Spectator (excerpt)

Excerpt from the novel “Spectator” by Zarko Kujundziski.

1

Ilina Taleska closed the book, sighed and lay down on the sofa without making a move. It was an old, but well-preserved, strong sofa, recently upholstered in plain blue linen, without patterns and with battered angles. The sofa occupied most of the room, which was very narrow even without it being present, just as the whole apartment was, oriented southeast, providing a view over the row of buildings on the other side of Partizanska Boulevard, as well as the ridges of Vodno and the cross that shone every night as if over a tomb. The twilight didn’t allow that, but during the day one could get a clear look at the hills of the mountain slinking on the horizon, going up and down like the contours of a glass bottle of Coca-Cola.

The reading place occupied by the woman was positioned in such a way that the light of the hanging spring chandelier and of the windows with white wooden frames, with double wings and metallic rotational handles, was falling from the right side. The book that Ilina had been reading a few moments ago, closed and turned with the back cover up, a vase with three tulips, faded, but left in the cloudy water, several magazines for women and two cups of coffee – one full to the top, and the other upturned with the rim on the saucer – were lying on the table.

The woman was lying down like that, with her hand hanging loosely down, for about fifteen minutes. She was so diminutive that her middle finger was barely touching the floor. Probably a sudden sound – a clock on the wall or something like that – made her get up hastily. Instead of bringing the cup towards her, she went back from the one side of the sofa to the other and drank the coffee in a few long sips, without diluting it with water. She gazed outside. Linden branches rubbed against the glass.

Her look, which looked as if it was pointed towards him and in which he saw interrogation, startled the young man and he dropped the binoculars, went away from the window and leaned his back against the window. The fall produced a noisy bang on the floor, plated with beech parquetry and without a single piece of cover. The binoculars remained in one piece. Ten seconds later, a metallic sound from the lower floor, as a warning to the neighbours, resounded through the pipes and radiators. It looked as if the man didn’t even think about repeating the bang, because he was standing there leaning with his back like wallpaper on the wall. With his eyes wide open and without a breath. And when it looked as if there wouldn’t be any other reactions to the noise, thumps sounded from the neighbouring wall.

– What are you doing there? Nikola! People are resting! Don’t make such a commotion!

The apartment echoed the sounds.

Nikola Sievski didn’t like to talk a lot. When he was seven years old, he used to count stars before going to sleep. When asked what he was going to be when he grew up, he answered:

– A star-gazer.

When he was nineteen years old, he didn’t become a star-gazer, but he went into the army. They called him Eyes-That-Never-Sleep. He had great eyesight and a calm tongue. When he left the army, the captain himself gave him a pair of binoculars.

He was thirty-two years old now and he still kept his binoculars, the way that a fisherman keeps his fishing rod.

The man was frightened by the sudden noise, and, instinctively leaning his head back, he bumped against the wall. He held his head with both his hands, half-kneeling, pressing the place on his head. He didn’t turn the light on. In the twilight he was only touching with his fingers to see whether there was blood coming out of his head. The blow was too blunt. There was nothing on his fingers. The uproar in the building didn’t stop. It was going from one apartment to the other in no particular order.

He crawled to the shelves; from the small pile of books he took one very big square book with hard paper covers, and he sat down while pressing his head with the book. But the effort was in vain. A small bump was rising slowly. He put the book down. The title of the book was printed in letters that glittered in the dusk. SKOPJE. Monograph. A sound came from the outside.

– Bus number two… – Nikola said silently, as if he was talking to himself.

There was perfect silence on the floor. The old woman from the next door was probably overcome with sleep while watching television on the new TV that she had bought with the money from the rent, together with the remote control with a hundred colour buttons and a flat screen, twice as big as the mirror in the bathroom.

Regular bus lines and bikers riding their motorbikes with thunderous speed were passing along the boulevard. Fumes went up and stuck to the façade of the seven-storey building as if on honey. The architecture was simple, derived verticals and horizontals, very simple, as if they had been drawn by a student with two triangles in his notebook for technical education.

The man appeared at the window again, disturbing the symmetry of flat lines. He was looking across the street. All he could see there were a few illuminated windows on 0

the building across with a roof with countless antennas and clothes in various colours hanging on the balconies on the second and third floors.

With his hand on the bump, he bent down to pick up the device. He examined the parquetry with his fingers. Somebody was moving in the apartment. The old woman was entering the bathroom. The sound of locking the door echoed.

The key rotated in the lock.

Nikola didn’t lift the binoculars. On the surrounding buildings, one by one, the windows were lighting up. Down there, car lights were casting light on pedestrians’ faces.

First, she opened the door. Then she flushed the toilet. The sound filled the entire apartment.

He pressed down with his toes. The floor was dry. When it looked as if the old woman was in her room, she knocked on his door once again. Without trying to open it. Then she retreated.

The light was on in the small kitchen that was connected to the dining room. There was no sign of the woman. The sofa was empty. Only tulips were in their place. Unchanged, filthy yellow and drooping a little. The clock on the wall was showing nine-twenty sharp. Down there, on the crossroads, there was a man selling newspapers. Tomorrow’s edition.

The man held the binoculars firmly to his eyes. He stood there patiently. The Moon was floating up there as if it had been forgotten. Several stars illuminated the sky over the town.

The woman appeared suddenly. She grabbed the phone hastily. He could only see her back. He could not see her face through the window. It was a short conversation, about five to six minutes. She put the phone down calmly. At first, she leaned against the wooden panelling on the wall. Then she kneeled down. Her face was still covered. With her hands.

A 5.7-foot-tall man was standing on the highest storey of the neighbouring building, holding a pair of binoculars

in his hands. He didn’t move. Numb. The summer was at its peak and the weather was as hot as in an oven. The air was full of some white cotton. A smell of burned milk was irritating his nostrils. He sneezed. Took a napkin out of his pocket and blew his nose. He carefully leaned the binoculars against the window.

When he looked in her apartment again, the woman was putting on make-up, standing in front of the mirror. She put powder on her face. All the lights in the rooms were on.

Ilina Taleska hated to be alone and hated to sit in the dark.

– When it is dark around me, I have a feeling that there isn’t anyone with me – she used to say to everybody.

A few minutes later everything was still illuminated and she was not alone anymore. They were standing by the table in the dining room next to each other. A man and a woman.

The man said something and then slapped her face. The woman stood only thirty centimetres away from him. In this position it could be easily noticed that she was short, half a metre shorter. On high cork platform heels so that the discrepancy was not so obvious. But despite the false height, Ilina looked very diminutive compared to the man, who had wide palms that could embrace even a pole, and whose biceps were like bowling balls.

His lips moved once again. Then came another one. The same slapping, sudden, quick, just like the previous one, but this time on the other side of her face. The woman staggered, but remained in position and didn’t utter a single word. She wore a white long dress with side pockets. The end of the dress touched the ground and covered her shoes with their high cork platform heels. She was standing up, although her neck was bent a bit forward, askew, giving the impression that her head was bent down. She looked at him without any fear in her eyes. Then she said something.

A quarrel burst out then. He started waving more and more. More than her. He exerted himself more.

Under the bed in the bedroom there was a fitness device that Ilina used to keep her body muscles in shape. The distance to the device was three and a half metres. A big freight truck was passing on the boulevard. A dog was standing on the road. The truck sounded the horn.

He grabbed her hand. She didn’t move. He kissed her. On her mouth. The same. Then another slap. And another kiss. Then a hug. Then a slap. Interchangeably. As if making a cake with several layers. Sponge and filling. Slap, kiss. A red line appeared on the left-hand edge of her lip. Slaps and kisses. The line appeared as if it was drawn with a 0.5 pencil.

Nikola was no longer by the window. He walked about the room in circles as if he was looking for something. Before he went out, he looked at the window once more. At his binoculars. And back at the window. Then he unlocked the door of his room.

It was dark outside.

A man wearing short trousers and with a big book with hard covers in his hands committed a civil offence by jumping over the metal fence that separated the two lines of the boulevard. The windows of the surrounding buildings twinkled like animals’ eyes. Cars braked when the light was red, and then drove away hastily, shamelessly cutting the dark. The sky was crowded with bright dots. The Moon was covered by a cloud that was as big as a fat ship that is about to burst into pieces. At that moment the hall in the building with numerous antennas lit up and male steps began jumping up the stairs. Water was dripping off the clothes hanging on the balconies on the second and third floors.

2

He waited for the light in the hall to go off and then he took the bundle of keys out of his pocket. He sighed, relieved, when the long grey metal key entered completely in the lock. He unlocked the lock gently and pushed the door without making a sound. He closed the door. The eyehole lit up again, and the outer gate banged, which indicated that somebody had entered the building. Gertie Finsches waited for the things to become visible contours in the dark. Only then did he lean the suitcase against the umbrella holder and enter on tiptoes into the next room. In his hands he was holding something wrapped in decorative paper for wrapping presents.

– I have been waiting for you – a female voice terminated his entrance as a thief.

