from the bunkhouses at the sawmill, the brothers headed into the forest behind their house to eat wild blackberries, until their bellies were rotten with them and their fingertips were stained purple.
“Lookit.” Ben crouched on one knee, shaped his hand into a gun and took aim at a sparrow perched on a branch. “Bam!” The bird took flight through the trees. When the boys were in the forest, Ben spent a lot of time talking about BB guns.
“Don’t scare them,” Henry said. Their Mama kept three birdcages in the kitchen — one with finches, one with budgies and one with an African Grey — and Henry liked to stick a finger through the cages to rub their bellies or feel the curt jabs from their beaks. Every morning, it seemed to Henry, they tried to escape. At first light, he could hear them flapping around, screeching and knocking against the metal cages. By lunch they quieted, and by evening they slept. There was always a racket in the kitchen in the morning with the birds and the coffee machine and the brothers.
“It’s not real,” Ben said. He stood right in front of Henry and aimed his weapon at Henry’s black eye. “Bang!”
Henry flinched then looked away.
“Pantywaist,” Ben said. It was what their father called men he didn’t respect. Whenever Henry heard the word he thought of their mother’s underwear, the caramel-coloured ones that reached up past the belly button. Ben picked up two sticks and twirled them between his fingers like nunchucks, spinning his legs around with circular kicks. He pointed a stick at Henry’s swollen eye. “Does it still hurt?” It was the first time Ben said anything about it.
“No,” Henry lied. The area around the eye was a deep shade of purple, and this morning when Henry looked in the mirror and pried open the lid, there was a bloody spiderweb across his cornea. That day Ben had stood on the other side of the school’s chain-link fence, watching as the boys yelled faggot and chased Henry across the field toward the trees. Henry thought there would be lots of places to hide in the forest. Part of him had believed that once he hit the treeline, he would disappear or swoop high up into the branches of the evergreens like a winged creature.
“It’s this way,” Ben said when they reached a fork in the path. They were looking for a cave they found yesterday, past the clearing and past the creek. Henry wasn’t allowed to cross the water because he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but Ben had a way of making him do things, like sticking six peanuts up his nose. Henry had snorted most of them out, but he had to go to the emergency clinic for the last two.
This time they had matches with them, pilfered from the glove compartment of their mother’s car. The cave had been pitch black and Henry had ripped his favorite T-shirt scrambling from it after Ben let out a scream that made his eardrums go fuzzy. Ben was only teasing him, but in the total darkness of the cave Henry had imagined a bear’s coarse fur brushing against his cheek.
The creek came into view now, twisting through trees dripping with moss, and Ben ran ahead, wading through the water and coming out the other side soaking wet. He took off his shirt, wringing it out before putting it back on, smoothing the wrinkled cotton over his chest. “We need a torch,” he shouted across the water, picking up bits of dried grass and twigs from the ground. Henry scanned the length of the creek, trying to find a safe place to cross. The water was deep in parts, swirling gently where the rocks created whirlpools. Henry crossed along a line of large boulders, taking his steps carefully on the slimy green rocks. He tried not to think about being swept into the water and dragged all the way to the ocean. Every summer on their first day at the lake, their father would check his wristwatch and time Ben as he swam the length of the shore. He’d compare the result to last year’s time and then enter the numbers in a small booklet that fit in his shirt pocket. Henry would stand on the shore and watch, leaning against their father’s leg and letting his body go limp, his limbs hanging as though he were sick or very tired. When Ben came to shore, their father would pull out a stub of pencil for recording and give him claps on the back as Henry shrugged off the water drops that fell on him.
By the time Henry reached the entrance to the cave, Ben was on his hands and knees, already half inside, the unlit torch under one arm. Henry rushed to follow behind him, accidently bumping into his behind. “Give me some room, would ya?” Ben said, kicking at him. One of his kicks got Henry on the nose, making him sneeze and sending a spasm of pain through his eye.
The tunnel leading into the cave was narrow and as they crawled through, their bodies sealed off any light from outside.
“What about bears?” Henry said, feeling phantom bristles along his skin.
“The hole’s too small, dummy.” Ben’s voice was muffled.
The damp rock hugged the brothers as they squeezed blindly through the passageway, and then all of a sudden the cold walls were gone. The air became verdant, cool and wide. Henry reached out into the dark space and felt nothing. They sat silently in the void for a minute, close together, their knees touching. Henry tried to quiet his breathing so it sounded normal — the cave exaggerated every small noise. Ben lit a match, the delicate glow flickering, barely lighting the small circle between them. He held the match to the torch and the flame stirred before fizzling out. He lit a second match and the torch ignited, flaring brightly and filling the space with a smoke that smelled of burning hay.
“Holy crap.” Ben’s face warped in the fire’s weird light as he stood and swung the torch around. “This is awesome.”
The cave was almost a perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor.
“Awesome,” Henry said, but the knot in his stomach was still there as he watched the sharp shadows move across Ben’s face.
A couple metres away from the brothers, something fell from the ceiling and landed near their feet. They stepped closer, peering down at the dark lump before looking up to find a black quivering carpet above them. Before Henry’s brain could make sense of the sight, Ben dropped the torch and darted out of the cave. In the now-total darkness, the impression hit Henry like a knee to the stomach — the cave’s ceiling was thick with large black spiders. Henry scampered back through the tunnel, but no light appeared before him. For a second, he wondered if he’d gotten turned around and was actually going deeper into the cave. His arms shook as he clawed at the darkness, trying to get his bearings. He hit something soft, reached out, and felt the stiff fabric of Ben’s jean jacket, his bony shoulder blades. Henry pushed at his brother’s back, but Ben had dug in his heels, sealing the exit with his own body. Henry’s throat tightened and from him came a strangled moan — an animal-like noise. “Benny, let me out.” Henry’s entire body trembled now, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please.” His screams became frantic shrieks, echoing around the cave until they no longer seemed like his own. He thrashed around like one of the caged birds at daybreak. And then, all of a sudden, everything gave way — light poured around Henry’s body and he burst from the tunnel’s mouth, sprawling in the dirt, arms flailing over his body.
“Get them off me,” Henry shrieked. “Get them off.”
“There’s nothing there,” Ben said, doubled over, laughing so hard he was crying. He wiped at the tears streaking his cheeks, his dirty hands leaving behind bands of warrior dirt across his face. Even though Henry knew he was unharmed, he couldn’t stop screaming, his eyes wild and wide to the forest around them. Ben grabbed his shoulders and shook him.
*”The Spider in the Jar” from “Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility”, Copyright © 2013, Théodora Armstrong, Reprinted with Permission of House of Anansi Press Inc. Canada.