English short stories
GRANNY IN THE PICTURES
I regularly show my friends pictures of my Gran. Ever since she has lived with us, I have spent whole days delighting in her bits of dottiness, and I constantly take snaps of her, from every possible angle and in every possible situation, then I have the nerve to show them off to all and sundry. It’s childish of me, I know; I know people laugh at me behind my back for doing it, but I just can’t help it. Look here! Look how comic Gran is when she eats! Smears it all over herself! Her clothes get covered in cocoa; she’ll spit out a huge jet of tomato soup all over the floor. Ever since she worked out how to do it, there’s no stopping her. Isn’t that charming? And it‘s sweet the way she’s quite capable of turning the place upside down in hunting for some old paper or other. She’s so feather-brained we have our work cut out clearing up after her! This one’s of granny in the bathtub. She cacked her sanitary towel so she had to be scrubbed; a real bunny rabbit, the way she’s goggling! Mind you, she always looks like then when she isn’t wearing her specs. Yes, that’s her false teeth on the side of the tub. Such a scamp when she’s smiling without the teeth in. She talks, of course—all kinds of delightful stuff. She calls cars limousines, trams electric tramcars, talks about hansom cabs, bloomers and pomaded hair—that’s her vocabulary, those are the sorts of words she uses. It’s her way of explaining what to her is the incomprehensible world of grown-ups. It’s such an odd feeling for someone to be so dependant on me that it takes up my days. Now I can’t even imagine what it will be like when she pops off, ten or fifteen years from now.
Typical sow-hackers, that’s us. You would think, at first, what a fitting description that is. An average local gang of us, one’s a doctor, one an engineer, one a teacher and one a shopkeeper. Nothing shows on us at first glance, but the minute one of us has the ball taken off him, he’ll slide-tackle back, making straight for the tackler’s ankles. Obviously with no intention of aiming for the ball. He will pick himself up with a contented grunt, but by now on all fours like any self-respecting wild boar. The other bloke, of course, will take revenge, and at the first opportunity that offers sinks his studs into the ribcage at full power, a glint of mocking malice in his piggy eyes as he does it. As time passes there are more and more wild pigs on the pitch, which doesn’t thrill me because it’s not long before I too am down on all fours. In the end only the two goalies are left in human form, and the final whistle goes when one of the wild pigs crosses the ball. Together with one of the goalies, and the fellow’s legs snaps in two. We dunk our snouts in the blood and stamp red stud-marks everywhere on the floorboards, but to no avail: every collective has its own little rituals. Anyone who thinks that the change back starts at the end of the game is in for a disappointment. In the changing room, each is piggier than ever, with boasting about sexual escapades, male members being measured up, and competitions in sending steaming jets down the porcelain. Then someone will starting bitching about our goalie, wondering how creatures like that can bear to exist, they all ought to be exterminated. There’s loud assent, and someone drags in the still writhing torso of the legless fellow. We tuck in with relish then go off to have a good shower. The locals have got used to our sight, and no one gets picky as we make tracks, amidst lively grunting, towards the nearest hostelry.
The other day, while surfing on the internet at work as a bit of a break, more or less by chance I came across a very interesting home page. My pulse beat harder as I clicked in turn on the pictures. Photos of female brains of every conceivable description. Brains of secretaries, waitresses, schoolgirls, nurses, schoolmistresses, tractor-driving girls, housewives. Female brains covered by mysterious satin and silk veils or palm-sized stretch material, at times with no more than the curves of the convolutions being hinted at through the fabric, at other times the forms being spread quite nakedly before one. Brains in the light and the shade, on the sea shore and in the kitchen, in alcoves, in the bathroom and in the office, in misty art photographs, poor-quality amateur snapshots or razor-sharp exposures. In some cases two or three almost throbbing veined hemispheres, higgledy-piggledy, in alluring poses; in others, together with male brains, just in the act of exchanging ideas, brazenly, in full public view. I could not breathe, my throat was dry, my pulse raced, beads of sweat formed on my brow. I heard a noise so, hands trembling, I hastily closed the window lest anyone should catch me. Meanwhile it flashed through my mind that the other day my male colleagues made mention, with great sniggers, of there being a home page where they put female souls on display, in full colour, so it was said, mauve-coloured, each one like the outspread wings of a butterfly.
