A Source of Sheer Pleasure
A June like that will burn the brain out of your head. For the last time Marie Procházková wrung out her wet rag, straightened out her bent back with an effort and wiped her perspiring brow with an elbow. So peace and quiet again for a while. The lobby was clean. Suddenly she realized that she had forgotten the corridor. She still had to beat the mat, sweep and clean. At least on this floor, at least in the small space between their flat and Mrs Tuháčková‚s. She had to do it, there was nothing else for it.
Grudgingly she opened the door and carried the bucket into the corridor. Rather reproachfully she then cast her gaze at the sparkling new nameplate with the inscription Luděk Procházka, as if it were Luděk Procházka himself, her husband and the father of her son Petr, who was responsible for all her troubles, including the floor cleaning of course.
„Aye, Procházka, he‘ll be doing all right, he'll be lounging around somewhere by the waterside,“ she thought.
Actually, she was doing her husband an injustice and was aware of this in a corner of her mind, but she needed to let off steam. It was indeed true that Luděk Procházka and her nine-year-old son Petr had gone off to the cottage at Little Dungsby the day before, but only because Marie had wanted them to. She had decided to stay in Prague a day longer, so that she could clean the whole flat, she said, adding that she didn't want to come back to a dirty mess after the holidays. They offered to help her so that they could all go off together, but Marie refused, saying she would rather do everything herself in peace and quiet. She taught Czech and music at second level in primary school and now the day after the end of the school year, her need for solitude was really urgent. At least for a while, at least for a single day. And yet despite everything, as she had now been crawling along the cold floor-tiles here for two hours, rag in hand, in her washed-out skirt and an old stripey t-shirt she now felt slightly aggrieved, even though she was far from sure what she would like to be doing instead if she could choose.
Hastily, and rather sloppily for a teacher, she finished cleaning the corridor, and knowing that nobody would see her she impulsively pulled out her tongue at Mr Procházka's neat nameplate. Anyway, she thought, whatever happens, a woman is always worse off in a marriage. Luděk is quite a good man, quite considerate, he tries…but it still isn't… She stopped and sniffed the air, suddenly realizing that there was an unusual smell in the corridor. A pleasant, very pleasant scent. Before closing the door to her flat she again breathed in deeply.
She made coffee, lit a cigarette and thought back to the smell. There was definitely some tobacco in it, perhaps some cologne and most probably – why not? – a little sweat. It evoked in her some kind of indistinct, half-buried memories. She felt agitated. She rose and went to open the door into the corridor again – she still had to flatten the mat as it had surely dried out by now. Then she went back to her coffee. It didn't matter what it was exactly, the main thing was clear: there was the fine smell of a stranger out there in the corridor.
She remembered that as she was cleaning she'd heard the front door bang, somebody coming up the stairs and ringing at the neighbour's. He shuffled around for a while on the landing, rang again and then went down the stairs again. She didn't pay any attention. She was not the incurably curious, eternally watchful concierge type who runs to the door at every rustle and tries to check out visitors on any excuse. She would never do anything like that. She did not even look through the spyhole and now she almost regretted it.
Something made her stand up again. This time she went off into the bedroom and stood there in front of the large carved-wooden-framed mirror. Furtively, she looked at herself.
„I don't know,“ she said out loud. She released her fair hair from its elastic band, letting it fall loose in thick locks over her shoulders. It's better like that, but all the same…"
Frowning, she looked at her rather small, yet large-breasted, all-womanly figure. It might still be quite nice, but then again it might not be. She really did not know. She was thirty-five and just as unsure of her own appearance as when she was fifteen. By all indications men liked her and showed it quite frequently. But the ideal of the age was elsewhere entirely to be sure. Dozens of adverts and magazines tried to persuade her of this every day. She should slim, she should dress differently and she shouldn't have such long hair at that age, even though at school she wore it in a smooth bun. She basically went around dressed almost the same as fifteen years ago when she was a student. She knew she looked inappropriate but she didn't want to do anything about it even though she maybe should have. Quite the reverse, she would most happily have gone around dressed like her great-grandmother Agnes in the framed photograph that hung in the bedroom next to the mirror.
Her coffee had gone cold and was no good for anything. The flat was in hopelessly perfect order. Suddenly she did not know what to do. For a while she rummaged around helplessly in the larder until she eventually poured herself a tot of whisky. She had to open it first. That's degeneracy – Luděk would be surprised, she thought with a strange sense of satisfaction. Whisky did not strike her as anything special, but that wasn't the point. Why had she actually stayed? It wasn't because of the cleaning, she knew that.
