Lucy, Maceška and I - ukázka

The Bewildered Crowing of a Jay

On my flight to England I had Gulliver’s Travels with me, a volume as thick and heavy as a brick, but now I just flip through, turning the pages – forward and backward, occasionally biting off a piece of text with my eyes. A loud whisper and the lights in the cabin, which just a moment ago lifted off the ground, keep reminding me of something, even though I am flying for the first time in my life. Secretively, I observe the other travelers who I can spot from my seat. Nobody seems to be very nervous; perhaps I don’t give that impression either. The truth is that I don’t feel very well in this narrow tin can. My trembling fingers try to splice together this film (of my life) as fast as possible, which is exactly why nothing is working out right. I gaze out the window for a while; all I see is a white eruption of volcanic clouds far below. In less than two hours I will land on the British Isles; less than two hours to say something more about Marta.

I met the pale slim girl in September 1988. It was in the apartment of an elderly and very refined lady who had the curious name Anýzová. Mrs. Anýzová, in her beige fitted suit of pristine wool, was one of my important finds in my investigative work. Her father, passed away by that time, had known Maceška very well. This gentleman also happened to be Marta’s grandfat­her, from her father’s side. Although Marta’s family relation with Mrs. Anýzová was rather vague, this did not prevent her from coming round for tea occasionally: any inclination towards her own dead father also served as a welcome demonstration of disdain towards her mother.

I must say that back when we first met I barely took any notice of Marta at all. When I arrived and was timidly shuffling around the entry hall, she was just on the point of leaving. I remember there was a little girl with her and that they both had very fine light blond hair. No more! The promise of fresh news about Maceška’s life rendered me immune to any other perceptions. As soon as the door clicked shut behind the blond twosome, I eagerly made for the old-fashioned, neatly organized living room, where some cookies were waiting for me in a crystal bowl and – as would soon be evident – a charming story in which Maceška played a rather comic role.

The old man would meet with Jiří Maceška from the end of the 1930s until he emigrated; this brought about an unpleasant interrogation at the police station in April of 1948, as Mrs. Anýzová could not resist revealing. The story takes place during the time of the (German) Protectorate (state), when young men would go mushroom picking together. It was worth their while to get up extra early, get together in the morning at the Husovice Church and then set off with a resolute though serene stride to the edge of Maloměřice all the way to the Obřany meadows and finally the Bílovice woods.

“It isn’t known what they were talking about before the green vaulting of the forest temple unfolded above them,” remarked Mrs. Anýzová, with perceptible irony in her voice. What happened later is remembered in family tradition – when both men, in suits and hats, were uncovering piles of leaves and nooks of moss with their walking sticks and straining their eyes in search of some edible mushrooms – reddish-brown orange-cap boletus or warm bronze-brown boletus.

Breaking her momentary silence, Mrs. Anýzová commented, “My father grew up in the country. And as they would say in the village, ‚no point in wasting your breath on most folk,‘ you can imagine that he was rather a reticent person. The poet Maceška happened to be here. He, on the contrary, was granted the gift of the gab. I’ll tell you,” she chuckled in a way that only these kinds of elderly ladies can, “from the perspective of our talkative times, even he must have seemed like a dumbfounded grump. In my father’s eyes, he really was – at least in the woods – a real gabbler.”

“Look at the sculptural perfection of the tree’s crown!” he would remark. “Ah, my indifferent beauty, with your tiny fading flavescent leaves of spring blackberry!” (Letting himself get carried away.) “Ugh, bird cry, bewildered crowing of a jay!” (He could not contain himself.)

One day, my father had had just about enough and told the great Czech poet that his eyes were fine and he would prefer to observe the beauty of nature in peace, rather than hear about it. And the regular mushroom outings came to an end.

My second meeting with Marta came unexpectedly about three weeks later.

The days were still warm, but in the mornings the lawn in front of the volleyball court glittered with frost and the railings, which the precarious sunrise would lean on, were unpleasantly cold. The moments when the day was awakening were among my favourites. I would go to my job at Královo Pole post-office at four in the morning and in the hours that followed I would observe this process right from the streets, pausing only briefly in front of the sleeping mailboxes.

Under a favourable constellation, I would return to the post-office even before the children in front of the school on Slovanské náměstí were clear of the sidewalks. I happened to be working my way through the screaming multi-coloured flock when a thin blond girl emerged from within and stood directly in front of me. “Hi! What’s this cart for and how come it’s always empty?”

Quite frankly, I’m not the kind of person you can address on the street out of the blue and expect some kind of reasonable response. The fact that I did not recognize Marta was plain enough. But she burst out laughing in a loud ringing tone and declared rather than asked, “You don’t remember me, do you?!” And soon after that we started going out together.

Our relationship was marked by a constant disharmony, which we both, at least in the beginning, conveyed with delight. I could never manage to act in a childlike, open and direct manner, whereas Marta did not know any other way. My way of speaking was full of knots, whereas Marta spewed out words like a geyser. Sometimes it would be like a fountain, precisely targeted; at other times, a roaring torrent.

She was two years older than me, but with her face she could blend in with the kids at Slovanské náměstí. I, by contrast, even in primary school looked like a painting of Jesus where his twelve-year-old body has a ridiculously large and adult head.

Aside from these blatant differences, there were many things we shared. What I mean is a certain lack of corporality; I don’t know what else to call it. To explain: while my body, which I had always felt self-conscious about, was the source of constant stress, Marta seemed to be perfectly satisfied with her state. Some days her body was so translucent that you felt you could put your whole hand right through her. It seems that she reached such a state by her own willpower.

Otherwise she was very beautiful. Her face was fine and brazen as a monkey's. He small breasts stretched her t-shirt tauntingly and her short-cut hair was so silky that you hardly felt it between your fingers. In our bathroom there was a large boiler, which was fuelled by wood. In the mornings there would be extinguished ashes in the tray. All she had to do was bring her palm close to it and her physical energy would start up the furnace, lighting it up like her radiant hair.

Her long thin hands had fingers with rather too many joints and pulsating blue veins. These hands had so much that was natural, such unintentional felicity, that it seemed that the Creator had accidentally reached for a pair of arms that were to go with a completely different body.

When Marta was relaxed, she looked like a Russian gymnast; however, when she set that strange boastfulness of hers in motion, that impression vanished like a popped balloon. In short, God made Marta in the same strange way that He made the city where she lived. She was distinct, incorrigible and at the same time imperfectly fragile. At first glance, she was easy to remember for her unusual gestures.
Like a Dog

She taught first-graders and also had a daughter of her own – Lucy. Nobody apart from Marta knew who the father was. She didn’t even tell her mother, who had moved to the family home in Blansko even before Lucy was born. “When she split,” Marta told me, “I was the happiest person in the world.” That seemed really severe to me; my relationship with my parents was simply lacking in love. I didn’t feel hatred for anyone, except from time to time towards myself; even that scared me.

Marta told me about the suicide of her father and her mother’s tensions. These subsided when Marta was a little older and finally stopped resembling Little Goldilocks. But by then it was too late. The role of the evil goddess, which she transformed herself into in her premature adulthood, was something that Marta felt good in. She rejected her mother’s interest in her own grand-daughter, although she quite happily accepted the apartment on Srbská Street and the money that her mother gave her every month.

Once I was there when Marta and Lucy were in Blansko for their monthly allowance. I wanted to wait outside, but Marta said, “You’re not going to stand here by the gate like a dog.” She then added that she wanted to introduce me to her mum. I didn’t understand what reason she could have. Marta was nervous and grumpy and wanted to know why I had a problem with that. “The problem is that…” I struggled for an honest answer, “your mother doesn’t know who Lucy’s father is and she’ll think…” “Can you tell me why I should worry about what she’ll think?!” she said, shaking her head in disaccord. At that moment I realized that this was exactly what Marta wanted – to torment her mother. And she certainly didn’t want her mother to think that she was grateful for the money. Meanwhile, Marta’s mother was coming towards us along the rickety paving stones of the narrow path, so I stayed and was introduced. “This is my friend Tomáš,” said Marta dryly and quickly. Marta’s mother extended her hand to me, which I pressed rather weakly. Knowing that my hand was cold and sweaty, I immediately blushed. “Mine too,” said Lucy. “Right?”
Taxi Driver with a Turban

I look at my watch and realize that I need to adjust the time. I clasp the knob in my fingertips and gently pull it out and slowly turn back the big hand to where it was earlier today. It is an hour earlier in London than at home. My internal clock, however, runs about a month behind.

The plane shakes like a train at a rail-switch, except that there are no safe rails to follow – turbulent air currents instead. There are clouds all around and we descend through them as into a swamp – we’re going for the landing. A moment later I’m frightened by a dull thud in the bottom of the airplane, but it’s only the landing gear. The flight attendants make their final round through the aisles to collect all the empty cups.

To prepare for this trip I found a book about the history of flight at the university library. Originally, it didn’t even occur to me that Maceška could arrive on the English coast by any other means than boat. When I learned that he crossed the English Channel by air, I wanted to see what air travel was like at that time. I was imagining one of those little biplanes, but the Douglas DC-47, known as the Dakota, which most likely landed at Heathrow Airport with “my man” back then, was a well constructed, if a little portly propeller plane with capacity for 32 passengers. About the airport itself, I read that it was opened for civilian use in 1946 and during the February coup there were three landing strips.

