Blesok no. 40, January-February, 2005
Happy Birthday to You
I had yet to open my eyes. The eiderdown was sweltering and light; weights were chasing each other around in my head, as if I were picking up the pulses of my blood circulation. A dull ache had settled on the nape of my neck. If I opened my eyes, I knew I would feel dizzy. I tried to go back to sleep: an hour or two can be a bonus, sparing the first, most horrendous stage of sobering-up, when nothing is where it should be, when even the faintest spark of strength has gone, when every movement takes five times as much energy and concentration, and it’d be no surprise at all if, one of these days, at a time like this, the world were to split in two.
With the first move I made, to drink a glass of water perhaps and down an aspirin, a blast of cold air slipped under the bedclothes. I shuddered and shivered. Then a wave of heat surged through me, and I was drenched in sweat. I lifted the bedclothes a few times with my legs, the better to shiver and perspire, to sweat out the toxins. With each fresh wave of heat, I imagined the crumminess seeping out of me into the eiderdown, and when the bulk of that had made the transfer I would jump out from under the eiderdown.
I caught a whiff of a peculiar odour, a smell of musty whitewash and clothes; the floor radiated coldness.
We had been three days into celebrating my birthday; that’s how it’s been for years now, and if I can last this out, it really is like being born again.
I had left my apartment along with others on the first night; we were all wide awake, bar the odd lapse, and traipsing from one place on to the next. After the third day, the very idea of the smell of fish-soup that had been left in my kitchen was scary. Eventually I’d pull myself together somewhere, maybe here, and go back home. I couldn’t take any more; last night in the rain I was already starting to see tiny, iridescent pixies in the light of the street lamps.
After a while I felt a bit better and opened my eyes a fraction. It was still dark in the room; I could hear the sound of a car, the headlights sweeping stripes of brightness around the room through the gaps in the blinds. I did not budge. More and more cars came by: must be getting on for dawn, I thought to myself. I was lying a couple of yards from the window. My eyes were rheumy and stung; the stripes from the cars swam, as if there were a herd of zebra clattering around the walls. I’m used to living in a multistorey house, and you don’t often see that kind of thing there, I thought to myself, then right after that I thought where on earth I could be, another fine mess.
I was bracing myself to sit up and drink a glass of water when something flicked the back of my neck. As if I had dreamed it. I didn’t move a muscle. The slight weight of the something lingered on my neck. It was as though some creature were trying to enter my head, just at the point where the dull ache was throbbing. I gingerly drew back and turned over. I was lying in a twin bed, and there was somebody sleeping beside me; only the top of the head was showing, the hair spread in clumps on the pillow, and a long arm, the fingertips of which had slipped onto the nape of my neck.
I clambered out of bed. It was daybreak already, and it could have been no more than a few degrees above freezing in the room. I found my clothes at the foot of the bed and dressed, but I could not find my briefcase.
The place was unfamiliar but that did not surprise me; I was used to that sort of thing by now and merely thought to myself, another fine mess…
I went out of the room and in the kitchen drank some water and rinsed my face. From the kitchen window I was able to look out on a yard in which stood piles of dry, chopped-up trees and beside them a smallish fruit tree-cherry, perhaps. The sky was overcast and an autumn mist spilled down the bole of the tree. I stepped out into the yard to take a breath of fresh air. A man greeted me from next door, and I returned the greeting.
I went into the house to look for my briefcase and push off home. It grew lighter whilst I was searching. The somebody in the bed stirred, pulled down the bedclothes from over its head, but did not open its eyes. An old man. He was champing, trying to swallow his spittle. My fear suddenly pervaded the whole house. I had no idea how I had come to be there, or who the old man I had slept next to might be. I attempted to retrieve the last image from my memory, but I could no longer put even a day on what I did remember.
With a great effort, the old chap twisted halfway round in the bed, and said something in a high-pitched voice, almost whistling and whining: »You’ve come?«
I didn’t know whether he was just talking to himself or I was also expected to answer. I felt diabolical. I dithered a bit longer on account of my briefcase before deciding that it didn’t matter, the main thing was to clear off. No sooner had I made up my mind, though, when a car drew up under the window and its headlights switched off. I started to sweat again in my clammy and stinking clothes. I was so jumpy that I trembled all over. It was too late now to make a bolt from the house. I have to hide, I thought to myself. But the whole house was made up by just two bare rooms; there was nowhere to go. I looked out of the window: it was not a police car. I calmed down a little at that, but the next instant there was a knock at the door. Having tidied my clothes and also my hair, there was nothing for it but to open the door. Good morning, said the man in yellow overalls, a doctor’s bag in one hand. Good morning, doctor, I replied, come in. How is the old fellow, he asked. Well…, I said, but without waiting for an answer the doctor went straight into the room and pulled a chair across to the bed. You came yesterday, he asked. Something like that, yes, I said, and started slowly to feel my way into the role, or rather it occurred to me that I might scrape through if I were to enter into the swim of it.
The doctor examined the motionless old man whilst I hung around in the doorway. He set the chair back in its place, packed up his bag, then on the way out paused by me in the doorway. I suppose you don’t want to have him admitted to hospital, he said, I’ve known him for thirty years and this is where he wants to die, in his own home. What’s wrong with him, I asked. The doctor stared ahead of him. His internal organs, he said, he needs a special operation. That would allow him to hold out a few more years, maybe even get him back on his feet. What do you think? I don’t know, I replied. My hands were ice-cold. The operation would cost a million and a half, he said. Well, what can I say, I replied. You know best, he said, placing a hand on my shoulder, then made to go but lingered in the doorway: try to get some food down him, grated vegetables or fruit, and fluid. Who took care of him up till now, I asked. I did, and I’ll look in again tomorrow, the doctor answered, and he departed. I heaved a sigh or two.
I turned towards the old man, who was puffing almost imperceptibly. It grew even brighter in the room. I searched through my pockets to see whether I had any money left on me: just a few tattered paper handkerchiefs. I rummaged through the drawers, the wardrobe and the dresser in the kitchen. I found no money, neither my briefcase, just a few utensils and a threadbare suit.
That’s enough of that, I thought, closing the front door after myself, then the garden gate, and set off down the muddy street. The occasional cyclists and pedestrians, having eyed one another, we nodded silent acknowledgements. It was even colder out in the street, with the wind going right through my clothes. I heard the sound of a bus around the corner and hurried my steps.
The names of two villages were displayed on the bus’s signboard, neither previously known to me. I did not board, having no money on me after all, though I did exchange glances with the driver for a few seconds before he closed the door. I could not have explained why, or even if I could, there was no way he was going to let me board without money. I gazed for a long time at the bus’s wobbling stern. Then I set off after it.
I contemplated ringing a doorbell and asking for some money, to be sent back later. I resolved to do that. I looked around: no one out on the street, then rang the bell on the wall of one of the larger houses. A dog scampered up to the fence and began mutely sniffing; it did not bark. No one came. I pressed again. The dog snorted. I waited another minute, but still nothing.
The fumes from the bus were still swirling around in the dank air. I carried on after it. I was overcome by hunger and thirst, and I was freezing. The road was on a gentle inclination, then after the incline swung round into a street market. I had already caught the smell of meat roasting from way off. In the market there were second-hand clothes and food for sale: loads of fruit and greens, and fresh-fry stalls. I searched through my pockets yet again, then thought to myself it was a pity I didn’t have a wristwatch, I could get a thousand for it now. By one of the second-hand clothes stalls the idea of selling my jacket flitted across my mind, but just beforehand I had buttoned it up to the neck so as not to freeze. I was simply loitering, but then it occurred to me that if I was going to steal anything, I would have to be snappy about it, before I became conspicuous.
I half unbuttoned my jacket and made my way along the row of stallkeepers like someone who had business there. On one trestle stood piles of carrots and apples; the vendor was deep in discussion with her neighbour, before whose stall there was a small queue of customers for eggs. I lifted a few grubby carrots and apples, whisked them under my jacket, buttoned it back up, and dodged past the queue.
The icy-cold carrots and apples pressed on my stomach; my hands were so cold they had lost aIl sensation. If I were to leave the village, I would freeze, so I had to stay there, and I longed, with every fibre in my body, to get myself under cover. Without much further ado, I set off back towards the old man’s house.
It was strange how much at home I felt moving around that unfamiliar place. I let myself in, dumped the stuff from my jacket in the kitchen then looked in on the old chap; he was lying there just as before, but as I stepped closer my nose was assailed by the stench. He had shit himself and wetted the bed. I dithered for a while: this was unbearable, it had quite taken my appetite away. I thought the whole thing over afresh; my head was clear by now.
I chopped up some kindling in the yard, lit a fire in the kitchen range, put on water to heat up. Within minutes warm air was wafting through the kitchen, so I opened the connecting door to the other room. Having washed in the hot water, I felt a great deal better. I turned the old man over onto my bed, wiped his arse, yanked the soiled sheet off his bed, shoved it into a bowl of steaming, soapy water, laid my own sheet under the old chap, then aired the room. Only at this point did I pause for a moment: how come the beds had been made for two? No matter, maybe it was the doctor, I thought to myself.
The walls soon warmed through, and I took the soiled sheet in the bowl of water out into the yard. I inspected my hands, and it struck me, for no particular reason, what a lot of things they had handled already. I rinsed the carrots and apples, pealed them, and chopped them up onto a plate for the old man.
I sat him up in the bed; he did not open his eyes, though from time to time there was a flash of the whites of the eyeballs, but I could only get a few morsels down him, and three sips of water. He swallowed mechanically; I had to hold his head tight so he would not choke, and told him in a loud voice what to do: Swallow! Chew! Sip!
I went back into the kitchen and slumped onto the chair; I was exhausted. I slowly nibbled up the carrots and apples, stoked the fire, took my jacket off, then tried to gather my wits in order to work out how I was going to get home. I was not going to set off that day – that I was sure of. And I also thought to myself that anyway the doctor would be coming the next morning, maybe I could trust him, tell him everything, scrounge some money, and clear off.
The old man was sleeping peacefully in the bed; he was warm enough to have pulled the bedclothes lower down off himself. I perched on the side of the bed, and all I could think of was that time should roll on and the doctor come as soon as possible. My eyelids were drooping, and I thought to myself that I could do with a spot of shut-eye, so I cautiously snuggled back next to the old man.
It must have been after noon when I woke, but I was no longer alarmed; I was partly reconciled to my position in that I had managed to gain some control over things and I had a plan for deliverance.
Dusk was drawing in; the fire had burned down to embers, so I went out to chop wood. The dull axe blade had trouble splitting the thick logs, and in the gloom I was fumbling in the earth in the hope of finding something on which to whet it when my hand came to a halt. I sensed that someone was watching me. I raised my head. A shadowy figure was standing behind the garden gate. I tried to make it out in the twilight. Blow it, I thought to myself, I’ve overplayed my hand and come unstuck. Tossing the axe to the ground, I went over to the gate. After a few paces I could see that it was a woman, her oval face glistening in the light that was filtering out from the kitchen window. Good evening, I said. Good evening, she replied. May I come in, she asked. Of course, and I opened the gate.
In the kitchen I offered her a seat then went to fetch another chair from the next room. She was mopping eyes alarmingly red from weeping. At first I thought she must be the old man’s daughter, but because she did not seem to want to see him, and did not even ask after him, I quickly dismissed that notion and trusted I would be able to carry on coolly playing the role of the son – at least until the morning.
