“What you’ve got here is heaven on earth,” Vica says as she drops onto the kitchen chair. “But where’s your mother?”
“At work,” Gelu lazily replies, leaning sideways against the door. “She’s doing mornings this week, didn’t you know?”
He is tall and thin, with unset features that seem swollen by an inner ferment he is at pains to conceal. He stares hard at her, a smile pulling his thick lips apart. Indoor trousers hang beltless on his slender frame, while a faded green shirt covers his upper half.
“If I’d known I wouldn’t have struggled here for nothing.”
Vica is upset not to have found her sister-in-law in, if you leave it up to them people never come to see you, but it’s true that for years and years she’s been the one knocking on other people’s doors. Her husband is right about that… Ah, if only her mummy had lived, how different life would have been! She’d finished fourth grade and was preparing to start at the liceu; she already had her school uniform and beret, she can still see them now; it was July, and in August the general mobilization was declared… Daddy left for the front, then Mummy went and died: the huge woman lay down in bed and started raving, her poor lips split from the fever… And what was she to know, a kid of eleven? She was out playing on waste ground, couldn’t bear staying at home…Later she went through hell, looking after her brothers, queueing for that half-baked black bread full of husks. She was always the one who stood in line because she was the eldest…
“You’ve no idea what it’s like to lose your mother when you’re eleven,” she says chewing a piece of bread. “What a terrible blow it was for us when she died!”
Even now, after so many years have passed, she still feels a helpless orphan.
She cuts a slice of cheese and puts it in her mouth. She covers the rest with some plastic and puts the plate outside on the window ledge. Look how well it sits there on the ledge - though when her sister-in-law hears this she complains:
“If poor Ilie were still alive, we’d have got a fridge this year.”
“To hell with a fridge,” Vica tells her, “ it’s money down the drain. Just re-heat the food every day and you’ll see how long it keeps...”
“That’s why you should love and respect your mother, because she’s all you’ve got… Love her and look after each other,” she says aloud.
So that the boy hears and gets it into his head.
Gelu keeps standing in the door, shifting the weight from one foot to the other. He yawns. He is thinking how to make himself scarce. If he starts chatting, the whole day will go. As it is, he’s done nothing but mope around since waking up. …
Just look at that kid, she says to herself, as she spreads a blanket on the table and plugs the iron into the socket; she has found some unironed clothes in the bath, how her sister-in-law will be thrilled when she gets home. Just look at that kid, what a misery he is all the time! His father, Ilie, God rest his soul, had a different character; he was the youngest of them, just a toddler when Mummy died. She brought him up on her own. She was like a mother to him, and what quarrels there were with Dad, that old man she called Dad, about sending him to school…
“Listen, I haven’t got any money,” the old man used to say. “What can I do if I’m broke?”
The greedy Oltenian used to come carrying a yoke from his home in Cărbuneşti or wherever it was. Hanging from the two arms of the yoke were baskets of vegetables, fish and chickens and vinegar and coal and whole or quartered lambs wrapped in cloth. Dad used to sell a little of everything, gradually putting the money aside; he even built some mud houses to let in Pantelimon, and eventually picked up Mummy’s dowry. That way he could open a shop, where he sold cheap cotton fabrics, gas canisters, cakes of soap, that sort of thing. Things went well: he grew a forked moustache and carried a watch with a thick gold chain. Then in August came the mobilization; the bells rang all night long. And by the time Dad returned from the front everything had gone up in smoke… But that Oltenian with his head well screwed on, who at eighty still had all his teeth and could crack nuts between them, he simply started all over again trading with people in the country. Mummy was dead, so Dad lost no time building up trade with the villages. Later he came across Trollymog, moved in with her and had another batch of kids.
“Come too if you like,” he told them when he shacked up with Trollymog.
But they stayed in the old house in Pantelimon near the Capra church where Mummy was buried…
She unplugs the iron for a moment as it has become too hot. She opens the pantry door, but all she finds there are some dried biscuits; she takes one, dips it in a glass of water and starts to chew it.
“I’m off, auntie. I’m really up against it with work…”
Gelu lazily drags his slippers, falls onto a chair and rests his face on the palm of one hand. He runs the fingers up and down his cheek: shall he shave today, or not? The old woman’s chatter has dazed him: just when she’s finished those old stories of hers, just when you think you’re free, she starts all over again. She seems to be talking more and more these days, and she certainly eats as much as ever.
But he too is feeling restless. He leafs through the sheets of paper with calculations, writes something here and there in the margins, lets out a yawn, stands up and looks out of the window. There’s nothing to see: the same street with blocks on one side, and opposite, right in front of his window, the waste ground enclosed in barbed wire. A ramshackle tin house, a tram shelter from the time when this was the end of the line. Through the thin walls of the apartment he can hear a radio and some quarrelling voices. He lifts his shirt sleeve and with two fingers mechanically squeezes the pimples on his arm. There are days like today when he can’t bring himself to do anything. The whitish sky, the mud heaps in front of the block, fear mixed with impotent rage at the thought of life ahead, his mother’s irritability, his awkwardness with girls, his lack of money: everything together makes him sit there sullenly hunched up squeezing each of the pimples in turn. What is life? As he sees it now or as it seems when he is in a good mood and can forget all the problems?
