Tereza Boučková: Šíleně smutné povídky (Madly Sad Stories)
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
She used to be a perfectly normal, fine woman, a good mother and a reasonably passionate wife. But she could now barely remember any of that. It had grabbed hold of her once she was forty. And held her fast. For over ten years now. She changed, slowly but surely, into a ball of string. All muscle and sinew.
During the hot months his wife Zuzana ran around after work in the field, as she called her multi-kilometre bike rides out into the sticks, as he used to say.
Roman did not like bikes.
In winter she used an indoor exercise bike, which he called a pedalo. But over the last year, ever since she had read a book by some madman who biked across Antarctica, she’d even started going out in freezing conditions, the more so the better!
How many times had she come back so numb that he’d had to prize her off the bike and slowly bring her back home, where he gradually defrosted her – first in the corridor, then in the vestibule and only then at last in the warmth of the living room.
And the next day she was off again! And then on the third day she caught the flu and didn’t go anywhere for a fortnight, which was the worst thing that could have happened to her.
Recently she joined the Dailymile online social network, where thousands, or more likely hundreds of thousands, or most likely millions of similarly affected individuals presented the number of kilometres they had covered or run, along with their feelings, in all the world’s languages.
Today I found the run was marvellous. I love running in daylight. Ah! That’s why I love my new job, because it lets me run all day. Ah!
Wow! Somebody had vented their feeling over the last feeling.
Today it was slippy and my left leg hurt, but I got over it.
Today I did forty-nine kilometres with a total height of eight hundred metres. I felt wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
He preferred not to look at what his wife was writing in case it scared him. But then she always felt great when she came back from a ride all sweating.
If he expressed surprise she just said: Well, I could just as well be in the pub.
Wow! He said to himself.
He felt like joining Dailymile too.
Today I drove home from work, I covered 37 kilometres in the car and then ran up three steps with a total height of 60 centimetres and there wasn’t a single thing at home. Neither my wife nor a crust of bread. I felt awful, awful, awful!
He phoned her to buy something in on the way home. The shop in the village closed at four in the afternoon and he came home at six. She brought some butter. Nothing else would fit into her candy-shaped backpack. He began doing the shopping himself. And the cooking and cleaning.
Sometimes he literally hated bikes.
It took him a couple of years to understand that he would either divorce Zuzana or that he would go biking with her. He tried biking. They’d been together for a long time, raised children, built a house and enjoyed plenty of good times. They’d not been put out by the tribulations that life has in store for everyone. Surely a silly bicycle was not going to get between them?
He took umbrage on their first biking holiday, when his wife forgot to chat with him. In the evening as they were sitting over a map with their cyclist friends, deciding on the route for the next day, they didn’t even ask him if he wanted to go there too, or if he had another suggestion. He spoke up with another proposal, as he knew the area well, though his route wasn’t on the bike map and avoided all hills as much as possible. The next day they all set out for the place they had decided on.
He didn’t go. He was in a sulk and felt like a dummy.
He packed up and went off home. All the way he kept saying: The end. The end of this marriage. The end!
He was so angry that he drove into the garage with the bike still on the car roof. So what? The end means the end! What was he still going to need a bike for?
Except he liked his wife. That same day he drove to the shopping centre to buy not only a new bicycle, but also an exercise bike, so that he could secretly train at work.
Yes, he trained. But he didn’t overdo it. In any case he knew that even if he wanted to be as fit as his wife he would never catch up. He would have to pedal several hours a day. And he didn’t have the right commitment for that. The passion was lacking.
And yet he longed to write passionately to the website where everybody is photographed either in running shorts or on a bike saddle in an appropriately dynamic pose to take a running jump!
They enjoy running and riding, okay. Let them run and ride until their bodies fall apart. But then why do they spend hours chattering on about it online? What prats! Compulsive writing.
At the same time he honestly admitted to himself that he enjoyed bike rides, providing they weren’t so strenuous, long and fast that he didn’t get to look round the landscape. But normal biking was something his wife just couldn’t manage to do.
That is why everybody saw everything in the Dailymail. The kilometres or miles that you had ridden or run were converted into coloured columns that represented each week and compared how productive you had been on any particular day and how you were doing in relation to other days, as well as how you were doing on a worldwide scale, as people from the other side of the globe were also contributing.
And Zuzana would not have made do with a little column, even if it meant riding round the garden a hundred times.
She spent almost the same amount of time sitting glued to the computer as she did riding her bike. Several hundred virtual friends would progressively file past. Weird. She would sit at home alone between the four walls or just with him, which amounted to the same thing, and yet she was surrounded by a crowd of friends.
The first one to write was a runner from India congratulating her on breaking the sound barrier. That day was the first on which she contributed. She put the decimal point in the wrong place and was immediately adjudged the fastest cyclist in the world!
A moment of fame that was quickly explained away.
Her life surrounded by so many friends only revealed itself in her quiet tapping on the keyboard.
Otherwise the home was in a silence that was destroying Roman. Making him angry. Sending him crazy.
Sure. He would take a photo of himself sprawled out in the armchair and add a caption: Shit. Shit!
Right. He was jealous. Of a bike!
All day long they’d met hikers and cyclists, but now it was deserted all around. It was July, a day off on the national holiday to mark the anniversary of the burning of Master Jan Hus. All day long it had been fine, but now it had suddenly grown cold, dark and overcast and it just started to pour down. A cloudburst.
There was no cottage or shelter within sight. Their lodgings were somewhere over the hill, which was endless. They should have been home a long time ago, but weren’t. Roman had a puncture and they had to glue it. Zuzana’s chain broke so they had to rivet it. They got lost several times and had to find their way, they turned back, changed direction, yes, of course they were making another attempt at a joint active holiday.
He knew that this time he was better prepared physically and that he would be up to it for his wife, but again she chose such a crazy route that his enthusiasm for the thing waned until it had completely vanished. They pedalled up and down and Zuzana rode ellipses around him to get right into it, so as not to spoil her average speed – just total madness.
As the kilometres mounted up he grew increasingly tired. Again he was seized by that same put-out, pissed-off, despairing mood.
And now it was throwing it down. Nothing around but trees, woods and the bumpy road ahead. They got off their bikes and tried to at least shelter a little from the rain. The trees held the water for a while, but then… He remembered he’d put a plastic raincoat in his cycling bag. Pulling it out, he was about to throw it over himself and Zuzana when she grabbed hold of it and immediately covered the bike saddles.
So they didn’t get wet!
The rain was still bucketing down and the wind was howling. They could not hear what they were shouting to each other, and they were shouting an awful lot. First he shouted then she had a solo and then they went from words to actions. They tore up the plastic raincoat. First Roman’s bike went flying to the ground – he kicked it himself. Then it was Zuzana’s bike’s turn, which Roman also kicked. Then they started shoving each other – that is Zuzana pushed Roman, but Roman didn’t push Zuzana, because… Because. Because!
Buckets of rain. Howling wind. The Apocalypse.
It was night, darkness, though the sky was now clear. A little fire, however humble, flickered by the waterlogged path. Squatting beside it was Zuzana. She fed it with a twig and immediately blew into the fireplace, so the damp wood would not splutter out. At the same time she was repairing the bike. Roman’s! She had it standing on its saddle and handlebars, and surprisingly, it did not bother her at all that the saddle was sunk in mud. She was tinkering with something in the gears – using a head torch to light it up. She had her own bike, which had not suffered any damage, leaning up against a tree.
A little further on in the darkness and dampness sat Roman. He was cold, but he didn’t move towards the little fire. He was proud and didn’t speak.
Zuzana had finished the repairs. While still at the fire she took out a soaked energy bar from her wet backpack, carefully unwrapped it and slowly ate it.
She also took out a bar for Roman, but as he wasn’t saying anything she put it to one side and left it there. As bait.
But he was hardly going to crawl up to her like a dog for a treat now.
He was annoyed at the way she was going all quiet and constructive on him, while wet to the bone. More so than when she was calling him names. It struck him that years of marriage did not rub off the sharp edges. Quite the reverse.
She got ready to leave. We’re going, she spoke into the darkness.
The little fire had gone out.
Roman was silent. But then he could no longer contain himself and spoke like a classic hysteric. I’m not going anywhere!
First she did not answer. Then she said: Stay here then.
Sure will. I like it here.
She waited to see if he might eventually get over it and show interest, regret, a sense of humour or even love, but nothing of the sort happened. So she sat on her saddle and left.
After a while he caught her up. What was he supposed to do when he didn’t have a light?
They rode side by side in silence. The route was getting bumpier and the wet gravel beneath them was slippy. They dismounted and pushed the bikes, touching inadvertently from time to time.
He found it agreeable, just as he was overwhelmed by a pleasing warmth. It amazed him the way his emotions churned just like a mill. More so even than in his youth, as he was cast from one extreme to another. Either he was terribly angry or terribly contrite, or tender and moved to the point of tears.
Just a while ago he had been determined to sever their life together, but he had completely got over that now. He felt how very much they belonged to each other despite all the adversities. How they liked each other even though they sometimes wanted to kill each other. How they made a good couple. They are a good couple! If they weren’t they would each go their own way.
Or she would, and he…
Was glad that like so many times in the past by her side he had got over himself.
The woods came to an end and they were now in open country. Above them opened up the starry skies. The stars seemed so close you could just reach out and grab one. They stopped, astonished and enchanted.
Beauty. Peace. The magnificence of the universe.
All their arguments and fights now struck them as needless and trivial. What was the point of their endless struggles for position, truth and kilometres?
Zuzana howled at the sky. Roman joined in.
I’ve lost my tachometer! She blurted out despairingly. I have to go back!
Don’t be silly. He said tenderly. I’ll buy you a new one for Christmas.
Really? Zuzana answered tenderly and incredulously.
And what about today’s outing? How am I going to record it?
Oh, you’ll think up something. Get your Indian to advise you. You might get another world record.
This upset her.
If it wasn’t so wet. If she wasn’t so cold. If they’d been twenty years younger. Or at least ten…
I’ll buy you a good bike too then. Fully spring-loaded. Lightweight. Carbon-fibre. With cleats of course, and disk brakes. Plus a wireless cycling computer with pulse gauge function and route transmission to the computer. I already have my eye on one just like that, though it is a woman’s bike. Disk brakes! Heavens, I’ve dreamed of that for a long time!
Heavens, you know very well which one of these two really loves bikes and how it all actually is. Take it back to the start and come clean!