In the first news broadcast that the patients were brought in to watch so that they could find out what world they were living in, which was a colour broadcast, a novelty in those days, the President was shown in a field of wheat, inspecting an ear of wheat in the palm of his hand.
And his palm filled with bronze-coloured kernels.
The President was satisfied, but he called over one of the directors, the one with the blue helmet on his head, and told him that much better was also possible. The director acknowledged that that was right.
The man with the green helmet watched the exchange with interest and nodding his head he too acknowledged that that was right and that it was possible.
He went over to the man with the yellow helmet, who did not waste a moment’s thought and likewise said, yes, that was right.
Bread was at stake, and so everybody had to be satisfied.
The patients watched the scene with interest.
One of them, Susanu, who had once been an agricultural engineer, and subsequently an activist responsible for agricultural matters in one of the capital’s principal districts, acknowledged that the variety of wheat, an ear of which the President had rubbed in his palm, was called the Gruia variety and that it was drought-resistant, much more so even than the Glossa variety.
A patient whose name was Gruia Condurache retorted that it was not possible for there to be a variety of wheat called Gruia, because it was a name that could only be applied to a person. Or to a dog. But to give a plant that name seemed stupid to him.
Nurse Badalau demanded silence.
Patient Bogdan Atitei saw fit to take the side of Gruia Condurache, who occupied the bed next to his. No, he did not believe that there was a variety of wheat called Gruia. I mean, if we go by the same logic, we could have Bogdan apples, Vasile pears, Maria radishes, Elena beetroot, and Nicolae beans or cabbage. And then where would we end up?
Engineer Susanu saw fit to remark that he did not waste time talking to idiots.
Dr Marcea, the physician on duty, was summoned, having remained in his office, solving crossword puzzles. He was so distrait, so bored, that he could not solve even a single clue.
When he entered the clubroom, which was also the meeting room, where the unit’s only television was kept, the entire attention of those within was directed at the doctor. In such situations, he was the boss.
One explained to him that there was no way wheat could be called Gruia, another explained that he was Gruia and that the name could be used of a man, or a dog at the most, while engineer Susanu explained that he was prepared to talk to madmen, but not to idiots.
Dr Macea shouted for silence, but his voice did not help him very much. Then he asked nurse Badalau what had happened.
On the television the chorus to “At the Three Pines Cabana” was playing hypnotically, as the background music to a National Tourist Office advertisement.
Nurse Badalau tried to explain that the President had been rubbing an ear of wheat in his palm and that engineer Susanu had said the variety was called Gruia...
“And is it called Gruia?” asked Dr Macea.
“How the hell should I know,” replied the nurse.
“Yes, it is, it is called Gruia,” swiftly interjected engineer Susanu.
“But if it is a kind of wheat, why is it called Gruia?” interposed patient Victor Matau, who had not been paying close attention at the beginning of the argument.
Susanu planted himself in front of him, not necessarily in an aggressive way, but rather in his eagerness to show off his agricultural knowledge, as a former activist in the field.
Meanwhile, on the television the tune had come to an end and now the President was visiting a plant that manufactured bicycle tyres. He was now fingering a valve.
Victor Matau wanted to see what a Romanian bicycle inner-tube valve looked like, and so he pushed engineer Susanu to one side, since he was blocking the screen.
Susanu stepped back in front of him. His lips were trembling; he had turned red in the face. It was as if he were about to have a fit.
Matau smacked the engineer across the face, causing his chops to jiggle, as if released from their reins. He was left mouth agape. A dribble of blood trickled from his upper lip onto his teeth.
Nurse Badalau thrust himself between them and received a punch from Matau.
Badalau’s yell induced hysteria among the whole of the company.
It was not very clear who was fighting whom. Rather, it was a general fray.
At times it was as if the idea of two different camps began to take shape, one centred on nurse Badalau, the other led by Victor Matau.
In effect, the idea of order, represented by the hospital employee, was battling the anarchy unleashed by Victor Matau.
Somebody, perhaps Dr Macea, was inspired to turn the volume of the television up full blast, and in that moment the President himself spoke:
“Dear comrades and friends, I find here an atmosphere of labour and understanding that is the guarantee of future successes. Only united in this way will we reach the summits of progress towards which the working class has set off, in brotherhood with the working peasantry. I wish you success. To work, comrades!”
An embarrassed silence fell.
The television was blaring; meanwhile, an advertisement invited one to consume ocean fish.
Dr Macea unplugged the television set.
“The hell with you and your television news! That’s the last thing these lunatics needed! Let that brainbox Jana come and have a look at what he’s caused!”
