Sitting, drinking, smoking cigarettes
Somebody scrawled across the entire width of the asphalted area in front of the school in enormous capital letters: „Bauch is an ass and Krulerová is a cow!“ White on black, blazing out far and wide, obviously the absolute truth. It's not chalked, but painted in latex or something. They must have done it during the night. In the morning some blokes were shuffling around with buckets and scrubbing brushes, but all to no avail – it doesn't come off at all. Bauch is in a rage and interrogating anybody and everybody. The headmaster's office door is all aflap. And Krulerová would kill if she could. But she's normally like that anyway. She teaches Russian, looks like a concentration camp guard and acts like one too. She also works as a party chairwoman, they say. Once in the second year she caught me and Jůlie trying to get away about two hours before the end of lessons. We all have school passes – downstairs in the entrance hall the porter sits in his cubby hole and anybody who wants to leave early has to show him their special permission, which of course we didn't have, only this time it was Mr Samec who was sitting there and he's this nice old man who can always be talked round. Used to be a sailor. We'd planned to get chatting with him for a while and then he'd let us go, no problem. We were already going through the door when suddenly Krulerová pounced out from somewhere – I think she'd deliberately been lurking behind a pillar – and she wanted to see our special permission. She yelled at us like crazy and even pulled my hair. She dragged us straight off to Bauch in his office and things looked quite bad. Bauch bawled at us for some time and then shouted:
„Do you have an individual study programme?“
We didn't have a clue what he meant.
„What's that? Do you know?“ Jůlie whispered.
„No, I don't, maybe he means if we already know what we want to study at grammar school like, eh?
So we just nodded unsurely and Bauch said:
“Then I'm cancelling it!„
And threw us out. It was only when we were going over this with our classmates that we found out an individual study programme is what the sports pupils have, cos at this enormous grammar school of ours more than half the classes are for the sports pupils and us normal pupils are in a minority, we're just tacked on extra. All those top sports pupils thrash around all day long somewhere on gym mats or at stadiums and they only come into school occasionally when they have a bit of time and some paper saying when they have to come in. That's the individual study programme. Of course, we don't have anything like that so when Bauch ceremoniously cancelled it for us, nothing at all actually happened.
Everybody's terribly afraid of Bauch, both the teachers and the parents. Nobody can be sure of themselves in front of him. The late lamented David Grün used to say that the headmaster had this hideous three-piece suite in his office, which was covered in human skin for sure and that there were always enough individuals to be found who were willing to donate part of their buttocks if there was ever a need for a patch or two. That is an actual fact. But poor old David has had it now – they kicked him out at the end of last year for repeated absences. In the morning as everyone was guessing who the hero was that had written that up during the night, his name was also mentioned. Like perhaps he had come seeking vengeance, that would be just like him, he was never afraid of anybody, not even Bauch. But these are just rumours, nobody knows anything really. Well, whoever it was, he was a real big daredevil, you have to give him that. Nobody could concentrate on anything all day today and everybody kept stealing glances out of the window at the non-stop scrubbing work.