She remembered the previous weekend. They hadn't gone anywhere and just led a normal family life. A bit of shopping in the morning then some cooking. In the afternoon they went for a walk and in the evening they even went to the pictures. It was nice, they didn't argue and yet she was not happy. Ever since Saturday she had been trembling inside with a quiet grudge, without knowing exactly what or whom she actually had it against. It had increased, at night they had almost argued when after a day that Luděk considered to be exceptionally successful, she had no desire to make love and could not even explain why in any way. Things and events seemed to be losing their firm outlines, as if they were losing sense.
And then Sunday…a day full of sun just a short time before the start of the holidays. On Sunday morning she had literally felt faint. But why, for heaven's sake? She didn't know. In the evening she watched a stupid American love film while she ironed and during the closing credits tears as large as peas were rolling down her husband's shirts. That's bad then – thing's are in a sorry state, she realized. But she was far more disquietened by several totally inappropriate questions like: Have I ever experienced anything like that? Will I ever experience that? Will anybody ever love me like that? Fortunately, she retained enough common sense not to express any of them out loud. But they stayed hanging in the air, not contributing all that much to the contentment of her married life.
The baking hot end of June struck her as affront of all decent middle-aged
people! A formless mass of groundless melancholy slowly started to take the
shape of two pallid faces: an unmet promise and a wasted opportunity. Since that
weekend she had not ceased to be enveloped by a kind of mist, which did not
allow her to see things sharply and clearly, while separating her off from other
people as if with a subtle but still visible screen. So she had stayed in town.
She had a feeling that she should sort this out herself. But it was not going
well because she did not know what it was exactly. So the only thing she had
thought of so far was the big clean-up that she had just finished.
The whisky wasn't so bad after all. But she would not have any more. Just one thing was floating through Marie's emptied mind now – the pleasant smell of the stranger. And to her surprise the idea of sex suddenly came to her. Although there was nothing strange about that she felt ashamed. So that's the way it is, she said to herself, I've got that kind of secret…! For more than ten years she had not had another man apart from her own, she took that as a matter of course and didn't need to exert any control. Surprisingly, she had not even desired another. Until now.
How often had she felt odd during her colleagues' steamy discussions? Usually she felt more embarrassed for them, but it still occurred to her a couple of times that she herself might be the odd one out after all. But now that she herself had just thought of something like that, she felt even odder. Would that really be the kind of release and pleasure that she was missing?
She was neither particularly naive nor entirely without experience. By the age of twenty-five, when she married, she had managed to do all kinds of things and in the end she did marry somebody she got on with exceptionally well even after all these years. At least until recently. She had simply been faithful for ten years. Is there really anything so special about that? For a change of scene she headed for the bathroom. She rinsed her face in cold water and wondered if she should also clean her teeth after the tot of whisky. She pulled a face and bared her teeth in front of the mirror. At that moment the bell rang. Without thinking about it she went and opened the door wide.
The man stood at the threshold. That man. He wore a white t-shirt and many-pocketed canvas trousers, with a sweater wrapped round his waist. He must have been around forty. As soon as she opened the door, the polite smile that he had ready on his face froze unnaturally.
„Good morning,“ he said and instead of carrying on smoothly he looked at her and somehow lost it all. God, she's nice, he said to himself, and she looks, she looks…, it's strange, but she looks as if she has quite a job not to throw herself around my neck.
„Good morning,“ she said. „What did you…did you want?“ she assayed.
„I just wanted to ask…but excuse me, is something the matter?“
„No, no, nothing,“ she blurted out. „I was just, you know, cleaning the floor and…“
„I see,“ said the stranger, quickly recovering his composure after hesitating several seconds.
„Excuse me, I do apologize for disturbing you but I just wanted to ask if by any chance you know where Mrs Tuháčková is.“
„I'm afraid I don't.“
„I see,“ said the man, „oh well, nothing doing then, doesn't matter, it's just that she, Mrs Tuháčková, is my aunt and I…“
„Come in,“ she said, surprised at her own words, „so we're not standing in the doorway.“
„Well, I don't know…oh all right then, thank you. Hold on, I'll take my sandals off if you've just cleaned.“
She protested but the man bent down, undid his sandals and entered the lobby barefoot. He closed the door behind him quietly and stood there.
„She's my aunt, as I was saying,“ he continued, „I wanted to stop off at her place and leave her something. I bring her things now and then, I…“
„I'll make coffee, she might come in the meantime.“
„Oh I don't know – I didn't want to disturb you – I don't want to keep you.“
„You're not keeping me,“ she said. „I've finished now. And I'm here on my own. Come.“
„She immediately took fright at what she was saying. Why was she telling him that she was alone? God, how embarrassing. But it was done now. She made the coffee and she was glad to be still on her feet. Whenever she glanced at him, she shuddered. Pleasantly. The worst of it was that she caught the same thing in his eyes. She knew it as surely as her age and place of residence. She glimpsed in them a reflection of his desire for her as well as her desire for him. She saw that he wanted her and that he knew she wanted him. She did not know why it was like that but it was like that. She felt it had grown dark and that heavy storm clouds were floating through the white kitchen.
