I quickened my pace and where the grass gave way to the asphalt path I broke into a run and kept running until just before I got to the station my knee cracked and my legs gave way beneath me. There was a faint buzzing in my ears, the muscles in my legs trembled and I felt as if my knee would swell like a bubble. However, it was only an illusion, my knee was okay, it was just shaking a little. In the speed of running the urgent need to talk to and be near someone living and grown up wafted away like mist in the early evening chill of August. I sat down for a moment on a bench outside the train station. I needed to get my breath back. The air was heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and fresh urine trickling down the wall of the newspaper stand. Stations always smell of urine and cigarettes.
Lucia was at home; there was a light in the kitchen, I could see that from afar. With joyful relief I again broke into a run for the last hundred yards, now in complete darkness, jumping along in leaps and bounds, remembering a game we used to play in the yard.
The staircase was dark, only the long row of door bells and names was lit up, shortening the journey home. The door had not been shut properly, because someone who had gone out for a smoke couldn't be bothered to take out his key. To stop the door from closing you had to shut it very carefully, holding it with your foot until the latch bolt touched the door frame or you had to insert a folded advertising leaflet to keep it open. When she was expecting someone my Lucia also used to leave the door ajar. Whenever she closed it slowly like this she would bend over in a funny way, her head drawn into her shoulders like a turkey and her hair falling over her eyes. At that time her hair was bleached blond and hung half way down her back. She wore a guilty look, like the woman next door who was someone's mistress. Lucia was not the mistress of anyone in the neighbourhood; she simply didn't want to get out of bed. She didn't want to make the effort to go down three floors and she was even too lazy to open the door to the flat more than once a day and so she went through the same ritual in our corridor. Huddled up in a dressing gown, warm slippers on her feet. All you could see through her loose hair was one wary eye, wary in the hostile territory of the shared corridor, where the neighbours were on the watch. She would leave the door ajar, my tennis shoe preventing it from flying open and then her pals would come into the flat without knocking and whenever they liked. They often didn't even take off their shoes and they behaved as if they were in a public waiting room, where someone sweeps and empties the ashtrays in the early hours of the morning. In waiting rooms the doors are not locked, people don't change their shoes, they spit on the ground and stick chewing gum to the arms of the chairs. They arrive hesitantly with expectation; they leave in a hurry, without saying goodbye.
I always had to take my shoes off, even if I was only going to the end of the hall to take my coat, otherwise I got clouted over the head. Everyone else was allowed an exception. Lucia never reproached them for their muddy shoes; she just stared at them, looking ashamed. She was ashamed of not being able to keep order in her own flat and lay down the rules, but that was all. She was weak and emotionally unstable and she didn't even know how to make her visitors take off their shoes. I was the only one she raised her voice and hand to, because I was hers, a part of herself. It was the same as if she had hit herself, as if she had reproached herself, like when in the bath she showered her back with cold water. Not to toughen herself up, but as a punishment, to teach herself a lesson.
Grandma Irena was another person Lucia was afraid of. Even when Irena was almost bedridden and her nappies had to be changed and her food blended. She let her order her about and instruct her, even when she knew she wasn't right, that what she demanded from her was nonsense. She did everything exactly as she was told, just to have peace, to avoid any conflict.
I couldn't stand her passivity, which anyone unfamiliar with the situation in our family might have taken for love, for service to an old, sick mother. Service which should have been natural, but wasn't, because the relationship between Lucia and Irena was purely a business one. Lucia's attitude towards us both was a business and not a family one. No deep attachment, fellow-feeling, understanding. Not even a hint of intimacy, closeness.
She could be nice to me, so long as I behaved as she thought I should and didn't cause her any trouble. If you're not good, don't say you're mine, she would often tell me. Do as you like, Jarka. But don't come to me with your problems, do you understand?
Irena, she was just as bad. She once told Lucia. You will change my sheets and I'll let you live in my flat. Otherwise you'll have to wait for it. Don't try and get the better of me, I'm still in my right mind. Even though you'd prefer – both of you would prefer – me to kick the bucket right now…
A family operating on an exchange basis. Nothing good ever came out of these dealings.
I worked hard to earn every glance from Lucia. I slogged, I scrubbed, so that Lucia would have no excuse to reject me; I practically spent my whole childhood trying to make sure that everything went as Lucia thought it should; I read her wishes from her lips, so that I could fulfil them even before she uttered them. But for the most part her wishes were so eccentric that in the immaturity of childhood I could neither understand nor fulfil them.
I knew how to do the shopping, wash the clothes, hang them out to dry, drag a crate of empty bottles to the Co-op. In addition to this, I knew how to bring top marks home from school and when so requested to stay in my room for two days and pee into a saucepan.
Meanwhile other children played games with imaginary brooms, imaginary saucepans, imaginary soap or money. Somehow we skipped this stage.