No reading, however, could prepare me for the nut house that would ensue in the late afternoon of Tuesday, October 23, 1989. Right after going through the passport check and customs, which wasn’t easy due to my language indisposition, I got lost and couldn’t figure out for a long time where my little suitcase would be arriving. Hundreds of people, voices and announcements, foreign languages, colourful saris, and the brown faces of Indians, who I know from Jules Verne’s World of Predators. A mysterious American woman had allegedly awaited Maceška at the airport. Nobody was waiting for me. Even if there had been a military band ready for a ceremonial procession, I wouldn’t have found it. It took me ages to prepare an interrogative sentence, but then I couldn’t muster up the courage to stop anyone and use the few words of English I had. I wouldn’t have understood the answer anyway. Finally, I was saved by a taxi driver with a turban, who had spotted me in the crowd and determined that I was easy prey. He knew a few words of Russian, so with the promise of letting him drive me to Ladbroke Square, where I had arranged accommodation, he led me out of the labyrinth.

I’m absolutely lost in London, but suddenly I feel like jumping for joy. I’m sitting in a black taxi that looks like something out of The Professionals and I realize that Swift on his pilgrimage to the lands of the Giants and Liliputians didn’t cover even half the distance that I have in just one day. The journey would have been cheaper by Underground, but I don’t care. I press up to the window and in the benevolent privacy of the rear seat take in the mixture of new smells. The Indian turns back to look at me several more times to say something through the slightly opened window, but for the time being I have stopped understanding even Russian, the noise of the car erasing the words, my fatigue and maybe even a fever consuming me. The lights and gigantic advertisements in the centre, which we must have been driving through for about an hour, change the world beyond the window of the taxi into an illusion. Then I fall asleep. I am in London.

When I wake up in the morning, I have a stuffed up nose and headache. I can feel all my joints and get up out of bed heavily, like a pensioner. The large crucifix above the washbasin has a threatening effect, like the closed fist of a belligerent pope. The room, which I see for the first time in the light of day, gives a better impression than it did yesterday; however, there is still some kind of unpleasant gaminess and acidity lingering in the air. The washbasin, which I lean over to rinse my sweaty face, is grooved with hairline cracks, which create a kind of intriguing map. In the corner behind the bed there are dust balls; nevertheless, this is the cheapest accommodation available in London and I can speak Czech here. I keep repeating this like a mantra, which should prevent me from feeling bad. Then I remember last night… My first night in the West, in a world that has so far slept quietly beyond the wall.

The white-toothed Indian woke me up with a big smile right outside the water-stained doors of Velehrad, a Czechoslovak Catholic mission that opened its doors right after the Second World War. He charged me 25 pounds and disappeared. I was left in complete darkness, with my trusty suitcase at my feet, like a plaster dog. For a while I was groping around where I thought the ringer might be. It turned out not to be working anyhow, so I had to bang on the door with my fists. A grey-seeming Slovak woman of indiscernible age opened the door for me. She led me directly to the office of the magisterial Father Kaderka. He was a professionally nice person who immediately posed many questions, using a mixture of Jesuit kindliness and police thoroughness. I found out that Jiří Maceška had gone mad, although of course he was still a soul that deserved care and understanding, just like any other. “A poet is inherently a cursed creature,” I said in exasperation. Father Kaderka just smiled graciously, that smile containing the whole forty years that divided our experience. “He is not worthy of salvation. At eighteen he himself renounced the church,” I revealed to Kaderka with a feeling of certain triumph what I had found out several weeks before on one of my investigative outings. “Solitude transforms a person,” he challenged gently. “Every person is alone.” “That is exactly why they turn back to God.”

Then I retired to my room, which God charged twenty pounds for. I had a fever and was shivering, also partly from anger. I wasn’t sure where that sudden attack had stemmed from within me. I went to the bathroom to pee; the lavatory was extremely cold. Everything creaked there – the door, floorboards, even the toilet seat. Through the window, which looked onto an unlit yard, I saw a space that was totally lacking in consolation. When I was returning I had a coughing fit in the hall. In one of the rooms there was a loud noise like a bed-frame cracking and then some heavy shuffling steps could be heard. Quickly I hid in my room. From my suitcase I dug out the writing block containing my detailed notes, which were to prepare me for the meeting that was to take place in three days. On a new page I wrote everything that Kaderka had told me about Maceška. He sits alone in his room or in the common room with several other listless old men. He watches television or silently makes notes in a school notebook. Some kind of diary notes in verse, Kaderka has seen several of the notebooks. So much the better, I thought to myself, adding two exclamation marks to the final note. Maceška’s notes of the last few years are stored in several boxes in the basement of the Edensor Hotel. (That is the name of the nursing home where he has been living for the past four years. Before that he lived for many years in a hospital in Ipswich.) The personnel were instructed never to throw anything out. I pour myself a glass of water and get back to my notes. My questions for Maceška: there are fifty-two. Solitude transforms a person… What does Kaderka know about the poet’s solitude? What did he find out about it during the few times he visited him after the publication of the collection? For him Maceška is simply a client. Does he even know that he was an orphan from the age of thirteen? “For a poet, solitude is the most obvious answer to all of life’s queries,” wrote A. M. Píša in one of his reviews. I wanted to ask about it and then maybe tell Kaderka something about a childhood that fills you with life-long dejection and robs you of any sort of ambition to strive for any imaginable social success. But I curtailed the idea; I certainly didn’t want this snoop to recognize my own experience between the lines of our discussion about Maceška.
Giant Potato