“You smoke?" he half asked, half stated, when she reached for a cigarette in embarrassment.
„Can I too? Will it not bother you?“
She shook her head.
He pulled out a pipe and the ritual involved in lighting it gave her a momentary release from his knowing eyes. God, what now? What's he going to do? She couldn't just act all dumb with him… Or could she? And who on earth was he? He was so strange. He looked different to other men she knew. But why? What was he? He probably wasn't a lawyer, accountant, office worker or anything like that. He wasn't a tired family man…Definitely not. Could he possibly be a detective? It was childish of her, but he struck her as some kind of character from a book or film. She couldn't help it.
„Do you and my aunt know each other?“ he asked.
„Just passingly. We let on and that. I've talked with her a couple of times. We haven't lived here long – just a couple of months.“
„Ah, just asking. She doesn't have anybody now, so I come and visit when I can. Mostly in winter.“
„Are you not from Prague?“
„Yes, I am. It's just that I don't get round here very often.“
Perhaps he was a traveller or something, she thought. That would be all right…We'll just say once…, just the once and never again. Or maybe do it again in a year's time. Just once a year, no speeches, no promises, no commitments. No pretences of any kind. A moment of sheer pleasure and that's that. She would not have wanted anything else. She didn't want anything to develop, maintain or resolve. Definitely not.
She stood up and he approached to light her cigarette. She thought she would faint. She didn't, but she did blush. They did not avoid a light touch. They stood close to each other. He looked at her unruly hair and wondered if he should touch it – if he had understood everything correctly and if now was the right moment. She could sense it.
„I'm a teacher,“ she said all of a sudden, as if she wanted to try to stay his hand with this single silly word.
„So?“ he asked with an imperceptibly sly smile.
For a moment he hesitated and then he made a mistake. He liked her dreadfully and he wanted her dreadfully, so against his usual habits he decided not to take any chances, so as not to scare her off.
„Me? I'm an accountant and tax advisor. Sort of,“ he said.
„Aha,“ she said quietly and stepped back. She leant on the kitchen range. The storm was over.
He saw, heard and felt that the moment was over. Something had happened. Maybe he shouldn't have lied. Hell. He didn't know what to do.
„Perhaps I should be going then,“ he said. „Auntie's not coming.“
She did not prevent him. He picked up a plastic bag. „If you don't mind, I'd like to leave a couple of little things for her here. Can I?“
„Of course,“ she nodded.
„Thank you, thank you for the coffee and everything. Pleased to meet you,“ he said.
„Don't mention it, me too“ she answered.
„On the threshold he stopped, rummaged in his pockets and brought out a little wooden pendant – an Amazon parrot with red plumage. He hung it round her neck.
“For good luck," he said. They shook hands. Marie Procházková closed the door, leant her back against it and slowly slid down to the ground. She sat there on the newly washed floor with tears rolling down her cheeks again.
Next morning she called at her neighbour's with her travel bag slung over her shoulder. The old lady, neat and smiling as always, appeared at the door in a moment.
„Oh, it's you, Marie, good morning. Have you brought me something?“
„Good morning, Mrs Tuháčková. Yes, I have. I do happen to have brought you something. Your nephew was round yesterday and he sends you this. He left it at our place,“ she said, giving her the plastic bag.
„Thank you, you are very kind,“ said her neighbour. „So Adam was here. I am sorry. That is rotten luck! You see, you're stuck at home all year round and just when you go off to a friend's once in a while then that happens. Why he doesn't phone, the rascal, I do not know. I would have waited in for him.“
„I am sorry, but he'll surely be round to visit again sometime.“
„Oh he will, he will, but not for six months or a year. Now it's summer he probably just flew in from somewhere for a day or two that he just managed. You see, Marie, he's a sailor, so he's always away somewhere.“
„Yes, a sailor. A qualified engineer, but he got into that. He's been travelling round the world for fifteen years. Otherwise he's a good lad, he writes and comes to visit when he can. As I say, he's good, but what's the point? He didn't keep his family together. You know, hardly surprising in that job. But here I am making speeches and holding you back. I see you're going somewhere too. Where are you off to, if I may ask?“
„Me? I'm off to Little Dungsby,“ said Marie Procházková sadly. „Following my husband – he's already there.“