Gelu throws himself on the bed, screwing up his eyes and gritting his teeth as he waits to chase away the unbearable memory.
The girl had narrow delicate shoulders and arms covered with soft dusky hair. One of her stockings, laddered above the knee, had been hurriedly mended with white thread. She caught a glimpse of him clumsily trying to unfasten her zip. He felt her rigid and heavy in his arms, without her usual volubility, but haste and fear pushed him on. He kept fumbling over buttons, glancing from time to time at the alarm clock ticking on the table beside them. He had wasted nearly all the time with senseless phrases, and now the friend who had lent him the room would be back in an hour at the latest. Something, perhaps the memory of the laddered stocking, perhaps her awkwardness, suddenly moved him and made him want to postpone the fever. He let his hand slide down her shiny head of hair, which was tied at the nape with a black lace, but she pulled away and furtively glanced at him, hostile and mistrustful: no, there was no point trying to fool her any more. The bed creaked continually and he kept his head away from the wood panelling. Though more and more affected by the stiffness of her body, he pressed on and grew almost frightened, as if he were watching his movements from outside, as if it was all something he had to complete at any price, a duty from which there was no other escape. Doubtless she could feel this as she lay staring at each little irregularity on the pale ceiling, with lips pressed tight over small sharp teeth. Blinking often in short bursts, she emitted flashes of hostility between her half-open lids – a scowl of contentment at the visible signs of his failure.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the girl, moving to a corner of the room, until the cold sharp-edged wood cut into his flesh. “Forgive me,” he mumbled, overcome with disgust and with such despair that he longer noticed the clock or tried to cover himself. Now anything could happen. He recognized in himself all the fear of those hours, as if he had known before that it had to come out. Now he could even say that word, the one he had least thought he would ever utter to someone. And late, very late, he felt her thin arm trying to slip beneath his tightened shoulder, and her soft hair fluttering over his cheek.
“Stop poking like that,” Vica says to him. “Just look at what you’ve done to yourself.”
Her thick wrinkled finger is pointing at the bluish marks on his arm, while he, eyes shut, continues to probe for more pimples.
She has quietly pushed open the door and is standing there half-bent, holding a plate with some slices of bread and cheese.
“Just look at yourself – you’re nothing but skin and bones. That’s why you’ve got no energy and feel sleepy all the time. I’ve always looked after myself properly, and so has my husband. I watch how he fills a plate, dips in some bread and turns it into a sludge; then he eats it like that, with a spoon. You’re getting to be like Mealache, I tell him, that old man who mixes the soup and main course he gets from his daughter-in-law; why should I open my mouth twice, he used to say, if it all goes down the same place? But my husband answers back: Well, I’m an old man, aren’t I? D’you think I’m not old? I’ll be seventy-nine this summer.”
“He’s an old man all right!” the boy snaps over his shoulder. “If he’s not old then tell me who is.”
What a happy little soul! Just like her husband, just as surly and evil-tongued; whose life is he going to ruin next? You’re one hell of a misery! I’d have knocked some sense into you if you’d been mine. I’d have made a man of you… At his age you’d think he’d have a bit of sense. It’s his mother’s fault: she screwed him up. And now she’s the one who complains: “I don’t know what to do with Gelu, I don’t know how to go about it. He sits all day in his room ignoring me, and if I say something to him he flies off the handle. When his poor father was alive things were different in the house. You know what a cheerful, good-natured man Ilie was.”
“What can you do?” Vica replies sympathetically. “Just let him get on with it.” But she is thinking: why are you surprised? He takes after you. You used to be just the same. What were you like with me and everyone else who dropped in on you?
“You take it, I’m not hungry. You have it. Anyway, there’s not much else to eat: Mum doesn’t get paid until tomorrow “
Gelu holds the plate with bread and cheese, leaning against the frame of the kitchen door.
“Me have it? I’m not thinking about food.”
But she takes the plate and puts it on a corner of the cupboard. Then she starts to clean the gas stove, removing the rings and putting them in the sink. If she turned around, the boy would see her laughing with her toothless mouth; she has just now taken out her false teeth, which are too tight to wear for long. What a misery you are, she laughs. Now he’s sorry he snapped at her like that, as if to bite her head off. It’s not her fault: she was bringing him something to eat… Maybe he’s not so bad after all, but he’s been badly brought up: it’s his mother’s fault, she screwed him up when he was little… It was Gelu this and Gelu that, just do this for me, sweetie… The truth is, he was a pretty child, plump but pretty, with curls like little rings… She used to bathe him, rub oil into his joints, spit over her shoulder to shoo away the devil, kiss him on the bottom, take him to the shop. His place was under the counter, where he used to crouch on all fours looking at the scales.
“Come on, eat it,” Gelu snorts. “What are you waiting for?”