My first morning in England – the land of lords in top hats, meticulously tailored coats and ornamented walking sticks. In spite of the magnanimity of a loan, I don’t have enough money or an excess of time. I have not even three days for London. Then I have to move on to the resort town of Clacton-on-Sea, where poet Jiří Maceška lounges around in his shabby easy chair. I feel even worse than yesterday, but I’m going out to explore the city anyway. Outside it’s windy and a deceptively platinum sun is shining. I turn left within twenty paces, where the street ends with a park that looks like it could be from a postcard. The entry, between benches, knot-ridden magnolias and a children’s pla­yground, is unfortunately barred with a fence and a low but locked little gate, so I decide to continue along the fence. The trees still hold onto their coloured leaves; the paving stones in the shadow of the houses across the street are slightly damp but clean. The walk is going well; the surroundings of Velehrad are softened by the sun, pleasantly taking on colour. I return quickly, passing the dilapidated doors of the Catholic mission. Three minutes later, I’m standing on the corner of a wide four-lane street, which feels like a main boulevard in Prague, although it runs through one of the most tranquil London districts and is several kilometres from the actual centre. The Underground station is just a few steps away, but I walk past the big U and a derelict-looking homeless man standing guard in a long grey coat full of stains at the top of the stairs. I have been discovering the west for about twenty minutes and it’s going better than expected. Now to find some kind of a snack bar where I can have a hot chocolate and a croissant. I go another five hundred metres, passing about seven luxurious restaurants that are already open – even now in the morning – but of course they are empty. Apart from an Arab grocery store, I can’t find anything that even remotely resembles a Brno milk-bar. Finally, I end up in the Giant Potato, a small bistro with some tall tables and a sweet young black girl working behind the glass counter. I try not to reveal how fascinating I find the rugby ball-sized potato, but after paying one pound twenty and dipping my spoon into a hot yellow wedge filled up to the rim with shrimp salad, my brittle dignity crumbles. This is the most excellent thing I’ve ever tasted. Twenty minutes later – under the casual surveillance of the girl at the counter and a newly arrived couple of diners – I’m still wrestling with the starchy monster, but I don’t intend to surrender the tiniest bit of the delicacy. Then I find myself back on the street, which has noticeably come to life, and I quickly head toward the Underground: Queensway Station.

I end up spending forever trying to figure out how to buy the right kind of ticket. I’m going to the centre. I’m standing at the base of a column, from the top of which Admiral Nelson surveys the square. The heart of the city beats deafeningly; the neon Coca Cola advertisement, as big as a house, successfully competes with the brilliance of the sunshine. I say something out loud – again, louder! The noise all around is so great that I can’t hear myself.

Just for a little while longer I would like to feel like someone who is living the unfulfilled dream of two generations, but instead of a fanfare, sickness returns in the form of a cold fever. I huddle in my communist duffel coat. A nearby church joins the loud chorus with four weak and two mighty rings of its bells. Suddenly I feel faint, weak at the knees. Hundreds of people in my field of vision are aiming with firm steps for a specific target, while I can’t recall what I’m actually looking for in this crude city. I grasp for thoughts that whirl around me like tiny scraps of paper. With growing rage, I try to seize at least one of the dazzling white bits, but the cars are circling around Trafalgar Square at such a speed that they lift the pieces beyond my reach. There’s an unpleasant whistling of bullets, one of which is sure to hit Admiral Nelson at any moment. A police officer on the sidewalk across the street removes his helmet and wipes the sweat off his brow. I am cold – extremely cold.

And Don’t Forget What You Wanted to Say

Don’t forget what you wanted to say… You know this line. We can’t pay attention to you now, but later we’ll be happy to hear what you have to say. My feeling in a nutshell: It took hold of me on our bus journey from Blansko and lasted for almost three months. More precisely, seventy-six days. I wanted to say something about that. And I needed to say it now, not later!

I wanted to say something like this: It is Wednesday, October 30th. Practically thirteen months to the day since I met Marta. Two days ago they took that thin blond girl to the nuthouse. The diagnosis: manic anxiety, or something like that: fear of people, spaces, everything. Not even the doctor could say what exactly had happened to her. It could have been a schizophrenic attack; her family history is not great considering her father. This Marta has a daughter, Lucy – a sweet and pretty little girl who turned five in July. The girl has fine blond hair, at the moment pulled back with an elastic band into a make-shift pony-tail. Because the bus in nowhere near full, she is sitting alone on the seat beside me – in silence. It’s half past three in the afternoon, the thirtieth of October; we’re going from Blansko to Brno. I have two bags between my feet; one contains food, the other has Lucy’s clothes and toys. In my pocket is the key to the apartment, which I know intimately, but it belongs to someone else: it’s Marta’s place, not mine. This apartment – so that we can begin somewhere – will be the first page of an absolutely fathomless future – my future. We should get to Brno in about – I look at my watch, but have to turn my wrist toward the dim light coming through the window from outside – twenty minutes. We’ll get to Marta’s apartment in another ten minutes. What then? And what about an hour later? What about tonight? I’ll wait till Lucy falls asleep and then run home for a few necessities. What about tomorrow? At four I have to get up like every day and go to work. What will I do with Lucy? No, this is no way to calm down. I lean forward; this mechanical movement has turned me into an internally defeated person. The external me notices that Lucy’s shoelace is untied. I bend down to tie it, but because of the seat in front of us, I can’t get close enough to her shoe to tie it. I’m just about to ask Lucy to move a little, when I realize that I’m acting like a nut. “Lucy?” Without a word she turns towards me… and just stares at me. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t smile. She just keeps watch. Maybe she wants to say something about this whole situation… I move back in my seat and turn to the window.
In the Summer

We took this same bus with Marta. Lucy was eating cherries; Marta was holding them in Lucy’s summer hat. I had picked them in Blansko in the garden. When Marta’s mother suggested I go outside, I was relieved to get out into the fresh air, away from the tense atmosphere in the kitchen. Lucy was spitting out the cherry pits into my hand and philosophizing out loud, keeping half the bus entertained. Somewhere between Česká and Řečkovice she fell asleep… on my lap, but with her whole little body spread out towards Marta. What makes that trip similar to today’s is the smell of diesel and rubber. What will happen now? I have to concentrate on the present; there’s no sense in doing anything else. Focus everything on this point, this seat, this bus… ultimately, on that untied shoelace. I bend down, reposition Lucy a bit and tie the lace. It’s probably just a question of a couple of weeks…

When I’m standing at the threshold of the apartment, I don’t feel like entering. It’s as if the click of the door behind us would seal that hasty contract with the gloomy heavens above; until that moment we can still back out. I detect a scent that I know very well. The smell of the kitchen has a greater permanence than the electric cooker of my bachelor apartment. There’s the fragrance of Marta’s creams and shampoos. Above all there is that special harmony of smells that surrounds the life of a young child. imaginesThe scent of freshly-washed clothing; the damp odour of the carpet in a kid’s room – constantly having something spilled or smudged on it. And the slight stench of urine in the bedroom… I turn on the lights, at least severing us from the cold and dark of October. Lucy kicks off her shoes and runs into her room – still in her coat. After two nights she’s finally home again and livens up for a while. Surrounded by her stuffed animals and fluffy friends, she feels stronger and immediately steps into the role of mother and consoling figure. “Everything, every little thing will be fine – mother has come back,” she tells her dolls, cradling a busty Barbie and blowing into her acrylic hair as the tears roll down her cheeks.
The First Evening

I don’t leave her alone. I arrange the shoes that she’s just kicked off, the ones that are lying around under the mirror. I take off my own shoes. I lean the bag with Lucy’s things against the wall in the hall and go to the kitchen to unpack the other – full of useful provisions from Blansko. I pour the cauliflower soup from the yellow plastic container into a cooking pot and strike a match beneath. I extract a wooden spoon from the drawer – at the second attempt. I stir the thick mixture a few times and it occurs to me that I could dilute it with some milk. Opening the fridge, I discover that the milk is sour. I close the fridge and sit down on a chair. I have the feeling that I could get on better with Marta’s mum than Marta does.

