Authors: Will Wiles
Tags: #Literary, #Humorous, #Family Life, #Fiction
I decided to compress all of my sightseeing for the trip into one day, saving myself the mental and physical effort of trying to find something different to do every morning, when I could be writing. Such was the indistinction of this country that I had been unable to find a guidebook for it in the Heathrow branch of Books & Books, but did manage to find a
that included this scrap of pointless autonomy as an afterthought and dealt with everything of interest in the capital and beyond in just forty pages.
Walking from the flat towards the Old Market – ‘the city’s ceremonial centrepiece’ – I began to feel that forty pages was rather generous. The city may well have been of Roman foundation with an illustrious Medieval heyday, but the vast majority of this heritage had been ripped down in the middle and late nineteenth century to make way for endless mock-gothic and baroque buildings of such lumpen construction and poor repair that they all resembled Miss Havisham’s wedding cake with an added layer of antique soot. The Second World War and the Eastern Bloc had also made their luckless debits and credits. I passed by the National Museum’s Acropolis-with-gigantism façade, saving it for later, and pushed on into the Old Market.
In London, I was never alarmed by crowds, instead feeling that they were my milieu, the pressing discourse of humanity, the language of the Tube, the very soul of the city. Here, they were different; perhaps my nervousness was a product of not knowing the language (the phrase book in my pocket felt like a lead weight) or possibly of being such an obvious tourist. ‘The bustle of the market is a charming counterpoint to the grandeur of its surroundings,’
informed me. However, it seemed that the enthusiasm of the commerce conducted at the market was a charming counterpoint to the utter worthlessness of the goods on offer. Meagre clumps of limp, filthy root vegetables were spread out next to mounds of Tupperware that seemed to have already seen one or more decades of heavy use; obsolete, tatty paperbacks jostled with worthless candelabra covered in peeling gold paint.
Unbothered by this absence of any clearly desirable merchandise, the market square was filled by what seemed to be the city’s whole population. Never before have I truly understood the full significance of the word ‘heaving’ in relation to masses of humanity, but the market was heaving; one’s direction of travel was utterly limited by crowd consensus, so that whole quarters were closed off by contrary flows of traffic, and often your course was entirely away from your intended direction, dictated only by a new shudder of peristalsis in the folds and crevices the stalls left for their wretched consumers. Godlike above all this, the first-floor windows of what I believe was once the state department store had been given over to titanic posters for a Western cosmetics firm, and the six-foot-high faces of beautiful screen actresses and models gazed down smugly on the teeming hordes. The new, free men and women of Europe were as far from this ideal as they had been from the ruddy-faced perfection in the propaganda of the old state. I swear I never once saw anyone under the age of sixty – a charitable estimate – and they were all hunched and aggressive of demeanour with eyes that gleamed, as I saw it, with some unspecified, unneeded, unmotivated malice towards me in ways that I couldn’t even begin to quantify.
If only I had something to buy, I considered, some purpose to be moving around, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so keenly aware of this sense of being, very literally, a foreign body. But what did I
? What could I possibly
from this place? Nothing occurred; and as I struggled towards the other side of the market the idea that I
was simply there to take in the scene began to feel as absurd a notion to me as perhaps it did to the natives. It was not warm, but my skin thistled with sweat; I have rarely been less comfortable. Tube trains in stygian rush hours, supermarkets on the eve of national holidays; never have I felt so prickled and alarmed.
I pushed through the throng, shakily counting suspicious glances, leers and glares, to find my way to the National Monument, where the crowds eased. As if answering the moisture gathering in my armpits and at the small of my back, the sky began to perspire rain with the effort of pulling its dishrag clouds across the firmament. The jostle faded as I reached the steps to the monument and I was faced by a granite bollard, inflated to ten times its natural size and borne aloft by slab-like soldiers whose arms twisted in ways militated against by both aesthetics and anatomy. The monument was a stump awaiting prosthesis. It was a snapped bone piercing cobbled flesh. In the lee the monument caused amid the shuffling crowd, I turned to look again at the square.
Pristine secular gods and goddesses, sanctified by the airbrush, peered down at their flock. Their avatars stared like Egyptian tomb paintings – the crocodile, the half-man, half-horse (polo stick raised, ready to smite). They promised salvation, Because You’re Worth It. Salvation, by Calvin Klein.
Behind the hoardings, stucco crumbled. The pallid stone guardians of the national monument stared out across the masses they had saved from an –ism on behalf of some other –ism.
Why did Oskar like it here? Did he like it here, beyond the accident of it being his birthplace? His immense talent, his success, meant he could work anywhere he wanted, yet he chose here, with its headscarves and ochre multi-zeroed banknotes.
Nearby, a vendor was selling bottles of water. I bought one and sat on the monument’s steps. The growl of the crowds and the ubiquitous jingling rumble of the trams settled around me, and I felt more at ease.
Oskar had spoken of his home country that first time we got properly drunk together, after the great vodka hunts. We toasted his revenge, and toasted the quality of the unadulterated freezing-point vodka. Not that I understood its quality – it simply numbed and burned me. I had no mixers other than a room-temperature can of cola. This was mine alone, as Oskar considered it sacrilege, but he talked of how garlic was sometimes added to the precious spirit by his countrymen. I asked him about his background, curious about this figure who had become my friend almost by accident. I expected a soulful Mittel-European paean, sad and loving. Instead, Oskar approached the question with an odd air of disjointed gravity, thinking a long time before speaking.
‘It matters to me,’ he said. Then he sipped his shot. Another pause slid through the room. Oskar pre-empted my attempt to break the silence as I drew breath. ‘After I finish my studying here,’ he said, ‘I may go for more study in America, or here, or look for a position here or there. Maybe I will go home. But...’
