It was around that time that Peter decided to try and grow up as quickly as he could so that he could start doing grown-up stuff with his grandad: playing cards at the regulars' table; doing men’s talk about life and so on. Swearing from the heart about the state of society. Downing a shot of rum, chasing it down with a beer and then wiping the foam off your moustache with the back of your hand; slapping the well-formed rump of Auntie Zorka or that of the new one, Auntie Zdenka, who had taken over from Auntie Jarka in September. So far Peter had been excluded from all those delights. Instead he had to dress properly against the cold, wear his silly hat, go to school, speak politely, always say hello and thank you for everything. Like an idiot.
When they were playing in the yard, he always had to come in right after the news. None of the others from the brickworks had to, only him. He’d press his forehead against the cold window of the lit-up kitchen to make out the silhouettes of his friends in the deepening darkness. They’d go on playing not even seeming to miss him and he’d remain standing there stubbornly until he was too tired and sleepy to carry on. In the darkness below him the last shadows had long stopped moving; they were all at home having tea and bread and butter with salami – only he could see how they were actually having the best adventures of their life and know how he again was missing out on something unrepeatable.
Grandad was a man-mountain and it was good to be his friend. Being his grandson wasn’t too bad either – having a few man-to-man secrets and so on. But being his friend must have been much better. Peter could see and hear how he would talk to those on the same level as he was. There weren’t many: Batay the butcher, whose Jednota shop was right opposite Grandad’s pub; the manager of the Technokov store, one Mr Mašíček; Dr Beluch, the local GP... and that was it: just enough for a round of mariáš. With them Grandad was just pertú but with everyone else he was perzí. That was how they differentiated between the informal and formal means of address. In the pub Grandad sometimes used the informal ty form with his customers, the permanently sozzled Kolár, for instance and similar tosspots when he was throwing them out of the pub, but no-one dared address him in that informal manner. Grandad was not the type to be spoken to like that; he kept his dignity. When his tall, thin and rather stooping figure moved through the local, it exuded a weighty and unspoken authority. He would remove a disorderly drunk from the pub in seconds, grabbing them first by the collar, twisting their arms behind them and then marching them summarily to the door. And once the drunk was out, he would not be back that same evening and would be wise to lie low in shame for a few days at least. He’d be forced to go and stand at the station bar and do his drinking there standing up, a third-rate place where the beers and vodkas were poured out between the cod salad and the frankfurters, and which closed at six in the evening. What kind of pub was that – one that closed just as you'd got going? A section of its clientele, washed up from trains that came in from both the Bratislava and Malacky directions and then beached at the station bar, would then move next-door to Peter’s grandfather’s pub. But the offender had to go home – he was too afraid to try Achberger’s place. Or he would have to traipse the full length of the village to its other pub, the Konzum. Only the punters there were not his drinking pals – they were another crowd altogether. He might know almost all of them; they were all old schoolmates or what have you. But he didn’t feel at home there – basically he just didn’t belong there. So there was no alternative for him but to try his luck back at Achberger’s place a few days later. And though he might look forbidding, in the end Achberger would let him back. And for the offender, that was a moment of the deepest emotion: suddenly he would be willing to promise old Achberger the earth. Being admitted back to the family of local habitués might even bring tears to his eyes. From feeling like a dog, rejected by its pack, left out in the cold and rain to then being welcomed back into the warmth of home ˗ at that moment the ex-offender would give his life for Peter’s grandad. And as he drank his first pint of beer after his reprieve, the golden nectar would mix with his hot tears of gratitude.
When Peter was smaller, his grandparents most often scared him with tales of Bloody Leg. Bloody Leg would wait outside, lurking in the shadows, spying on children who didn’t want to go home after dark. He was a disembodied, bloodied leg, rather like the chopped off leg of a giant. Like other children, Peter was afraid of people who had had limbs amputated. How much greater was his fear, though, of an amputated limb without a person attached.
In those days, loving parents would frighten their children with all kinds of things, houses of correction and orphanages being especially popular. If a child hadn’t done something they should have, or done something they shouldn’t have, they were immediately threatened with exile to one of these places. Peter’s grandparents never threatened him with institutions, though, because at that time there was a real danger of him being taken into one – and the idea of him growing up in such a place was unbearable to them. But because his parents had emigrated, it was a genuine threat.
Fortunately, although Grandad was just a common village innkeeper, his time as manager of a café and restaurant had introduced him to many influential people and now he was happy to solicit their help. Against such important gentlemen – and comrades – Comrade Glanz was powerless. Peter’s other grandfather, Grandad Baranovič, also had connections and together they managed to prevent the worst. In the end the Socialist society did not send four-year-old Peter to a children’s home but entrusted him to the care of his grandparents, the Achbergers, despite the fact that they had already raised one traitor – Peter’s father. Perhaps the fact that Peter’s grandmother was at home and could look after him swung it in their favour.
That had all happened a few years before. Now Peter was in his fourth year as ʺa grass-orphanˮ and Grandma had made him his favourite cake – a Malakoff sponge – for his eighth birthday, with eight little candles rising up out of the whipped cream. For his birthday present, they gave him four tanker waggons for his model railway set: a white Leuna, a yellow Shell, a blue Aral and a green BP.
“Half a waggon for every year of your life,” said Grandma. She had been an accountant at the brickworks for many years and such statements came naturally to her.
Peter had a Roco model railway set from Austria which his parents had sent him and were gradually adding to. Now, on his eighth birthday, he discovered that the Piko East German waggons were compatible with it and even had the same couplings. And they could be bought here!
“What are those couplings?” asked Grandma.
“You use them to join the waggons to the locomotives,” explained Peter expertly. “They have exactly the same couplings so you can join them together.”
“So you see,” said Grandad, “at least the Communists have caught up with the West in something.”
Peter had always been interested in trains and could spend an age just watching the steam engines on the sidings a stone’s throw from their tenement block. He knew exactly which was a Štoker , which a Papagáj and so on. And from a distance he always knew whether the fast train to Prague, which regularly chuffed its way through Stará Ves, was being pulled by an Albatros or a Šľachtičná.