Marek Toman: Veliká novina o hrozném mordu Šimona Abelese (The Big News about the Dreadful Murder of Šimon Abeles)
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
Šimon Albrecht 0
He sits bolt upright, so much so that his back does not touch the back-rest, and his gaze never leaves the screen, with one hand on the mouse and the other on the keyboard. His muscles are taut, as if at any other moment he might leap up. In the pale glow his face has turned ashen, while his eyes have lit up in the reflection of the screen. From behind a corner of the building a soldier runs out aiming a machine gun. With a movement of the mouse he gets him in his sights, as he feels a wave of excitement and yet an extraordinary sense of peace. He could be that soldier, but now he belongs to the other side. With his forefinger he presses the left-hand button, but the image flickers and his view is sprinkled with droplets of blood. Perhaps before he collapsed the soldier managed to shoot. Himself, he has only been lightly wounded, as the game carries on…
Šimon Abeles 0
He walks down the street in somebody else’s coat, with a sense that everybody is looking at him. He could always set off back, but he has already made up his mind. Everything will depend on his first meeting. He repeats the words that are used for that person. He attempts to recall the music that brought him here, but he can only hear his heels slapping on the icy paving. He gulps drily. The blood is rushing in his ears, because he is aware that he has crossed his neighbourhood boundary. He tries not to look at the other pedestrians. If he started acting conspicuously they could give him away. He feels the stolen coat is too large for him. As if it were just the coat that was walking down the street and he was trying to fill it.
Šimon Albrecht 1
As soon as Ladislav entered the flat he felt something wasn’t right. His son hadn’t locked the door when he’d gone in. He bent down to take off his shoes, but then raised his head to look around his room. He expected the usual scene: Šimon’s face in profile, palely illuminated by the light of the monitor, but he could only see the dark rectangle of the open door. He took a couple more steps and switched on the light to make sure he really wasn’t there. He went back to the apartment passage and stopped in front of the door to the little balcony and looked out onto the lit windows of the apartment opposite, where a young woman occasionally flitted past. On one occasion he spotted her semi-naked, leaning over lithely to put on a t-shirt. She wore an orange bra and that bright hue struck Ladislav as unusual. His ex-wife only wore black, white or flesh-coloured undergarments. For a long time he was unable to put the memory of that scene, caught just for one moment, out of his head. The room opposite was empty. When he switched the light on he spotted the reflection of his own face in the balcony door window-pane: the face of a forty-year-old with thinning hair and features that were beginning to lose their sharpness. The face of somebody who’d had enough time to make something of himself, but who hadn’t yet managed to. Only those eyes, inquiring and unstill, remained the same. He lowered his head to see how much hair had fallen out at the top. It was another vain attempt. He went into the kitchen and opened his notebook with a sigh. He tried to think of the research that was due to start up the next day. He opened the file with the account of the Abeles case. It had been prepared for him by his assistant Tomáš, carefully, he could be sure, most probably in too great detail. But he was unable to concentrate.
Šimon usually came straight home from school, so he could get on the computer as soon as possible. Ladislav didn’t want to panic. He did call him after all, but his son didn’t answer the phone. He stood in the small apartment and didn’t go anywhere else apart from back into the corridor in front of the balcony. He turned from the door to the fridge, opened it and glanced at the chicken wrapped in cellophane. The meat was pale and the cellophane shone in the yellow light inside. He recalled how his son had once shut his mobile phone inside the fridge with the camera turned on, just to make sure that the light really went out when the door closed. He took out the package and confirmed what he already knew. The chicken did not need to be cooked that day. He gave the apartment across the way another look. The room remained empty.
In the kitchen he removed the chicken from its wrapping, which made it look a bit like a saint’s relics in a glass coffin within the pedestal of an altar, rinsed it and placed it on a board, where he dried and salted it. He prepared an onion and apples and began to cut them, slowly and carefully to pass the time. Ears pricked, he tried to make out the front door slamming and tennis shoes coming up the stairs, as he endeavoured all the while to ward off the thought that had assailed him at the threshold: Šimon wasn’t coming. Because of what had happened the day before.
The kitchen was filled with the sweet smell of roasting chicken. The notebook screen had long run through several geometrical figures and gone dark. The room began to grow warm and cosy, as if it were Sunday lunch, even though Ladislav was on his own. He turned the oven button to the lowest level as there was no longer any point in waiting.
He brought out his mobile phone again, but Šimon didn’t answer this time either. Ladislav tried going through his contacts, although it was actually obvious who he had to phone. Since the divorce he had not spoken to Mary. They had emailed each other about what Šimon needed and when he would visit his mother. He no longer knew which of them had started it, but indirect contact suited him fine.
All the same, he did eventually press the little telephone symbol next to her name, while keeping the mobile phone away from his ear, as if the electric charge might hit him. She didn’t answer. He switched the oven off. His finger hesitated over the notebook button, but he just couldn’t press it. The research would have to wait. He could have gone through the news, but what would he have found out that way? Most probably something about missing children somewhere. He had the impression that news reports of that kind were never-ending. Bending over the oven, he scrutinized the cooling roast chicken when the mobile rang. With beating heart Ladislav read MARY on the display.
“So what is it?” she asked.
“Hi… Is Šimon at your place? He hasn‘t come home from school… “
“So what are you calling me for then? I never thought you were able to look after him. That non-stop computer has sent him right round the twist, and it’s all your fault. “
“And those graves and bones of yours have done your head in. Now the dead have priority over the living!“
“I’ve already heard all this. “
“So? It’s still true. You should never have wanted him to live with you if you aren’t up to it!“
Ladislav left her sentence hanging in mid-air.