Another pause, and sip.
‘You are funny, the English. You are always in a worry for...What? You say “going to the dogs”. This fear, yet you have been happy sitting on this island and Armadas and Nazis cannot reach you. My country is a shifting shape on the map, and empires and armies walk across it, it disappears and moves, just a patch of colour, a story. Still I know, and my people know, that my country will always be there. But you English think the world has collapsed if they get rid of the old red telephone boxes.’
He drained his glass and refilled it, topping up mine, and proposed another toast.
‘Our Motherlands,’ he said with a sardonic smile. ‘Let us get drunk enough to love them.’
And we did.
The National Museum was deserted, save for a brigade of scowling old women in headscarves. One sat on a wooden chair in the museum’s atrium, selling tickets from a card table. Others sat guard in each of the echoing halls, knitting, reading newspapers or staring at me. Their gaze was stern rather than welcoming, but I was grateful for their presence – but for them, I would have been alone in the building. Not one other visitor could be seen.
From the exhibits, I learned which parts of the country were oolitic and which were pre-Cambrian. Stuffed fauna lurked in unexpected corners, all malevolent glass eyes and dusty fur. A wall chart explained the intricacies of lignite mining; another, the workings of a bauxite plant. Examples of local industrial production included most of
the marvels of the modern world: washing machines the size of small cars, small cars the size of washing machines, telex machines, AM radios, aluminium frying pans, lead-based toothpaste, acetate pyjamas, asbestos quilts...Few of the explanatory timelines mustered the strength to get past 1975. In a nod to the interactive, touch-screen age, many of the glass cases needed the dust wiped off them to reveal the treasures within.
One hall was devoted to depictions of traditional peasant life through the ages in different parts of the country. This led to an enfilade explaining the national story through serfdom, monarchy, industrial revolution, republic, fascist republic, people’s republic and democratic republic. All these phases were packed into the twentieth century. The preceding epochs were simply a grim routine of invaders, pogroms and home-grown rulers with soubriquets such as ‘the gouger’.
The particularly potent version of hell that the Nazis and Soviets inflicted on Eastern Europe was handled in a curiously modest fashion, with little bombast or horror. And the final three panels of the exhibition were visibly recent insertions, pale patches on the wall betraying the outlines of their predecessors. Presumably the originals had extolled the glorious strides made by the people’s republic towards the socialist nirvana envisaged by its leader, the father of the nation. Instead, they extolled the collapse of the Soviet east. Walls fell. Assemblies were stormed. Street names changed. The advertisers arrived.
The history was the newest thing in the building.
As I was crossing the polished floor of the museum’s atrium to the heavy wooden doors and the street beyond, the old woman who had sold me my ticket jumped up from her chair. I froze, suddenly nervous, as she rushed towards me, apparently eager to prevent my leaving. The brass of the front door’s fingerplate was cold under my fingers – I desperately wanted to brace my shoulder and push out, escape, but held back. Perhaps one paid on the way out, I thought, except that I had bought a ticket on the way in; perhaps you had to pay to enter and leave, or perhaps she expected a tip of some sort. Or perhaps she suspected that I had hidden a stuffed owl under my coat. It seemed certain that she thought I had done something wrong.
She was ushering me towards the door in gestures that seemed half shooing and half encouraging, as though she wanted me to leave. All the while she was speaking to me, an incomprehensible torrent. Was this a simple send-off? Was she throwing me out?
We were through the door, and she still spoke, and gestured, now with a sense of eagerness or purpose. She took me by the sleeve of my coat and led me with a strange, quick, waddling gait around to the side of the building, where a narrow alleyway separated the museum from the neighbouring cube of stone. Decades of fumes from brown coal, retarded industrial adventures and pitiful automobiles had unevenly stained the museum’s side wall, and it was etched with graffiti, mostly domestic and cryptic, some international (a swastika, and USA #1). Pockmarks like acne scars were sprinkled over this filthy surface, deep holes like missing divots.
The sentinel of the museum looked at me expectantly. This, this wall, was what I had been brought to see, but I did not know why. Her face, regarding me with a sort of anticipatory glee, carried no clues. In the 1990s I had been to a birthday party where the host’s presents included a ‘magic eye’ print – a rectangle of coloured static that, if stared at for long enough, apparently resolved into an image of the New York skyline. A succession of other guests gazed deep into this picture and then whooped or gasped or similarly exclaimed satisfaction when the trick played out. It would not work for me, remaining a poly-chrome garble. Look more closely, the other guests, my friends, said, unfocus your eyes, cross your eyes, look past the picture, don’t try too hard. I stared and stared, and they all looked at me with that same expression that the museum guide now wore, a sort of cultish eagerness.
I pointed at the wall. ‘What am I looking at, then?’ I said.
Before I could lower my arm or step back, the old woman grabbed my raised arm by the wrist and pulled it insistently towards the wall. I was stunned; a sick horror rose in me and I think I let loose a breath, a gasp of shock, but she still wore that determined grin. Her grip was like iron, and maybe I could have freed my arm, but not without a violent movement that was utterly beyond me. This woman was perhaps more than double my age yet I was completely unable to conceive of wresting free of this grip that terrified me. My muscles were heavy wads of wet toilet tissue. She pulled my hand forward so that the index finger, still extended, went into one of the holes in the
How many years of filth are in there?
I wondered. And then my wrist was free – she left my hand with a finger pointing in this rough little hole. The hole was deep, maybe three inches or more – it almost swallowed my finger. It was too deep to have been made by some natural process of erosion, and there were many others like it.