Blesok no. 69, November-December, 2009
Dinner Service for Guests
I have lived with my sister since the death of her husband (God rest his soul!). He was a good man, though how he put up with Bella all those years is beyond me. She’ll be the death of me, too, sooner or later.
My sister calls herself a ‘multi-media composer and musician’. When I gossip about her with my friends I call her a dabbler, because in fact she can’t play anything except the piano—and she does that badly. She refuses to play classical music because someone once said, many years ago, that under her fingers Chopin sounded like a hammer banging upon an anvil. It may have been me who said so, but that is of no importance. What is important is that, after receiving this comment, and most probably after receiving many similar remarks in the course of her studies, Bella started playing some strain of modern jazz which my ears have not learnt to abide to this day.
For a long time she performed her jazz before audiences dominated by young men with hard-pressed lips and thick-rimmed glasses and women of a certain age whose self-styled hairdos, though impeccable at the front, were unkempt at the back. Then all of sudden she became a composer and started writing ‘contemporary’ scores. My ears were even more troubled by this music, if one can call it such. Her pieces typically started with the repetitive hitting of a key in the lower register of the piano, continuing until the sound faded away completely. The piece would then proceed with the staccato banging of a key in the higher register, followed by a tremendous noise in the middle register—repeated in such a manner until the piece came abruptly to an end. All this ‘dialogue’, as the critics dubbed it, reminded me rather more of the ‘dialogues’ she and her late husband Simon had enjoyed at home than anything resembling what could be called a work of art.
My sister’s experiments in music further evolved in the field of orchestration. Having always been au fait with contemporary trends, Bella soon realized that, where the Balkans were concerned, the greatest demand was for art related in some way or another to war. This theme had the benefit of enabling foreigners to identify the only thing they knew about the area with the additional advantage that they could pride themselves upon their compassion in being so moved by the great pain experienced by the indigenous folk. Thus my sister’s first composition was entitled Bloody Greeting and started with a gunshot.
The live performance of this work kicked off with the explosion of a cap from a toy gun, spreading a terrible smell amongst the first few rows of the audience and triggering a coughing fit in one elderly lady. The conductor was entrusted with the theatrical aspects of the gunfire, but as the string section was supposed to start screeching dissonantly immediately after the shot had been fired, there would either be no time for him to dispose of the gun or he would become so confused that he would continue waving the gun in his right hand throughout the entire first movement. Some people in the audience were fascinated by this new concept and it received many raving reviews in the media. Her next work was called Screams and was a ‘postmodernist mix’ of contemporary and historical conflicts. By this my sister meant to imply that she was inspired by the poetry of Grigor Prličev, on the one hand, and on the other by the screams of war she could hear all around herself in the Balkans. Accordingly, this work—one of her direst efforts and certainly the most unbearable for the ears—consisted mostly of screams. These screams were not the ordinary screams of people who genuinely suffered throughout the Balkans, of course, but screams produced by renowned sopranos, altos, tenors and baritones. This work was at the same time her first flirtation with multi-media: on a screen behind the orchestra which accompanied the screaming group, she projected black-and-white footage of two small runny-nosed children crying. I felt terribly sorry for the children, though I never asked her how she obtained the footage nor how she managed to make them cry so convincingly, although I guess the latter would not have been too much of a problem for her.
My sister belongs to a generation of, let us say, artists who are neither part of the established older generation, nor enjoy the benefits of the younger generation obtained merely on account of their youth. But Bella is perfectly aware that she will never be admitted into the older generation, simply because all thrones have already been taken up, and that by joining the younger generation she might travel the world and win popularity with her multi-media music projects, which have obviously retained their topicality. I believe this was the crucial motive for her to start producing Screams and suchlike.
Despite her tyrannical behaviour at home, Bella has charm and used to be very pretty. People who do not like her have started calling her ‘The Belly’ now, but I haven’t told her this yet as I am saving it for a special occasion when I am more than usually annoyed with her. She used to have a firm behind and pert breasts, a narrow waist and slender, shapely legs. Lately, however, her waist has somehow merged with her behind and her breasts, and her legs have also started making attempts to fit in with the rest of her body. In other words, Bella has gotten fat and broad while her face and neck have remained thin. Given her predilection for wearing bell-like dresses, she now resembles a triangle in form. The skin on her face has sagged a little, but remains beautiful in complexion. Her problem is that she refuses to accept the fact that she is getting older and uglier and endeavours to stay young by increasing the amount of make-up on her face. She won’t leave the house without first having painted dark-silver crescent moons on her eyelids and smeared lipstick around her mouth in an attempt to give her lips a fuller look. When her eyebrows began thinning, she compensated by drawing them in with black eyeliner; but the results are not always symmetrical and lend a cynical expression to her face at times and a look of confusion on others. I admit she doesn’t look too bad from afar, with her eyes and mouth brought out, but I have had to advise her at least once, from the bottom of my heart, to maintain a certain distance when speaking to people because in close proximity she looks like a witch.
