Ogni anno il Brno Writers Group organizza un concorso letterario in lingua inglese. Quest’anno il tema del concorso era «Where I am local». Colto da ispirazione, ho scritto e inviato un racconto che probabilmente avrei pubblicato su queste pagine in altra forma. Non è niente di che, sono stati premiati testi migliori, ma mi sono divertito a buttar giú parole e a rifinirle ossessivamente per un mese e mezzo.
Ogni riferimento a ingegneri nucleari esistenti o a bettole realmente vissute è puramente casuale.
Everyone has a personal geography, and a personal toponymy that was drafted by the most diverse choices and experiences in life.
At times it may happen that various personal spatial planes intersect and collapse in one point: such points are the places where we are local.
Přeju vám příjemné čtení!
There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I cannot help but fall.
It first happened on the very same day that I relocated to this faraway corner of the city. It was a late Sunday afternoon at the end of summer, and I had managed to lock myself out of the flat I had just moved in. The locksmith had told me on the phone that he would come in an hour, but I was hungry, and above all I needed a restorative beverage.
I had noticed before that the closest place to my set of renovated paneláky was this hospoda, an unpretentious pub like any other, sitting at the intersection of two minor streets on the opposite side of the Svratka. So I got out in the warm setting sun, I crossed the Harbour Bridge, and I hesitated for a moment in front of the signs above the door. The Encampment was the name of the hospoda, and a golden plaque explained that Oliver Cromwell himself had camped on that spot with his New Model Army, on his way to the conquer of Hradčany.
I pulled the door: the pub was bigger than it looked from the outside, but far less crowded than I expected. At separate tables three elderly gentlemen were drinking beer, glancing from time to time at the big screen mounted on the wall at the other end of the room. ČT Sport was broadcasting the derby match between Vysočina Jihlava and Ross County, but the volume was muted, the radio instead playing nondescript classic rock. One third into the room stood the bartender, a plump woman wearing a platinum mullet, surrounded by a circular laminate counter, washing mugs. She greeted me dobrý den and she paid me little attention. I greeted her back and I asked her if they served food. Only brambůrky, kešu and tyčinky, she replied. She also had desítka and dvanáctka on tap, Kofola, and two bottles of single malt whisky from the local distillery. As I was more thirsty than hungry I ordered a pint and I gulped it down in silence, then I hurried back to the flat, into which the locksmith broke without asking me for any proof that I was the legitimate tenant.
Weeks passed before I fell down that hole for a second time. Whenever I went out to meet friends it was in some glamorous place downtown, the kind that you can read of in the travel guides. But one Wednesday evening in the middle of autumn I found myself home after a miserable day at work, and I knew that I would be thinking of charts and figures until the next morning, and I needed to let my mind roam elsewhere. So I got out in the pervading mist that was exuding from the river, and I crossed the bridge, balancing my steps on the slippery cobblestones. The bright signs were on.
I pulled the door: the pub was dimly lit, and the number of guests had increased only slightly. At separate tables two elderly gentlemen were drinking beer, while at the counter a tall middle-aged man was leafing through a tabloid. A couple in their twenties were sitting quietly under the big screen at the other end of the room, with no glasses in front of them. As for the big screen, this time it was showing a Slunečná repeat, and again the volume was muted, although no sound was coming out of the radio speakers. The bartender had changed into a skinny brunette with a pale complexion and a large green tattoo over each of her bare collarbones. A pair of butterflies? I couldn’t tell. I hung my winter jacket and I ordered brambůrky and pivo, which I fetched to a table in the darkest corner.
The young couple left when I was half way down my makeshift dinner. As soon as the door had closed, the tall man sighed aloud, moved next to where the couple were sitting, and began throwing darts at a target. The bartender switched off the big screen. One of the elderly gentlemen went out for a cigarette.
I was so deep into my thoughts of charts and figures that I didn’t notice that the gentleman had come back in, and he had got another desítka, until he took a chair and sat opposite me, uninvited. I startled. He opened the conversation by asking
«Are you middle class or working class?»