We did a test in maths and oh dear it's going to be another cock-up. I didn't even understand the questions properly, never mind the working-out. It's awful, all year I've had extra lessons in maths, three or four teachers have come and gone but nobody can do anything with me. I'm a complete idiot in that respect. They always say if only I just wanted to a bit…But it's not like that. Obviously I want to, if only just to finally get some peace, after all, it's such an awful waste of time! But I really simply don't understand it at all. Each time it's as if all the cogwheels in my head get out of sync, suddenly something in it jams and then it's as if somebody was speaking to me in a language I don't know at all. My eyes go dark, my head swells and swells, but it's completely empty inside. Silence and darkness. We are a humanities class, or at least "so-called humanities“, just like the bolsheviks say „so-called Solidarity“. In fact we are nothing but maths, physics and chemistry just the same. The difference between us and the others – the non-humanities – is only that, thank God, we don't have descriptive geometry. Instead of des geom we have Latin. And what's more, we don't have to take the final exam in maths. That's my only good fortune here, otherwise I wouldn't have a chance. We keep getting new teachers for maths, always the ones that are left over, that nobody else wants. You could say that just about every six months we have somebody new. Right now it's young Hamášek, a desperate case, even more overwhelmed by it all than we are. He can barely be heard, keeps tottering from one side to the other and looks terrible. He's awfully tall and thin, with a bald pate over his forehead and beyond that a mat of fair hair. He has another smaller wisp of hair under his nose – possibly an attempt at a moustache. He wears gigantic nylon-six slippers with bobbles that were obviously crocheted on by his mum, cos a giant like that could hardly have a girlfriend, and of course he's a terylene fiend. Looks just like one of those ear-cleaning rods they sell in East Germany. He also has thin, bird-like talons that he taps nervously on the blackboard, and every so often he squeezes his knuckles until they crack. Jůlie and I now have to sit in the front row as a punishment and when you look at this translucent pale green little face of his and listen to that crunching sound in the morning you sometimes feel quite sick. We've said to each other we're afraid that as he swings about like that he's definitely going to break in two at the waist and his top half is going to land right on our desk and slowly melt away. Still, better the top half than the bottom. He doesn't like us and complained at the parents' meeting. He told Dad he wasn't so bothered that we're no good at it and we don't pay attention, but if we could at least stop laughing at him. That's easy to say…But you just can't tell if you've been called to the front or told off. Instead of saying Součková or Molová, Hamášek will tense up with all his might and say something like Sou-ová, Mo-ová and that does it. You can't just sit there with a straight face. The other day he said:
„Now then, ta…“
To which we responded:
Only he'd probably wanted to say something like „talking in class again“ – so he got mad, called us trouble-makers and immediately ran off to complain to our form teacher.
Jůlie is not as badly off as I am, she understands it all pretty much, she just doesn't enjoy it. She gets a three on her report with no strain at all, whereas it takes me all my effort. Jůlie is from a family of scientists, Doctor Mol is an ornithologist, a specialist in avian digestion, and his two brothers are some kind of scientists too. Even their grandfather is a doctor of science. Krulerová once asked Jůlie what her father does – meaning his profession, in case they had to invite him to the school, and Jůlie said her father was a specialist in avian digestion. Ever since then we've called him Birdman. The Mols live at Ořechovka in this marvellous villa, which might not actually be theirs, but it is so wonderful. Jůlie and her elder sister each have their own room and Birdman even has his own workroom. The parents have an extra bedroom where nobody can go – they're quite sensitive about that. One time we were making theatre costumes and scenery at their place, there were about six of us and we needed some space, so we had it all spread out in almost all the rooms and when Mrs Molová came home she almost had a fit over how we'd used the bedroom too. I'm not very sure why she made such a fuss. We hadn't messed the place up or anything, we were just sitting on the floor cutting things out and sewing. But Mrs Molová shouted at Jůlie that it was a disgrace.
Oh well, they have their ways and some of them are a bit different from ours. When Jůlie was small, even before she was in the first form at primary school, the family were away for a year in America, Mr Mol had been invited to do some research at a university there and to this day Mrs Molová says „Jůlie take out the garbage“ when she wants her to empty the rubbish bin.
And so on. Jůlie went to nursery school there and ever since has been able to speak English and keeps waxing lyrical about America. But now they've come back, she's out of luck. One of her uncles, one of Mr Mol's brothers, stayed behind there and so Mr Mol is now in the party so he can carry on researching birds and travelling here and there, sometimes even abroad. Sure, I can understand, but I still don't like it much. My folks would never stoop to anything like that. And that's the way things look with us too. We're poor, they don't have proper work and at best we're allowed to go to Bulgaria. But that's okay, I would never hold that against them. If only they didn't argue over money and if only Mum didn't drink, or at least drank a bit less.
All four of the Mols are awfully tall. Mrs Molová is quite well-filled-out as well and she keeps telling Jůlie:
„You just wait, in a couple of years you'll be just like me. You take after me physically and there's nothing you can do about it.“
Poor Jůlie is always completely distraught about that, but so far she's definitely not fat, just very tall and that is quite enough to give her problems with the boys. When she first came to visit us in Zákopy several years ago, my brother went up to her and asked:
„Jůlie, could you come out in front of the house with me for a while?“ So Jůlie went out and there under the washing lines were ten little nippers just like Pepíček, and my brother proudly tells them:
„See what I mean? She's tall, eh?!!“
I thought I'd kill him. But it is a fact that whenever I visit them in Ořechovka I feel like Gulliver among the giants. They're a completely different species.
Jůlie hasn't been out with anybody yet, and nobody has fallen in love with her apart from Richard just now, but he's useless, so there's nothing much in store for her this year either. There's a need for something now, because it's making her sad and she's starting to get a bit out of it with some things. During the holidays she was afraid to use a tampon in case she lost her virginity and she didn't want to believe me when I told her there was no danger of that. She'd rather sit at the pondside all week skimming pebbles. Not surprising either, cos Mrs Molová has always acted as if she reproduced by division. I don't know why Jůlie doesn't go over it all with Hanka – she's already had her second or third boyfriend, so she definitely knows her way round. We chat about these things now and then, only I'm no big expert either and tampons are possibly the only thing I've been sure about for a few years. The summer after the first year our family went to Romania and when my mother saw that I couldn't go swimming, she suddenly brought out a box of tampons, said „here, take this“ and shoved me into the bathroom with them. We'd never spoken about it before and she always looked like she reproduced by division too. I took one out, looked at it from all sides, put it back in the box and came back out of the bathroom.
„So?“ she wanted to know, „did you take one?“
„No,“ I don't know how to do it.„
Mum shook her head in disbelief and reluctantly explained to me where it has to go. This got me angry.
“I am not doing that!" I protested. „You mean any time I want to pee I have to run from the beach to the hotel to go to the toilet? No chance. I'd rather not go swimming.“
„Goodness, why? Why should you run to the hotel?“
„To take it out and put it back in again. I'd just as well stay and read.“
Eventually there was nothing else for it but for Mum to explain with distaste for the first time in my life that there are two holes down there and that you pee from a different one. All flushed, she squirmed like a snake and peevishly asked:
„How come you don't know? What on earth do they teach you at that school?“
We've never talked about those things since then and from what I understand we never will. We haven't made an inch of progress from the birds and the bees.
Then in our bookcase I found this green brochure called „Happy Marriages“ written by some Hungarian and about as understandable as Hungarian. Among other things there's this black and white picture with the caption: „Cross section of the female sexual organs,“ but it might just as well be a cross section of a kitchen blender or a pencil sharpener. It would work out exactly the same. The cross section of the male sexual organs might be a bit clearer, but it's still not up to much. Once when for the first time ever I saw a pervert on Letná, it took me quite a long time to realize what he had in his hand. I was sitting with Vlasta Musilová and Zuza Ptáčková on a park bench before lessons. Vlasta was just telling us that she had a boyfriend with a car and that she'd been on a trip with him somewhere all afternoon and her mother suspected she might perhaps have let herself go in the car with him. Vlasta said she was offended and asked her mother:
„What, in a Trabant, Mum?!!“
She was showing off awfully while Zuza, not to be outdone, was also bragging away, when suddenly this strange bloke in a raincoat came shuffling up, walked past us and suddenly opened up his coat. He had something inside but it was hard to say what it was, as it was just for a moment. Nobody said anything so I didn't either. I was far from sure what I had actually seen. After a while he came from the opposite direction, stopped in front of us, did it again and stood there for quite a long time. Eventually we got up and went off to school. But the girls still didn't say anything, not even a word, as if they had seen nothing at all. I wanted to ask them if they'd seen it too, I knew they had, and if it was THAT…But since they didn't say anything and I didn't know what to call it, it struck me as awkward. I felt that the word „wee wee“, which was the only one used at home now and then in connection with my brother was not entirely appropriate for what we had seen, but there again I couldn't think of any other expression that wasn't dreadfully vulgar. „Male sexual organs“ wasn't the right one either and besides, before I got to the end of it the bell would have rung long ago, and I only remembered the word „penis“ two hours later during physics. It's been scrawled in the physics classroom, on the desk in the middle at the back where I sit, and drawn on top. And I was never entirely sure if that was actually it, because in all the pictures that I had ever seen and on my brother too it always appeared completely different. Until I read in Hrabal about some retarded boarder from a home wielding his erect organ like a veal shank – and it all finally made sense.
Well, that was a long time ago and since then I've seen at least twenty of those perverts with their veal shank in their hand. I walk to school, at least from the river bank, across Stalin and the park to the tile house, so I come across them all the time. I also know where they're most often hidden, so usually I'm not even very startled. It's not pleasant, but you get used to it. The path across Letná is so marvellous whatever the season and I don't want to lose that – and most beautiful of all is now in the autumn. It's just at this time that the leaves begin to change colour. It's a bit blowy in the morning now, but there's still a little sunshine and I think best when I'm walking. When I don't actually have to learn something at the last minute, I just look and enjoy it. That's when most poems come to me, almost all of them are „walked out“, and I just write them down at my desk.
Zuza also travels in from Smíchov, sometimes we arrange to meet up and go together, either walking all the way or travelling under Stalin, depending on how much time there is. Zuza tells me which Chartists her Dad has been defending again, usually in vain, but at least he tries to do something for them, he's a likable bloke. Zuza wants to get into law and do the same as he does. When I was in the first year, I was thinking of doing something like that. I was thinking I might study law or theology, so I could do something against all this nastiness. Either become a famous lawyer, like Doctor Ptáček, and do that the same way or become a priest and bend the congregation's ear to say they can't leave things the way they are and to tell them what they should do about it. I still thought that I knew. True, I could only be a priest in the Czechoslovak Hussite Church or something, because the Catholics don't take women, but that wouldn't bother me. I've already seen myself up at the pulpit – a real Jan Hus. What's worse is that I don't believe in Jesus Christ, that might well be a bit of a hindrance for a priest after all. For a while I said to myself that nobody actually had to know about that – I'd be doing it for completely different reasons in any case, but then I came to the conclusion that it's simply not on, because in the end it would work out almost the same as the party card owned by all those bastards who stopped believing in it a long time ago, but who have thousands of very important reasons why they still have it. They are actually the ones who are most responsible for it all. It would simply be a fraud. And nothing will come of being a lawyer either, because in the first place I wouldn't enjoy studying law and in the second place they wouldn't take me anyway. But they might take Zuza. Up at Stalin we sometimes have a smoke, look out over Prague and talk about how its beauty is so awfully treacherous, because it stops you from giving up on everything and trying to get away, even though you know you will probably end up badly here and nothing is ever likely to change. We're going to flounder around here senselessly all our lives and eventually die without at least seeing Paris once. („You'll waste your time in Paris, it's round the corner, Paris!“) Kafka called it a „dear little mother with claws“ – in those days it was still cool. Kafka actually died in time, though to judge by his books, perhaps he already sensed something. But looking over the city like that in the morning with a cigarette at Stalin, we feel quite good. From a height it doesn't look so tragic. You have the feeling that everything is lying at your feet, that you could even fly if you wanted and that anything can happen, any miracle. It always only lasts for a little while, ten minutes later at the tile house suddenly it's good-bye to all miracles, but it's worth it. That's the main reason why I walk both in summer and winter, even though Letná is full of perverts and plainclothes cops, because the Interior Ministry is right opposite us, also known as the tile house. Interestingly, the perverts don't bother the cops – they don't interest them in the least, even though they obviously know about them. Aye, not only on Letná, the whole country is full of perverts and plainclothes cops.
Sitting, drinking, smoking cigarettes