I am bemused by her slowly turning into a hag since she is very particular in all other respects. But this is only one of her characteristics which exasperates me. For instance, even though it was her suggestion that I move in with her (apparently, she was in a state of shock after her husband’s unexpected departure), she at once strictly specified the particular areas of the living-room which I was allowed to occupy with my belongings. One such space was the desk in the living-room, which, of course, we both had the right to use. But she flies off the handle whenever I fail to move my things off the desk, and once she even rushed into my tiny bedroom and threw the scissors I had left on the desk at me as I lay asleep. She did this, I know, because she abhors my habit of cutting out interesting snippets from the newspapers and pasting them into scrapbooks. Given that I have pursued this hobby since the age of thirty, I have accumulated thirty-two years of interesting cuttings and a large number of closely organized scrapbooks which I occasionally pull out to leaf through. When I moved in with Bella, I was allocated only two of her many bookshelves—all replete with pretentious books and perverse ceramic statuettes. Mine are the bottom two shelves, forcing me to stoop low to fetch my notebooks, though she knows I have back problems. In the first months after I moved in, despite her still being deep in mourning for Simon, we had terrible rows whenever I failed to tidy away any unused cuttings from the desk or the floor. And while I have made concessions to her fastidious cleanliness, she simply cannot accommodate herself to any signs of my presence, even if they are only at her desk. Any felt-tips or pens I might leave behind, for example, she will remove at once and place in a drawer, again at the bottom of the desk, while her pens stay neatly arranged in a china mug next to the computer.
She employs an excellent defence mechanism to shut me up whenever I happen to complain about my rights. She starts weeping for Simon, saying that I only create additional stress instead of helping her. I don’t know how long this false mourning period is going to last, but I cannot bear it for much longer. I feel as if she runs my life and, in spite of her being much younger than me, as if I were a child and she my mother. Still, her fastidiousness and her hysterical outbursts whenever I do not conform to her standards force me do even the most hateful things—like clearing the table immediately after meals, stacking the dishes in the dishwasher and wiping crumbs off the table instead of lying down, like all normal people, and taking a nap.
When I moved in, Bella did do one clever thing in allotting me a separate toilet. Occasionally, it is true, she meddles with my bathroom, and even concerns herself with the tidiness of my tiny room, but only when she is expecting some of her important guests.
With these important guests she can really be very pleasant. Her charm and smiles succeed in seducing the special sponsors who make it possible for her to hold her ‘concert exhibitions’ or ‘musical performances’. For this reason, our home is regularly visited by renowned guests from the world of culture and politics, rewarded with special treatment if they are foreigners. I hate these situations and try to avoid them as much as I can, but I am often a witness to performances staged by Bella for my eyes only before the arrival of her aristocratic guests as she is then invariably in a state of utter panic. If I were not there to help her prepare the copious amounts of food and cook the spinach pie, I believe she might faint. Before the guests arrive, she pays special attention to the flat being impeccably clean and tidy. It is only then that she makes me clean my toilet and tidy up my room, just in case any of the guests wander off into my ‘filthy’ part of the flat. Several hours ahead, she checks whether all the shelves have been dusted, covers the tables with the linen for special occasions and slips the cushions on the sofa in their special covers which she brought from Pakistan.
The most important ritual is related to the dinner service. Bella has a special cabinet in the kitchen where she keeps the plates, glasses and cutlery for guests. And really it is a highly select and very expensive set of china, crystal glasses and silver cutlery. I am happy about this because she is so afraid I will break or leave stains on the china that she never makes me do the washing-up when the guests have left.
I have played host to many of Bella’s guests, of all kinds, but nothing can compare with the two occasions when we were visited by Wolfgang—or, as my sister and I called him, ‘the blind man’. This was not meant metaphorically but literally: Wolfgang was blind and moved with a stick. His eyes appeared normal. They were brown and beady and, except for their frequent blinking, winking and, at times, weird circling around as if trying to see everything, left you with no impression that they were without sight. One could guess from afar, nevertheless, that Wolfgang was blind, for in addition to walking with a stick, he held his head unnaturally erect.