I could understand the words but not their meaning, as I was too busy trying to process the situation. He asked again
«Are you middle class or working class?»
Still my brain couldn’t make any sense of what was happening. I must have looked helpless, because he felt the need to elaborate
«You sit in shitty bar in ******* but you wear kašmír svetr and have rich bunda, that is why I ask are you middle class or working class!»
«It’s… it’s not cashmere, it’s probably yak.»
«It’s an animal, its wool is cheaper than…»
«Animal! I am also animal, I am Yellow Dog! But I am called Honza, I am pleased to know you.»
He stretched his right hand across the table, his left hand keeping the mug firmly close to the chest.
Honza, alias the Yellow Dog, turned out to be much younger than I had assumed. He hadn’t yet reached retirement age, but his thin figure and curved posture made him look like a frail senior. The long face and a tuft of golden hair gave the final touch to a vague canine semblance. What stood out were his eyes: wide, and lazy, not just as in pointing but also as in moving to different directions at once, as if the extraocular muscles had lost control of the bulbs and these were bubbles floating in a lava lamp.
That evening he did most of the chat, and it took me a while to grasp his Gaelic accent. He didn’t get my name. He thought I was French (no) and, like everyone else, he was curious about how I had ended up there. I told him of Anička, our love story and our breakup. He replied that he hadn’t heard from his wife and daughter in five and a half years.
«I have drink problem»
he confessed with a smirk, before emptying the mug and offering me one of his Spartas. I declined and, out of sheer habit, I warned him that smoking was bad for his health. He got up from the chair and he laughed at me. I thought I deserved it.
«Yellow Dog? He was inženýr at nuclear electricity»
the skinny pale bartender explained three Wednesdays later. From my stool at the counter I could appreciate the details of her clavicle tattoos – now I could see that they were two tortoises – but I could hardly hear her, because the hospoda was packed. The place had been booked for the evening by the local committee in support to the autonomy referendum. The big screen was looping a promotional video, full of forests and lakes and meadows and cliffs and happy families. At the sides were two flags with a chequered eagle painted over a Saint Andrew’s cross. Four tables had been joined and covered with trays of chlebíčky and salmon rolls. Standing behind the tables were two lads, giving out fliers and gadgets, attempting to talk politics with the voracious customers. A woman with a distinctive pin badge tried to engage me in the debate, but I bounced her away politely.
«In Thursday is karaoke night, we have more fun.»
A loud thump made all the heads turn towards the tables. Two elderly gentlemen, regulars, were grabbing each other’s ties and were smearing greasy gouda on each other’s faces.
«Second floor! That is where the language students are! Go and find yourself a pretty Slovak»
the more talkative of the independentist lads advised me the following Wednesday. His pal giggled and shaped a female body in the air. In a fit of laughter I snorted foam out of my nose. Of course I had made again the mistake of bringing Anička up in the conversation. I was sure that she would have frowned upon this display of shallow camaraderie.
It took me some effort to get up and head to the loo. I perceived half-consciously, on a sensory basis, that the hospoda was empty and silent, and that the skinny pale bartender was staring at her smartphone, just waiting for the closing time. For a change I chose the urinal on the left, and I aimed at the sticker with green and white stripes. Was it Celtic or Bohemians? I could ask, they would know. They seemed nice folks. They must have been football or hockey fans. Rugby league, perhaps? I could invite them to a match. At least I should pay this round. Yeah, they were really nice to me. Had we run out of hand towels?
When I left the toilet, the bartender was sweeping the floor and the lads were already gone.
I hastily asked the driver to pull over in the middle of the bridge. It was likely against the law, but she complied, as no other car was in sight. No one in their right mind would get on the road in such a heavy snowfall. She was tired of it too, she had already spent forty-seven minutes driving me home from the airport in first, second, at times third gear. I tipped her over the full fare, I collected my trolley bag from the trunk, and I wished her a veselé Vánoce. As I had wasted hours in the airport lounge waiting for the last plane of the week to land, so that the plane could fly me South, I had resigned to the reality that I would spend my Christmas in this faraway corner of the world.
