Read The Cowards Online

Authors: Josef Skvorecky

The Cowards (5 page)

‘Benny!’ whispered Helena.

‘Well, it’s the truth. Dad’s the same way. They’re nuts. He and Dr Sabata and old Cemelik are planning an uprising.’

‘With Sabata?’


‘Who else is in on it?’

‘I don’t know for sure. Major Weiss and Krocan – the one that owns the factory – and Jirka Krocan and Dr Bohadlo and people like that.’

‘Boy. I wonder what they’re going to do.’

‘All I hope is that they’ll wait till the Germans have all cleared out.’

‘And what if the communists won’t wait that long?’ I said.

Benno looked up with a jerk. ‘Hey, you do know something.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, what’s this about the communists?’

‘Nothing. All I know is that they’re getting something ready, too.’

‘And Skocdopole and the others are in with them?’

‘With the communists?’



‘So what are they up to?’

‘They’ve got something else. They’re probably hooked up with London or something.’

‘And how … what are their connections with the communists?’

‘I don’t know. All I know is that they’re each doing it on their own.’

‘And the communists have their orders?’

‘Sure, I guess so anyway.’

‘Then we’re in for it.’

‘In for what?’

‘You’ll see. The communists want a revolution and so we all get dragged into the shit heap.’

‘You’re not afraid, are you?’

‘Afraid? No. I’m just fed up.’

‘Don’t argue like that, Benny,’ said Helena.

‘We’re not arguing,’ I said.

‘Maybe not. But Benny’s using dirty words again.’

‘Don’t blame him for that, Helena. We’re all talking dirty these days. It’s nerves.’

‘Yes, nerves!’

‘What a future to look forward to!’ said Benno. ‘If our old men don’t louse it up, then Skocdopole and his gang will, and if they don’t, then the communists certainly will. Either way, we’ve got something to look forward to.’

‘Benno, go to bed and sleep it off,’ I said. I knew how he felt and I should have pitied him, only I couldn’t. I knew he’d been in a concentration camp and so he had good reason for being scared of shooting and dying and things like that. He’d seen death and I hadn’t. So I acted like I would have acted if I’d felt sorry for him – out of respect for his nerves.

‘Yes, Benny,’ said Helena. ‘Come on and get some sleep. You’re worn out.’

‘I won’t be able to sleep anyway.’

‘Sure you will. I’ll give you a sleeping pill.’

‘I’m so goddamn fed up!’

‘Benny! Don’t swear!’

‘I mean it, Helena. You hardly get to sit down for a minute and these fools start ruining everything.’

‘Oh, Benno,’ I said, ‘nothing’s going to happen. They can’t do a thing.’

‘I hope to God they can’t.’

‘Not a chance. There’s nothing to worry about. I know them.’



‘Let’s go,’ snapped Benno suddenly. ‘So long.’

‘Good night. Sleep tight,’ I said.

‘Good night, Danny,’ said Helena.

‘Good night.’

They turned and hurried past the County Office Building towards Benno’s family’s house. They were arm in arm and they were hurrying. I watched them go. The Manes’s place was in the middle of a garden and the tall-windowed drawing-room shone luxuriously into the night. They weren’t paying any attention to the blackout either. I knew that Eva and Mr and Mrs Manes were sitting there, digesting their supper. There were wonderful paintings on the wall, a Persian rug on the floor, and everybody had his own room. Benno and Eva and all the others. It was a huge two-story mansion with a drawing-room and veranda and a salon and a music room with potted palms. So Mr Manes, export-import, was going to stage a revolution, too. Besides his business, all he cared about was Freud. And he knew how to live. He called himself a liberal. He was an Aryan but he looked like a Jew. His wife was kind and generous. She was Jewish and, besides Benno, there was also a very pretty daughter.

I watched the two of them until they disappeared through the garden gate. Then I turned around and headed towards the station.

I was all alone on the sidewalk now, not a soul in sight. On the left the park lay quiet and I would have bet anything that tonight there wasn’t a single person in it, though it was a fine night for a stroll. Everybody, every family with all its little
daughters, was getting ready to creep down in the cellar and stay there until it was all over. They were all imagining the craziest kinds of things. About the Russians and raping and so on. Goebbels had seen to that. If they catch you, you’re done for. People joked about it at the grocery store and in all the shops, but deep down inside they were scared. So, in their different ways, people were getting ready and, just to be on the safe side, stitching together red flags out of old feather-bed ticking. Fathers were plotting in their offices and boys were hatching conspiracies in the taverns and back rooms. And dreaming of being heroes. Just like me.

I walked past a block of apartment houses that stretched all the way down to the railroad station. Dagmar Dreslerova lived in the last house. My refuge in distress. I’d been crazy about her when I was a sophomore and then I wasn’t any more. But she was pretty and I didn’t like thinking that maybe she wasn’t crazy about me any more either. So every once in a while when I was feeling low on account of Irena, I’d visit Dagmar and tell her I loved her just so I could hear her tell me how much she loved me. Then, too, I felt kind of sorry for her because I wasn’t in love with her any more. She’d taken it very hard when I broke off with her. Then she started going with Franta Kocandrle but he must have given her a rough time. And she was giving a rough time to Rosta Pitterman, who was in love with her in spite of the fact that she couldn’t care less about him. She was ready to throw Franta over any time I wanted her to, but I didn’t take much advantage of the situation. My conscience bothered me. Not because it would hurt Franta but because I was mixing Dagmar up, getting her mentally and morally all snarled up and doing all sorts of things with her which I didn’t really enjoy at all any more. I just didn’t have the heart to disappoint her if it meant so much to her. I felt sorry for her, so I tried to give her pleasure. Sometimes I took refuge in Dagmar when I’d convinced myself I’d had enough of Irena, but that hardly ever happened. It was rare that I felt I couldn’t take it any more. But when I did, I went to see Dagmar to make that feeling stand out even sharper, as if I needed consolation, and I consoled myself with
Dagmar as well as I could so the feeling wouldn’t go away too soon. There wasn’t any light on in Dagmar’s room. She’d probably gone to bed early with her unfortunate crush on me and was probably feeling damn good about it, too. An unhappy love affair ought to make her glad. I would have been glad if I’d had one. But, to tell the truth, I was feeling pretty satisfied. I was a bit tired, the saxophone case was heavy, and I was looking forward to going to bed. Even being tired felt good. Or being hungry. Or being shut up inside the Messerschmidt plant shortly before the end-of-the-shift whistle blew. I crossed the tracks and looked around the station. The trains weren’t running any more. A row of freight cars fixed up so people could live in them stood on a siding. It was a munitions train and it was guarded by a couple of Vlasov men with submachine guns. It had got stuck here because the partisans had torn up the tracks to Germany. I could see somebody with his collar turned up, shuffling slowly along the line of cars – a submachine gun slung across his shoulder, a cigarette gleaming like a glowworm under his nose. I shifted my sax case to my other hand and turned left along Jirasek Boulevard. The Messerschmidt plant lay on one side, dark and quiet. Only stars were reflected in the glass roof over the assembly department. Not even the little night light was on. The blue-painted glass shone under the starry sky. I’d spent a lot of time in there, too. A year and a half of drudgery and boredom. Mainly boredom because I didn’t do much drudgery. Now that I looked back at it, it hadn’t been so bad. The boys and the pneumatic drill and the cool aluminium frames and the factory guards and the toilets and the welding and the Germans and all the other things, and reading surrealist poetry in the john. Reading ‘Women in the Plural’ and ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Absolute Gravedigger.’ Poems like that. My father teased me about it. I didn’t mind because he made fun of jazz, too. And even though I probably didn’t understand them very well, I liked those poems. I went over the footbridge that crossed the creek and came out on Jirasek Boulevard. It was narrow, high, and deserted. I walked fast. My footsteps echoed rhythmically on the pavement. The lights were on at the Krocans’s. Across the street at the Kaldouns’s,
too All the factory owners were getting ready for the liberation. So was Chief of Police Rimbalnik, who wore white gloves and lived at the Kaldouns’s. The town was in good hands. We could all rest easy.

I got to our house and took my key out of my pocket. Out of habit, I looked up at the sky again and then at the outline of the castle. It was already dark up there and only the stars were shining. I stood in the doorway and felt around for the keyhole. I stuck the key in and unlocked the door. I didn’t turn on the light. I always went upstairs in the dark. It was nicer that way. You could daydream and practically fall asleep on the stairs. I felt pleasantly tired. I slid one hand along the banister and dragged my saxophone case along in the other. It was dark on the first floor. There was a light under the door on the second floor.

I went up as far as our balcony and felt like taking a look around outside again. I set the case down on the floor and opened the balcony door. I went out and leaned over the iron railing. It was just a thin railing and I always got a pleasantly threatening sense of insecurity when I leaned against it, hanging in thin air above the town. As I leaned there against the railing, the balcony disappeared and there I was, dangling in space. Down below me was the courtyard. I looked down and saw Bonza, the dog, looking up at me. I mewed. Bonza barked. He watched me and couldn’t figure out what was going on. He barked suspiciously and inquisitively; I reached in my pocket and felt a piece of roll left over from lunch. I threw it down to Bonza. It made a dull
when it hit the concrete. Bonza quieted down right away. I looked out over the town. It lay in a valley, dark and quiet, the steeple of the Czech Brethren Church rising up over the little houses around it and only here and there a lone window gleaming. The lights were still on at the Port Arthur. I could imagine old Winter sitting there behind the counter with his drowsy eyes while beside him the beer tap dripped, slowly and steadily. And it was already quarter past eleven. I couldn’t imagine a life like that. Sitting beside the tap every day and most of the night. Maybe he didn’t even sleep in bed. It was unimaginable. Bonza barked again
from down below. I reached in my pocket and felt a little box of the peppermint drops I sometimes suck on account of my breath. I took one out and pitched it down to Bonza. He stopped barking and snuffled around trying to find it. I looked out over the town again. Beyond it, the woods started up the side of the hill and out of the woods rose the bare peak of Black Mountain with the hotel on top. Now it was dark. I remembered those long Sunday afternoons we used to kill up there during the war, playing cards and billiards and drinking tea. That was all over now. All that was over now. Something new was beginning now. I tipped my head back and looked up at the wide sky that was swollen with stars. The Milky Way stretched across it and didn’t move. A foamy spring-time silence hung over the town. It didn’t look like there was going to be a revolution. But there was supposed to be a revolution. And there had to be one. A lot of people wanted a revolution. A lot of important people, too. And a lot of these had bad records that needed cleaning up fast. A revolution would be very handy for them. I could already see how Mr Machacek would write it up:
The History of the Kostelec Revolution
, ‘Dedicated to the Honourable Dr Sabata, Mayor of Kostelec’, and it’d be published by B. Minarik who owned one of the bookstores in Kostelec. He’ll write it and peddle it around, and Mr Kaldoun and Mr Krocan and Mr Moutelik will tuck it away in their bookcases alongside the collected works of Master Alois Jirasek
and next to the memorial volume put out in honour of the ninetieth birthday of Mr Josef Sepron-Domanin, the Czech industrialist. And they’ll read it, but mostly just the parts that mention them. And they’ll be in there. Everybody will be. Mr Machacek won’t forget anybody. Mr Kaldoun was gracious enough to donate the use of his warehouse for a first-aid station, he’ll write. And Mrs Krocanova and Mrs Moutelikova made soup for the partisans. Mr Machacek will write about everything. Everything accurate and in great detail so the truth will be preserved for all posterity. About how Mrs Krocanova made soup for the partisans. Well, anyway, it’ll be good to have it preserved for all posterity. At least posterity’ll have something to laugh about.

Bonza barked again from down below. He was starting to get on my nerves. You dumb mutt, I thought, all you care about is something to eat. I turned around and went off the balcony. I closed the door, picked up my saxophone case, and went up the last flight of stairs to our apartment. It was dark under the door. I unlocked it and went in. I didn’t turn on the light in the hall so I wouldn’t wake up my father and mother. But Mother probably wasn’t asleep anyway. She always waited up until I came in and then fell asleep. Often she didn’t even fall asleep then. She suffered from high blood pressure and insomnia. I felt sorry for her. Once, when I committed sabotage by mistake and was scared the Gestapo would come for me, I suddenly realized that I loved her. She was the only person I really loved. Otherwise I more or less always acted like I loved people, but I really did love Mother. Except she was always around and so I often forgot about her. I could hear Father softly snoring in the bedroom. I hung my hat on the rack and looked at myself in the dark mirror. I could see my silhouette. I always looked in the mirror when I came home at night. Sometimes, when I turned on the light, I looked handsome and aristocratic in the mirror. That was because of the way the light shone on me from above. I had a long face and hollow – but not too hollow – cheeks and a straight nose and eyes with shadows underneath and a nice mouth. I used to imagine myself on the movie screen. With Judy Garland. But that was a long time ago. Now I couldn’t imagine myself like that any more. Only the habit still stuck with me, looking at myself in the mirror at night. I tiptoed across the carpet to my room, shut the door behind me, and set the case on the floor. Then I groped along in front of me until I felt the upright piano. Irena’s picture stood on top. Before, Vera’s picture used to stand there, and before that Lucie’s. And before that Dagmar Dreslerova’s. I always had to have somebody’s picture on the piano. I touched the cool metal of the lamp and turned the switch. A sickly light seeped over the room. That was because I had a 220-volt bulb in the lamp which was too strong for the current in our house. I had the impression the light couldn’t spread around the room as far as it should. The wardrobe and the table by the radio were almost
in the dark. I turned to the bed. It was made up and a pair of carefully folded pyjamas lay on the sheet. Just like my mother. I shoved the case under the bed and sat down. I felt tired. I pulled off my shoes, first one and then the other, untied my necktie and took off my shirt. Then I took off my pants, then my shorts and socks. I sat down on the bed naked. It felt good. I lay down on my back and put my feet up on the eiderdown quilt folded up at the foot of the bed. I lay there naked and the pillow and the sheet felt cool and good against my back. I gazed down at myself. I didn’t look so bad with nothing on. I had a well-proportioned body and chest and slim hips. Without any athlete around to compare myself with, I looked almost Grecian. The way the lamp was shining on me from behind, a shadow fell on my hips and suddenly I had those sharp angles around the pelvis like the statue by Praxiteles, whatever it is called. Those angles always looked unnatural and out of proportion to me but now I saw them there on my own body. I lifted one leg and stretched it out. It was nice to be tired. I lay there for a while, then sat up and put on my pyjamas. I turned off the light and pulled the quilt up over me. Everything was quiet. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I said to myself, and started to say my prayers. Dear God, make Irena care for me so she’ll marry me and I can live with her happily ever after. That’s what I’m praying for, Lord – that more than anything else in the world. I recited Our Father Who Art and thought about Benno and Helena and Kaldoun and Machacek and old man Winter and Bonza and the revolution and about everything, and then I realized that I wasn’t saying my prayers in a very reverent way and so I said the Lord’s Prayer over again and tried to think about God, but I couldn’t unless I pictured him sitting on his throne in whiskers and a nightshirt. And then I said Hail Mary and that went better because I’ve always thought of the Virgin Mary as being very beautiful and sweet until you get to the part about Jesus, and then I bowed my head and imagined her together with Irena, Irena standing in front of the Virgin, wearing a white veil and carrying a bunch of lilies in her hand and smiling at me. When I finished that I repeated Dear Lord, please help me to make Irena care
for me, and I crossed myself. I felt better. That duty was over with. Now I could think about whatever I wanted to. I wanted to think about Irena. And how it would be with her. I thought about me sleeping in bed and Irena sleeping next to me. We just went right on sleeping and I kept wanting to open my eyes and tell her, Irena, and she’d say, Yes, what is it? And I’d say, Irena, you know … And then I couldn’t think what to say next and so we just went on sleeping and I kept on waiting for me to say something but I didn’t say anything at all.

Other books

Keeping Dallas by Amber Kell
Deity by Theresa Danley
Blooming by Fletcher, Peyton
The Solution by Williams, TA
When a Duke Says I Do by Jane Goodger
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
The Faithful Heart by MacMurrough, Sorcha