Every clock in this house shows a different time.
That’s how this place has always felt to me – while I was growing up and also later, when I kept coming back, for whatever reason.
You enter the house from a busy street through a tall gate with an arched portal. Until a few years ago, if you continued straight ahead you would have found yourself in a vast back garden with fruit trees, or you could have taken a turn and entered the house.
It consists of a ground floor and a first floor with spacious sunny rooms and high, old windows.
The house has a small front garden. Some of it used to be covered in creeping vines that formed tunnels and passages. This is where my parents would sometimes leave me in the afternoons to nap in my pram.
My mother’s face appears to me. She is bending over me. I have just turned one. That’s how I imagine the scene, probably from a photo I once saw and have lost long ago. Because you don’t normally retain memories like these.
The next thing I remember: I’m four years old and I have suddenly come to life, suspended in the air.
I’m in the garden, in the middle of a fall. I have climbed onto a chair to get a better view but couldn’t keep my balance. This is my first and most distant memory.
It was a sunny day in May, one of those when you’re supposed to have friends and acquaintances over and have fun. A Saturday or a Sunday. We children played hide-and-seek behind the house while our parents sat around the bonfire, drinking and laughing.
They filled the garden. The elderflower was in blossom and the fragrance of the linden trees wafted in from the distance, suffusing the night – isn’t it strange how memories are linked to smells? A cat ran across the garden now and then.
I was told to count to a hundred. To block my ears and count out really loud. The other children rushed off to find hiding places. Tightly screwing up my eyes I skipped the odd number but I tried my best. Forty-five… forty-six… forty-seven… forty-eight…
forty-nine… fifty! Sweating with excitement and concentration I finally shouted – One hundred! – and turned on my heels.
I turned on my heels and found the huge garden empty.
Just glasses, plates, bottles and a smouldering fire. Not a soul. Silence. Confused, I ran around for a while, gradually gripped by horror. I was the only person left on the planet! So I climbed onto the chair and began to howl.
My father and mother picked me up from the ground. I had grazed my nose. The other grown-ups, who had all conspired to hide quietly, tried to suppress their laughter.
And today, just like then, as I gaze into the overgrown and deserted garden of this house from the street outside, it is empty again. I am all alone on an empty planet. A lonely astronaut, lost in the grass and the thicket, beneath trees untended for years,
everything overrun by plants. Plants that had devoured the house, slowly and steadily.
These are the kinds of random thoughts that pass through my head as the engine cools down and the car is buffeted by a gust of wind every time a lorry passes by.
Eventually, I turn off the radio. This time it vies for my attention with news that Abu Sayaf ’s militant Muslim group has claimed responsibility for the explosion on Super Ferry 14 in the Philippines, in which 116 have died, making it statistically the most lethal attack ever at sea. I catch the beginning of a discussion on our impending accession to NATO and the
European Union, open the car door and emerge into a light drizzle that has supplanted the intermittent sunshine from a minute ago.
For the first time in ages I pluck up the courage to clamber to the top of the church tower to get an aerial view of Brežany. The town has swollen and spilled out into the distance.
The church is quite large, and the crypt below contains the usual scraps of cloth, old bones and metal, an assortment of curiosities for the occasional tourist. The spire lost its claim to be the tallest building around many years ago and these days you can no longer see as far as the end of town from the top of the tower.
A sea of roofs stretches away below me, many of them dilapidated and damaged. Modern glass and steel structures protrude from gaps between them like scars. Sometimes only the walls on either side suggest that something is missing – the unfinished brick boundaries of houses no longer there. Housing estates with their regular grid of streets stretch away across the hills to the north and east. The scene is divided by the straight
line of the wide and dirty Sálava river – a stream that has never allowed itself to be defied or erased, only straightened out and regulated, something that happened as early as the 1970s, when ironing out its twists and turns, felling trees and changing the
direction of rivers was in vogue.
Directly below me in the main square a huge billboard has sprouted up, proclaiming TESCO 1.2 km. Štúr Street, nowadays widened to four lanes, snakes around the houses on its way south.
The History of our Town page on the town website, after relating in great detail what Rákóczi, Matthias Corvinus, King Béla IV and anyone who is anyone had to say about Brežany, and enumerating every piece of land they had donated or taken away, goes on to list the new housing estates and all the improvements that came after the Velvet Revolution. However, it maintains a discreet silence with regard to the era that left the most profound mark on Brežany. The era that wiped out most of the town.
The front gardens are now largely empty but when I was young, I remember, there was a walnut tree growing in front of nearly every house. The tree provided shade and its scent repelled insects and mosquitoes. Most of the trees have by now been cut down, leaving only grass or concrete. The present-day inhabitants of Brežany like it that way. That’s what they see on TV.
When I wet my finger with saliva and wave it in the air following the direction of the wind and turn off Štúr Street into a gap among the buildings, I come across our house. My house, my father’s house, my father’s father’s house.
Here the wind usually blows from the east.
Our house has always exercised a magnetic pull, which I tried to resist right until the last moment when I could no longer delay entering. Just like now. I’ve always come up with any number of reasons for putting off the moment. But the house would always catch me in its spider web and wouldn’t let go. And it’s just got worse as the years went by.
Staying in the same place rots the soul, my father’s brother, Uncle Rudo, used to say.
If that happens you must ask someone to come, pack your things, bundle you into the passenger seat and whisk you away. Or it may cost you your life.
Or worse. You can never tell. It happened to me once, and my sister Tina came to my rescue.
If it hadn’t been for her I would have stayed here forever, under
its spell like some deranged Sleeping Beauty.
translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Parthian Books, Cardigan, Wales
528 pages, paperback