I smoked a second lousy cig at the garden gate, by the dustbin. Having carefully ground it out under the heels of my slipper, I tossed the dog-end and that of previous cig into the bin. I then scrubbed the sole of my slippers on the flagstones lest I carry any dirt onto the wall-to-wall carpeting. A voice inside me said screw this for a life if it’s always me that gets the hassle for being to blame for every single thing, so I’m hanged if I’ll go in, let her come out and apologize. Another voice said, you’re a real dummy, old chap, the missus is only looking after your own good. Who else would go so far to look after you? What you did was real stupid, you blew a fuse, and she told you so straight to your face, without a hint of sarcasm. Just go in and hug her. Who knows, if you give her a hug maybe there’ll be more to come; after all, it’s the weekend, there’s plenty of time, provided you don’t drag it out. An ambulance siren was wailing somewhere, you couldn’t even see it, just hear it and make a guess which way it was headed through the suburb, with the howls of the dogs chasing it like the flame on a detonating fuse. It was the same hysterical yap they make at other times when barking at the Moon, with the whining spreading from street to street in the echoing night. So here goes, let’s go in and get it over with. Hang on, I’m damned if I’ll go in, not in your wildest dreams. Don’t bother counting, or count to a hundred for all I care. All you have to do is beg her pardon, over and out. But why is it always me who has to beg to be pardoned? Well, you were the jerk, after all. Too damned right, I was a jerk, but I’ll still take my time and smoke a third, I’ve got a right to a bit of peace, haven’t I? Absolutely, but then straight inside! Straight in, I nodded pensively in the wreath of smoke. Meanwhile the siren wail left off, though the dogs, having wound themselves up, were not letting it go quite that easily. They carried on yapping; indeed, a furious yelping suddenly joined in from somewhere. The dustbin lid clattered, I set off inside with a sigh. It must have been then that it happened, just as so many have related it so many times, in a thousand different ways, the ambulance door flew open, a pack of dogs broke loose from it, burst into the house, and gobbled up the patient lying there immobile.
As I step into my apartment, I catch sight of Éva in the drawing room, standing by the window, pinching the dried leaves off some plant. Well, I have to admit that was not a forte of mine. Interesting, I can’t remember agreeing anything with her, least of all that she would come by today, but what the hell, I snuggle up to her from behind, her hair tickles my face, I kiss her neck, she shivers, giggles girlishly, hoo-hah! Anything might come of this, so I quickly go to make coffee. I dash out into the kitchen, almost give myself a coronary, but there she is, a smoking matchstick in her fingers, having just blown it out, with a seductive, typical coffee-making-girl smile, that’s Elvira. What’s this then, could they possibly not have noticed each other? All sorts of crazy plans slip through my mind, it’s ridiculous, pure soap opera, and meanwhile I place my lips on the velvet pits of Elvra’s closed eyes, I sense her shudder, this might lead to something. It’s then that I hear a key scraping in the front door lock, but apart from these two only Wanda has a key, and she’s away, where was it? I dart outside and see her good-naturedly letting herself in, festooned with bags, her soft lips cold from the outside air, hoo-hah! Kissing her, I attempt to turn her back on the drawing room, but fortunately Éva is still busy fiddling, it’s wonderful what obsessions do to one! Good heavens, she’s just setting off for the kitchen, she wants to dispose of the dried leaves she’s been collecting in her hand, so I tear myself away from Wanda and run over to tell her not to worry, just forget about any rubbish. She laughs and makes a dismissive gesture, whisks in next to Elvira, doesn’t even glance at her, goes straight for the litter-bin and in less than no time is on her way back. Do they know about one another? Are they angry at one another and so not talking? Or have they already talked it all over? Is this the big showdown? At least Wanda is somehow… Too late! Éva is lolling on the divan in the front room, a broad grin on her face, her skirt slipping up a little bit, with Wanda unpacking next to her, my God, the bags, those bloody bags! Odd that they don’t so much as glance up when Elvira appears with two steaming coffees on a tray and one of the teaspoons drops with a tinkle onto the tiles. What gives most pause for thought, though, is the way she clambers over Wanda, tray and all, without further ado, as if she were an empty outline, to bring me my coffee.