The woman could hardly have been over forty, and if one discounted the eyes swollen and a mouth-line puffed-up from crying, I would go as far as to say she was pretty. She began by saying she didn’t even know where to begin. I listened to her for about an hour as it meanwhile grew quite dark.
She was in a big jam: everyone in the village looked on her as a city tart, because she was pretty, and round there they hated outsiders; they were all supposed to marry someone from that village or, at worst, the next one over. Her husband drank like a fish; he had plenty of money, farming a few hundred hectares with his workers, but he now did little else except hit the bottle. She could not leave him, because he would go after her and kill her, he had promised as much; either that or her husband’s brothers would kill her, for what difference that made. She did not have the nerve to kill herself, and since I too was a stranger there, maybe I would understand.
I clutched my head in my hands. Somehow I felt unable to trot out that if only she would give me some money, I would not be seen for dust. That was clearly not going to solve the problem for her.
Come with me: bring some money from home, and we’ll make ourselves scarce, I said. It’s impossible, because they’lI be after me, she replied, and from the way she said it I too sensed that it was too big a price to pay for my liberty, I ought not to take it upon myself.
We fell silent; she stopped crying. I did my best to help: what if she were to kill him, I said. That’s impossible, I’ve already thought of that, it would be the end of me, she said. But maybe if you were to do it. My expression froze totally at that. Oh no, I responded, not that. I would pay you; he keeps loads of money at home, a million or so. I said nothing for a while. I can’t do anything like that…, I said. He’s pegged out at home, out of his skull even as we speak. Come with me, please, I beg you, help me. She stood up, opened the door wide, and waited for me to go with her.
I didn’t have the heart to leave the wretched woman to her own devices; I thought to myself, if I were to go and have a looksee, she might calm down, at least until tomorrow. I grabbed my jacket, and off we went.
Her husband was pegged out in the front room, his arms dangling from the settee, his mouth wide open. The woman studied me curiously to see what I would come up with. She glanced from me to the fat, dead-drunk pig to whom she had pledged her tooth…
And what if it were made to look like suicide, I whispered. I don’t know; I don’t know anything about that sort of thing, I’m all mixed up, she said. One could torch the house on him, let’s say, I said, and I began spilling out ideas, each better than the last, but with a callousness that even I found surprising, as if I were just tossing them around in a brainstorming session. Torch the house on him, I said. Or bury him in the garden. That’s not suicide, the woman said. True, I replied. Or stick him into his car and trundle it into a lake. There is a lake here, the woman said, just over a mile outside the village. Then what are you waiting for, I asked. Help me, she pleaded.
We went out into the garage, inspected the car, and I showed her how to set the accelerator, the gear and the clutch. But you have to do it, I said.
The car had not been used for years, the tyres were flat. I snatched the pump down from the wall, and though my head was reeling from it all, did not waste a moment. When I had finished on the first wheel the woman gently grasped my neck and stroked my face. No, I said, I told you you have to carry it through. She vanished whilst I was pumping the next tyre, and all at once it had come down to me: there was I, pumping up the tyres of the car of a total stranger, in a completely unknown place that I had no idea how I had fetched up in, with the old chap croaking back there, whilst here I was helping to send a lousy creep to his maker. I’ll scarper before the woman gets back, I thought to myself. Except there was nowhere to scarper to; it was bitingly cold outside, and the fog was closing in, and she would follow me to the old man’s house.
By the time the woman had returned, I had filled all the tyres. In her hand was a bundle of money, which she stuffed into my jacket pocket. Eight hundred grand, she said. For fuck’s sake, I yelled, get it through your head: No! The woman pulled down the garage door. Pipe down, they can hear you. Afterwards you can do with me whatever you want, she said. Oh no, not that, I said in a more hushed voice, but the anger was undiminished, and I sensed the anger was somehow alleviating my hangover. If I do whatever I want with you, that would leave you exactly where you were to begin with, I said. That rat also did whatever he wanted with you. The woman flinched, momentarily lost for words, then still managed to come back: But you’re different.