My sister had not told me anything of his blindness, which offended me greatly as I was unprepared for such a meeting. She merely informed me that an Austrian musicologist was coming for dinner and that there was no need for me to make a pie this time, just one of my exotic salads. Having done so, I withdrew to my room bewildered that my sister had not once yelled at me for leaving something where it did not belong, nor asked me to help her, nor shown any signs of hysteria before the guest’s arrival. I knew he was due to arrive around seven and so I emerged from my room at quarter to seven, only to find her sitting peacefully reading a book in an armchair in the living room. No new covers on the cushions, the table linen unchanged. My sister was neither short of breath nor anxious, making it obvious that she had not spent the past hour cleaning. The flat looked normal. And Bella, her face free of its usual caking of make-up, was neither framed within one of her eccentric hairdos nor wearing one of her usual black sacks with studs down the side.
‘Is the guest not coming, then?’ I asked, confused.
‘Yes, he’s coming in fifteen minutes. I’ll meet him in front of the building. He’s coming in a taxi. Did I not tell you he was blind?’
I shook my head.
‘Ah, well, he is. So we don’t need to dress up!’ said my sister and laughed out loud.
I was rather put out as I had spent some fifteen minutes dressing up and blow-drying my hair. I had no time to consider whether I would have done the same if I had known the guest was blind, for at that very moment my sister’s mobile-phone rang. When she saw who was calling, she leapt out of the armchair and said: ‘It’s him! He’s arriving fifteen minutes early! The cheek of it! Imagine I had to get dressed or put my make-up on!’
She slipped into some trainers and ran out through the front door. She was back a few seconds later, however, rushing into the toilet to apply some perfume. She advised me to do the same, as blind people have a heightened sense of smell. I obeyed and quickly sprayed myself with perfume. But I did so somewhat clumsily and when I returned to the living room it seemed to me I had gone a little over the top. I was immediately embarrassed by the thought that the guest might notice I had perfumed myself in order to create a good impression, and I also became very self-conscious regarding the quality of my scent and was suddenly convinced that the perfume was no good. I rushed into the toilet to wash it off with some soap. While I was doing that, Bella and Wolfgang arrived, so I missed the moment of his being ushered into the living room.
Wolfgang was already seated on the sofa, blinking and staring with a smile at the upper right corner of the living room. When I approached him, my sister introduced me in English.
‘Wolfgang, this is my sister Ada.’
Wolfgang stood and immediately clasped my outstretched hand as if he could see it and knew where it was. I was impressed by the sense blind people have of the objects around them.
‘Ada’s English is not terribly good,’ my sister explained, the first in a series of subtle insults.
‘I am sure that is not true,’ the blind man said in a heavy Austrian accent. Throughout dinner, he kept saying ‘foh shua’ as a positive comment in his conversation with my sister.
‘Ada is a retired historian,’ my sister continued in her introduction, leaving me no space to express myself, ‘She used to work for the National Historical Institute.’
‘Ach, zoh,’ said Wolfgang, staring at a spot on my right shoulder, nodding his head in confirmation. ‘Did you know Professor Jankovski?’ he asked me, accentuating the ‘o’.
‘Certainly, we were very close friends,’ I replied, curious to discover how Wolfgang knew the professor. My sister left to fetch some drinks and Wolfgang and I started chatting. By the time she returned, we had developed a discussion concerning our mutual acquaintances. The man’s knowledge of history was truly amazing, as was the fact that he knew so many people in my field. Bella sat down in an armchair and watched us with a deepening frown. Before long she began signalling me to stop talking to the guest: running her finger across her throat, making time-out signs, locking up her mouth with an invisible key. I went on, ignoring her until she addressed me in English in her false British accent: ‘Ada, darling, your zipper is undone.’ I blushed, first with anger and then with shame that my sister should embarrass us both in such a manner, and only just managed to mutter a confused ‘Thank you,’ and zip up my zipper that was indeed undone. As the sound of zipping up resounded in the unpleasant silence, Wolfgang’s mouth twitched at the corner.