“Mary, do you have a number for any of his classmates? “ he said, attempting to override her comment with an objective question.
“And where do you think I’d get that from then? Can anybody talk sense to Šimon? Whenever he’s here he always wants to just stare at the computer. I’m always on at him, but I can never get anything out of him.!“
“Just like you!“
She hung up. Ladislav actually felt relieved that Šimon wasn’t at her place. Every exception would mean breaching an undertaking, and he still had vivid memories of how difficult it had been to come to an agreement before the divorce. What surprised him was the commitment in the way she had a go at him. To think she wanted to carry on arguments from the past. Her email messages were quite sober after all, sometimes almost friendly. No, somewhere in the background he guessed there was another reason, which he could not put his finger on. Surprisingly she was not surprised that Šimon was gone, he thought. The way the conversation played out as a whole, it was as if she had not wanted Ladislav to get a word in edgeways. Perhaps he would have to go round there after all to make sure the boy wasn’t there with her, but then he dismissed the idea as incipient paranoia.
He went into his son’s room and rummaged through the jumble of crumpled and crossed-out paper in front of the monitor. He picked up some used paper handkerchiefs and threw them into the crammed-full basket. Of course, he did not find any telephone numbers. Šimon had them all on the supermodern mobile that he’d demanded for his birthday. Ladislav was annoyed by the mess on his son’s table as usual, but then he started to sort through the papers. If only he had Šimon in front of him, with his eyes glued to the monitor. He imagined reaching out his hand to ruffle the hair on top of his head. What had once been a frequent gesture was now quite inadmissible, as Šimon always recoiled in irritation.
In the kitchen Ladislav cut up the chicken, piled it onto his plate and added some lukewarm rice. He put the rest back into the oven and hesitated over whether or not to leave it on the lowest light, but eventually turned it off. After a couple of minutes he set the cutlery and went out into the corridor again. He was separated at most from the apartment opposite in this turn-of-the-century district by fifteen metres – not by a main road but by a residential street. The crowns of the trees, which had once been planted by the pavement kerbs were now interlaced over the roadway. The light in the apartment was on in the second window, which Ladislav could not see, as a branch blocked his view. Although leafless, its movements in the February wind made it an impenetrable curtain.
Šimon Abeles 1
When the maid told Herman that a boy was looking for him his heart sank. The printers might just have sent him an assistant, but he still felt it to be an omen of approaching disaster. With uncalled-for brusqueness he told Máří to bring the boy in. Moments later the stairs were creaking. Herman just managed to take a deep breath, as he looked around the study with books piled high as proof of his success.
The first thing he noticed was the boy’s look – a strange mixture of expectation, hope and fear. His round face was scabby from a rash, and Herman felt a little sorry for him, but did not find him particularly likeable. He looked clever, but there was a little too much intelligence for that childish face. Herman preferred to look at the boy’s hat, which fell over his ears. Evidently he had borrowed it from a grown-up. His coat was draped over him oddly, as if it had been handed down from an elder sibling.
This is the way poor people dressed, and yet Herman became even more irritable.
“Leave us, Máři,” he told the maid. She stopped in the doorway and looked back and forth between Herman and the boy, most probably realizing that something was in the air. Perhaps she already had an idea how she would describe the visit to the maids at the fountain.
“Do run along!” Herman blurted out.
“Hirsch,” the boy uttered as soon as the door closed behind him, “let me stay with you“.
Herman gasped for breath and then inadvertently performed a gesture that he had learnt from Bešonised. He graciously motioned the boy to sit down on a stool. The owner of the printing house where Herman worked acted that way whenever anybody wanted him to return some outstanding debt. This ceremonious movement was used to persuade creditors to bide their time after all. Herman took his time to settle into his scholar’s armchair with the high head-rest, while the boy remained standing.
Silence fell over the study. Outside the window several solitary February afternoon snowflakes drifted down. A log was crackling in the fireplace. Herman realized that he could not just throw the boy out. Hirsch. He had not been addressed that way in years. He was not called Hirsch. That name belonged to his past life, which he had got rid of and was trying to forget. He thought he had managed to sweep away his past like old type. The boy took off his hat. His temples sprouted tufts of hair that nobody there ever wore.
“Don’t call me Hirsch,” Herman growled as he wondered if Máří was listening behind the door. “What do you want from me?”
“Master Hirsch,” the boy started up…
“Enough. Do not ever utter that name… I am Herman. HERMAN. You understand?” He did not add that his surname was Kawka. Surnames did not change with conversion.
“Master Herman, I am Šimon. And…I want to be a Christian.” Herman’s head spun. He had not expected this story to start up all over again before his very eyes. His thoughts became increasingly confused. The boy’s parents can’t have agreed to his decision. No, they probably hadn’t at all guessed yet that he had run off. It was only afternoon, and they would not start looking for him till the evening. There was still a little time left.
“Master, I… My stepmother is called Lea.” The name struck Herman like a blow. So that’s the way it is. Before him stood Šimon Abeles, who just a few minutes previously had been breathing the same air as Lea. Herman stood up – the heavy armchair shifted along the floorboards. If Máří was eavesdropping she had now leapt away from the door. Fear showed in Šimon Abeles’s eyes. As Herman placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, he realized what had struck him as odd from the outset. The boy wore a coat that originally belonged to a grown man, possibly a Christian labourer. Now he had unbuttoned it. The clothes beneath were undoubtedly his own and clearly indicated the Jewish Town.
Herman rushed into the kitchen, where Máří turned to him with an enquiring expression.
“I have to see Father Johann”, he told her. “The boy is to stay here until I come back. Leave him upstairs, do not speak to him and do not tell anyone about him…” Máří stared at him, uncomprehendingly and yet inquisitively.