He alone knows what has come over him. He has already turned and left the room.
It suddenly comes over him – just like that… Vica stretches out her hand, takes the piece of bread, takes the cheese, and stuffs it into her mouth. What was he on about that time a year and a half ago, not even that long, when his father passed away? Poor Ilie lay dead on the table and people kept dropping in – colleagues from work, neighbours from the block and from where they’d lived before, each with a flower or a candle… How sad she was then, she didn’t know whether she was coming or going… At the crack of dawn she’d come back with five kilos of meat, nice lean meat, that she’d bought with money borrowed from her neighbour Reli. At five o’clock she’d been standing in the meat queue; she alone knew with how heavy a heart… Lining up to buy meat for the funeral repast… But there wasn’t a fridge – poor Ilie hadn’t got round to that – and anyway who could give a damn then about meat? Two women had to hold up her sister-in-law, who wailed in disbelief that her turn had come to suffer the pains of living… Who’d given a moment’s thought to meat? But she wasn’t going to let good meat go off, so she went and put it in the frying pan… She turned the pieces with a fork; maybe she put one in her mouth to see if was done, and then wiped her face with her hand. It was hot in the kitchen: she remembers tears and sweat running down her face. Suddenly she saw him there looking crazy. Gelu had taken leave of his senses:
“Is that what you’re in the mood for?” he screamed.
And he ran to the stove and turned all the knobs.
“Is that what you’re in the mood for? At least you might have thought that there’ll be a lot of people here. Do you want them all to see you frying meat?”
And she stood by and let him turn off all the gas rings. She noticed that the meat had begun to fry... All she said was:
“Why are you rushing around like a lunatic? And why did you turn off the gas? Have you gone crazy? What’s it to you if people see me? Do you want good meat to go off, after I stood in line at five o’clock? Only I know how sad I was, queueing up to buy meat for my brother’s funeral… It would be better if I’d died instead of him. It was me who brought him up, me who was a mother to him, but meat goes off in a couple of hours in this heat unless you fry it. And what will you give that crowd this evening when they come back from the cemetery? 'Coz they’ll all come back, and what will your poor mother give them to eat? When good meat goes off it’s money down the drain. You’ve got to learn to respect it, like you should respect older people who know what’s what…”
Swallowing what she said, he muttered something and left. Ever since then he’s looked at her distrustfully, but you’ve got to know how to handle these teenagers. You can’t give them an inch or they’ll get completely out of control. Just as well she never had children of her own! Kids today aren’t afraid of anything; they have no shame at all…
“Well, I’m off too”, she says.
No point wasting any more time here: there’s no one to talk to and nothing to eat. Her sister-in-law is completely potty, with that big boy in the house; a big boy and nothing to feed him with. She should have made a big pot of food, with meat and sauce, so he’d have something to dip his bread in. And then she wonders why he’s so irritable and mopes around all the time!
Gelu looks puzzled as he gets up from his table. He was sure she’d spend the whole day bugging him, and now, when he sees her shuffling to the door bag in hand, he tries to say something but nothing comes into his head. He just traipses along behind her, digging his fingers into the palms of his hand; he never likes to make up with people, and anyway he hasn’t got any time for her today… If she wants to stay she can stay; if she wants to go she can go…
“You look like Napoleon in
Gelu too gives out a little laugh, still with some spite in it. He looks at her grey eyebrows; only now does he realize that she’s stopped dyeing them – since when, he doesn’t know. Her hair is also white at the roots, though still reddish as it thins out further up. He suddenly catches sight of her combing herself in front of the mirror that stands on the large heavy table; he sees on the washstand a white china mug that he likes as much as the oval photographs hanging on the wall, where the young bride and groom – Vica and Uncle Delcă – are looking at each other with shiny garlands on their heads. Their bedroom is visible in some of the pictures – the room in which he nevers set foot, because he can’t stand the smell of gas and damp that has got into their furniture and clothes.
How strange are his memories of the shop: it used to be so huge, with ceiling-high shelves. How he liked to play under the counter and watch with fascination the almost imperceptible movement of the scales! And that evening when they gave him a sack of green banknotes as tall as he was…
“Since the currency reform you can use them for anything - tear them up if you like.”
But the men stayed whispering in a corner, while Auntie Vica combed the hair hanging behind her over a chair; long hair, black and curly, which she hadn’t yet started to dye.
“I’ve taken my teeth out – that’s why I probably sound funny. I can’t stand wearing them for long. I really hate them and only put them on when I’m in the street, because otherwise people would see me and say: Look at that toothless old woman…”
“If you stay another hour Mum may be back.”
“No, I’ll come again another time – as soon as the weather gets better. Now that I’m out, maybe I’ll drop by and see Ivona for a bit.”
Now she’ll start the stories about her fancy ladies… He almost feels like laughing: his earlier irritability has gone. But she says nothing more, just carefully makes her way down holding on to the stair rail.“Look after yourselves”, she shouts back up the stairs. “Make sure you eat properly and stop moping around like that. That’s why you’re so tired and irritable.”