Read The Cowards Online

Authors: Josef Skvorecky

The Cowards (6 page)

Saturday, May 5

I woke up at about half past eight. Outside the sun was shining and it was hot in the room. I lay in bed. I had a slight headache and a bad taste in my mouth. I lay there and looked up at Rosta’s portrait of me that hung on the wall by my bed. I looked very distinguished. He’d given me a huge head and narrow shoulders so I looked scholarly. And what was interesting about the picture was the contrast between that intellectual-looking head and the grimy collar of my shirt which I wore without a tie. I remember when he did it. It was once right after I’d got home from work at Messerschmidt. I was wearing a cotton shirt that was spattered all over with ferroflux oil. I looked at the painting and thought to myself, that’s a nice portrait, and if I die, at least I’ll leave one good thing behind. Otherwise it was a lousy morning. I closed my eyes but I wasn’t tired enough to sleep any more, or even doze.

It was time to get up. So finally I sprang out of bed. If you’ve got to do it sometimes it’s best to do it fast. I went to the window and looked out. Nothing. The town looked just the same as yesterday. No sign of the revolution. Who could tell if anything was going to happen? I wasn’t so sure anything would. Things like that do happen but that it would actually take place right here in our own town seemed awfully unlikely to me. Revolution. I couldn’t imagine anybody shooting. The druggist, or Mr Krocan who owned the factory? Crazy. Prema possibly. Prema had a killer’s face and he had some weapons in his warehouse, that much I knew. And maybe Perlik, too. Otherwise the whole thing sounded pretty absurd. Completely absurd. I turned away from the window and switched on the radio. I waited a while and it irritated me. Waiting for the radio to warm up always irritated me. Some kind of Prussian march came booming out. So nothing had happened yet. Naturally. Nothing would. The Russians would come from the
east and the Americans from the west and they’d liberate us in a moment of glory, and then the glorious moment would be over. Or maybe it would more likely just get off to a start with all the city fathers puffing around pinning medals on each other’s chest. What a farce! I went to the bathroom and turned on the water. I washed and rubbed myself briskly with a Turkish towel until my skin was nearly red. A terrific feeling. I went back to the room, opened the window, and turned back the covers. Cool air rushed in through the open window. The sun, already up, shone bright and new. I went to the kitchen and put on the tea kettle, got some rolls from the pantry and started buttering them. First one, then another – like on an assembly line. Then I looked out the window and almost fell over. Across the street, a Czech flag was flying from architect Bauman’s house.

It gave me a weird sensation. Like when I was fourteen years old and we were celebrating our Independence Day, the 28th of October. That flag hadn’t flown for six years and now all of a sudden, there it was – flying again. And it didn’t seem new or strange at all. It was a beautiful flag, at least nine feet wide, freshly laundered, and the red and white colours were strong and clear. I thought of the radio, ran back to my room, turned it on and waited. Meantime I noticed that flags were flying in front of the hospital and official buildings, too. Somebody was just hanging one out at Vasata’s house. Yes. It was starting to happen now. As though everything was already won. But the Germans were still here. The radio came on. Music. I listened, but it wasn’t German music. Some march by Kmoch. I should have known they wouldn’t have come up with anything better than some dumb oompah Kmoch. What a revolution! I listened disgustedly to the tinny music. It spoiled my good mood. Then I went back into the kitchen, ate breakfast and decided that, whatever happened, I was going into this in style. I took my dark brown jacket out of the closet, put on a white shirt and light pants. Then I put on my boldly patterned bluish-yellow silk necktie, tied a neat little knot, and buttoned the jacket. I took my perforated brown shoes, brushed them, and went to take a look at myself in the mirror. I was looking pretty sharp.
That made me feel good. I put on a light coloured hat, took one more look in the mirror, and left the apartment. When I got to the second floor and was passing the door of the Strnads’s apartment, Mrs Strnadova suddenly appeared in the doorway.

‘Danny! Danny!’ she cried hysterically. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

‘Good morning, Mrs Strnadova,’ I said, took off my hat and gave her a big smile.

‘The day has come, Danny! At long last we’re free again!’

‘Well, not quite yet!’ I said in the same tone, as if I was saying, That’s right! Free at last! Meanwhile I kept a polite smile fixed on my face.

‘Isn’t it just wonderful? I’m so happy! So happy!’ she yelled without even bothering to listen to what I was saying.

‘Wonderful. Yes. Wonderful.’

‘Oh, my word, I’m so happy I hardly know what I’m doing – aren’t you?’

‘Oh, absolutely.’

‘It’ll be a joy to live again. And as for those butchers – they ought to shoot them all!’