My sister used this unpleasant moment to launch her conversation with Wolfgang. As they talked, I pierced her with deadly looks to distract her attention. After several minutes, she began signalling to me with her head that it was time for me to put an end to such behaviour. But I did not, and only intensified my scornful looks. She turned to me and voicelessly mouthed the word ‘ENOUGH!’. I attempted to retort in the same manner, ‘ENOUGH WHAT’?, but inadvertently released the words as a quiet whisper. Wolfgang went on speaking as if he had not heard a thing while my sister, making little confirmatory noises like ‘uh-huh’ and ‘mmm… ’, reached towards the shelf under the coffee table, pulled out a felt-tip pen and scrawled a message on a napkin:
CAREFUL! HIS HEARING IS EXCELLENT!
She handed me the napkin together with the felt-tip. I left them on the coffee table, blushing with fury and embarrassment. Bella continued talking to the guest as if nothing had happened. After a short while, he addressed me again and we picked up our conversation afresh, ignoring my sister. She then reached for the felt-tip and napkin again and wrote on the other side:
STOP BOTHERING HIM! HE’S VERY IMPORTANT TO ME!
Before handing me back the napkin, she said, ‘Ada, do take this napkin to wipe yourself, you’ve left a smudge just there next to your mouth.’ Then she used my confused pause to resume her conversation with Wolfgang while I, reaching the peak of irritation, wrote at the bottom of the same napkin
GO FUCK YOURSELF
and placed it back triumphantly on the coffee-table for her to see. But my sister stubbornly ignored both the napkin and me, and turned her attention completely
on the guest. Covered in sweat with anger, I headed towards the dining room to lay the table. As soon as I approached the china cabinet, my sister’s sixth sense was activated and she apologized to the guest for interrupting in order to call out: ‘Ada, dear, don’t bother with the table. I’ll lay it.’
‘There’s no need, dear sister,’ I said, secretly hoping that the guest would pick up on the irony, ‘You just continue talking while I lay the table.’
By my sister would not surrender where her precious dinner service was concerned. She reminded the guest that dinner was getting cold and, without leaving him an opportunity to finish his tea, dragged him to the dining-room and seated him with almost violent forcefulness at the dining table. The moment I opened the cabinet containing her valuable dinner service, meanwhile, she started waving with her arms and silently yelling ‘No! No!’, somehow still managing to calm herself down sufficiently to resume her conversation with the guest. Having ordered me to sit down and ‘not bother with the dinner’, she opened the cupboard where the everyday plates and glasses are kept and cold-bloodedly laid them on the table, all the time avoiding my eyes. I was even more baffled when she pulled open the drawer where we keep our everyday forks, spoons and knives, though she was careful not to take out those with plastic handles. She also took care to provide the guest with the best napkins, though she gave herself and me the cheap ones. She didn’t notice Wolfgang passing his right hand over the surface and rim of his plate. With the tips of his fingers he then stroked the knife and fork whose handles were engraved with flowery patterns. As he did so he went on nodding his head to signal that he was listening to what I was saying.
Soon Bella finished laying the table and we started the dinner. Wolfgang’s sense of smell was truly excellent and he guessed correctly what food was on the table. My sister politely asked him whether he would allow her to serve some food on his plate. Only when we had started eating did my sister finally turn her head towards me, but when I looked back at her reproachfully for the unrefined dinner service, she immediately averted her gaze, looking first at her food and then at Wolfgang.
Wolfgang tried hard to avoid any appearance of struggling with the food, but I am sure he did not always know exactly what he was picking up with his fork and that each bite contained an element of surprise for him. I tried not to look at him so as not to make him feel awkward, but when he picked up an olive-stone on his fork from the olive he had previously eaten, I almost shouted out to warn him. I restrained myself at the last moment in order not to make him feel berated or pitied, but it made my flesh creep to see his jaws closing over the stone and to hear the muffled cracking sound in his mouth. This did not discourage Wolfgang in the slightest, however, and he continued talking and nodding his head as if nothing had happened. My sister and I exchanged a look of mutual understanding—one of very few.
Bella and I spent the rest of the evening exchanging a different type of glance, mostly filled with impatience and rebuke. We also exchanged a number of napkins whenever one of us stubbornly refused to look at the other and ignored her gesticulations.
STOP TALKING SO MUCH!
was one of the more interesting ones, as was its swift retort
In such a manner we somehow made it to the end of the dinner. Bella did manage to milk a few names in Austrian music from Wolfgang, as well as some offers of references for possible stipends, while I managed to steal Wolfgang from my sister several times and strike up a conversation about the people he knew in my profession. At last, my sister saw Wolfgang to his taxi. When she returned I was waiting in the armchair, ready to argue.
‘You really are a master in making a spectacle,’ I reproached her at once.