Lucia's pals would ring and ring, pressing all the bells if the door downstairs was closed. When one of the neighbours opened the door, cursing, and the visitor reached the door of the flat, then he would bang on it impatiently, as if Lucia had nothing better to do than wait at the door ready to open it. They used our bathroom and towels, even my little ones, hung close to the ground on a special hook, the raised tail of a plastic dog, my own little towels. They came into my room, slumped onto my bed, drunk and limp and I often had nowhere to sleep. They left a stink behind them in the room, a muddy sheet, occasionally a cigarette lighter or small coins that fell out of their pockets.
Lucia's favourite gentleman, an engineer of some kind who sent her work, used to lie down in my bed even when I was already lying in it too. He came in the night or early hours, when he thought I was asleep, always when there was some party in our flat and lots of people, so it was easy to slip away without Lucia noticing. He would carefully shut the door behind him, take off his shoes, kicking them under the bed, pull off his shirt and trousers, and covering my mouth with one hand, he put the other between my legs. He breathed loudly and quickly like a chased dog and his breath, that was cigarettes and a wet rag forgotten somewhere in a corner. I just shut my eyelids tighter and opened my mouth, to let out my soul. I used to imagine that I was swimming underwater. I was swimming and everything I felt, the touches, saliva, breath, was caused by the water, the weeds and animals there. I didn't let out a sound, I didn't move, I never did anything, just quietly and resignedly left my body. When he had finished and closed the door behind him I returned, changed my clothes and the bed linen and went back to sleep.
By the morning I had shut him out of my head so firmly that I could sit with him and Lucia at the table in the kitchen and normally eat my breakfast. When I met him on the estate, I pretended that nothing had happened, that I didn't remember him, didn't know him. I often didn't remember anything in particular, nothing terrible or painful that could not be ignored, just a vague feeling of filth and shame. Like when one woman in the bus told me that I stank and that it didn't become a girl like me. That I should wash myself better. A big sweaty man didn't become a girl like me either.
They did even worse things with Lucia, the whole house used to shake, the neighbours would call the police, because they didn't dare to go through the half-open door themselves. I couldn't add to her troubles by going and telling her that some man I didn't like was lying in my bed, while another was giving her a good hiding in the next room. She wouldn't have listened to me, she wouldn't have believed that a little girl like me could have any problems. Your problems, Jarka, are not problems. They're just silly little things, she would have said. Silly little shitting things.
Her pals, they were a whole troop of boys from community homes. Nothing but coarse gestures and rough talk, scars on their forearms and souls. They could cry over a plate of plum dumplings, because their most beautiful memoires of childhood were associated with plum dumplings. A moment later they were capable of smashing the emptied plate against the wall or demonstratively slashing their wrists. Lucia soaked it all up like a sponge, learning from them all kinds of useful things. She took something from each of them – for a while she would listen to jazz, another time film music. Sometimes she burned aromatic sticks, at other times she moved the furniture according to the rules of feng shui. Then she began to smoke in the kitchen and toilet, throwing the cigarette butts into the toilet bowl, so they floated there for a couple of days; she put dirty shoes in the laundry basket, the dirty linen in the cupboard. She learned to wash down spirits with wine and mix all kinds of liquids with medicines; she learned how to stick her finger down her throat when necessary, pee into a saucepan, lounge on the settee with her feet up on the arm. To lie hour after hour half asleep with her eyelids not quite closed – like the front door, you could slip a matchstick between them. The gap between sleep and wakefulness. Her body prepared to shake itself and slowly get in motion if a reward was waiting at the end. Warm and soft, even though Lucia often complained that she felt stiff and chilled to death, that her hands, feet and even the rest of her body were always cold and that she couldn't get warm no matter what she did.
Sometimes I lay down beside her too, but I soon lost interest because I sensed that Lucia was in another world anyway and her only reaction to my childish pinching and tickling, questions and stroking was irritated snorts. She lay like a rag, sweating, damp and sometimes dirty, because there were days when she was so tired she couldn't find the energy to go into the bathroom and wash. Her senses were numbed, so she did not notice her own smell, sweat and the remains of food under her nails. I was afraid she'd got some disease, something badly damaged inside that couldn't be seen from outside – no blood, spots or even bruises. Something that was rotting her from inside and causing her mysterious constant weariness. I imagined some maggot or tapeworm travelling through her blood vessels to her heart and settling there to suck away her strength and emotions. A tapeworm can resist both medicines and alcohol, no pleas and tears of other people can reach it through the skin and muscles. When it makes its home in a chamber of the heart, it begins to grow like a tree. It branches upwards like a tree to the head and brain and downwards into the legs and arms like roots. In this way it gradually fills the whole of a person. It takes months, and to look at from the outside the body appears untouched. The presence of the tapeworm is only reflected in the eyes.