Now there was no reason for not turning the light on. He went towards her.

– Leave it! I want us to enjoy the darkness a little bit.

He was standing there without uttering a single word.

– Come here and sit down.

He went there and sat. She knocked her knees together as a sign of greeting. He couldn’t see her.

– We were sitting together on this couch – she said. With flat, wide whiskey glasses brim-full of alcohol with ice in our hands, remember?

He beckoned. She couldn’t see him in the dark.

– The music was loud, loud enough to make conversation a big effort instead of relaxation. You were persistent. The party had just started and the apartment was full of people – I can remember them now: two people with moustaches, a guy with a rumpled black T-shirt and dreadlocks, four girls in mini-skirts – I had observed them carefully – in combination with rope sandals, blouses and pullovers in various colours, boys in shirts, with or without ties…

He blinked. In the dark. A lighthouse that guides ships. She continued:

– Then two girls appeared, holding hands and trying to look elegant and intelligent with the thin-framed glasses that looked identical on both of them. One of them was wearing yellow moccasins, which looked funny with her long skirt two inches below the knees. Very quickly my apartment was full of people, bottles, noise and music. It was my birthday, but I didn’t know any of those people – the woman was trying to fix her tousled hair – Remember?

He raised his shoulders.

– Vaguely, yes. Not like you, but I remember – he didn’t let the wrapped thing out of his hands – You and your memory for details.

She sipped from the glass.

– You didn’t know that the couch was mine.

He said:

– You didn’t know that I was dating Francisca.

Their hands were busy. His hands with the paper. Her hands with the glass.

– So many years, Gert, and I haven’t asked you. What attracted you that night and afterwards? – she asked him.

After all these years.

He covered his eyes. They could do everything in the dark.

– I remember that you yawned, and forgot to cover your mouth. I noticed your scar. It pulled out like a spring. I liked that. I liked your scar. Small and tiny like an almond.

– Like an almond? Silly. However, I think I noticed that – staring at my scar – she gulped – You said that the cognac was very bad and that there was nothing we could do when there was nothing else to drink. I remember you calling me a bad host. Idiot, you didn’t know who you were sitting with and – even more – what you were talking about.

They remembered. Sitting there and remembered. Sitting there.

– You didn’t move. I held your hand, leaned towards you and repeated what I had just said. After the second time you turned, beckoned and smiled. I was expecting more. Response. Comment. Nothing. Only your scar pulled out again.

The woman placed her hand on his head and put her fingers through the soft and sparse hair.

– Would you like to act, Gert?

– To act what?

– To act ourselves. To act ourselves that night.

A ring with a big red octagonal stone was shining on her hand.

– What if we wake Erich up? It will be funny.

– Erich isn’t here.

– Where is he?

– He went on excursion. This morning. To Hochschwab by the Salza.

From Vienna – less than two hours’ drive. By bus, with breaks.

– Did he take the compass that we bought him for Christmas?

– I think not. It is in its place, above the bed.

Gertie took off his shoes and pushed them away with his feet. He put the paper beside them.

– Lets act it out then. Let’s act the evening out.

They didn’t move.

– We must switch sides – added the woman.

– Must we?

They stood up and sat down. He sat on the right side. She sat on the left.

– Start – she said to him.

He sighed.

– I don’t know. I’m a bad actor.

– Come on, without an audience. Just me and you.

They were sitting just like that.

– I can’t remember.

The woman put the tip of her forefinger to his lips:

– This is from your bicycle, isn’t it? – and she put the finger away – Do you remember now?

– This is from your bicycle, isn’t it? – he repeated – I have one just like that. Above the elbow.

He unrolled his sleeve.

– Great. That’s good. I was puzzled. I said: excuse me? – said the woman.

– The scar is from your bicycle, isn’t it? – he was watching her here and now.

She was seventeen years older since then. She had changed cars five times, had changed the lawyer’s office where she worked three times, went to a solarium regularly, had plastic surgery done on her nose and stopped adding too much salt to the tomato sauce.

– You should frown and then laugh. Immature and contagious – he said to her.

The woman laughed. It was a forced and intermittent laugh.

– I was confused, and then… – the man started to laugh, with his face cramped, moving back and forth on the couch.

– Alcohol started to drip from the overfull glass and I spilled drops on my party dress – said the woman.

She spilled the remaining liquid from the glass on her skirt. The liquid flowed onto her knee, onto the couch and onto the floor.

– After my hand dried, my palm remained unpleasantly sticky. Then… then, damn it, you correctly guessed how I had got the scar. It was insane.

– It was a lucky guess.

They talked looking in front of themselves. In the glittering darkness.

– I was telling the story to the stranger in my apartment – she started talking again – When I was seven years old, I learnt to maintain a balance on the bicycle.

She lifted her arms as if she was balancing.

– When I was nine, I was riding my bicycle to the Belvedere Palace. I fell off there and the blood started to flow. I dragged myself to the Vösendorf. I was completely lost. The police took me home.

Her mother had panicked. Her father was calm. When he saw his daughter, he just said:

“Good.”

– I remember that some people were kissing in front of us. I gave you my hand – Gertie stretched out his hand – Gertie.

– Kristine.

– Gertie Finsches.

– Kristine Taller.

They shook hands as friends. For the second time in their lives.

– A pleasure to meet you – her lips twisted again – I know that you are sleeping with other women – she said.

She sounded plausible. She wasn’t acting.

– You didn’t say this then.

– No, I’m saying this now.

– You said just: tomorrow, same place, same time. Only then did I realise who I was sitting with.

– I’m saying it now and I’m asking you: is it because of my body?

He cleaned his trousers with his hand. There was nothing on them.

– No. It’s not because of your body.

– It is the only reason why I have been eating tuna, broccoli and cauliflower… And brown rice.

– I told you it’s not like that.

– I did everything for you. My nose, my body, everything. You know what Doctor Zammel asked me once? “Why don’t you fix the scar?” And do you know why I have left it?

He didn’t answer.

– I left it because I thought you liked it. I could have fixed it too – and the glass was empty – Why, Gert?

– If you want, I will leave this very evening. I won’t take anything, just the suitcase with the broken lock with which I moved into your apartment. Remember? – as if he wanted to sound pathetic. To acquire her affection. Kristine was silent and he said: – I will find a place to sleep.

He didn’t stand up.

– Did you sleep with my sister? – she asked him.

– What kind of question is that?

– Did you sleep with my sister? What is it that you can’t understand?

– I have never thought of sleeping with your sister, Tine.

– You like Nora – Kristine said – You liked her from the first time we went to visit my parents. She had a haircut that looked like a helmet. She greeted you with one finger because her hands were covered with pastry. You were stunned. Stunned, Gert… That’s why you have never agreed with Ulrich. Only because of her. I have noticed the way you look at her. I caught you kissing on our couch once. On our couch. I didn’t say a word to you then. Not a single word.

– You should have. That was nothing.

– I don’t want to listen.

Still, Gertie continued…

– No, it’s simple. She was babysitting Erich. He was about one year old. He was in the kitchen and had been playing with chemicals. Those for washing dishes. He tried to drink them. She saw him at the last moment. She was shaken. I came home earlier. I tried to calm her down. There is nothing between us.

– I’m not asking for your excuses.

They were sitting like the statue of Lincoln in his Memorial House in Washington. With frozen faces. She said:

– Turn the light on; I can’t sit like this anymore, in darkness.

He didn’t say a thing. He just stood up and turned the potentiometer. At first just a little, and then things in the room gained their form. A magazine was lying down on the low table in front of their legs.

The title, in bold letters, was “Sex – the most powerful weapon”.

They blinked a while until their eyes got accustomed to the light. He picked up the wrapped thing from the floor and gave it to her.

– What’s this?

– A souvenir. From there.

– A souvenir from Malta? – and she started to tear the paper. She took out a wide flower bowl made of finely made glass – Too many memories for one night – Kristine said.

The man picked up the magazine. The woman went to the glass cabinet with the liqueurs. She wanted to pour one, but she only left the glass by the bottle of brandy. Then she turned.

– Are you going to eat? I boiled some potatoes for mashed potatoes. For you.

– I ate during the flight.

That was a lie.

He was twirling the smooth colourful paper. She sat next to him.

– I slept with Matias Klaus.

That was the whole truth.

– The short one. With a face that looks like a tomato. Yes, I slept with Matias Klaus three times. Three days in a row. Then I told him that he is a swine.0

In the middle of the magazine there was a poster of an actress. On two pages.

– You can go. You don’t have to go. We can do anything, but Erich mustn’t suffer.

– I agree – he said. He was turning the pages over without any intention of stopping.

– What are we going to do?

– We’ll sleep.

There was a bad smell in the room. Because of the flight and the shoes.

They lay down in bed.

– I’m tired – he said, before putting his head on the pillow.

She switched on the lamp with a lampshade and opened the book.

– Maybe it is time to abandon the superstition and to buy a new couch? – she said, without moving the book from her sight. The man was lying with his head pressed in the pillow. He couldn’t hear what she said. After a while, she put her head down on the blanket. While she was sleeping the scar trembled like a leaf. The lamp was on all night long. They realised that in the morning.

3

– My ears are full of water – Kati was sitting on the tiles, with her legs still in the swimming pool. Starting from her hair, going down through her back, up to her yellow swimming trunks patterned with palm leaves, the water was flowing down in funnelled lines. She rubbed her eyes. Their colour was like radishes. Because of the chlorine. Her fingers were wrinkled. Because of the water. Anika left the crowd and brought a towel. She put the towel on her back. The water was clear. She could look deep down into the bottom with its “3m” mark. That was the only spot with such a depth. Somebody jumped from the highest diving board and in the swimming pool first there was a splash, then a drops flew around and then an echo.

– Come and sit with us! – Anika was standing over Kati. She was wearing pink slippers decorated with flowers that looked like ears. Her feet were so big that it looked as if the slippers would collapse under the pressure.

– I must empty my ears first – the girl leaned her head to the left and started punching her right ear with her hand. Then the other way around.

– You can’t do it that like that. Stand up and start jumping around. On one foot. Look, like this – Anika was

trying to jump like a duck, but she couldn’t move from the spot – You won’t do anything like that.

The tiles were slippery even when dry.

– I want to keep my feet in the water – Kati dropped the towel. It slipped down her back. Anika bent over and grabbed it before getting wet.

– Look at my legs. They are big, like salamis – said Kati.

Anika put the cloth over the girl’s back.

– Don’t be silly! It’s because of the water; there is a reflection of the light and that’s why they look big – said Anika.

– No, they really are, look at them! I have legs like an elephant – Kati grabbed her thigh. I’m a little elephant. And you…

The girl started to laugh intermittently:

– You are mama elephant.

Anika pulled up the zipper on her sweatshirt and looked towards the diving board. Two boys were preparing to jump. Kati was still laughing.

– We are two elephants – she leaned her head forward and the top of her hair got soaked in the water – Two elephants – she repeated – I must go to Africa soon. I haven’t seen live elephants for a long time. Of course, apart from the two of us – the girl’s laugh was contagious.

– If you are finished playing, you came come out now. We will be going soon.

There was a splash in the water.

– Dry your hair with the towel – said Anika.

A splash. Then another one. The boys jumped.

– Why do you never swim? – suddenly Kati’s face became serious.

– I hate water. Swimming is for kids. To be happy while they can.

– You are saying that I’m a child? Do you think that you are an old granny and a very smart one? What are six months?

– Maybe nothing, but you are still a child. That’s why I have to take care of you.

– You don’t have to do anything! – Kati picked up the towel from her back and threw it at the standing girl.

– What are you doing? Stop!

She dived. Part of the “3m” mark was covered by her feet splashing in the water. She came out at the other end. Got out of the water and sat on the tiles. Anika put the towel on her shoulders and crossed her hands. Kati did the same. She imitated her. There were about ten people in the pool. Two minutes later another guy came in, wearing the same swimsuit and a whistle around his neck.

– Have you ever been kissed, Annie? Did you kiss Matty? – yelled Kati.

The words sounded twice. Because of the echo.

Anika put her left forefinger on her mouth, giving the girl on the other side of the pool a signal to be quiet. The distance of seventeen metres of water was standing between them.

– Matty and Annie are kissing! I know you are kissing! – Kati was yelling very loud, as if she had no intention of stopping. The crowd become restless. Anika went towards Kati. She took off her slippers, picked them up in her hands and went on. Kati was laughing.

The swimming pool was empty for a moment.

– Be quiet, girl! Please be quiet! – Anika walked about half of the rectangle’s width and then half of its length and back again. When she came closer to Kati, Kati dived into the water – Stop! Stop, I say!

Kati was striking out with her legs and arms, but still she was close to the edge of the pool.

– Come on in, Annie, the water is nice! You would like it. You haven’t tried it, that’s why you don’t know that. It’s great to be in the water – her hair spread out like an aureole.

– Come back here, come back here now! – Anika was yelling with anger in her voice.

– Come on, Annie, jump! I’m waiting for you!

– Don’t change the subject. Why did you say that? Tell me, why did you say that out loud?

– Don’t come closer and I’ll tell you. Promise?

Anika beckoned with her head. The girl swam to her feet and grabbed the edge of the tiles.

– Why did you do that?

A few metres away from them, three boys, between thirteen and fifteen years old, with their faces that had barely seen a razor, were playing with a big inflatable rubber ball.