AFTER ALL, ONE HAS TO EAT
I take a seat in the restaurant, settling myself comfortably at one of the tables with a chequered tablecloth. I haven’t decided what to eat but trust my lucky star is out today. I start to read the menu, when all at once my nostrils twitch: I catch a scent of game. I carefully fish out my sawn-off shotgun from my carrier bag and, without a sound, take cover behind the table and place myself in a firing position. And indeed, drifting, unsuspectingly, amid the passers-by, sniffing nervously, a stag appears. A splendid specimen, to make a guess from the tines on his antlers he’s in the prime of life, he’ll make a spectacular trophy. I take aim at length, wait until the young mother with the pram and the loving couple who are ambling dreamily hand in hand move out of frame, then I squeeze the trigger. A superb shot, in my imagination I enthusiastically shake my own hand, the quarry’s legs buckle, the eyes mist over, and eventually the magnificent male topples over like a sack. A lady pensioner jumps aside with a loud grumbling and angrily starts lashing out at the body with her rubber-tipped walking stick as the helpless animal had all but knocked her over as well. With a Redskin hop, skip and jump I throw myself on the still twitching game, thrust my knife into it, and resting a hand on its flank, wait until all muscular tension has ebbed from its limbs and the hunk of flesh is finally lifeless. I drag the body over to a drain, make a neat job of bleeding it dry, then set about expertly skinning it since that is best done while the carcass is still warm. It shucks its skin compliantly like overalls, I toss the entrails away into an orange street litter bin and roughly cut the meat up. I stutter apologetically to a small, trim dame. Shaking her head, she casts an eye over my arms, blood up to my elbows, as if I were a naughty boy for playing in the dirt yet again. I shrug my shoulders in embarrassment; what am I supposed to do, after all, one has to eat, doesn’t one? In response to my question the little dame pulls out a couple of paper handkerchiefs from her handbag, a fragrance of verbena wafts over. I make a lousy job of mopping off the sticky blood, I beckon to the waiter to send out a trolley from the kitchen, and while they wheel the meat in I check the menu for a vegetable dish to go with it. Meanwhile I keep one eye open for a cow among the passers-by and flex my fingers, warming them up to do some milking; I’ll need that later in my coffee.
I was late for work, I had lost sight of time a bit while having a drink with the lads, but never mind, you’ve got to relax sometimes, I mean I’ve got obligations, for sure, but then am I not a free, adult member of the human race, sort of, or what? The staff meeting was in progress by then, with the boss in full swing, he’s the big cheese at times like this and he can certainly bang on, but the moment he has to account for himself to the wise guys at the top his self-assurance shrinks in a trice. I didn’t know what exactly they were on about, but I cut in and asked him straight out if he had done his homework properly, or was he just shooting his mouth, at which he turned crimson and began to stutter. It was clear as daylight that I was right again, the whole thing was just a bluff on his part. So I launched into a little patter about if he went on like this and didn’t shape up, the whole firm would be down the pan and he would be looking for a job as a road sweeper like everyone else, and only there, when he was up to his eyes in rubbish, might the thought hit him that maybe I had been trying to help, but it would be too late by then. He got quite alarmed and quickly handed over to someone else and sat there nibbling at his nails at great length, one at a time, from the little pinkie over to the thumb. In the end I told him that if he didn’t leave off I would rap his knuckles, because that isn’t the sort of thing one does in public, to say nothing of all the who knows what gunk he was picking up from under his nails, a fine little infection, you could be sure of that, just wait and see. He retorted that people swallow loads of rubbish every year, but I cut him off coldly saying that if he really wanted it, then I would order a load of rubbish for lunch, but in that case he would have to eat the lot. Anyway, if I caught him at it again, I’d rap him on the knuckles. To start with he didn’t dare to chew them, but I watched him out of the corner of the eye, gleefully observed him as he slowly forgot himself, and when, as