I did not answer. I took the woman by the hand and we went back into the front room, grabbed hold of her husband, lugged him to the car, and stowed him on the back seat. From here on in it’s up to you, I said, and with that left her there.
The old fellow was still lying peacefully on the bed, puffing faintly. I paced up and down. It suddenly occurred to me: the money. There it was in my pocket. Eight hundred thousand, I counted it out.
It was well into the night by now; outside all was still, the sky had cleared, and the temperature had sunk below freezing. I tossed a few more billets on the fire, got out the money, plonked down seven hundred thousand next to the old man, on the chair that the doctor had used. I stuffed the remaining hundred thousand in my pocket, then started off on my way.
On getting out of the village, I started to jog to warm myself up. Every now and then I glanced back, so that if a car were coming I would have time to stop and thumb a lift. Nothing came, but after half a mile or so I grew weary, though I had warmed up. Then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of headlights on the road behind me, and my shadow was thrown a hundred yards ahead of me.
The car drew up alongside and the door on the passenger side opened. The woman was behind the wheel, with her husband in the back, just as we had stowed him. Come on, give me a hand; I don’t know what to do with him on my own, she gestured behind her. Leave me out of it, I said, so it beats me how, just a couple of seconds later, I came to be sitting in the car.
We turned off the road towards the lake; the sky was glittering darkly on its surface. The car stopped in the wooded part of the reservoir, where a long slope led down through the banking to the water. With considerable difficulty, we heaved the man into the driver’s seat and belted him in. The woman started the engine and set it in gear, whilst I fixed the accelerator pedal to slightly more than idling and wedged the clutch to the seat with a stick which could be yanked away through the rolled-down wing-window with a length of twine.
All set, I asked the woman. All set, she replied. I pressed the twine into her hand and she yanked it without giving it a moment’s thought. The car slowly trundled towards the lake. Then all at once the woman started racing after it. Fuck it, she shouted, I left my house key inside. She ripped the door open and clambered in: in the dark, I couldn’t see what she was doing. The car was picking up speed all the while, and by the time it had reached the edge of the lake it must have been doing about twenty. Get out, I shouted after her. Just before hitting the water the car thumped against a hillock on the right hand side and the door slammed to; I raced after it. Even in the water it kept going before submerging. I ran up and down the bank; the water was icy-cold. Come on now, come on, I urged the woman under my breath. The top of the car vanished completely under the water, the eddies swirled slowly outwards, and the lake again grew calm, with only the ripples surging towards the far bank to break its surface. One minute elapsed, then two. I could not bring myself to go in after her. On the contrary, I edged away step by step. On getting back to the road and setting off again in the dark, I thrust my hands in my pockets and had a feeling that somehow nothing had happened. And the further I went, the more I kept repeating that to myself: nothing, nothing at all. I don’t even know who they are.
It was still night when I reached the next village, or maybe it was a town. Two taxis were parked in the centre. I got into the first; a young lad was listening to the radio. They say the cold spell will let up tomorrow, he said. Good thing too, I responded, I’ve got a splitting head from this cold front. Where to, he asked. It’ll be a fair drive, and then I named the town, pressing fifty thousand into his palm. Fair enough, he said, and I felt relieved.
He said nothing until we had left the village. Only then did he ask: Husband coming home? And he guffawed. You got it, I said, on top of which I did two people in and saved someone’s life. The lad’s expression did not so much as flicker: that sort of thing happens round here, it’s a prosperous area, and fortunes easily change hands. But if you give me another hundred grand, I never saw you. I’ve only got fifty, I said, and pulled it out. Alright, he replied, then I’ll say I only saw half of you – from the back, let’s say. And he started to laugh his head off: a decent little caper at last. There was I thinking I would have to wait another week, he said. Though that one’s a dead cert. Right? Get smashed out of my skull with my mates. That’s when my birthday will be. Happy birthday to you, I said, and turned the radio up.
Translated by Tim Wilkinson