I’m exhausted, yet I perceive every detail so vividly, almost to the point of pain. It’s as if my thoughts have taken on a life of their own, cut adrift from pointless contemplation about how I will manage everything, and I gather strength to get the banal tasks done. There’s nothing the body can do but obey. I felt the same way when I came home from the hospital after that injury from Sam. Everything was uncertain, even the most ordinary things. The way the light streamed through the window into the room, the touch of my palm on the coarse upholstery of our old kitchen sofa, where I used to spend ages lounging around and examining all the intimately familiar spaces and objects. At times my mind slips back and forth between two worlds, but now something from outside is knocking at me: get up, go see what Lucy is doing in her room, take off her coat, hang it up. Then the stove grabs my attention with the bubbling cauliflower soup. Automatically – like a kitchen robot – I get up, stir it, turn off the burner, find the ladle on my first try, get out two soup bowls, insert my left hand into an amorphous oven mit, tilt the pot gently and ladle out the soup. I’m about to call out to Lucy, but instead I close my mouth and go fetch her in her room. She’s lying on the floor flipping through a book. Of course, she’s still in her coat. I topple down onto the floor beside her. The soup is still hot. She pretends I’m not there. I stroke her hair. “Come on, let’s take off that coat, eh?” I boom. She shakes her head from side to side, probably meaning that we won’t. “Come on, Lucy. We have to go eat and then start getting ready for bed. It’s getting quite late.” “I’m not going to eat.” “Not even a tiny bit of soup? Delicious cauliflower.” “Yuck!” “Alright…, but give me your coat. Come on.” I say a little more authoritatively. She props herself up on one arm and extends the other, closer one towards me, all the while keeping her gaze glued to her book. I grasp what my assignment is and try to extract her arm from the sleeve. It’s hard, because the other half of the coat is so taut. “Lucy!” “Whaaaaat?!” I persuade her to at least kneel. With a quick swipe I take off the coat. Words start to collect in my mouth, but I quickly swallow them. Back in the kitchen, I eat both bowls of the cauliflower soup. My irritation passes. The half-closed door squeaks a little; the child is in the doorway. She’s just in her panties and a striped t-shirt – and barefoot. “Lucy, put something on your feel. You’ll get sick.” (What deeply ingrained instinct is making me utter such sentences?!) Lucy sighs a little, but goes to the hall and puts on her small soft slippers. When she reappears in the doorway, she announces that she’s hungry. “Do you want some of that soup then?” She responds with some kind of negative snuffling. “I don’t know if there is anything else to eat here,” I say getting up from the chair. She raises her eyebrows and makes a face as if to say “we’ll see about that” and comes into the kitchen. I can see she is in better spirits. I notice a net bag with some apples from the Blansko garden. “What about an apple?” She makes an interjection that means “apple yes”. I pull out the Rennet from the string bag and, passing by Lucy and her outstretched hand, turn on the water and wash the apple. Then I place it in her hand. She raises the apple to eye-level and inspects it carefully and critically. I expect complications, but then she takes such a sudden big bite that droplets of juice spray out; it’s such an enormous bite that her teeth have to pry it off the fruit. “Which story will we read tonight?” she asks with a full mouth. “I’ll read you whatever you want,” I tell her and then go to the bathroom to run the bath.

The First Night

I have never slept over in this bedroom. Not even when Marta and I made love. I’m lying in bed; I’m alone. Except for the fact that there is a five-year-old child breathing just beyond the wall; that is my armorial situation. Now I’m starting to feel much more secure. It’s warm under the down quilt. I should be tired, but suddenly “fatigue”, like a theatre curtain, opens wide, allowing me to look again (encore!) at the well-lit scene. I got back from work at a quarter to eight in the morning, went to lie down (on my bed) and after a completely wakeful night immediately fell asleep. A little after one o’clock I was making enquiries at the reception of the Černovice psychiatric hospital, which I was seeing for the first time in my life, and it surprised me that it was such a pleasant place… as long as you avoid thinking about certain connotations. Later in Blansko it was decided (and I was very glad that Marta’s mother was the first to suggest it) that I would take over the allowance. This, however, does not rid me of the feeling that there is hardly anything in the composition of my life today which satisfies the circumstances of the life to which I now stand on the threshold. With respect neither to time nor finances. Marta could return in three weeks… what then? At this moment that was the most complicated thing about this situation. Tearing myself only half-way from my life as it had been so far … this, unfortunately, was not an option with Lucy. But tearing myself away from it completely… and then going back to it in three weeks? What to do with my rented apartment on Berkova Street, for example? How long should I hang on to it? I stare into the transparent dark, which my eyes have got used to. I listen to the faint creaking of the apartment and then I realize that I am stroking my shoulders with my arms crossed over my chest. I’m comforting and consoling myself like a little child. Yes, but Lucy… I have to keep in mind that she is even more vulnerable than me. We’ll just keep going … nicely, day by day, hour by hour. I can’t help it… I get up and go check on Lucy. She’s breathing peacefully. I don’t go back to the bedroom; I stretch out on the sofa in the living room – the least lived-in room in this apartment. I lie there in overwhelming silence and think about myself. I think about the fact that I do things which I’m afraid of. I think about Maceška wherever he may be, grinning his soft, toothless, slack-featured grin like an old woman.

It’s January 12, 1990. I’m tucked away in the pantry, from where I peek out from time to time to place a jar of home-made jam on the table. Most of the production dates, written in pen onto glued-on bits of paper, date back to years long gone. “Everything’s going into the garbage,” I say to myself, when suddenly I hear Lucy cry out from the bedroom. I turn around and knock over a canning jar of black currant jam; even before it hits the floor I am already in the entry hall. I burst through the half-open door into the bedroom and spread out before me is a Picasso-like image of ruin. There’s Lucy, clumsily picking herself up, the broken lamp on the night table … and blood – lots of blood. A wild cry slices the air, leaving me windless and robbing me of the ability to think straight. Protectively I grab hold of the little girl and run to the bathroom with her. In the few metres between the bedroom and bathroom, Lucy kicks in desperation; she is beside herself with pain. I run some cold water… that should slow down the bleeding. Hammers are pounding in my temples. I stand her in the bathtub just as she is: dressed, bloody, bursting with sobs, and I wash her. With the icy water I try to rinse off her blood, mucous and saliva. Whenever I try to bring my hand close to her injured face, Lucy increases her howling by an octave and tries to beat me away with her convulsive little fists. I beg her to let me clean her… and now I see the injury. Swelling is starting to split the cut lip laterally. You can see the pale flesh, my gaze sinking into it like into a distant nebula. The thought that she may be scarred for life makes me weak at the knees. Quick! A taxi! No, I’ll call my sister. I scramble in the closet for the pair of pants that contain a scrap of paper with her phone number. “Lucy!” I shout to the child from the kitchen. “Lucy, can you hear me?! I’m going to the neighbours to call a lady. She’ll take us to the hospital, ok? Just wait a second, do you hear?!” Lucy continues to howl wearily. I go out, but even from the hall I hear that she’s trying to climb out of the tub. Her tone becomes a hysterical falsetto; she doesn’t want to be left alone.

Before Jana arrives, it gets dark outside and I manage to clean up what happened in the kitchen with the broken blackcurrant jam. I try to act matter-of-factly. I describe to my sister how Lucy was jumping on the bed and… probably landed badly and bounced askew, off the bed, her face landing on the corner of the night table. Meanwhile Lucy is pale – almost green – standing on the tiled floor of the hall in her coat. She is motionless and silent. The coat hooks jut out from the wall-unit, reflecting the indirect light from the light fixture. In the tense, wide-awake face of the child, you can clearly detect a question: what now? With a smile and slightly glassy eyes, I look at her, squat down on one knee and check to see if the buttons are in the right holes. Of course, they’re not. “Let’s go!” says my sister impatiently, having already taken stock. “Now, everything will be just fine, Lucinka,” I say, opening the door. Firmly, but in a maternal way with a smile, Jana motions to Lucy and offers her hand. Without a word Lucy takes her hand and follows this lady, who she is seeing for the first time in her life, as meekly as a little lamb.
The Hospital

We’re looking around searching for the door they directed us to at the reception. The linoleum we’re walking on is cracked and full of stains and holes. Everything here feels so ominous. Lucy’s soft little hands: from the left she is held by my sister and from the right by me. A five-year-old child in the gloomy corridors: led by two strangers into the unknown. Finally we find what we’d been looking for. They call us into the doctor’s office and Jana takes charge and does the speaking. Immediately there’s a problem: who are we and where are the child’s parents? Exasperated, I ask what difference that makes to the injured lip at the moment. Jana makes a quick gesture to silence me, but at that moment the doctor turns his attention to the little patient. This small, fat man, with a bushy moustache and short, stubby fingers, briefly shakes his head, draws the child – increasingly quiet with fear – towards himself and, without even attempting to smile, asks, “What’s your name?” “Lucy,” peeps Lucy. “Well then, Lucy,” says the doctor, without any warning sinking two fat fingers beneath the injured upper lip. A terrified yelp rings out, immediately filling the room with a heart-rending wail. Even in the doctor’s firm experienced hold, the little girl jerks about like a wounded deer. I make a step forward and the doctor – it’s obvious he was expecting this – raises his head at that exact moment. With a voice that refuses any objections, he states, “Wait outside!” The nurse is already standing by the door and with a gentle smile shows us to the corridor, suffused in that unquinous, murky light. I want to be brave. I promised myself I would be. Also because of my sister, who with her calm maturity makes me feel like an adolescent, even though I’m now twenty-five. I don’t want to be like a child, especially now that my child is in the next room roaring like a lion. I simply can’t listen to the stream of Lucy’s ardent cries, jumping out above the surface, barely articulated pain-muffled pleas… and not feel how my inner defences quietly crumble. “Please, please, doctor. Let me be!” Lucy implores piteously. “Please, please,…” she tries to appease the doctor. A plea, the best defence that Marta has been able to provide her with in life so far, is desperately ineffective. Unable to hold back the tears and feeling like a complete idiot in front of my sister, she takes me in her arms and embraces me, holding me close.
My Sister Jana