if by reflex, he raised a hand to his mouth, I jubilantly whacked him a resounding slap. He made such a dejected face that I almost felt sorry for him, but I fought back the impulse, because he was only a boss, after all, and I’ve got principles, I can’t allow it, given that I have a responsibility not just to myself but to him as well. In the lunch break I caught sight of him at one of the tables, a plate of spinach steaming in front of him, that was on the day’s menu, but he was just poking his knife in it and it was obvious he had not touched it. I was willing to bet that he wanted to take it back uneaten and then slurp back an expensive cup of cappuccino in the refreshment room. I knew what I had to do, so I stole behind him and started to shovel the green mush into him, hissing into his ear that he should bear in mind just how many people had put their work into it, planting it, watering it, hoeing it, picking it in blazing sunlight and driving rain, even grinding it up, but here was he, not giving a damn for all that diligence, on top of which spinach contained a whole raft of mineral goodies, a true blessing for the organism. He managed to make a total mess of his brand-new Pierre Cardin suit, we’ll have to have words about that later, but in the end he choked and spluttered that it had gone up his nose, he would rather eat the lot on his own. I inspected him with contentment as he sat there, his face red as a lobster, the fay droplets of his tears dripping into the food as he spooned it in with obvious disgust. I was filled with the elation of victory, the remainder of the working day zipped by as in a dream. I even managed to nip off a little early, because I was rushing home as I’d promised my son that I would give him a report about dinosaurs, and if I were a minute late or hadn’t one my homework, he would give me a good dressing-down and dock some of my pocket money at the end of the month.
I was just in the middle of eating a gyros, my leisurely steps carrying me along in the crowd, a black computer bag dangling on one shoulder. When I’m in town, in between two errands. I often choose this none-too-elegant but, for all that, more informal and busy way of eating. The eyes of oncoming passers-by slips to the food in my hand and they swallow mightily. At times the juice may trickle out of the gyros, so it’s best to take care of what I’m wearing. The sauce may sometimes dribble down my cheeks, and if I take a look around, I encounter looks of disapproval. Besides which, it’s a little tricky to fish for a hankie in the pocket when the hands are covered in sauce. That day, though, the cellophane bag into which my gyros had been packed was well sealed, so I tucked away and cast an indolent look over the crowd. Ruddy-faced alcoholics panting in a search for the first open bar. Old dame who must have lived through at least one world war had their heads hung low, carrying a shopping bag as they tried to get through life. This here’s a little boy tugging at Mummy’s hand as the lady is preoccupied by talking to someone else; if he goes on like this, he’ll soon wrench free. Over there is an artist of some sort, a half-wit in a jazzy suit and a colourful titfer, his beard braided, carrying on his shoulders an enormous picture frame that almost reaches the ground, a faded canvas under his arm. The frame is empty, there is no canvas in it; all it shows is the reality behind it. Just as much as the rectangle will cut out of the life in the street. The artist type plays on this. He experiments with positioning the frame around the alcoholic, the old dame, the chatty Mum, and finally the little boy, who has at last succeeded in breaking loose and right now is staring at a computer game in a shop window. The artist type hasn’t noticed that I’m watching what he does. He steals behind the child, slightly adjusts the frame and then, when he feels that the figure of the boy staring into the shop window exactly fits the frame, he quickly grabs the faded canvas, spreads it over the picture, and hastily steps back. I can follow his departing figure for a while in the crowd, but it is then that I become aware of the Mummy’s shriek of alarm. She and her interlocutor question the passers-by as to whether they’ve seen the kid anywhere. He was here just a moment ago, several of them say. Not seen any child at all, say some others. There is no-one standing by the shop window. I take a pensive bite from my gyros.
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
English version © by Tim Wilkinson