Shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera, it will not be unfair to say that Vanda Rozenbergová is a master of the short story form. In this story, she explores domestic tensions and dashed dreams through the skillful use of a child narrator.
I was in my room playing with my toy cars but Becko kept taking my black sports car away so I had to give him a slap on the hand, Stop it, Becko! I said. I’d been working on a racetrack for my lorries but because it was a Sunday I had to listen to my mum cursing ‘cause the kitchen is next to my room. “Bloody Sundays,” she said, then I heard a pot lid bang on the floor and a knife strike a chopping board. I used to think she was crying but she was just moaning aloud about having to cook. “I’m as lonely as little orphan Annie,” she kept shouting but Daddy and I had no idea who little orphan Annie was. And there’s another thing I don’t get: why does my mum keep doing stuff she hates, why does she keep roasting meat, peeling potatoes, grating carrots, baking and frying, and why does she always clean up afterwards but never sit down with us to eat and instead say she’s had her fill, having breathed in all the cooking smells. And then in the morning she pulls my trousers up to my ears, bundles me into the car and starts doing her hair as we’re driving and tells me with hairpins in her mouth to eat all my sandwiches at school ‘cause she made them for me even though she didn’t feel like it, she hates making sandwiches, as if I didn’t know she hates making them. I’m sure by next year I’ll be making my own sandwiches. But why does she keep on doing stuff she hates? Why doesn’t she just stay in bed and rest and receive visitors, why doesn’t she give me, Daddy, and Becko a hug and ask us to bring her a cup of tea?
When I ask her about it she blames it all on Daddy, but he’s totally not like her, he loves to lounge around and crack jokes, never in a hurry to go anywhere, not even to work. All my friends like him, and sometimes they go to see him for a chat ‘cause he works in the kebab shop next to our school. He doesn’t serve people at the counter, he’s at the back prepping vegetables. He brings home kebabs and doughnuts but Mum doesn’t eat that kind of stuff so it never makes her happy. Becko is not my real brother, I’ve made him up. I told Dad about him and he said that it was OK, that there was this other world and Becko does exist there. When he said that he was lying on a rug under the window looking at the sky, and then he told me a secret, which is that sometimes on his way home from work he stops by the hospital to see his friend who’s sick. I didn’t know what to say so I asked if at least his friend had a nice room, if it had a telly and stuff like that. Of course there’s a telly, said Daddy, and went over to the next room to put some Icelanders on the stereo. Because my Dad loves Icelanders. He loves Icelandic music and Icelandic people.
(The boy’s father likes listening to Icelanders and at least once a week goes to the hospital to see Boris. His son’s question took him by surprise, what could a room where people are dying be like? The hospital isn’t far, not much further than the place he works or the supermarket. And yet, whenever he goes to see Boris, it feels as if he’s going to some place far away, and what’s even worse is that Boris also feels the same, like he’s at the edge of the world. He lies in bed, stretched taut as a piece of rope because his legs are stiff with pain. The boy’s father keeps reminding himself that this is the same Boris he knew back when they were sixteen but he’s probably wrong. Pain does things to you, especially when it’s been going on this long. And it’s been nearly eight months now. His hair was flattened from lying in bed and his forehead was bruised. “I fell over,” he said, when the boy’s father asked about the bruise, but he used stronger language. He said he’d fallen off the fucking bed when he tried to walk over to the sink. The boy’s father adjusted Boris’s hair and, as usual, asked him what the hell he was doing just lying around the place, why didn’t he at least start up his bloody Mac that he’d brought along. He’d tell him stories from work, how Vierka was no longer allowed to serve people at the counter because she’d been too irritable and rude to customers; how Fikes kept making too much dressing and didn’t even know how to quarter a tomato, and how Iveta was crying all the time because her husband had complained that their whole house smelled of garlic, meaning of her. Boris’s hair wouldn’t stay put, it had gone all flat on one side from being in bed, his orange t-shirt smelled of chlorine and the bones on his neck stood out. He loved the colour orange, strong colours had always suited him, they went with his olive skin and brown eyes. The boy’s father tried to do all the talking as Boris was finding it more and more difficult to talk although that didn’t mean he found it difficult to listen, not at all. He found listening easier than some other things, like reading. He kept a few books on his bedside table but didn’t read them. “I used to read a lot but I’m not up to it anymore,” he said. And added: “I’ve always had a problem with fiction. You know what it’s like, you get sucked into a book, you acclimatize, it grabs you, you get involved in the plot, identify with the characters, you’re really into it, lapping up one page after the other and suddenly, bang! a new chapter starts with a whole new lot of people, it’s all change and you have to get to know them all over again…” The boy’s father laughed: “But Boris, that’s what books are like. In books people appear and disappear all the time,” he said and he didn’t stop when he said the word disappear, there was no need to mince his words in a place like this and Boris knew that. “By the way, Boris, what’s your favourite food?” “Sweetbreads.”