The company had quieted down, the only one still standing to the fore, in a barely perceptible fighting stance, was Victor Matau. He was glowering from beneath his black, bushy eyebrows. He had the mien of a bull waiting for the toreador to pick himself off the ground.
Victor Matau had been a boss in the economic militia. A hard man. But after a monstrous bender – he no longer remembered with whom – in the morning he had been found in the lap of a stone statue in the centre of town, which represented a pregnant woman holding a loaf of bread. Major Matau was perched on the loaf of bread, three metres above the ground, with his cap aslant, snoring at the top of his lungs. Moreover, he had a drooping accordion slung over his shoulder, which kept letting slip a note here and there, like a rebellious fart, whenever the ad hoc accordionist moved his arm or his leg slipped. About two hours later they brought him down, with the help of some firemen using a special ladder, after they had, with difficulty, woken him up.
He couldn’t remember anything. How had he climbed up there? It was a mystery, because even if you had been sober, you would have needed a sturdy ladder. And where had he got the accordion? He had no idea. And nor did he have any idea how to play the accordion; he had never tried it in his life. Moreover, at noon a complaint was filed with the militia regarding the theft of an accordion from a wedding party the night before.
Major Matau swore that he had never seen any bride, groom or musician the night before, although a number of people were found who testified that he had made a wager with another drunk that he would steal the bride, as was the local custom, and since he had not been able to, he had contented himself with stealing the accordion.
That he had clambered up the belly of the stone woman, that he had straddled the boulder-like loaf of bread, might have been overlooked, but that he had stolen the accordion was unforgivable. And so poor Matau found himself cornered.
The citizens who had seen Matau in the stone woman’s lap, straddling the loaf of bread, spread the tale. A few had even managed to take photographs.
Matau had been urgently summoned to his boss, Colonel Danau.
First he wept. Then he explained that for some time he had been suffering from amnesia, probably to blame was the fact that he was an orphan, his mother had always hit him on the head, he had been unhappy in his youth, when he had to work at a furniture factory to earn a crust. He had had a hard, hard life.
Danau woke him to reality, ordering that he stand to attention.
Matau sucked in his belly and straightened his back, in almost regulation fashion, making the reflex action of looking to his right, to check he was in line with what would have been the man next to him, the way he was taught at officers’ school.
“How the hell did you get up there, major? Only the devil himself could have hoisted you up into that woman’s lap!”
Matau attempted a fantastical explanation and told Colonel Danau that he had probably been lifted up by some paranormal force, maybe even a U.F.O., because without a ladder he could not have got up there, maybe it was the devil who was behind it, because he didn’t have much truck with God, but as for the devil, sure...
Colonel Danau clasped his face between his hands, looking at the individual in front of him, eyes blinking in amazement: was the individual trying to fool him? Or was he quite simply insane?
“Major, I’m demoting you. You should realise that I am demoting you. By my own hand, I am demoting you, the devil take you and all your lies!”
Here, Matau began to weep once more. Then his weeping turned into a whine. It was a pitiful whine, like that of a cat with its tail caught in the door.
Colonel Danau took two steps back, gazing at Matau, who was jerking his neck inside his overly large collar, as if trying to escape from a leash. And because he was unable to escape from that leash, he began to bark. He was weeping and barking.
He was taken to the hospital and admitted to a ward with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He kept barking until they managed to numb him with some injections.
The next day he was better, he had calmed down, he no longer barked, but he wept and refused to open his eyes. His wife visited him and she also wept, holding him by the hand.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” she asked him. “Why don’t you open your eyes?”
“I’m not ashamed,” he said, “but I am afraid.”
“Why are you afraid?” she asked.
Here, he began to recount the night when he was torn away from his comrades, with whom he had been sitting in a booth in a restaurant somewhere, eating a steak and drinking wine, like responsible people, when all of a sudden he had felt the earth give way beneath his feet. Four individuals wearing silver helmets and with traffic lights instead of faces had grabbed him by the armpits and lifted him as easily as a snowflake, then they had sprouted rotor blades from their backs and started to rise above the ground, they had carried him over the city for a few minutes or a few hours, he could not be sure, from up on high he had even seen their house and her parents’ block of flats, and then those individuals had laid him in the lap of that monstrous stone woman and inserted a probe into his brain, through which they had extracted every item of secret and non-secret information, whether intimate or not, and then they had left him there like a rag, buzzing away, one of them carrying a kind of vial containing the information extracted from his head. And they flew off, far away.
The woman looked at him wide-eyed with fear.
“What about the accordion?” she asked.
“Well, they hung the accordion from me just to confuse people...”
The Matau case had to be solved, but Danau did not know how. Should he put him in a punishment brigade or in a mental hospital?
He chose the second option, out of respect for the military uniform.
He was sent to Glod.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth