A Place for Loneliness


Lucia was young and brisk in her movements. When she was tidying up or cooking, she appeared in several places at once; she would hang out the washing on the balcony, wind up the clock and slice onions all at the same time. She liked to look at herself in the mirror, from behind too, with the help of another mirror. It was easy for her to live in the house, which could have been a hospice, for she had never known anything else and she had no one to compare notes with. On occasion she suffered from loneliness and patches of dry skin which spread over her face when there was a change in the weather. Her father was a source of worry to her, as he seemed to her to live such an unhappy life. What could make her angry were curly hairs dried on the soap and soap stuck to the wash basin. The basin looked like a large tin aspersorium from the eighteenth century, it was deep, oval, steeped in memories of strangers who had used it before. The mirror in a wooden frame had also hung here long before Lucia had stuck on it the pictures of a boy and girl from a box of children's sponge fingers. They no longer made sponge fingers like that, which is why Lucia carefully dusted around them. The wash basin hung in the corner of the room which was a hall, kitchen and bathroom all rolled into one and had a glazed door and windows opening into a shared passageway. To the right of the door was a tiled staircase, to the left another flat. Next to that at the end of the passage was a shared toilet with a rusty bucket to flush it with, and a dark, uninviting shower. The key to the shower and toilet hung on a nail between the two flats. The staircase wound up to the second floor to two identical old cells and continued up into the loft, where there was nothing but clothes lines stretched between the rafters and dusty dry air. Lucia was the only one who used to go up to the loft to hang out the sheets, because all the other tenants were either old and shaky, or slovenly people who never did any washing, and the counters on the water-meter, which no one from the water company ever came to read,  were rarely set spinning. The man in the room above them was like that. He spent all his time carting and piling up wood. Next to him lived a quiet young woman no one knew anything about. The flat next door to theirs had been empty ever since a delivery van converted into an ambulance had carried away a cheerful wrinkled woman, who claimed to have worked as a prompter in the National Theatre for thirty years. Lucia had hardly ever exchanged a word with her, but she suspected that this well-preserved woman used to pop in to see her father when he was left at home alone. When the van's rear doors with their red cross banged shut and disappeared in the traffic, her dad had pulled a bottle out from under his mattress and drunk himself into oblivion.


The prompter was an elegant woman, forever intertwined with threads, lace trimmings and starched lace mats. Lucia's mental file on her recorded the sound of an obstinate bleached net curtain drawn with fingers yellow from cigarettes and the muffled broadcast of the Czech Radio News. She painted her narrow lips with red lipstick, faint traces of which Lucia's sharp detective's eyes spied on the collar of her father's shirt, on the mirror in the hall and even on the  curtain in her own room. On the arm of the chair she also felt long, ash-coloured hairs, which crumbled like dust in her palm. Father must be out of his mind to let a witch like her wind him round her little finger, thought Lucia, but she couldn't say anything to him. He never interfered with her either, even when she was still at an age when he had a right to. They had never got in each other's way, not even now, when Lucia had to take care of him to some extent. She never doubted that it was her natural duty to pay him back for her childhood. She wished her father had a more cheerful life, and prayed for him, and she did not try to talk him out of the prompter, even though she was a lot older than he was. She was like a pear in a pantry that goes bad from the inside, but the surface and the colour don't change.

The soothing immutability of life in the house went undisturbed for months on end. From time to time, depending on the weather, the pane of glass in the front door would crack, or stones block up the gutter. Since the new buildings had sprung up around the house no one asked them for rent, and no official ever came to see whether the house was lived in or even if it was still standing. Officially, it had been demolished together with the others in the eighties, when Lucia's step uncle had signed the demolition order. Several years later this uncle had been killed by a spirit level dropped by a builder suspended twelve floors up on the façade of a glass insurance building. The worker had been a member of the Church of Divine Messengers. The house looked so deserted that while the insurance building was being constructed the workers would occasionally park a container several tons in weight right outside the entrance, thinking that not a soul lived there. The residents had to wait until they had filled the container with rubble and clanged its jaws shut and had collected the broken bricks and bits of mortar outside the door, which was completely white from building dust. The house didn't seem worth a mention, a square on a map, as if it didn't even exist.