I imagined a tapeworm, because I could see no other reason why Lucia should be constantly tired and unable to do simple things and observe basic hygiene. After all, she was very young at that time, younger than the mothers of all my friends. When she attended a parents' meeting for the first and last time, the teacher didn't want to inform her about anything, because she couldn't believe she was my mother. I myself didn't call her mummy and that confused the teacher; she had never met with anything like that before. So mummy didn't show up at school again and she telephoned when she wanted to ask about me. She was twenty-two or twenty-three and I was in the first form. She worked only intermittently and she had lots of friends who helped her. When she was in good shape, she looked like my sister. She was very concerned that she should look young. She didn't want to be associated with anything to do with motherhood and parenthood, because she was convinced that as a single mother she was not attractive for men. She claimed the birth had destroyed her, that nothing worse could happen to a woman. It speeded up the aging of the body, it changed your spirit, it turned a woman into a milch cow. It ruined your life for ever.
Lucia was sixteen when I was born. It's quite understandable that her feelings were far from that of satisfaction, happiness and fulfilment. Becoming a mother at that age could only mean one thing for her – to grow old, be stuck at home in the flat, put on weight, stop looking after herself, lose friends, lose lovers, lose her enjoyment of life, free time, sleep and freedom. So she resisted tooth and nail. When she went anywhere she dressed like the girls in my class – short skirts, pink and lilac T-shirts with latex slogans. Sometimes she squeezed into narrow jeans and large boyish trainers, pulling the hood of a sweatshirt or a peaked cap over her head. Bangles tinkled on her arms – cheap, battered bands that hung down from her wrists. She walked with her fingers stiffly stretched out like a rake for leaves, just in order to keep them on her narrow wrist. We could have worn each other's things, the same pair of shoes, go shopping together – if we had the same taste and if Lucia had cared to.
Don't call me mummy, she said again and again, it makes me feel like an old cow. Call me Lucia. And I just couldn't get it out of my mouth. It always got stuck somewhere in my throat, unable to push its way through and sound sincere and natural. But I learned that too.
But you are my mummy, I would think to myself. Or aren’t you? You can always be certain about your mother. Not everyone has to know. Are you ashamed of me? Stop that nonsense! I'm tired. I'm tired. That's how every conversation ended.
However, tiredness and feeble, slow-motion movements didn't become her. She was so young, after all. I remember what she was like just after Irena died and we no longer had to move from one lodgings to the next or put up with Irena's outbursts. I was ten years old and capable of looking after myself pretty well; I spent a lot of time in hobby groups and at the after-school centre. Lucia had a relatively steady job, which meant that she'd been working about three months in one place; she also had a relatively steady relationship, which meant that the gentleman in question was already willing to mend the flush toilet and his tooth brush lay on the wash basin. I remember Lucia at that time as crazy and cheerful, dashing buoyantly around the flat; I recall that she even cooked and tidied up and did the shopping and all the usual things mums do at home. And only when she was really irritated – after a row with her boyfriend, when she didn't get her pay on time – she would stand at the window, stamp her foot and tap the long, long nail on her thumb against the even longer one on her ring finger in time to some song. We had inherited the flat; Irena was dead and for us that was a real miracle.
Irena would clean out her flat at regular intervals.
The first time she tidied up thoroughly was when her husband, a Mr. Miletič, fled to Austria in 1968.Everyone was very surprised, because Mr. Miletič had always been a quiet, calm, reliable worker who caused no trouble. One day he went to Devin cemetery to weed his brother's grave and he never returned. Two or three years later a postcard arrived and then nothing, as if the earth had swallowed him up. He left a wife and two-year old child behind him in Bratislava. If, with pretended reluctance, Irena said anything about him, then she always spoke of a Mr. Miletič, a weak man, servile and irresolute, whose arms were always dirty up to the elbows with soil. His trip to Devin cemetery must really have come as a shock to her. I myself didn't know him; the only thing I knew about him was that he walked with a stoop, he had a beautiful garden and spent all his free time in it. There, or at the cemetery in Devin.
Irena was the head of a nursery school and when she became pregnant in 1966 on the threshold of forty, it was as if a meteorite had fallen from the sky and laid waste the landscape. No one around her knew what to do about it. Whether to make a sensation of this unexpected event and squeeze capital out of it, or to pretend that nothing had happened and apply soothing compresses to her wounds. Irena had to quickly show the world the father of the child, marry and combine the life of a former spinster who had sacrificed her mind and body to the education of socialist youth, with the life of a responsible wife and mother. After the first six weeks the child found its way to a cot in the crèche, which was under the office of the head and at intervals of exactly three hours it received on the dot a bottle of formula milk and a sprinkling of baby powder on its bottom. Irena – in the style of the times – managed her career and family in an exemplary manner, until the moment when a certain Mr. Miletič decided to pull up the weeds on his brother's grave. One day Comrade headmistress was transferred to the canteen, to the very basement of the concrete building, because the wife of an émigré could not be allowed to bring up the children of good communists.