‘They certainly should.’

‘Yes. And not only them but everybody who collaborated with them, too. Mercy would be wasted on them.’

‘Absolutely,’ I said. I knew why the old girl was talking so wildly. Her neighbour’s husband was a collaborator, and she couldn’t stand her neighbour. So naturally she was all in favour of shooting.

‘They all ought to be locked up. And anybody with a life on his conscience – no mercy for them. The firing squad’s all they deserve!’

‘Oh there’ll be shooting all right,’ I said.

‘Oh yes,’ she said avidly. ‘You know, personally, I wouldn’t hurt a fly, but when it comes to those monsters I don’t have an ounce of pity.’

‘Who does?’ I said.

‘You’d be surprised. There are some people around here who’d just like to forgive and forget. But I’ll never forget. Not me!’

‘How could you?’ I said.

‘Because if we forget now, then we’ll have the Germans back again in twenty years. We’ve suffered long enough under them. It mustn’t happen again.’

‘That’s for sure,’ I said.

‘What would our children say? They’d never let us forget how foolish we’d been, how completely irresponsible and how we hadn’t learned our lesson.’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Excuse me, Mrs Strnadova, but I’ve got an important appointment and I’ll have to be going.’

The old lady beamed at me.

‘Aha, I understand,’ she said. ‘Well, I won’t keep you, Danny, run along. And remember me to Miss Irena. She’ll be so happy, too.’

‘Yes, thank you. Good-bye,’ I said sweetly, and trotted down the stairs. The old girl was omniscient. She snooped out everything. I would have liked to have known where she found out that I was crazy about Irena. Actually, though, it was simple. Irena was Berty Moutelik’s cousin, and Berty Moutelik couldn’t keep anything to himself. And Miss Cihak, the schoolteacher, was Berty Moutelik’s aunt. And Miss Cihak was a friend of Miss Strnad. And the little Strnad girl didn’t go around with anybody except her mother. That was how she’d found out. It was simple. I didn’t care. I rushed out to the street.

There were lots of people milling around. Flags were flying from most of the houses by now, shining in the sunshine. Crowds of laughing people swarmed through the streets. Everybody was grinning. I put on a scornful expression. All that gay laughter made me sick. A stupid happiness. One should sneer. Sneer about the Germans and the German Reich. I stuck one hand in my pocket and ambled along with the mob. Old men and young thronged alongside me and everybody wore something in his buttonhole. Mr Petrbok, all dressed up in his band-leader’s uniform, rushed out of his house and carried off towards the square. He was wearing white gloves and carrying a baton with a gold ball on the end. The idiot. This poor sap was the one who always made trouble about our permit to play and said that since jazz wasn’t our national music it
should be prohibited. And now he thought he would welcome the Russians with his idiotic tin-can band. Well, we’d welcome them too. And we wouldn’t make any concessions, either – Petrbok could bet his last cent on that. We’ll welcome them with some real fine Dixieland, with Venca’s throaty, hoarse trombone and Benno’s sobbing trumpet. We’ll welcome them. And not Mr Petrbok. And we’ll play for dances down at the spa. And we’ll jitterbug and have a party and hang up paper lanterns around the pool. I sauntered along and looked around. The sun was shining and the air was fresh and soft as May. Mr Vladyka, the collaborator who worked at Dad’s bank, was hunched up in front of the bank, all jittery. He was pale as a ghost and in his buttonhole he wore a big rosette made out of linden leaves and all sorts of junk as if he’d got himself all dressed for inspection. He was shaking all over, so that even his rosette trembled. He looked around him in terror but nobody paid any attention to him. I made a face and went past him. I saw Pedro Gershwin at the corner by Novotny’s. I headed towards him.

‘Hi,’ I said.

‘Hi,’ he said, and touched two fingers to the rim of his hat. He was leaning up against the anti-tank barrier that stood there and his legs were crossed with elaborate casualness.

‘How’re things?’ I said.

‘I’m just watching the crowds,’ he said.

‘Aren’t you going on downtown?’

‘No. I’m waiting for Haryk.’

‘Where is he?’

‘He went for some paint.’

‘What for?’

‘We’re going to do some painting.’



‘What are you going to paint?’

‘We’re going over the German signs.’

‘Oh, I see. Then I’ll stick around, too. Anybody else coming?’

‘Benno and Lexa went for a ladder.’

‘They’re coming here?’


We were silent.

Pedro was cool as a cucumber and terse. He always was. He didn’t have much between the ears, but what little he did have he doled out so carefully that he made out better than lots of kids who knew ten times as much.

‘What do you think? You think there’s going to be any shooting here?’ I said.

