On the morning of 15 January 2011 and after Ben Ali fled Tunisia (“Ben Ali Degage,” wrote a Tunisian on an A4 sheet of paper which he held up to his chest, like the people you see waiting for strangers at the airport) and in a Stuttgart laboratory Ingrid Gleim discovered the devastating effect of excessive doses of vitamin A on lung cancer patients, Sebastian Davidescu emerged from housing block B68, the second entrance from the boulevard. Suffering a slight headache, he picked his way between the cars parked on the pavement and came to a stop in front of the bookshop on the ground floor of the block. The sky was dark and the streets were filthy, but that is how winter mornings look in the Ghencea district just after eight o’clock if it is not exactly icy, but wet. It was as if grey mildewed walls were looming from behind the Ghencea Stadium and an atmosphere like that of a chilly bathroom wafted throughout the city. He pulled his scarf up over his chin and caught a reek of tobacco in his nostrils. The tram rails were emitting that sharp noise of theirs, like clashing knives. The old women who had arrived to peddle bottles of borscht and pickles at the side of the road were standing in silence, their hands concealed inside large shawls and from a distance, you might have thought they were small heaps of black earth.
A few metres away from Sebastian, water was dripping from an upper-storey balcony. A man passed from behind him, said something, and, peering up, avoided the drip by walking over what had once been a patch of grass, where two stray dogs were sleeping on the warm manhole covers. Regaining the pavement, he stamped his feet, trying to shake the mud off his boots, and peered up once more.
In the meantime, Sebastian had forgotten the photographs of Ben Ali in his youth, his violet necktie, so violet that the only thing that lodged in your mind was that dictator Ben Ali had a very, very loud necktie, which on the necktie’s part was somehow disrespectful towards the dictator’s power and prestige. Might his necktie have been able to get a rôle in those Kodak adverts from the nineties? Sebastian had wondered as he sat on the toilet with his laptop perched on his knees, taking occasional sips from a cup of tea. It was milk thistle and dandelion, a gentle blend that ought to have sent the message to his liver that whatever happened, there was still someone up there who loved it very much, who was thinking of it with hypochondriacal affection.
That morning he did not say hello to the seller of cold bagels – an elderly man who walked back and forth with a plastic crate covered in cellophane, invariably wearing a yellowish smock over his coat, which drew even more attention to his lack of hygiene and augmented the feeling of something makeshift. Sebastian’s conclusion sounded something like this: it’s not dirt, but a lack of hygiene, and that only because he wanted to appear hygienic. The vendor was not in the vicinity, you could not hear him praising his wares in a booming voice. He looked up and down the street, but couldn’t see him. He could not remember how he had come to begin saying hello to him, whether it had been a year or two years ago, but what was for sure was that at one point he said hello and had been doing so ever since.
In the large windows of the bookshop, other people’s ordinary mornings were flowing past at an even speed and could somehow be watched from the side lines. He needed to take short breaks from the convoy of buses in which living people travelled towards the future – as he had once imagined mankind as a whole, during a school trip – spending a few minutes at the edge of the road, gazing elsewhere. Yes, he was one of those people who got sick on the bus, because of the stale rubber smell of the window seals, the ancient dust in the curtains, the air that was always saturated with diesel fumes and exhaust smoke.
Half an hour earlier he had made another trip down from his flat, except that that time he had gone out of the back door to the block, where the car parking spaces were and the children’s play area, which had also been turned into car parking spaces, and where Mr Gherghescu sometimes swore loudly so that all the neighbours would know that somebody had double parked, blocking his car, or stolen his parking space. He had taken Pip outside to do his business – Pip was the Doberman with the elegant run and the eyes of a haughty conductor – and the same as on many other mornings, he had bumped into Mrs Oprea. Mrs Oprea had blue eyes, faded by old age, over which was laid what looked like onionskin, something which, thought Sebastian, might nonetheless be surgically removed. The woman was coming towards him, taking a deep breath ready for a long sentence or a screech. She was the widow of reserve Colonel Oprea and she was around seventy years of age; one day she would be wearing her false teeth, the next day she would not, according to a custom whose logic Sebastian had not been able to unravel. Many a time she had accompanied him along the neighbourhood alleys or to the park at the end of May Day Street. She was now returning from a walk with her cocker spaniel, Bruno, an old and finicky dog. Bruno was obese and had all kinds of medical problems, from kidneys that only functioned at half-capacity or intermittently to an ear infection that seemed immortal. The dog’s tongue was lolling out and, as usual, he was devoid of enthusiasm – he gave Sebastian the feeling that he was lugging himself around on his own back. But nonetheless, at odds with his old age and numerous afflictions, Bruno seemed, thought Sebastian, to resemble an embarrassed teenager, put in the awkward position of having to go for a walk with his parents. Bruno rarely obeyed a command and more often than not looked in the opposite direction when Mrs Oprea addressed him. Wearing a pair of tracksuit bottoms and an anorak, a sartorial decline that had been noticeable in the colonel’s widow for a few months, the woman came to a stop in front of Sebastian, with Bruno alongside, who did not bother to look at Pip, and releasing the air from her lungs she said in an almost accusing voice:
“Mr Davidescu, do you not think that there has been a very strange smell in the lift for the last few days?”
To judge by the woman’s tone and demeanour, Sebastian was guilty of withholding information about the smell in the lift at the very least. Why had Sebastian not taken a stand, why had he not confessed? Why did she need to put her foot in the door in order for anything to get done in that building?
Sigh. It was one of Mrs Oprea’s trick questions, since two possibilities opened up: either she was using the word “strange” to refer to that smell in order to talk about a situation that was only now becoming normal, as you might say of a house that had been filthy but which had at last been cleaned, or it was a “strange” smell in the sense that the smell had no business being in the lift and, in addition, was offensive. Why was it a trick question? Because, let us say, there was also the possibility that Mrs Oprea, in a pro-active civic outburst, may have washed the lift, aired it, God knows what, sprayed deodorant inside it, as he had heard she had done once before. And now, thought Sebastian, “strange” meant precisely the new situation. And so his reaction had to be vague, it had to tend in both the one direction and the other. For example, Mrs Oprea had once bought three huge plastic rubbish bins for the hall in the entrance of the building. Similarly, asking Sebastian about them, she had lured him onto slippery ground. Sebastian did not know whether it was a question of somebody wasting money (as Mrs Oprea might have flung back in his face, saying that the old cardboard boxes were just as good, if not better, since they were more capacious) or a gesture that ought to be appreciated. But apart from all that, the thing was that Sebastian always agreed with Mrs Oprea, except that sometimes he did not understand exactly what he had to be agreeing with.
“You know, that’s what it seemed like to me, but I said to myself –” Sebastian barked as loudly as Mrs Oprea, as if he had spent days searching in that wilderness for another human being with whom he could confess, unburden himself of what he had discovered.
“I was certain of it, absolutely certain! My nose never deceives me. It’s a smell of cheap perfume, isn’t it?”
“Incredible, yes... Now I understand what it’s all about.”
“Ha! My nose never deceives me.”
And repeating it a number of times, as if emphasising the moral dimension of her nose’s personality and the loyalty it demonstrated, Mrs Oprea gave a sharp tug on the leash, setting the dog in motion with difficulty. Amused, Sebastian watched as she walked away. The woman raised her hand and began to wave it in the air, a gesture difficult to compare with anything known. Quite simply, she was waving her hand at random, and then, from the end of the alley, was heard:
“I know, I know that cheap smell!”
But why was Mrs Oprea setting off for another walk?
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth