Short Story

Sunbeams bounce off the bonnets of the parked Ladas which flank the deserted Czech street. She doesn’t know how to deal with her first Prague summer. It’s a city that lends itself to the friendly white muffler of the winter, when the icing on the buildings accentuates their beauty.

There is something sinister about the golden stifling heat and the harsh empty brightness. She glances down the steep cobbled street from the corner of her narrow balcony. Nobody is out there. It feels as though they know something she doesn’t.

After half an hour of crackling World Service and a cup of black tea with lemon she locks the door of her apartment and strolls slowly down Madridska street, past the grocers with the Kiwi fruits which nestle luxuriantly amidst the potatoes, onions and jars of pickled things.

Her slightly stooped, grey haired student peers through the glass doors of the elevator. It is no surprize that he looks older than his sixty years. She is familiar with the world of the threadbare professors who live on a pittance outside the sparkling entrepreneurial post-communist world.

He ushers her into his tiny apartment which looks a lot like hers except the décor is much less lurid, almost tasteful, and it’s overflowing with books: on shelves and carpets and window ledges,  books even on top of the toilet cistern.

Bottle of becherovka in one hand, coffee cup in the other, he shuffles out of his Spartan kitchen in his battered green slippers.

“No, no, talk! I like to talk!” He exclaims when he sees the small pile of teaching materials colonising the tiny coffee table.

She fears a formless hour, maybe even an indecipherable drunken monologue but he points to the small rock and mineral book on top of the pile.

“Amethyst,  malachite, garnet,” he repeats the words mimicking her pronunciation perfectly. He then slides open the door of his cabinet where his collection ranges across the shelf, glinting and sparkling.

“For you.”

He places the heavy malachite in the palm of her right hand.

“WEDNESDAY THEN!” he shouts from the open window.

She leaves the building relaxed, despite the strong black coffee still in the warm glow of his benevolence and enthusiasm.

Outside the cool cavern of the professor’s apartment the temperature is higher than before. She enters the grocers, the lump of malachite heavy in the front pocket of her pinafore.

The peroxide-haired woman in the pink nylon housecoat hands her the huge bottle of water, wordless and stony faced.

Another stupid rich English person, the expression on her face seems to say.

Probably a postcard image of Buckingham Palace or Mayfair enters the woman’s head every time she visits the store.

Inside her own apartment, she places the malachite on the empty ledge next to her sofa bed and marvels at its glimmering beauty. She wonders whether to meet her new drinking friends in the basement bar with the white walls and Velvet Underground records but decides against it. The heavy drinking is taking its toll and her new friends exhaust her with their constant pursuit of new night life possibilities and complaints of home sickness.

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Her hours with the professor brighten up her week. They get on so well that the lessons don’t seem like work at all. He tells her about his only trip to London with the other professors, describes the draughty boarding house with the soggy corn flakes and vividly recalls their trip to The Natural History Museum. They agree that the collection of rocks and minerals in the basement is fantastic.

The professor only talks about his former work so she can only speculate about his private life and marvel at his relentless cheerfulness since he lives in a tiny apartment on a pittance of a pension.

Late on a Friday night the low burr of the phone wakes her up.

“What you doing tomorrow?” the professor shouts over the rumble of other conversations on the crackling party line.

Instantly the professor’s orange Lada turns into the narrow twisting lane that leads to the village. She understands why he is a happy man.

His weekend cottage sits in a village. It’s steeped in charm, with lakes and streams, country cottages and inns.

Children gambol in the mud by the lake and adults loll under gaudy umbrellas outside the inns with plates of fried cheese and glasses of beer.

There are three people in the professor’s garden: his elderly mother, his son and his grandson.

His mother smiles showing the gaps in her teeth and points to a wooden garden chair with a huge cushion.  The grandson plays peek-a-boo with her, dragging at his father’s trousers.

The professor’s son speaks English and is eager to practice with her. He barrages her with questions and amuses her with his comical anecdotes about his job at the telephone exchange, where he is hugely entertained but often under occupied.

“How is everything in London now?” he asks.

When she tells him that she doesn’t like the Iron Lady, all the chatter stops and the four of them sip their drinks in silence.

In the cool of the early evening she kicks a football about with the professor’s grandson and they laugh as the ball disappears into the rosy piles of apples heaped under the huge gnarled arcs of the tree branches.

She sits in silence next to the professor while the car speeds through the unilluminated night, subdued by the wrench from the rural haven and hopeful of another invitation.

Her elderly neighbour greets her with a scowl in the entrance door of the building and gesticulates towards the stairs.

The door to her apartment is wide open. Tentatively, she creeps inside. She’s trembling with fear but there is no trace of the intruder, only empty spaces where the stolen things usually sit.

Without the malachite, leather jacket and portable radio, her flat is even more like a downmarket characterless hotel room.

Too sun-dazed and stunned to cry, she sits forlornly on the edge of her bed and wonders who in her tiny pool of acquaintances she can call. She chooses the professor; her new drinking friends are probably too drunk to care.

The professor decides for her, says that she is likely to be much happier in the countryside.

Her new rural home is empty but still retains traces of its former inhabitants. Residents of the village knock on the door and hand her pieces of furniture. In no time at all she has a charming mishmash of everything she needs.

Friends of the professor’s family ring and ask her for English lessons and she knows she can survive here, cradled in the gentle lushness of the countryside, outside of capitalism and communism, in a neutral zone where the rhythms of nature preside.

She knows it can’t go on forever, this sojourn in limbo land, but she savours every moment of her exile. Whilst the professor’s family and friends improve their English she practices her Czech and learns about real hospitality and tree chopping.

Soon her student’s/students’ imagined impressions of London merge with her own memories to create an image of a city that she might like to visit sometime in the future. The professor and the thief are her saviours.

Kate Whitehead has been writing short stories for many years. She has had her writing published in a fanzine and online.  In 2009 she moved from London to a small fishing village in South West England. She collaborated with artist Morwenna Morrison in exhibition The Art Of Writing in 2013. It was shown in the CMR Gallery Redruth Cornwall and Highams Park Library London. Find Kate on Twitter – @seaside644

 

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