“Sweetbreads?! Bloody hell, that’s disgusting!” They have a laugh, Boris’s laughter is more like a startled cackle. “And is there something you’d rather forget, Boris? Something in your life?” the boy’s father asked and Boris knew what he was driving at. “You mean the time I fucked up at my graduation exam concert?” he asks, rolling his eyes. “I had the answer ready, you see, this must have been on my mind all these twenty years, how stupid it was of me to get up from the piano mid-movement and tell my teacher she hadn’t taught me a thing. As if it hadn’t been a lot easier for her to teach kids who were better behaved and less talented; with me it was the other way round and it’s been gnawing away at me ever since.” The boy’s father knew all about it, he knew what a great musician Boris was, but he also knew that he’d given up music. Instead of playing concerts he has made use of his other talents, his knack of fitting in with any crowd, and ended up in a kebab shop, Tesco’s or a warehouse, he’s a nice chap and whenever he was near a piano and played a few chords softly, everyone around would freeze. The boy’s father had never seen any visitors in Boris’s room, not a single woman, or parents or friends, which was strange. One day he asked him about it. “Actually, they do come,” Boris said, “but usually on weekends, my parents that is. That’s why I can’t stand weekends and that spruce tree over there,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the window. “I’ve been keeping my eye on this spruce growing under my window. When it’s dry, its bark turns almost white. When it rains it goes dark, virtually black. When you feel confined, the spruce is quite useful because it blocks your view into the distance but when you feel like flying off you hate it because it’s in your way. And if you ever felt like jumping out of the window those thick branches would probably make it hard, and even if you did fall on the ground, you’d land on its roots, which stick out, and that would be a nuisance… When you need a bit of shade and fresh air you can always ask someone to open the side window and it will feel nice and cool but when you want to feel some sun on your face the spruce won’t let you. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time but I can tell you that, for all you can say in its favour, that tree annoys me.” The boy’s father didn’t say anything. From the chair where he was sitting he examined the crown of the tree and was quite sure that rather than nattering about books, music, sweetbreads, and the tree, Boris would prefer to raise his scrawny bum and go off to a cottage in the country, or maybe back home, lock his parents out of the house, and summon some lovely, fragrant and gentle Icelandic woman and make love to her until he died, which was bound to happen very soon.)
“I don’t know why Becko wears the same clothes all the time, a grey poloneck and blue trousers. I’ve never seen him wear anything else,” I said to my dad. Maybe he just loved blue and grey. “That’s life,” said Daddy, “your grey-blue Becko is full of life and my orange Boris can’t stand the sight of the only tree in his vicinity. Pain comes in many colours.” Then Mum came home, turned off the Icelanders, asked me to help her unload the shopping and told Daddy that this really was the last time she’d schlepped a heavy carrier bag. She handed him a piece of paper, “I got you a season ticket for the swimming pool. I’ve got mine extended for six months and thought I’d do you a good turn and get you one as well. You can come swimming with me. It’ll do you good to move a bit. So tell me, what did you do to improve yourself today? Have you moved ahead in any way? Huh?” Mum would always like to make people move ahead but she can’t get Daddy to move ahead even when she wants to hoover under the sofa. Maybe it’s because she goes to work and to school as well. Mum works for the police, in the ID department, but she also goes to school twice a month. She does it of her own accord, nobody made her, although when she was little she was forced to sit through the film Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears lots of times so maybe her body hasn’t quite absorbed it yet and that’s why she wants to move ahead. That’s how Daddy explained it to me (he said that my granddad admired all those Russian women who could raise a child, run a factory and still get top grades at school). Mum is studying for another degree and working at the same time, so Daddy asked her if she had some secret engine driving her because he certainly didn’t feel like studying. “Will-power is my engine,” Mum replied. And then she asked me: “What have you achieved today? Have you made progress on your weather observation project? Have you been taking proper notes?” “Yes, of course,” I said even though I had skipped four days of note-taking already. They gave us this home assignment at school, to look out of the window for a month and observe what’s happening in the sky. But it’s wintertime, it’s been snowing a lot and as long as the weather stays like this the sky will be the same every day. Mum gave me a kiss, sighed and gave me a tap on the head with a knuckle. “I’m just filling empty receptacles here,” she said and laughed but I didn’t know what was funny about that.
“Come and listen to this lovely music with us,” said Daddy, pointing to the CD player. Becko was making me arrange blue and red wooden blocks on a board and then kept messing them up again. “I wouldn’t mind going to a concert, some violin music preferably, or a jazz trio, I’d enjoy that, but to be honest, this is not my kind of thing,” she said and frowned, so Daddy turned the sound down because Mum didn’t like loud music. He did, especially Icelandic music, which he listened to lying down and humming to himself. “It’s kind of trippy,” he said to me and I thought, yes, I like it too, kind of trippy. “I don’t like your attitude to life,” said Mum but in the end they always made up and agreed to go to Iceland next summer but they never did. When Daddy comes home from work he sits in the living room spilling peanuts and in the evenings he watches TV, but sometimes he’s happy to just watch the wall, “You never know what’s going on in that head of his, probably nothing at all,” said Mum. “Your Dad used to be so good-looking, you know, and I used to be so ordinary, totally uninteresting. And now it’s exactly the other way round. Funny, isn’t it?”
Becko still likes playing with children’s toys but I’d much rather be doing something else, like puzzles or play station. The other day he made me cut out a jigsaw puzzle from a children’s magazine and was furious with me until I’d cut it all out and glued it together, it ended up like a kind of Christmas tree. The thing I hate most is being home alone with Becko, but actually it only happens sometimes on a Wednesday, which is Mum’s long day at the office and when Daddy has to stand in for Vierka at the counter. When it’s snowing outside people eat even more than usual, “to keep warm,” said Daddy when he finally came home. He unwrapped a doughnut, it was still hot, and cut it down the middle, the other half was for Becko. “That bastard Boris is going to live,” said Daddy, laughing, and I was happy. “I went to see him in hospital this morning,” he said, “he’s getting better, the ferry has started to turn around.” “What ferry?” “Charon’s ferry,” he said and while I was eating he read me two pages out of a big fat book, and then I understood what he was talking about and so maybe I’ve moved ahead a little bit.
Daddy laid his feet on the table, put his Icelanders on and said that if Becko didn’t want his half, he’d be happy to finish it. Of course, Becko only picked at his doughnut so Daddy finished it and then the two of us made some notes for my school project about the state of the sky over the past week. “Did you know that Iceland is the country with the lowest population density?” Daddy asked and went on: “There are just three people per square kilometre, that’s as if you, me, and your mum lived all alone on a really huge piece of land.” I didn’t like that idea very much but Daddy was in a happy mood. “Know what, when we take out the rubbish tonight, we’ll go for a pee behind the dustbins and we’ll pee the first letters of our names into the snow, I’ll pee an R and you’ll do an I, OK?” “OK, but can I pee the letter R, too, ‘cause the letter I is too easy to pee,” I said and Daddy gave a big belly laugh. But we didn’t take out the rubbish that night. Mum came back from work even later than usual and just as she was taking off her coat, which was all covered in snow, Daddy’s phone rang and when he finished talking he came into the kitchen and said that Boris had died. We looked at each other, put on our coats and shoes without a word, went out and there in the dark we both peed the letter B into the snow. The snow kept falling, the snowflakes were tiny, prickly and thick and by the morning the letters we had peed were gone.
A few days later the snow still hadn’t melted. Daddy was listening to his Icelanders, Mum was cursing at the meat in the kitchen and moving ahead ‘cause she was turning the pages in a textbook on teaching with one hand. Becko was hanging around my room in his grey polo neck and blue trousers and wanted to play all the time, being very annoying, and kept hitting the window sill with a wooden stick whenever I wouldn’t do what he wanted me to. I felt like killing him. The doorbell rang all of a sudden and it gave stupid Becko a start. I went to get the door. A woman was standing there with a little boy, he stared at me and I stared back at him. Wow! He looked just like Becko. He was wearing a grey poloneck, blue trousers, a blue windcheater, he had brown hair, he was holding a cap in his hand, was a bit shorter than me and below one eye, right in the middle of his cheek he had a birthmark, and the only reason this was interesting is ‘cause I have one in the exact same place. The woman told me to get my Dad but of course Mum also came to the door ‘cause Daddy takes ages getting up when he’s listening to his Icelanders. The lady came to tell my Dad that the boy’s father had found out that he wasn’t the boy’s real dad, that someone else was his dad and she meant my Dad. She was wearing a short, dark blue coat, had blond hair and we’d never seen her before. “Dalibor!” she said to the boy and I was really relieved that his name wasn’t Becko and that he was younger than me. Becko was imaginary but this one was real. And I guess my Daddy really was his dad, or something like that. The lady started to cry, he’s kicked us out, he’s chased us away, she kept repeating in the hallway. “Sod his guts,” said Daddy and told Mum to put the kettle on.
Translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Vanda Rozenbergová is a bibliographer in the Upper Nitra Regional Library in Prievidza, in central Slovakia, where she lives. Her short stories were shortlisted for Poviedka, the annual short story competition, in 2001, 2005, and 2006. In 2011 she published her first collection of short stories Vedľajšie účinky chovu drobných hlodavcov (The Side Effects of Keeping Small Rodents), followed in 2012 by a novel, Moje more (My Sea). Her short story collection, Slobodu bažantom (Freedom for Pheasants), from which the story Icelanders is taken, appeared in 2016 and in the same year was shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera. Her most recent book, the novel lMuž z jamy a deti z lásky (Man from the pit and Children of Love) was published in May 2017.
Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and worked for Amnesty International in London for over twenty years. Peter Sherwood taught Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are now based in London and work as freelance translators from and into English, Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Russian. Their book-length translations include works by Balla, Béla Hamvas, Hamid Ismailov, Daniela Kapitáňová, Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, Uršuľa Kovalyk, Peter Krištúfek,Petra Procházková, Noémi Szécsi, Antal Szerb, and Miklós Vámos. For more information, visit their website here.
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