– Did I say something that is not true? – the girl was moving her legs to prevent herself from sinking – You can’t fool me. I saw you kissing on the stairs of the Senate. I was with you, remember?

– Why did you have to yell so that everybody can hear you? I didn’t know that you are so… – she paused – … wicked.

– Nobody heard me. Who would be interested in that, tell me, who? Who would be interested in such a normal thing?

The rubber ball flew to Kati. She picked it up and threw it back to the boys. One of them swung with his arm. She was already looking at the girl next to her.

– Don’t say that you’re ashamed of that?

– You wouldn’t be?

They continued playing.

– No, why would I?

– It’s easy for you to say that. You have never been kissed. In front of everybody, the way I was – she was squeezing the towel in her hands – I’m ashamed, yes, I really am. I haven’t wanted to see Matty since.

– How do you know that I have never been kissed? – Kati put a smile on her face. Her face was like the face of a ten-year-old.

Anika came closer to the edge.

– Get out this moment and tell me why you are smiling like that!

Her smile suited her about as well as a pear on an apple tree.

– I’m smiling the way I always do. What are you talking about? What’s wrong with my smile?

– You’re smiling devilishly. That face of yours…

– What’s wrong with my face, Annie? What’s wrong with it?

– There’s nothing wrong with your face. Your face is beautiful and you know that. You’re an angel, my angel, but now you are smiling devilishly – she pointed the towel towards her head.

– Come out this moment and tell me what you have done. You can’t fool your friend. Your best friend.

Kati lay on the water and spread out her arms.

– Don’t be stupid and come back here now! Kati, I’ll tell everybody! Come back and tell me what you are hiding! Why are you hiding this from your best friend?

The crowd was calling their names from the other side of the pool. Anika waved at them. They giggled.

– Come here, jump in the water for a while, and then I’ll come out – said Kati.

Anika was standing by the pool. Her fingers were sinking into the grid. The grid was white. Her fingernails were violet. Lacquered.

– Come on, just sit on the tiles. Put your elephant’s feet in the water and I will come out. You have to do that, Annie! – she raised her arms – I’m waiting for you! Come on, or I’ll never come out!

Anika touched the water with her foot, and then sat on the tiles. Wet and cold. Her shorts started to get soaked.

– You’re crazy, you’re crazy! – she was saying.

Kati came close to her and grabbed her knees.

– Easy, you’ll take me down!

– The water is not bad. Not bad at all. You’ll get used to it…

– I don’t want to come in. Tell me what you have done. Tell me what you have done, you damn girl! Have I been sitting here for nothing?

Kati was smiling. Voiceless. With just an expression on her face.

– That devilish smile again. Get a grip. Come here and sit by me just for a moment. Let’s talk normally.

– Kati lifted herself on her arms and sat next to Anika. She tried to put the towel over her back.

– Leave me alone. I’m not a child.

– Yes you are. What do you think you are? What are you with those tiny arms like pegs?

– I can take care of myself.

– Oh yes, I can see that. Tell me what you have done! With whom, where, tell me everything…

– Why do you want to know all that? – she took her hand.

Hand in hand.

– Because I’m your best friend and because I care about you. You mustn’t end up like… some girls.

Kati stood up. The yellow bikini was barely hanging over her waist and over her breasts, tiny like Raffaello balls. She let her hand hang loose and stood about three metres away from the pool.

– Let’s jump in and I’ll tell you everything. Come on, Annie! Let’s jump in! Let’s jump in! – she said, swinging her arms.

– You know that I can’t swim.

– I can’t swim either. We both can’t swim. We don’t know a thing. Come with me! Let’s jump in!

– Why can’t you just tell me? Why do you have to torment me like this?

Kati stood next to her. Kneeled. Her fingernails were violet. Because of the lacquer. Her nose was touching Anika’s temple. Her lips were touching Anika’s cheekbone.

– Let’s jump in! Together. I’ll hold your hand – she whispered.

– Promise to tell me then?

– I promise.

– Everything?

– Everything.

– Cross your heart?

– Cross my heart.

Two girls were standing there hand in hand. The shorter one wearing a yellow bathing suit. The taller one wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. The crowd standing on the other side of the pool started applauding.

– Jump, Annie! – said one of the girls, and pulled the other one in.

The boys who were playing with the rubber ball a moments ago were now jumping from the diving board. The lifeguard whistled. Several big splashes echoed in the water, and drops were flying all around, transforming themselves into a transparent echo in the space.

4

The reception room was dirty place and almost without furniture. The green oil paint that was covering 3.5 inches of the wall was chipped on several places, and the mortar was gone too, and the red bricks were peeking from below. The air was misty. Stale, as if it hadn’t been aired for a long time. A bench pushed right next against the wall, two chairs and a table, with a crack in the middle and a slightly broken leg, were all made of dry wood and it had been a long time since they saw a brush and paint. Only the bars on the windows were made of iron, as well as the two doors, one opposite the other, as grey as a January mist and as big and heavy as a bank vault.

The woman was sitting alone with her arms on the table. Every minute she got up and walked within those hundred square feet of room, stepping on the bench and trying to peek out of the window. The window was too tall for her to be able to see the prisoners going round in circles in the back yard. Then she would step down and sit in her place, looking at the metal door, expecting the entrance of the person she was waiting for. Somebody whistled outside.

After quite a while, the key turned in the lock.

Once.

Twice.0

A person in a uniform appeared at the door, large, with a big head and stomach, and with a bloated face. His cap could fall off any moment. The man in the uniform smiled, showing his front teeth. Rotten and with black spots like poppy seeds. Then he turned back and called somebody from the doorway:

– Get in!

A corpulent, dark-skinned boy with a short sparse beard and a left eye looking slightly more to the right side.

– Madam, here is your man… – said the policeman.

The woman was staring at the boy. She looked confused. They were silent. The policeman regarded the woman and the boy with a confused look.

– I don’t know this woman – the bearded man spoke first – I don’t recognise this woman.

– If you don’t recognise your women, then you have a big problem – said the policeman, fixing his cap forward in such a manner that it was completely leaning to the side.

He laughed at his own joke.

– She’s not my wife.

The policeman stopped laughing. He asked the woman:

– Who do you need, madam?

– Nikola.

– Are you Nikola? – he asked the boy.

– I am…

– If somebody calls your name and if that somebody is a woman, then why are you playing dumb and protesting?

– I remember women by their shoes. I have never seen this woman.

– Idiot! – said the policeman,

Ilina Taleska was wearing sandals with heels and leather straps.

She let them go on arguing then. She looked at the piece of paper in her hand. She looked at the boy. Several times. As if she was looking at a photo in her hands or letters in front of her.

– Nikola Sievski – she said, standing up from the chair and looking straight at the boy.

– Yes! – the policeman turned towards the woman, instinctively putting his right hand on the gun that was attached to the belt on his waist.

– You said: Nikola. I’m looking for Nikola Sievski. Is he Nikola Sievski? – the woman asked the man in the uniform about the boy as if the boy wasn’t there.

– Oh, you need the other Nikola? – said the handcuffed man – He is Nikola the Mute, on the second floor – then he turned to the man with the fat face – She’s looking for Mute.

The policeman sniffed a few times with his nose; following this, he gave it a fierce scratch without uttering a single word, turned his head, grabbed the young guy by his handcuffs and took him outside. The door squeaked, twice, they took the key out of the lock and the woman remained alone in the room again. She sat on the chair. A wind started to blow outside. She looked at the paper again and said:

– Mute.

This time she didn’t wait long. The door moved. Another policeman appeared, young and almost without eyebrows. A man in a worn working uniform was standing behind him.

– Nikola Sievski – yelled the policeman and looked at the man.

Nobody said a word.

– You have ten minutes – he turned to the woman – If you need something, just call – he grabbed the man’s neck – And you, be careful what you’re doing!

The door slammed but remained unlocked. The woman and the man stayed standing for a while. Numb. She sat down. He sat down too. A sea freshness entered the room.

– Remember me? – the woman’s voice trembled for a moment.

The man beckoned. Almost imperceptibly.

– Whom you refused to see twice? – her voice was the same as a moment ago.

He put his hands on the table. His handcuffs banged on the wood, making an awkward blunt sound.

– I couldn’t… – he paused after a few words – … see you.

– Why not?

Yelling was coming from the outside.

– I had… – the man could not utter a complete sentence from beginning to the end without pausing – I was busy.

– You were very busy? – the woman wanted to catch his look, but the man wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Behind her.

– Are you married?

– No.

– Children?

He didn’t answer.

– How long had you been watching me?

The man moved his hands and stirred the handcuffs in order to scratch himself with his thumb under the metal that was squeezing his wrists.

– How long had you been watching me? – she repeated.

– Why are you asking me such… such things? – he gulped – Lawyers asked me the same questions, po… police and judges… Do you have… to do the same?

The woman stood up and walked around the room. The man could see her neck. A long, smooth, female neck. No hair.

Her skirt was covering her ankles.

– What did he… that man… the lover tell you… that night before?… What did he tell you?… I want to know…

The blood vessels on her neck suddenly became tense.

– I’m the one who should be asking questions, I’m the one who is astonished, not you – she raised her voice. She said that nervously. She had been waiting half an hour. She

was talking now – You have no right to ask me such things. You’re a monster!

Ilina was standing there with her arm twisted and pointing towards him.

Then she sat down.

– And of all things, you asked me that. You say that you – she precisely accentuated the word – want to know something. To know what was he telling me.

She was calm.

– Yes – he said.

Around her neck Ilina had a necklace made of white gold with a small cross. With Jesus Christ on it. She grabbed the cross with two fingers and said:

– He was telling me that he loved me. He was telling how much he loved me…

Nikola didn’t let her continue.

– Disgusting… the man was slapping you and… he was telling you that he loved you?… – he was still trying to scratch himself under the handcuffs – That’s insane!

– He loved me. He loved me. He loved me.

The wind was intensifying and then calming down

– You believed… believed those… shallow words?

– I believe people. I believe what people are saying…

One of the windows slammed against the wall, with no consequences.

– But he… he did that to you… Over and over again… Always… – said Nikola.

– How can you know that? And why is that your problem?

– Well, I am… was your… neighbour in a way.

– I know what you are. I know very well what you are. I was in the apartment and talked to your landlady.

The colour on the boy’s face changed suddenly. He gathered both hands into one fist.

– She’s not my… landlady.

– You’re a maniac. A sex maniac. And demented. Maybe it would have been better to lock you up in the asylum! – she was shaking her head like a punchbag long after the blow – If your hands weren’t handcuffed you would have jumped on me, wouldn’t you?

Hot air was soughing through the window. As if in the Sahara. Dry, hot and dusty.

– Really, why don’t you jump on me? I won’t yell, I won’t fight. Come on! Come on, stand up and grab me!

The man wasn’t looking at the woman. He was sitting with his look nailed to the ground. Ants were marching on the floor. A row of ants. One after another. In almost perfect order. From one door to the other.

Clothes began falling down on the concrete floor.

Two minutes later Ilina was standing naked in front of her chair. Without her high-heeled sandals she looked as tiny as a shrub.

– Come on, you can do whatever you want to do with me.

She was wearing nothing but the white-gold necklace with Jesus Christ on it. The man was still looking at the floor.

– Look at me; you won’t see anything new on me, anything that you haven’t seen so far.

He was stone-cold and calm. The ants were passing by his feet. He was squeezing his hands.

– You attacked a man because of me. I’m giving you a chance to pay for your deed.

His fingers become red like bright sparks.

– What’s the matter? Are you scared now? You finally have a chance to satisfy your animal instincts. Come on! Do whatever you want with me! Here, on the bench, on the table! Where? You want to be raunchier? On the floor, maybe?

Pause.

– What is it? That’s what you have been looking for, isn’t it? – asked the woman.

Two men in uniform were peeking through the small window on the iron door and were making a noise.

– Why would you do that for if it wasn’t for this?

They didn’t move.

– Why? – she pulled her shoulders together like a diamond.

Suddenly there was so much light reflecting from the window, giving the situation a surreal aura.

– Why don’t you say something?

She repeated it.

– Why?

She repeated it.

Finally:

– All I can say… to you is that… maybe… I lo-ve you… that I love you… – now he was looking at her, with her short tresses with eyes peeking behind them: green and wet.

– So what are you waiting for? You can have me now. Here and now.

– No, I don’t want you like… that. Not like that.

– How do you want me?

The ten minutes given by the second policeman had passed a long time ago.

– I want you as a man loves a woman.

– As a man loves a woman?

Silence.

– And how does a man love a woman?

Silence.

– Answer me: how does a man love a woman?

– I don’t know how, but… not like this – he answered.

The woman relaxed her shoulders and sat down. She was staring at his forehead, bare and as big as a postcard. She covered her face with her hands. He wasn’t looking at her.

The door squeaked and the short fat policeman appeared again.

– Time’s up – he said.

The three people were silent for a while. Nikola stood up and stood by the man in the uniform. The man was staring at the woman. Then he said something vulgar, pushed the man as he had done the first time and they both disappeared behind the door. Only Ilina was left in the room, with tears in her eyes and no clothes on her. Somebody was still peeking from the small window in the iron door. One big bruise made out of love was clearly noticeable on her right hand. She wiped away her tears with her wrists. Her breasts were firm and small. Then the lock squeaked twice.

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