Leaving 23 August Park by a hole the lads had made in the wire mesh fence that was higher than my head and which was clad in a blanket of leaves, I would emerge on Major Coravu, the main road, with its two lanes of traffic separated by splotches of green planted with flowers, which I would cross at a run, always darting a hopeful glance at the stadium, where he had never taken me, and then I would turn off onto another street, at a right angle to the main road, carry on running, soaked to the skin, holding my bag full of small fry, until all out of breath I reached Vatra Luminoasă, the district where the blind people lived, although I’d never seen them, but only the traffic signs that depicted them as extra-terrestrials, just like the ones in the serial broadcast from Bulgaria at the time, The Invaders, which evaporated when you shot them, just like the water from my drying skin. It was always summer. It is as if I never went to Vatra Luminoasă in wintertime, although I know that’s not possible, just as I know that Children’s World was not always blanketed in the snow I see now in this black-and-white photograph, in which I’m standing next to Mama and a sheet-metal Puss-in-Boots. On Strada Stoian Militaru, on Saturdays, when I used to come home from school at twelve o’clock, it would always be raining or it would have just stopped raining, and from the direction of the trees that bordered the pavement, whose roots had wrestled the tarmac until they managed to break through to the fresh air, armies of huge earthworms would be advancing, like coiled snakes, forcing you to do a slalom among them.
So, I would run down Strada Rușchița until I arrived in Vatra Luminoasă, with its missing blind people, then I would turn off onto a cobbled lane (you used to tell me that cobblestones were good for car tyres, but other people, like Bébé Conman, explained to me how they ruined a car’s wheel hubs), until I reached the two-storey house with the wrought iron gate, above which always rose the slender stem of a magnolia in bloom, from which I would snap off a bud for you. And every time I opened the heavy door—a sheet of thick glass clad in rusting but still black metal, with islets of old paint, an ancient, peeling green—my chest would be filled with the first smell, that of our first visit, a mixture of decay, flowers, and cellars, above which hovered overpoweringly the smell of frying. And I would start to hop, the way I did on my first visit, attempting to cross the tenebrous hall on one leg, stepping on either only black or only white tiles, keeping my eyes fixed on the door at the back, which gave onto the garden. The hall was a road built with the specific purpose of accustoming your eyes to the gloomof the garden with its vine arbour, from which, as I remember, hung bunches of grapes that were small but so sweetthat after I ate one the roof of my mouth would cease to notice the softly rancid reek of the old villa, as if their taste had required me to sign a mysterious compact with the old house and its secret smells. And having passed through the quarantine of the hall, when I stepped into the garden, Lulu would jump up and rest her forepaws on my chest, as white as a rabbit, always white, despite her rolling around on the freshly sprinkled soil, although she also had black spots, mainly on her belly, and when she leapt up to greet me she always looked like a whirlwind of black-white, black-white, black-white. After that she would run around and around the garden, a dance that was like a whoop of joy, with a human grin on her face, with her tongue lolling from the corner of her mouth, and with such a huge span between her front and rear paws that, at full speed, she looked like she was sweeping over the grass with her arched belly.
But this was to happen much later . . .
I can’t have been more than nine or ten when you decided to move in with us on Strada Olteniței, promising that eventually: “I’ll take you to Vatra Luminoasă, Little Man, but first I have to clean up the place, because it’s a complete mess.” I had begun to learn your favourite words, the cracked records through which you brought forth the world, stuffing it in your fat gut and, from that dark, dry place, vomiting it back up during drinking bouts that reeked of fermented grape juice and grilled sausages. Later, I was to realise that you arrived at a time when my world was immersed in silence and solitude, when I was hiding within that fragile, sickly couple I formed with Mama, like a pupa in a cocoon. You arrived with your gut drooping over the top of your cloth trousers, with your small shoes, like a dwarf’s, with your blond hair, slicked to one side, and above all with your laugh, with the jokes and the affection you were not coy about imparting to all and sundry, but particularly to me, making each of us feel uniquely special. I had never really experienced anything like it before. It was as if everybody around me was an actor in a silent film, and anything to do with the mysterious area of feelings and their expression had to be kept hidden in a dark cellar: dignity depended on discretion, and publicly displayed tenderness was for drunks and eccentrics. I realise now that I had never heard the words “I love you” from my maternal grandmother’s lips, or uttered by my paternal grandparents, with whom even little gestures of affection found no favour. The gestures were sooner indirect, allusive; it was the kind of attitude you find among peasants, people who can’t stomach such displays, the same as they can’t stomach having pets in the house. I knew that Granny loved me because the day before my arrival at the oblong house set perpendicular to Strada Ian Maiorescu, she would go hunting, as Uncle used to say, baring a glinting gold tooth beneath his black moustache; she would go hunting for “cutlery”, as that particular chicken delicacy was known at the time: hen’s claws and necks. After which she would cook the best soup in the world, the way she knew I liked it. She was a quarrelsome woman, who had kept her husband on a short leash. He had been a great smoker and drinker. When I was two, he fainted and fell down in the street, dying soon afterward and thereby gaining a halo in whose light all his little flaws faded away.
I remember that Mama gave me ideological induction before introducing me to you. She asked me what I thought of the prospect of a new father. She explained that a single mother found it hard to manage, particularly in a neighbourhood like ours, populated by gypsies who worked for the R.A.T.B., the communist state public transport system; that you were a good man and above all else you had lots of connections, which meant we would be guaranteed better and more plentiful food. The induction involved a number of phases: the first was in the park, with the ideological instructor being Mrs Colonel: “Marry him, dear, he’s got a god job, and the lad could do with a father,” and then came the famous trip to the beer garden in the Băneasa Forest; even now I can still hear the lions roaring from the other side of the woods, a sound that wafted from the zoo as if in a dream. What is certain is that it was summer. At the time, Mister Man seemed huge to me. His exuberance was huge, so too his way of adopting you as his own, when he sat down, seemingly on top of you, like a walrus, and so too his lack of squeamishness and the way he immediately put his arm around me, as if we had known each other all our lives. He was like a brass band without a conductor, but whose racket poured from the throat of just one man, a man as round as a beach ball, whose every joint popped and who frightened me like a torrential downpour coming out of the blue. It rained towards the end of that evening, too, when the three of us were hitch-hiking our way back because there weren’t any taxis; it was getting dark, and the roar of the lions had perhaps given way to the cry of the flamingos, cunning beasts swathed in pink feathers, skulking in the forest thickets. Before we set off hitch-hiking, paying the drivers with the apples you had bought at the restaurant, you played that trick on me, which I was to understand only thirty years later; you wooed me like a woman. Back then, I was an unusually thin child, with slender bones that were hollow, like a pigeon’s, and the whole family laboured to fatten me up: in the morning, they would start with fish oil imported from the U.S.S.R.: on the bottle there might have been a salmon wearing a striped sailor’s shirt, holding out a spoonful of the punitive liquid. Then came the chicken livers, guaranteed to fatten up an obstinant child, followed by the recipes suggested by one person or another (I remember the period when I tried the “cooked food for breakfast” diet and the torment that would commence after the second lesson at school, when I would be fit to burst from all the soup and potato stew crammed into my shrunken belly), and the gallons of milk procured by family members from the countryside at great sacrifice. I was their human experiment, who refused to put on weight and who now looks at me from a colour photograph taken at the seaside, in which you are holding me up by the armpits, like a stuffed exhibit from the Antipa Natural History Museum, or perhaps like some mummy brought to these parts, thanks to some miracle of history, on a galley that sank in a Black Sea tempest and which was conserved for thousands of years in the poisonous mud of the sea bottom. But to come back to his method of seduction: on the table had appeared as if by magic a platter with all kinds of foodstuffs that were rarities at the time, including the famous and much sought-after Sibiu salami. Needless to say, I was unimpressed by anything capable of entering my mouth, with the exception of air. I was entranced by your verbosity and I couldn’t understand why some of the things you said made Mama laugh out loud and blush in a way I had very rarely seen.
At one point, you winked at the woman you had bewitched and attempted a death-defying leap; you wagered everything on a pair of deuces:
“Here’s what we’ll do, Little Man: we’ll make a bet. I bet you won’t dare to stuff a slice of salami in your mouth and then kiss me on the cheek and run away and hide wherever you like Then we’ll come looking for you.”
I took a slice of salami, stuffed it in my mouth, ran over to you, threw my arms around you, quickly kissed you on the cheek, and darted behind the nearest trees, where I took my revenge (for the kiss?) by spitting out the hard, salty, peppery meat. I could hear the two of you laughing, and I stood there, wondering why you didn’t come looking for me. Events then speed up, both in my memory and, I think, in the way they actually unfurled: a brief period living with us at our house in the Berceni district, then your wedding and honeymoon in the Danube Delta. You didn’t take me with you, but the evening before you left we went for a last meal at the Cina Restaurant. The next day I was ill, I vomited over and over again, under the worried eyes of Mrs Colonel, who told me that it was only natural, because at the Cina the schnitzels were made with human flesh, everybody knew that, and only the most irresponsible parents would feed a child, particularly a child like me, at such an establishment. I open the file in which I keep old photographs and look at the ones from the Danube Delta honeymoon, in which his huge belly never seems to fit inside the frame, while Mama constantly shows a slightly embarrassed smile; although the photographs are black and white, in her cheeks I can divine the rosiness of those apples from Băneasa, a rosiness that was to fade away, withdrawing into a corner of time where I am still unable to find it. I am haunted by the image of that young couple (for they were young: Mama was the same age as I am now, and I think he was barely in his early forties), caught up in a game of seduction in which I had been allotted quite an important rôle; I was perhaps a knight or a rook on the chessboard between them. I still cannot understand why my mind has retained so clearly all the nuances, all the sounds, all the smells of that summer day and why it has also decided to erase the events I now consider important, but only in a different story, as if in a history textbook. I know that Mama’s blouse is in fact a mohair sweater, and now I realise that it couldn’t have been summer; it was definitely autumn. In the photographs from the Delta, you are both eating lobsters, but lobsters are no good in summer; as every child knows, it’s not until September that you can eat them: lobsters are edible only if there is an “r” in the month.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth