2. Grigore watched the vendor until he finished hauling the crates into the cellar, then he headed towards the mill, grinding in his mind plans for the coming holidays. In front of him, swathed in the light of an April afternoon, red flags were fluttering here and there, and among them the militiaman glimpsed excitedly the white wings of the ghost which protected him from between the walls of the mill and which gave him faith in life. Now it was fastened to the immaculate sky, above the sandpaper road, and it seemed to Grigore that it was swaying to the rhythm of the ringdoves’ song. Whenever he saw its white skirts among the clouds or descending the walls of a room he knew that he was going to be victorious. Not only then, in the mill, after that grievous accident with Nicolescu’s lad – he couldn’t even remember what he was called – when he had risen up in the sight of them all in order to protect the boy from the misfortune that had befallen him, but also afterwards in all the difficult situations through which he had passed. When he first moved from Comoşteni he was lost and desperate. He knew from the very start that cadres were rotated and that a militiaman never stayed in the same place for life. But once he arrived in Comoşteni, one autumn day – he remembers it even now – he felt that the place had something that belonged only to him. In 1964, when the orders for his transfer came, he had fallen ill. He commuted to Daneţi for three months, until one day the fluttering spirit of the mill revealed itself to him. He was on a street, in Craiova, near the Romaneşti bus station, when the foamy overcoat, undulating and wispy, had percolated through the branches of a quince tree, just as he had also seen it take shape above the cadaver of the mill. And five steps further on he had bumped into Nini, who was wearing brand new navy-blue overalls. Back then Nini was nothing but an unimportant employee in the Securitate, but he had already made all kinds of connexions, in his friendly and forthright way. He can almost see him now : swarthy, with large eyes, like those of a cartoon dog, smiling obligingly and instantly inspiring trust. Nini had a word in the ear of the necessary person, and in two weeks Grigore was transferred back to Comoşteni. This is why he is fond of the lad, as though he were his own son. He was glued to the lip of his heart, and whenever he saw him he felt as though he was under the protective wing of the world.
There were also periods, just as short, when he was sent to one place or another, but it was back here that he always returned. He built himself a house and fathered children. For some ten years, everything went well for him, until poor Fifina died. She passed away unexpectedly, without ever seeing her grandchildren, and he had not been able to do anything to help her. He had buried his wife, and the protective wing had not revealed itself again until his oldest boy entered Law school. Then he had seen it once more, white and thin, an evening before receiving the results, and he had known it was a good sign.
Now, seeing the ghost up in the sky, he straightaway thought of the thing that was consuming his soul the most : Ionutz, his youngest boy, whom he wanted to join the Securitate, to become a man and get on in the world. He had needed an impetus and there it was in the sky, like a silky mushroom. Grigore cast a glance at the tents of the gypsy tinsmiths, just so that they would know he had his eye on them, and wiped his index finger across his sweating brow. In the courtyard of the Cultural Club there were two lorries from the Collective Farm, laden with flags and banners. It was from there that they would set off at the crack of dawn on May Day, all the people put down on the parade list : a brigade from animal husbandry, ten little boys dressed up in folk costume, and children from the school, in black shorts and white shirts. In addition, at the top of the village there was also a bus for employees of the Institute of Phenomena, who, dressed up to the nines, in suits and ties, would be like pigs in clover on the black oilcloth seats. Grigore had thought fleetingly about their equipment, merely glancing at the lorries with the battered and faded placards. Then he slowly headed to old man Păun’s house. In front of the gate, a red flag was hanging from the lamppost, fluttering above the branches of an apple tree in bloom. Lucica was in the yard. She was whitewashing the garden fence. Lucica, the militiaman barked, and as she immediately turned her head, he made a sign for her to come over to the gate. She came without haste, and it was obvious she was reluctant. She was still holding the paintbrush made of maize leaves.
“Are you going to the children’s parade ?” George began officiously, so as not somehow to forget just who he was. “Well then,” he went on, without waiting for an answer. “Don’t go. I’ve had a word in the ear of the necessary person and Victoritza is going in your stead. I’ve got other plans for you. Tomorrow we’re having a party at my house, with refined company – Căruţaşu, the vice-president, president, and a high-up comrade.”
He looked at her until he caught her gaze and said in an almost comradely way : “I want you to come too.”
“What would the likes of me do there ?” Lucica said in amazement, her eyes boggling as though she had been given a clout on the back of the neck. A flame like the ring of a gas stove was burning on her pate.
"Come now, lass, you know I look after you. Old man Păun is getting on, he can’t do much these days. He doesn’t even go out of the house. If he bursts in on you again, who are you going to call ? Aren’t I the one who protects you ?”
Lucica remembered her divorce and the violence of Vali, who had turned up in the middle of the night to attack her with an axe, raging mad at her not wanting him any more. She had married for love, with the boy who was her sweetheart in school, and she had ended up detesting him. There had been three years of commuting to a village across the Jiu River, the probation years. She would set out in the morning and get back in the evening. And everyone always had a bone to pick with her : her mother-in-law, who now and then would batter her about the head with her fists, like a rain of stones ; her father-in-law, who would curse her for not doing anything ; and, after a time, Vali too, for whose embraces she no longer had any appetite. Her only joy was the eyes in the mill, which she almost never had time to visit. Grigore had indeed helped her. That night, managing to escape from the house, she had fled down the road, sensing the icy axe at her back, and had run into Grigore’s house, screaming in terror. And he had come out in his underpants and shouted loud enough to wake the entire neighbourhood, That’s enough with that damned axe, sonny, or else you’ll go to gaol for nothing. It was also Grigore who had helped her, after her probationary period, to get a transfer to the school in Comoşteni, where she would never have had any chance of ending up if she had waited at the doors of the school inspectorate. She had no connexions and nor did she have enough money to pay a bribe. Consequently, she was highly indebted to Grigore. She stared fixedly at the paintbrush she was holding in her left hand and tried to imagine what exactly it was that Grigore wanted from her. She could not see any possible reason she might have to be there, at a party for bigwigs. And what about women ? Are there going to be any women there ?
Grigore’s mouth had spread like marmalade from one corner to the other : You. There’ll be just you there. In the young woman’s mind, a small, cold light kindled. Through the aspergillum of dry leaves droplets of whitewash pattered. Lucica suddenly raised her head and gazed the militiaman straight in the eye, as though she were speaking to him on her knees, imploring and ready to burst into tears :
“I’m no good for parties, really I’m not ! Please Mr Grigore, what do you want me to do there ? You know how flighty I am…”
Abruptly, Grigore was exasperated and raised both palms, as though he wanted to prevent her from speaking. Then he spoke firmly, cupping her shoulder in his palm like an apple :
“Lucica, don’t do this sort of thing to me. I asked you something and I expect you not to put on airs. What could happen to you ? Nothing you don’t already know ! If you have a little fuck there, will it do you any harm ? Don’t get on my bad side because I’ll move you tomorrow, to Măru Roşu, at the arse end of Moldavia, for example, where the entire battalion will fuck you.” And as Lucica had turned the same colour as the flag on the pole, Grigore moistened his lips and said to her more warmly, almost in a whisper :
“Tomorrow afternoon, at around two o’clock, sneak alongside the mill, through Costea’s garden, because there’s no one there any more, and enter my yard by the back gate.”
3. Over the road, at Jana’s window, the corner of the curtain twitched. She sees Grigore holding Lucica’s shoulder in his palm and assumes that the teacher doesn’t want to go to the parade. It would be a good idea, thinks Jana, not to go out of the house until tomorrow, because who knows who will see me and put me down on that damned parade list. She can’t take it any more, she’s sick to the back teeth of climbing into the lorry, crushed in with all the thick yokels, sick of going twenty-five miles, and for what ? To chant ceauşescuromaniancommunistparty on the streets or in a stadium, wherever it might be, until she got a blister on the roof of her mouth, or to lug flags and placards from the stores of the Collective Farm in return for two wafer biscuits and a can of food. If she was lucky to get even that. Because last year, she’d ended up with just a tin of beans, one that was dented and whose contents were fermented.
Jana is now looking through the aperture between the curtain’s edge and the window frame, with her pious eyes like chocolates half peeking from a silvery tinfoil wrapper, and she is thinking that she ought to fetch a string of dried red peppers from outside, to clean out the seeds and then make some soft dough with a handful of flour, which is the last, mixed together with a purée of onions fried in a spoon of lard, if there’s any left at the bottom of that jar, and then to fill each pepper and boil them in a six-kilo iron pot, with plenty of water, so that she will have food for two days. And as the food is boiling, she ought to stand in the garden, bent over the onion patch, and to look across the lane, across Săndina’s garden, beyond to the mill, waiting for the moment he will poke his head out of the window and look across at her. Before that, she will have to light a fire in the stove, on which the pot has been placed ready to boil. The woman casts another glance out of the window and sees Grigore leaving, then she bends down in front of the stove and opens the book tossed into the dirty basin. It’s a thick book, with dry pages, just right for lighting a fire. It no longer has covers. It begins with a page on which are inscribed the title and the author, and lower down, in violet ink, Dear Josephine, read it because it is from me, Relu. She tears out two pages and scrunches them up, to give them a shape, and then lights them with a match. As they are flaring under the heap of maize stalks placed in the stove that morning, she continues making her plans, such as what to cook and how to be nice to Mariana when she comes back from school, in an hour at most, before she arrives at the onion patch once more, from where she will raise her eyes from time to time, awaiting the tawny head that appears at the window of the mill. Jana is looking at the book in the basin, her eyes muffled with gleaming lashes, and she is enjoying this moment of solitude, in which she can do almost anything she likes. And she does not know how to make the time pass more slowly. From tomorrow until Monday, that is, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the entire country is on holiday, because this year May Day happened to fall on a Thursday. The Saturday will be recouped, and Sunday is free. After all those working Sundays, she no longer knows how many, at last – four days off, like never before, including today, when she didn’t go, quite simply she didn’t want to answer, she heard Florea shouting Jana, Jana, get up, girl, we’re leaving, but she didn’t even budge. She went on placing maize stalks in the stove, stroking the soft scales left after they are stripped of kernels, and she looked into the mouth of the stove, like into a warm hiding place, until Florea and the whole team had left, some seven or eight figures, mostly women, with hoes over their shoulders and knapsacks swaying alongside their napes, dangling from the worn wooden handles. They will dock her a day’s wages, in any case they only pay her enough so that she won’t die, but at least she knows that she will have knelt by her stove, alone and without anyone’s mouth braying in her ears. Jana works in the greenhouses, from where she can no longer even take so much as an onion now that they have made Florea head of the team, a good lad, what can she say, when they were young they kissed a few evenings, he rubbed her haunches against the wall of the mill, and put his arms around her in the cinema. But now he paces scowling through the greenhouses, and empties everyone’s bag when they leave, he sticks his hands up the women’s skirts and makes them turn their pockets out. He’s a bastard not because someone makes him do it, but because that’s the way he likes to be, he stands like Fane, thin-lipped, brows knitted, with one hand behind his back and the other always pointing at something, beating out the rhythm of the work, a cretin, anyway, someone who has joined the ranks of the cretins, who are always walking about annoyed and waving their arms about, one after another, from Ceauşescu down to the head of the team, who is now Florea, but anyway it doesn’t matter who it is or what he looks like, because as soon as he becomes boss he’s the same boor on whose face is imprinted a future global catastrophe.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth