Monday, May 14, 2007


I remember walking down the Chotkova that morning. How it wound, descended, the leaves in splendid piles over the footpath, the sun gently lighting the colours of the buildings, the soft reds and creams.
The previous evening, we arrived late. We did not eat much on the train. When I showed the address to the taxi driver outside the station, his face looked puzzled for a moment, its wrinkled and melancholy features moving over the written words. Then in broken German he asked if we were paying in Marks.

The following morning, I went to the window and pulled back the heavy curtains. I saw for the first time the street that the night before had been hidden in darkness. Steam was rising and in front of the building, stood a small square full of bare trees. Parked outside the window, was a battered, light blue Skoda. After getting up and showering, she applied a thin covering of lipstick to her lips, quickly brushed her hair. Then I put on a heavy overcoat and pulled a woollen hat down around my ears.

On the street, she took the map from her pocket and handed it to me. First we crossed a small railway with the rails disappearing into early morning mist. We heard a bell and saw the front of something that looked like a tram appear, saw it tilt as it rounded a bend and slowly headed for the crossing. Then we went along a wide street, passing a football stadium before turning to our right and beginning to feel the pavement under our feet slipping downwards, realised we were descending.

We left the Chotkova and found themselves on a series of narrow, side streets. We came to a green area with a metro station and thought the river should be nearby. She stopped and asked to see the map, but I assured her I knew where we were going. Checking street names every now and then, we arrived at a small bridge set in an intersection of streets. On the bridge there were two girls looking down into the water, down at the surface sprinkled with leaves and on which two white swans swam. A little way in front of us, running to the left was the northern end of the Karlûv Most. We did not go along it. Instead, we turned right, walked up a short hill until we arrived at a square with an old, gold-brown building, and a church. It was a square formed by buildings with shadowy pavements under archways, and a square cut in two by a tram line. On the corner was a cafe and I remember its name because it was in English not Czech and was called the White Eagle.

We ordered bread with ham and eggs, toast and jam, two glasses of orange juice and four cups of coffee.
Finishing before her, I smoked a cigarette, watched and looked about me. Tapping my fingers on the table, I turned the map over, saw the pictures, the tours offered, what there was to do, and for a moment felt a sense of familiarity, felt a recognition, as if it were really no different from home. This surprised me and I wondered what else I had expected and then wondered what she would like to do. Next to us a couple spoke rapidly in German but no-one took much notice. Standing, I paid. Then we returned from where we had come, this time crossing the bridge.

The sun had disappeared behind the cloud and the river stretched away to both sides. In places it rushed over what looked like weirs. It was only there I could see the speed with which it moved, see the power it held, not in any way apparent from the slow surface beneath the bridge. I stood and looked and felt cold and then heard music coming from my left. She had already moved a little way away from me and I looked and saw a group of middle-aged men playing dixie jazz, and a crowd gathered in front of them, and among the street sellers, near where she stood, a French woman turned to her companion declaring it was, `vraiment amusante.'.

We walked on and the sun reappeared. I did not want to stop so we crossed streets and alleys, coasted along the river until coming to a bridge that was cordoned off, that we gathered was being repaired. Then we paused while she consulted our guide book, while she looked at the building we were in front of, its ornamented pillars, its baroque elegance. She explained it was a famous concert hall and that in August 1968 a philosophy student set himself on fire in front of it in protest at the Soviet occupation. In the reflection of its doors I could see the letters from a neon sign the other side of the street, see the Czech words that I did not understand and were in any case reversed. Beside me someone was bending down and taking a photograph, and I imagined how it should look, thought the glass should be black and the letters should swim in it with a whiteness and the stone should come out grey and grainy.
She said she wanted to rest and could sit for a bit so we found somewhere to have a coffee and I loosened my coat and watched her drink. I watched the reassuring sight of her head bend over the cup, the ring on the fingers that grasped the white porcelain handle and I smiled at her and she smiled back, looking a little puzzled.

She finished and we crossed the river again, climbed until we came to the palace. On the stepped street upwards I looked back over the city and marvelled at the weave of roofs, at the sloping park, the trees planted in lines on rolling grass. The river twisted and turned below, curled between the rise of spires, the air seemingly thicker in places. A young woman sat on a corner with an open case in front of her and a cap, manipulating some brightly painted puppets, making them dance and move in quick jerky actions. We stood and watched and she dropped some money in the cap, turned to me, her face flushed with the cold and climbing, and I thought again how good she looked.

Further up we passed a small stone house covered in burgundy ivy, its walls almost completely hidden. We looked over into its garden, saw a patio area tangled in apple trees, their branches no longer full. Here and there some pulpy looking fruit remained lying on the ground.

On the road back we swung to the right, finding ourselves on the Malá Strana. Its pathways wound up and down, its trees with their shed leaves caught the light of the afternoon, obscured the city below us. Finding a bench, we sat, enjoying the colours, the sense of the city, its sounds carrying on the cold air. I liked the way it lay nestled between the hills around, felt I was discovering it, yet it had always been there, and I had always known it was there, and that it conformed to some sense of a city I carried within me. I put my arm around her and she moved close to me, began to talk about home, about the new apartment we were going to buy, but I put my finger over her mouth and said to her it could wait. We walked a little more, hand in hand, the air getting colder, then took the metro back to the rooms we had rented for the couple of days and slept for a while.

When I woke, she was already up, sitting in front of the small mirror, her hands resting across her knees. Through the window the mist had gathered again. I went over and stood behind her and for a moment saw her face and my face, and saw her find me in the reflection, her eyes meet my eyes, saw her lift her hand and lightly touch my fingers on her shoulder, as if in the mirror we were in another world and looking at ourselves in this world, as if we were only real in that world and that was the way it had always been.

We left the room and I paused in the hallway before locking the door. I was aware of the old, high roof, the wide, wooden stairway rising to my left. I felt for a moment I was waiting for something, that it was as though I expected something I knew was going to happen to happen. But nothing happened.
In front of a shaky looking table, a young man was peering at a pile of post. The key suspended in my hand, I watched him put his bag to the floor, carefully go through all the letters and suddenly there was the smell of boiled vegetables on the clinging, dusty air, the smell of simple cooking and I felt an almost crushing sense of melancholy.

On the street we retraced our steps. We crossed the Karlûv Most, the river now lost in fog, the lights along its banks strangely diffused in irregular patches. We came to the Staromestské Námestí, crossed the old town square again, took a right until we were on the Národni.

Finding a restaurant, we were shown to a table beside a high, curtained window. Despite the dim lights I noticed the decor was faded, how the atmosphere was almost of another world, another time. My eyes fell to her hands, I heard the rattle of her bracelet, heard her say she was feeling cold, that maybe we had walked too much on our first day. And at the same time was aware of a curious sensation of it being spring, thought of lilac trees blooming, of hedges wild along pathways, of the light lingering longer each evening over country roads, over mountains. Though through the window, it was autumn, late autumn and the shapes on the street were shadows, emerging only in detail beneath street lamps; a face under a hat, a woman on the arm of a man, a stranger in a long coat with an umbrella stepping by quickly.

Then suddenly I felt disoriented. I answered her sharply as she again brought up the subject of the new apartment. I turned to her to see her looking at me, her forehead creased in frustration. I apologised, attempted a smile but felt I did not manage it convincingly. For a moment I wondered if I myself was convinced and the thought of the apartment annoyed me even more and I said to her I was getting up to find the bathroom.

When I came back she was quietly staring out the window. The waiter came and we ordered soup and bread. She chose chicken, but I asked for fish, because it was shark from the Baltic and I felt curious and wanted to try something I had never had before. As the waiter walked away, I called him back and asked if I could have a glass of a beer.

We waited and I was unsure what to say. I asked her what she wanted to do when we were finished eating but she did not know. At the table next to us two men were eating. From their language, their accent, from the neatly ironed work shirts, the freshly laundered jeans, I guessed they were North Americans. They were talking business loudly, were talking about the city as if it were in some state of stasis, talking about the city as if it were something awaiting their magical touch. I imagined these men on the metro, imagined them sitting among the silent faces, the stoical faces and the small metal sign above the door through to the each carriage carrying the letters CCCP, the symbols of what once had been to them an enemy state. I wondered if they would have seen that, wondered if they would have noticed that small detail as I had. Small details, I thought, are sometimes all the more important because they are small details, because one does not always notice them at first. Sometimes small details reveal the hidden world behind the world one thought one knew. Then I wanted to turn to her and tell her what I was thinking, tell her there is no magic touch, the magic is always there, change was in how you look at things and that we do not always look hard enough. She was lifting a glass of water to her mouth, her eyes somewhere else so I said nothing.


When the day is over I will take the lift, return to our new apartment. I will open the door onto its quietness and will think of the evening to come and how my father is coming over. She has asked me to do something about that. She does not like when we sit and watch the football together. And beneath my father's grey, thinning brows his eyes will get angry and he will complain that the footballers of today get paid too much and are more interested in the advertising on their shirts, are more interested in creating an impression than playing. Then he will take a drink from one of the cans of beer he always brings with him and want to talk politics.
There will be the lights of the city burning through the window and the night falling and below beneath the glow of the street lamps, rows of neatly parked cars alongside the footpath that leads to the park. My stomach will tighten, will tense as I think how later I will walk my father to the door, will watch from the balcony as he strolls stiffly the short distance to the tram halt, something he always insists on doing himself; the same tram he always takes home alone.
Turning back in the doorway, there will be a moment when I think of my work, my life, my relationship. I will think of myself in the city as though swimming through it below sea, underwater, as if sometimes looking for ways of surfacing for air.
Then it will be the morning again and maybe the sun will shine over the buildings, the sky will be blue and in the winter a white blue and I will feel for an instant there is a fire within me and step onto the pavement and hear the traffic in the morning stillness, already the cars in lines along the junction. I will put the key into the door and throw my briefcase onto the backseat and then turn on the radio. I will push on the accelerator, will edge out onto the motorway, will pull the phone from my pocket, hear it peep as I punch in numbers, wait for the voice and leave a message wondering if my colleague will get it.
Over the edge of the motorway the city will come into view and the flatness and the trains crisscrossing the flatness and the offices rising with their clean, sharp edges will seem to cut right into the sky.
I will do this every day and each day, will pass every week until it is weekend and we go to the supermarket and stock up with groceries. I will spend some time picking out a good wine and will eventually agree to do something about my father's visits. Then we will drive home and I will be seized by a sudden impulse to go into the bathroom and look at my face in the mirror, will look at the hair beginning to grey on my temples, at the wrinkles beginning to spread from the corners of my eyes. I will wonder if she was right when once she said I lacked direction, decisiveness. Until I reach up and pull the cord extinguishing the thin fluorescent strip of light. Until I hesitantly close the door behind me. Wondering what it is I am closing a door on.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington

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