My sister was too tired to take me up, and so was I.
‘Come on! Relax a little!’ she said, and locked herself up in her room. This infuriated me even further. By not giving me a chance to have an argument with her she was placing herself above me. I turned on the television loudly to annoy her, but even this failed to goad her out of her room. After a while I surrendered to fatigue and fell asleep.
Several months after this event, my sister informed me that Wolfgang was to visit us again. This time she didn’t ask me to make anything, not even a salad. Out of spite, I offered her my help, knowing that she wanted to be rid of me in order to charm Wolfgang without interruption.
‘Are you going to feed him out of a bucket again and greet him wearing a bin-liner?’
My sister did not rise to this provocation, which again irritated me greatly. That is probably why she didn’t tell me that he would be coming this time with his twelve-year-old son, about whom we had heard that he was a painting wunderkind. I misinterpreted her dressing up and applying make-up as remorse for her previous behaviour, but when Wolfgang and Hubert rang the doorbell I saw immediately that I had been wrong.
Hubert was a quiet child who was constantly scribbling something or other. We gave him some blank paper, pencils and pens, and while we were talking he drew our portraits, though he fearfully hid the sheets of paper beneath each other, refusing to let us so much as glance at what he had drawn.
‘He’s a little shy, but very talented’, his father explained.
Hubert merely blinked fast with his enormous brown eyes behind the thick lenses of his glasses. As the lenses of his spectacles were like magnifying glass, I was able to notice that when he blinked he closed his left eye first and immediately after, his right eye. Despite this, he observed us intensely, as well as everything else around him, most probably in order to sketch all he observed on his sheets of paper.
This time Bella laid the table as she did for her other guests, producing her expensive china, crystal and silver from the special cabinet. Even the table linen and the cushion covers were changed. I could feel my mouth and nose twisting in scorn at my sister’s action this time. But my attention was distracted by Wolfgang, who was saying something reproachful to his son for the first time.
‘Hubert! Sit up properly!’ he said, looking somewhere between my sister and me towards the bookshelves in the living room. Hubert sat beside his father, but their bodies were not touching. On receiving his father’s rebuke, the child flinched and straightened up.
‘Take your elbows off the table!’ Wolfgang added. Hubert removed his elbows silently and cast his eyes down to his lap.
My sister and I exchanged our first worried look of the evening. The second followed shortly after as Wolfgang, just as he had done on the previous occasion, traced his fingers across his plate and the handles of the knife and fork, and announced: ‘A very nice dinner service.’
Our third worried look came when Wolfgang started describing the great time which he, his wife, and Hubert had enjoyed in Rome the previous month. ‘Rome is the most beautiful city. The Forum is truly magnificent, but the Coliseum…!’ Wolfgang exclaimed, thrilled, looking up, blinking, and placing his hand on his chest, ‘That is truly a grand beauty. Don’t let me start on the artworks!’ he sighed romantically.
I began to wonder whether Wolfgang might not be one of those almost blind people whose vision was, let us say, only 80% impaired. But even with such eyesight he could not have experienced the Coliseum and the Forum in the way he described, and for some time I considered the probability of his having experienced them through smell and sound; but finally this did not seem logical at all. I was left with the possibility that his wife, or perhaps Hubert, had explained and captured for him the sights they could see in front of them; but even if this had been the case, I concluded, he would surely not be expressing such admiration as if he had seen those monuments himself.
After Wolfgang’s last comment, Bella and I stopped exchanging glances altogether. She grew pale. Small beads of sweat gathered above her upper lip. From time to time, she would nervously scratch her head. When Wolfgang said that it was time for him and Hubert to leave, I noticed her face suddenly regain its colour.
‘Well, I hope we shall meet again, here or in Austria,’ Wolfgang said to my sister as he embraced her. Looking at my left ear, he said ‘I’m glad we found some shared interests,’ and embraced me as well. On his father’s orders, Hubert reluctantly shook hands, first with me and then with Bella. Then he took his father’s arm and they started descending the stairs while Bella and I stood at the open front door seeing them off with our eyes. Then Wolfgang turned around, batted his eyelids like a butterfly, smiled, and said ‘You are very interesting little sisters.’
Bella shut the door and we both silently headed towards the living room. Hubert’s drawings lay on the coffee table. Both Bella and I reached for them at once, but I managed to get to them first. One by one I examined them in astonishment, passing them to my sister and wishing the child had never left them behind.
Drawings by Jana Jakimovska
Translated by Marija and Matt Jones