Every morning as she lay in bed Lucia strained her ears in the direction of the door to her father's room and a little thrill ran through her when she heard the chinking of razor blades and small glass bottles. She closed her eyes blissfully at the thought of the long fingers of the man who seemed to her unimaginably big and grown-up. She would have liked to enlarge the hole or even knock down the whole wall and leave all the doors open in their dark flat, and at the same time she still wanted to be offended, obstinate and vociferously indifferent. She wanted to exchange rooms with her father and let herself get drunk, luring fear into the bottle and sealing it in the dark with hot wax. She wanted to make herself ill, so that her body would receive the same amount of care and she wanted to rid herself of the blushes which spread over her face in the morning when Boris noisily pulled up the blinds in the room and again in the evening when he pulled them down after smoking his last cigarette.

            Boris probably shared some secret with her father and she suspected the prompter had something to do with it. He also gave the old man above them a little of his time, most likely out of pity, a feeling that his behaviour inevitably aroused. He even managed to break his anxious silence and after two cigarettes  drew out of him the reason for his piling up such a large amount of wood. He told Boris that he was a spy and shed tears on his shoulder. He told him about his wife, who he had lived with long ago somewhere in the east and whose hands and feet had gone numb in the winter of 1986; she had begun to cough and then she died. Ever since then he had been gathering wood, so there would always be enough and his wife's feet wouldn't go numb from the cold. When he had finished telling him this, he wiped his cheek and quietly crept under his puffed up quilt. That night Boris had dragged Lucia from her warm bed and kept her standing in the yard, torch in hand, like a lamp-post, while he took apart and rebuilt the tower of wood to make it look bigger and higher. He chased out the blackbirds, disemboweled it like an old hen, leaving just the outer walls, and placed the planks that had been inside on the top. Lucia was not sure whether he did it out of sympathy, or impish enjoyment, but she held the light for him until well after midnight.

It was only several months after Boris's arrival that the house quietened down again, or so it seemed to Lucia. The old man piled up wood, the wood rotted in the yard, the yard grew over with weeds. From time to time Lucia's father would get drunk through the hole in the wall, swell up, and become tame for a while, just as before. Only Lucia began to reckon time as before and after Boris. Lovelorn, she wiped the floor in front of the door to his flat and through the window she noticed how all traces of his mother disappeared, all womanly memories, to make room for new ones. She shut her eyes and let the dust flowing from his room settle on her face, making an adult of her. It would be best to grow old quickly and skip over the ten years which she guessed was the difference in their ages. Ten years seemed too much to her. Boris, on the other hand, would have liked to squeeze the fear out of Lucia, which she had soaked up in the closed house and, as far as possible, expose her to the daylight. He brought her imported fruit, devoted time to her father, so that she could have some time for herself, he paid her compliments, which she misunderstood and which offended her. Even so, she secretly searched for any traces left behind by another woman Boris might have, but she found not one photograph, or even a small sock left behind. That gave her the courage to imagine the unimaginable. She crawled through the hole into his flat more often and drank tea with him under the gaze of the prompter's picture, when he called her because he felt sad and couldn't sleep. But she pressed her lips together, careful not to smile, she was reserved and wouldn't let herself be caught. Inside, though, she was quivering with excitement all the more.

Clues which fell into two categories led Lucia up to the loft, to a corner where not even the mice used to go. Little female footprints with a round heel were intertwined with the large, heavy prints of Boris's shoes, overlapping in places, stirring the dust in places and in others the little ones completely left out a step. His smell was drowned by the fine spicy smell of cinnamon, which was quite out of place in the loft. Holding her nose, Lucia combed the beams inch by inch, picking up her own short ash-blonde hairs, Boris's black ones with white roots and a couple of long red ones that came from the second floor.   On the thick beam running the length of the loft she found hairs from a woolen sweater, a white rubber band and a bit of broken nail. She was overcome by girlish panic, which turned her face white. She didn't spy on Boris, but she stuck threads across the door leading to the loft and the door frame. And sprinkled flour around the beam in the loft. She slept badly at night, wanting to imprint on her memory every creak of a door as proof. After two weeks of setting traps she was overwhelmed by melancholy. Boris pretended not to notice. He lured his neighbour up to the loft a few more times, tormenting little Lucia, to convince himself that it was making her pine away. He was testing the strength of the stones he had found among the rubble.


Translated by Heather Trebatická