Not only did she drive us home, she waited with me until Lucy fell asleep and then stayed even longer. She sat in the kitchen in the place where Marta would sit. We drank tea and I told her all about what had happened in my life in the last few weeks. I hadn’t called her since before going to England. Now I’m so glad that she’s here. I go open a window. Outside it’s cold, but the night is consoling like a pile of freshly-washed laundry. From up the hill there’s a trolleybus sliding down the street almost silently. Leaning out of the window, I breathe deeply. In the door of the trolleybus, there is a moustachioed man waiting to step out. I sit down; then get up again to pour more tea for Jana. She thanks me with a smile and I continue my story. Jana sits across from me in silence and calmly listens to everything – she’s like a huge leech that sucks away all the bad blood. I keep talking … and start to feel a bit better.

The last time I was at Černovice I didn’t even see Marta. When I asked about Christmas, the doctor just shook his head. The quiet between the white walls was so intense that I had the feeling the person in the white lab-coat was trying to read my mind. He pulled the file that was lying in the left corner of his table closer and slowly paged through the documents. I looked outside through the upper, unpainted half of the window and tried to maintain a poker face, but I was a bad player. “What about after Christmas?” I ask with calculated calm. “The earliest she could leave is spring,” states the doctor. At that moment I know that I’ll have to let my apartment go. And I will try to learn to make some sauces from that cookbook I found in the bottom drawer in the kitchen. I have already started cooking dishes which a year ago I wouldn’t have bothered with. And, as I have just explained to my sister, I find this kind of activity quite satisfying, even though Lucy is not exactly the ideal eater. In the two months that we’ve been alone together, I’ve discovered that there are foods she likes to play with more than others. The kind that she would also like to eat, however, had not yet been invented or cultivated. Orange is too sour, soup is too oily, meat is too tough or too salty – usually both. She grants exception only to sweet cream cheese with a roll, which she likes to play with but also usually eats. Once I persuaded her to watch me make the pea soup and she herself was convinced that nothing oily went even near the soup. Of course, this was futile, as somewhere on the way from the stove to the table that tricky soup became oily again. “At the table, she is always fascinated by many different things,” I tell my sister. “I’d say practically everything except food.” It really is so. Lucy dreamily gazes out at the world through the window, from which she has a good view. Her most bountiful moment for day-dreaming is during breakfast, when there is the least time. She also likes to examine the dried bits of food in the child seat. So far this has been her throne, although age-wise she should be using the same chair as me. Luckily, she is so petite that she still fits into the child seat. Whenever she has breakfast in a big chair, the list of catastrophes is noticeably longer. My sister can’t help but smile at my maternal lecture.

“In my opinion, a child that eats just right simply does not exist,” she says. “My Jiri, when he was younger, would stuff himself without control. He would eat absolutely everything. We could just as easily have fed him with potato peels. He even learned to pick through the garbage.” I look at Jana skeptically, but she continues without batting an eyelash. “I can’t remember a time when he wouldn’t want to eat everything from his lunch plate – along with everyone else’s. And, unfortunately, he did not limit this to just family members. In kindergarten he would take from other children’s food. The worst thing was visits. I can still see him now – he must have been only about two – how he would sneak up to the table, so concentrated and inconspicuous; our friends would smile at him, babble some baby talk, ‘Oooh, what a sweetie…’ and in that moment the “sweetie” would pounce on a little open-face sandwich and stuff it all in his mouth, as if he hadn’t eaten in two months. The visitors were a bit startled, but tried to take it all in good fun. However, when a while later the cute little boy tried to snatch a piece of bitten-into sandwich right from their hands and started to wail when the person didn’t let go … yes, my dear, you should be glad that Lucy doesn’t eat much.” Now I’m the one laughing. Although my eyes are full of tears and the laughter is not completely void of hysteria, there is a sense of relief and a good part of today’s ordeal floats away in waves.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you,” says my sister as she leaves late in the night, “and everything will be fine, believe me. Lips heal really well, much better than cheeks or foreheads.” And she surprises me when she leans forward and lightly kisses the scar above my upper lip.

Translated from the Czech by Šárka Roušavá