I sit in the back of the taxi, rolling from side to side every time we turn the corner. The narrow streets of Prague bend randomly. Fluff from the hole in the upholstery sticks to my lips. At one point my head gets close to the place where there should be a door handle. There is nothing there, just a plaster. There are many things missing.
My dad argues with the driver. I recognize the golden roof of the National Theatre on the river bank. I sense we are close to our destination. The Škoda MB’s brakes screech as our vehicle goes into a sudden halt. I bang my head but I don’t want to make any noise. I don’t like crying in front of a stranger.
The grey buildings squeeze the street from both sides as if they wanted to fall on our heads and crush us. The same sign on every door: PUBLIC SECURITY.
The scent of nicotine makes me feel sick. It is in my hair and clothes. The driver lights up another cigarette. The smoke reminds me of my Grandmother. She smokes Sparta, three packets a day, named like the football team. The ashtray between the two front seats overflows with cigarette butts, the dust falling off on both sides and soiling my father’s suit trousers, the deep navy colour dotted with galaxies of burnt out sparks. The driver rolls down his window and disposes of the ashes on the street. Dad throws several green banknotes in the face of the man and slams the door.
The taxi nearly pushes us over and disappears around the corner like a wounded leopard.
I stumble backwards and twist my ankle. I have to hobble onto the pavement, trying to prevent any sound leaving my lips by biting them. I sigh. Dad looks at me: “Best behaviour.”
I nod in agreement.
We ring the bell on an unmarked door. My father’s nail accidently runs on the metal. I shiver. The key rattles in the lock. The man who appears in the doorway wears a uniform. Letters VB shine on the “goose shit” green, as Grandma calls this kind of colour. He is a Public Security Officer.
“Good day, comrade officer, to…” and before Dad can finish his sentence, the man grabs Dad’s red booklet, which my Dad is holding in his hand. I know this is called a “citizen’s identity pass”. He says nothing and disppears behind the door.
The pain in my ankle has almost gone. I play hopscotch on the pavement, although without chalk I have to imagine the squares and rectangles. I am bored. We wait for what feels like years to me. I pretend Grandma is held behind the fortress gate in the castle of an evil warlock. We are going to rescue her, after overcoming the goblin who guards the entrance. I smile so my Dad does not see. He does not like my pretend games. He says that imagination is dangerous. But at the moment, he does not pay any attention to me, leaning with his back against the wall with many cracks, his legs crossed, his hands shaking. He reaches for his pocket and takes out one Sparta. I am not going to tell Mum that he has started smoking again.
After two hundred and twenty hopscotch jumps, Grandma appears in the rusty doorway. Her hair sticks in every direction; the blouse is torn and missing three out of five buttons. She is accompanied by a man in a suit. He smiles when he sees me:
“Ah, another parent who thinks they can use their child as a human shield. Doctor Novák, we would have taken you in if we had wanted to.” Dad stares at him for a moment, then his raspy voice cuts through:
“Comrade, you didn’t think it was necessary to inform us for three days that you are holding my mother?”
The officer laughs.
“No harm done, Doctor Novák. And we haven’t told you because your mother is a seditious element.”
“She is a pensioner!”
“That’s right, officer, that regime of yours can’t be too strong, if you think I, a senior citizen, can single-handedly undermine it.”
The officer laughs out. “You live with your mother, Doctor Novák? Good luck!”
The grown-ups stare at the officer’s back as he disappears behind the metal door. Dad lights up two cigarettes, then passes one to Grandma. They smoke in silence. I would like to speak. I would like to tell them that I believe the officer. I think Grandma can be scary.
As we set out on our journey home, the adults walk before me and talk in whispers but I can still hear every word. Dad says we will hear from them again and wants to know the reason for Grandma’s interrogation. Her answer drowns in the clatter and stamps of heels and walking sticks hitting the cobbles, roars of the trams and passing cars, and humming of the people’s conversations. We approach The National Boulevard. The voices of Dad and Grandma are low but I recognise the tone.
They continue their quiet argument, this time about whether to take a taxi. Dad insists on the tram. He says he has no money because he was ‘robbed by the taxi driver’ on the way in. Grandma says she does not care, she is exhausted and wants to get home as soon as possible. I can see Number 22 arrive at the stop. The adults keep raising their voices.
A man in a cap approaches them.
“Comrade, I think we went to school together.”
“I’m sorry, comrade, I don’t remember.” Dad looks away and is about to walk towards the stop.
But the man knows my Dad’s name and says his, Pepa Málek, they used to sit next to each other at school. He is a taxi driver and offers us a ride for free. Dad shakes his head but before he can say anything, Granma opens the door of the car, standing next to the tracks, and climbs into the passanger seat. It does not take long, we are home. Dad is frowning and smoking his third cigarette. Grandma is happy: “Cheer up, son, it was nice of your friend. He is only a taxi driver.”
“That’s what he says,” mumbles Dad, but I can hear him.
I wake up to a new week at school. I ask my Mum to make me pancakes. I eat them smothered with the strawberry jam we made in the summer. When I close my eyes, I can taste the juice of the fresh fruit on my tongue when I picked them in June.
The scent of my Mum’s cooking collects in every corner of our apartment, seeps through thin walls of the block of flats. My Grandma says it will make our neighbours jealous because they will think we have a reason to celebrate. She clutches an empty mug in her fingers, her skin taut over bony joints. Its pallor makes her spots and wrinkles more visible, her hands look like pieces of tissue paper. She is looking for something to drink, aware that all our eyes are on her. I sip hot milk and try my best to be invisible.
Dad disappears into the hallway to make a telephone call to the hospital where he works. I move my chair as close as possible. I hear clicking when he picks up the receiver. He does not bother dialling the number and instead shouts:
“Happy to hear how you fucked up our lives, you bastards?”
He does not replace it but instead slams it so hard that a piece of Bakelite chips off and flies across the floor. He storms out of the house without his breakfast, leaving his keys on the table.
Mum mutters “Not again,” although I am not sure if she means the forgotten keys or the fact that Dad has gone out without his coat in November.
Every day after school I sit at the kitchen table, writing my homework. My teacher says that my handwriting is not very neat. As a girl, I should do better. I like maths, even though my friends at school say it is wrong. Maths is supposed to be for boys. I feel confused. I am always confused these days.
The soup on the stove bubbles away. The room is filled with a scent of marjoram and garlic. The radio is playing music I don’t like but my Mum hums the tune while chopping the carrots. The announcer says that Comrade Brezhnev has died. I know Comrade Brezhnev is Russian. Our class teacher says that the Russians are best friends of Czechoslovakia. That is why the radio speaker tells us we should all be sad.
Mum slices the carrots like other people chop fire logs. Her apron gets covered with more and more orange chips as she executes the vegetables. Then she screams: “At last! The old swine!”
I stare at her. I say nothing. The pencil I have been holding in my hand is in two pieces. I snapped it.
Mum holds the knife. Chop. Cut. Stab. Chop. She bursts into tears.
At school, we are encouraged to read newspapers and talk about it before our classes commence. This morning, our teacher invites us to talk about the death of Comrade Brezhnev. Confident about my answer, I raise my hand.
“My mother says that Brezhnev is an old swine,” I say.
“Mine too!” shouts someone behind me.
“My Dad called him a bastard and a son of a bitch!”
All of a suddenly the whole class, forty of us, shout out at our teacher. Droplets of sweat run down her face. She bangs the ruler against the desk:
“Quiet! Order in the classroom! I can see you all discussed the sad news of the departure of Comrade Brezhnev at home. Now, let’s learn some Czech language.”
We talk about why there are words called expletives that we should never use even if we accidentally hear them from other people, including our parents. We make lists of words like ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘bollocks’ with explanations why we should not use them and how we can replace them with nicer expressions. By the end of the lesson, there are more than eighty bad words in our exercise books.
I am desperate to tell my friends at school about what has happened this past weekend. I bet they would look impressed by my Grandma’s vanishing. My parents don’t really like me talking to other kids because many other parents are members of the Party. Since last week, Mum has banned me from talking to anyone. Today’s classes seem more boring than usual. I need some answers. I need to talk to the one person who has always been straight with me, my Grandma.
When we are about to go home, the teacher calls me to her desk and gives me a note for my parents. I stand close to her. Until now, I have never noticed she has so many wrinkles on her forehead. Her eyes are pink and swollen.
I unlock the door of our apartment. I am scared what the note might say, that I am in trouble. I try so hard but with this note, I am no longer a good girl. My eyes search the floor of our hallway, identifying every speck of dirt, every grain of dust Mum forgot to remove with her Bistrol. Everybody has a bottle of it at home to make their linoleum shine.
Grandma sits in the armchair, holding today’s copy of The Red Right in her hands. Her hair sits once again in a helmet of tidy rolls on her head. She glances at me. At once I know she knows. I confess to her about the note.
She suggests we play a spy game. She uses a candle to open the envelope. Then she takes out the paper and lets me read it. After, she puts it back in and sticks the edges with Herkules glue. She asks me what was inside.
“It said that I was very good. I have improved and even my handwriting is much better.” My Grandma is proud. I did not know I could lie so well.
My turn to ask questions. I want to know about those three days at the police station.
“Never mind, they made a mistake,” she brushes the question off.
She hugs me. I know: my Grandma and I are alike.
Later that evening, when Mum reads the lines from my teacher, I know exactly what they are:
“Please could you explain to your daughter that she is not to say anything she hears at home elsewhere? Many thanks. Alternatively, please do not discuss any sensitive matters in front of her.
With comrade greetings, Marie Procházková, Year 4 teacher”
I am worried that I did something wrong but my mum calls me “sweetie” again. She gives me a hug and tells me that I am her girl, that I have not done anything wrong.
“We failed you as parents. We assumed that because you did not say anything, you could not hear us. It was wrong. I am sorry, sweetie.”
My mum bursts into tears. When she stops, she tells me about a lot of things. I also get extra chocolate. She repeats what the class teacher wrote to her: I am not to tell anything I hear at home, in public. Not at school, to my friends, in the Pioneers, anywhere. Mum adds that if I do, she and my father could end up in Police Security detention, not for three days like Grandma, but for a very long time. I would be sent to a children’s home. I don’t like this adventure anymore.
Later at night I cry so my mother does not see. I don’t want to upset her.
The doorbell rings. A woman in an apron with flowers leans on her crutches. Her ankles are swollen and red, her toes turned and twisted. I try not to look at those feet. I hope she does not spot me averting my eyes. It is not her fault that I don’t like them.
“Good day, Mrs. Slabá.” I am brought up well, she can see that. She asks after my Grandma.
I lead her to the living room. Mrs Slabá limps on her crutches behind me. Grandma’s newspaper crackles and her eyes look over the top rim of the glasses.
“Hello, Marta, studying your enemy?” our guest speaks.
My Grandma scrunches the corners of her papers but says nothing.
I go to the kitchen to make some coffee. I can hear shards of conversation through the clatter I make.
The kettle bubbles on the stove, gas hisses like an angry adder.
“…gone by…choice…no choice…“
My father killed an adder in the summer when I accidentally stepped on it during our walk in the woods. The steam makes a whistling noise. I cover coffee grains with water.
I am good at making Turkish coffee, Czech style. Then sugar cubes on the saucer and some biscuits. The two women stop talking as soon as I enter with a tray.
I retire to my room to read our compulsory book Robinsonka, about a girl whose mother dies at childbirth. The heroine’s shopping trip to the corner store two hundred yards away is described in thirty pages. By the end of it I want to die myself. What kind of fourteen-year-old does not know how to buy a loaf of bread or make porridge? I am nearly ten and I know how to do all this. I give up after five minutes and read one of my favourite stories, Alice: The Girl From Earth by Kir Bulychev.
Steps, tapping of crutches and a walking stick, no good-byes. Knock on the door. Grandma enters.
“Can I talk to you, sweetie?”
“Can you please never let Mrs. Slabá in here? She is no friend of ours.”
I don’t know what to say, apart from “Sorry, Grandma, I had no idea.”
She sits on my bed, where I am lying with a book. I rise up as she continues:
“Mrs. Slabá and I used to go to school when we were your age. We were never close friends but now…She is the reason I was taken in by the Secret Police.”
She tells me that this is the first and last time we are going to talk about this. Mrs Slabá’s son does not have the grades but now can study at the university. Her job is with the Secret Police, STB, as an informer. Grandma tells me that our neighbour has to write down everything other people say and do. From now on, there will be a file on my coffee-making skills. My Grandma is smiling so I know this is a joke.
There is a file with my name already. My teacher opened it for me when I started school. We had to write down what jobs we wanted to do when we grow up. I remember putting down next to the big word ASPIRATIONS, “I want to be a wood nymph.” My mother was asked to come to school to discuss it and given a paper to take me to the child psychologist. We missed our appointment.
Today is my birthday. Grandma is taking me for ice cream in the Wenceslas Square. We are to stop at every ice cream window, starting with pistachio at the top and finishing with the expensive vanilla dipped in hot chocolate sauce and chopped nuts. We conclude our trip by watching the Apostles appearing in the Astronomical Clock. I am really excited. We have done this every year as long as I can remember. My Dad laughs and says I am never going to eat all that ice cream. Who eats ice cream in November? That is what my Dad says but we are going to do it anyway.
Grandma dresses up for the occasion. Her coat smells of mothballs but when she drapes a scarf around her neck, she looks nice. The scarf was made in China from silk and dyed in colours of summer sun.
We are about to step out of the door when she says: “Wait a sec!”
She disappears inside her room. I can hear rummaging and rustling. When she emerges, she beams and winks.
“Now, I’m ready.” She sports an enormous bag. Its darkness, the unhinged embroidery of silver bears, does not go with the rest of her outfit. I hug her with my smile.
Grandma jumps and laughs, and even attempts to run, supported by her walking stick. I slide alongside her. The pavements are covered in ice, with no sand.
We sit on the bench on the Kampa Island near the Vltava river. I can smell Christmas in the frozen air. I ask Grandma what absurd means.
“It means this country. You live in it. Absurdistan.” She opens the large bag and takes out a purse. “Come on, let’s go.” She gets up and sets off. I point out that she has left the large bag on the bench. She smiles at me.
“I left a play called Audience in it. Mr. Vaněk is picking it up shortly.”
I return the large bag to the bench. I run after my Grandma who is walking ahead. There are so many things I don’t know. I can suddenly see her hair when we picked her up last Sunday; her missing buttons, her omitted smile. My face is close to her scarf. I grab her hand as we turn the corner.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Bridges.
Natalie Nera is a pen name of Natalie Dunn, a Northumberland-based Czech writer. She is the author of two published novels and editor and co-author of a poetry anthology in her mother tongue. She writes in Czech and English, and occasionally translates. Her written work has appeared in Czech, Russian, German, English and Romanian. She has had her work featured in various anthologies, Mslexia and BBC Radio Gloucestershire. She is a co-founder and former editor of the literary blog Bridges at Newcastle University. Natalie is in the second year of her two-year MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University.