In the black waters of the river, which once was aptly named Švarcava, an otter, or a seal, or maybe a sea lion was swimming placidly towards the harbour and the openness. Under the bright signs of the hospoda Yellow Dog was puffing at his cigarette; he nodded me in.
I pulled the door: the Thursday night was in full swing. Surrounded by the circular laminate counter, the tall darts player was pulling pints and pouring drinks. The mullet-sporting woman was scrambling among the tables. All were occupied, mostly by groups of married couples with their kids tagging along. At the other end of the room a man in a grey suit was crooning a personal rendition of The Beer Barrel Polka.
I was still looking for a free seat when I saw the skinny pale lass, off-duty, waving at me and pointing at the tip of her bench. I took off my coat and I hid the trolley bag under the table, while she and her friends squeezed to their right. I introduced myself to the party and I understood that they called her Tessa. Eventually I caught the platinum mullet’s attention and I ordered a double whisky, not the one with the lighthouse on the label, the one with the crocodile – like I knew the difference. My new best mate shared with me a bag of herring-shaped gingerbreads that she had baked.
«Eat perníčky. Not be drunk.»
I took one. It was hard and tasteless. I took a few more.
Yellow Dog was the host. He was in control of everything: microphones, karaoke set, big screen, room temperature. I was amazed by how well he managed to prod the shy to the spotlight and to revive the audience after a bad performance. I realised that he wasn’t touching any alcohol. Soon he was at my side.
«Come and sing!»
I shook my head in terror. Tessa saved me by raising her hand enthusiastically. I gave her way and I saw her negotiate with her friends what she would pick. Titles by a certain Lewis Capaldi were booed without mercy. At the other tip of the bench a boy dressed in leather suggested Černí andělé, but she didn’t know the lyrics. By association she chose the karaoke staple, Angel. She squealed all the way through it.
And down waterfàáàll
Her friends and I looked at one another. She sat back, happy and unaware. Yellow Dog rushed to call up a lady who intoned like a professional one klezmer-influenced song about riding a black horse in a night full of smells. A quartet of customers stood up and mimed fiddles. I ordered another double crocodile and I took the tumbler outside.
The snowfall had ceased and the sky was clearing up under the crescent moon. An idyllic image, indeed. It also meant that later I would have to skate home over icy pavements. A couple left the hospoda carrying a sleeping toddler. Yellow Dog slipped through the door behind them, opened his pack of Spartas, and lit one. He smoked it to the filter, then he lit another one. Only then did he tell me, or the otter in the river,
«Today I stopped.»
I had guessed it right: he had quit drinking! Such a clever man couldn’t waste himself that way! I was finding the words to congratulate him, when he continued
«Tomorrow I start again.»
I dropped my head and I chuckled at my own foolishness. He threw the cigarette in the snow and I followed him inside.
And then I followed Tessa to the big screen. She smiled and she browsed the “Duets” section of the karaoke software. At Felicità I pretended to walk away in shame. At Falling Slowly her friends cheered, but we were no Glen and Markéta. In the end she chose Empire State of Mind: before I could complain, I was barking of a concrete jungle I had never been to, and of rappers and ballers I had no idea they ever existed. At the chorus she locked her eyes into mine and she belched
Now you are in Brnòóòóòóò
These streets will make you feel brand-new
Big lights will inspire yoùúùúùúù
I «yo, yo»-ed back to her.
At the end of the karaoke night the tall darts player rang the counter bell and the remaining audience hushed. Yellow Dog took centre stage, he made his eyes roll around the room, he winked so to make the audience cackle, and he opened the empty envelope.
«And winner is…»
I sipped the last of my crocodile whisky.
«Tessa and New Guy!»