‘I’m afraid so.’

‘You don’t think maybe they ought to hold off for a while?’


‘I think so, too. Guys are rushing into this like mad without even waiting till they’ve got enough guns and …’

‘Let ’em, if they want to push up daisies for the communists.’

‘You think that’s what’s going to happen?’

‘Why, sure.’

‘That the communists are going to take over?’

‘No doubt about it.’

‘Well, I don’t know. That’d be bad, all right. Yeah, but Benes …’

‘There’s nothing he can do about it.’

I didn’t say anything for a while. Then I said, ‘Well, what’re you going to do?’


‘Yeah. If the commies take over.’

‘Listen, pal – but this is strictly between you and me …’


Pedro looked at me quizzically.

‘As soon as the highways are clear,’ he said, ‘I’m going to hop on my motorcycle and get the hell out of here.’

‘Where to?’

‘To the Americans, where else?’

‘Yeah, sure,’ I said. ‘You’re right. That’d be the best thing to do.’

‘Greetings, gents,’ somebody said behind us. It was Haryk. He was wearing a white druggist’s smock and in one hand he held a can of paint, in the other a paint brush, and he was grinning.

‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Well, congratulations and welcome to freedom.’

‘Same to you, same to you,’ said Haryk.

‘Man, did you see old Petrbok?’

‘Yeah. With gloves and a big baton.’

‘He’s nuts. But just wait till this afternoon when he marches his brass band out to the customs house.’

‘I hope he does. At least he could get mixed up in something out there and that would be the end of him,’ I said.

‘Right,’ said Haryk. ‘Only then we’d have to play for all the funerals in town instead of him.’

Pedro laughed.

‘Yeah. Here everybody’s celebrating victory and freedom and they forget the front hasn’t got here yet.’

‘You think it’ll come this way?’ said Haryk.

‘Well, what do
think? The Germans are just going to evaporate?’

‘Maybe the Russians’ll catch up with ’em before they get here.’

‘I wouldn’t bet on it.’


‘Because the Germans are running their asses off trying to get back to the Americans.’

‘Maybe you’re right,’ said Haryk. Silently, we watched the crowds. Lexa and Benno emerged from the cinema Lido arcade. They were carrying a ladder. Lexa was dressed in his ordinary clothes but Benno was wearing a white smock and a hat made out of a newspaper. They came over to us.

‘It’s about time,’ said Haryk.

‘Old man Matejka didn’t want to lend us the ladder. He was scared we’d break it.’

‘Let’s go. Let’s do something,’ said Benno. I looked at him. He didn’t look scared. I went over to him.

‘How’re you doing?’


‘How’d you sleep?’

‘Swell,’ he said. ‘You?’

‘Me, too. Everything’s running real smooth, huh?’

‘Just wait. Dad’s down at City Hall now.’

‘Yeah,’ said Lexa. ‘So’s old man Cemelik. From what I heard, they’re going to proclaim an independent state of Kostelec at noon and elect Sabata president and declare war against Germany.’

‘Or declare neutrality, maybe?’ said Haryk.

‘That’s possible, too.’

‘What the hell, let’s get going,’ said Benno.

‘Let’s go,’ said Haryk.

‘Where’ll we go first?’ I asked.

‘First let’s go over to our store,’ said Benno. We started off. People looked after us and some of them were laughing.

‘That’s the spirit, boys,’ some old-timer said. ‘Smear it all up.’

‘You bet. We’re going to wipe it all out,’ said Haryk.

‘The whole past,’ said Pedro.

‘And all that suffering,’ said Haryk.

The old guy looked at us and you could tell he didn’t know what to think. But we kept right on going. The people kept streaming along, up one side of the street towards the square and back down on the other side. Flags were flying everywhere. Mr Kodet was just sticking a bust of Benes in his shop window and his wife was fixing up the backdrop, draping the Czechoslovak flag into neat folds and then stepping back to see how it looked. Next door, the Shuberts had six flags in their store window. One for each of the Allies. They even had a Chinese flag. We kept on going. Mr Moutelik was standing out in front of the City of London department store, passing out tricolours. A big crowd was elbowing around him, mostly boys, and begging him, ‘Me too, Mr Moutelik, me too!’ Mr Moutelik was cutting out the tricolours and giving them away. Boy, was he bighearted! Man, was he a big patriot! He also owned the biggest store in Kostelec. He was absolutely bald and his head shone in the sunshine. When we reached him, he’d just finished cutting out the last piece. He threw up his hands and yelled, ‘That’s all there is. Don’t push! You can see for yourselves I don’t have any more.’

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