This is a novel of childhood, of the childhood of a narrator here identified with the author. With exceptional delicacy, Simona Popescu reconstructs a childhood of defeats. Memories are bathed in aromas, in childhood sensations ; minor happenings acquire major significance. The author seems to have a treasure chest of memories, which she extracts one by one, in order to charm the reader with their textures, with details that extend into narrative miniatures. Thus, for the delight of the reader, there appear a wealth of stylistic and narrative jewels : from the world as seen from the closet where the quilt is kept to other hollows, as the author calls those places invested with fairytale properties by children ; from the young girl’s fascination with cookery books – not the recipes in them, but rather the drawings that embellish them – to her innocent but smile‑provoking thoughts about God, Whom she ardently wants to see in a photograph, for which she is even prepared to offer her hair bobbles in exchange... A book redolent with nostalgia, with a music of memories perfectly tuned and conducted by the author, subtly gliding across the keys of time and introducing us, be it only partially, into a world that has been lost by us all. It is the story of a little girl, and then of an adolescent who refuses to grow up, precisely for fear of losing contact with those things which might seem minor, but which, in fact, constitute the charm of existence… of an existence that owes much to childhood, with all its strange and not so strange stories.
What did they understand by “talking about love” ? All they used to do was to gossip about the guys who were head over heels for them, to boast about their tactics for keeping a tight leash on them or making mincemeat of their rivals. Sometimes, they would get jealous of some girl or other who was itching at the thought of hooking (or nicking) those boyfriends of theirs. The latter, it seems, had varied qualities : either they would look like some actor or singer, or they would have death’s head key‑rings, tee‑shirts “from abroad,” thousand‑lei Pumas on their feet, and bicycles, or else they would come first at running in sport. They would even go so far as to show me the love letters (somewhat ungrammatical and closing with a scrawled LOVE) which the poor lads committed the imprudence of sending them, unaware, poor things, that they were thereby entering straight into the wolf’s mouth. But that’s how they used to make a spectacle of themselves in front of each other, because otherwise each of them had come to me to babble her little secret about love. I knew what was in their minds. I knew all too well.
Then, another day, on the bus, I overheard a conversation between two schoolgirls. One of them, a rather ugly girl, with her hair tied in a pony tail with umpteen elastic bows and a miniature panda at the end, wearing a plastic wristwatch, kept telling the other one about how Gabi wants to pinch Dorobantzu from her. She kept going on about this Dorobantzu, who, it was plain to see, was a bit of a skirt‑chaser. The wee girl was very upset. I eavesdropped for as long as I could, but I think that they must have caught on because they shut up and started giving me a dirty look, while I pretended to be engrossed by the brooch of some old woman, a sinister brooch in the form of a fat and ugly spider perched on her similarly fat and ugly bosom. Another time, I was to hear a similar conversation as I was queuing for some bread. My grown‑up mind knows, knows all too well, what is in their minds, what they mean to say with their simple, straightforward language.
Half‑knapsack (I’ve no idea where the name came from) could be played with flowers, films, animals, cars, or “lads and lasses”.
You stood in a line, one next to the other, lads and lasses, younger or older. Two would go to one side, whisper whatever they had to whisper, decide on a number, stop in front of each one and challenge you : “Half !” And you had to guess the number, and if you guessed right you were free to choose between the pair who had given themselves the names of flowers, if the game was with flowers, or of films, if it was with films, but most of all the names of girls or boys. They always knew what names to give themselves when it came to “lads and lasses”, so that you would be put in a corner and have to answer in front of everybody that between Lulu and Harry you chose Harry. And then Harry would blush, and that’s how the game would become a kind of indirect declaration of love. The only thing was that I wouldn’t choose Harry, whom I loved very much, but rather Lulu, because I was embarrassed to say what I felt in front of Harry. But I knew that he knew more than anybody else that it wasn’t possible for you to like Lulu, who was too old for you, four or five years older, and who, apart from anything else, was insufferable, because he called you “bowl‑head” (your parents had given you a “bowl‑cut”, quite a fashionable hairstyle at the time, copied from that chanteuse, Mireille Mathieu). But did he know ?
Then there was that game with numbers, whose rules I’ve more or less forgotten. A wee girl would ask you some questions, and do some calculations until she came up with a number in the tens or hundreds. Then she would look it up in a little table, where, next to each figure, there was written a simple and comical announcement of the type : he’s cheating on you or he likes blondes ; he loves you but he’s shy ; he loves another ; he’s thinking of you ; he’s deceiving you ; you are going to meet ; you are going to split up ; you’re going to have an argument ; he’s got a surprise for you ; you’re going to get a present from him. And we would religiously believe in these verdicts – not to mention that, don’t ask me how, they sometimes came true, especially the one with you’re going to have an argument. There was also another answer there, which I used to covet the most when I was thinking about Harry : you are going to marry him. Lord, how much I wanted to get married to Harry, to be with him day after day, all my life (all my life !), to bring him milky coffee in bed, all day long to watch cartoons or shoot‑’em‑up films (he liked them, but I’d get quite bored). To watch Vanadana and cry on each other’s shoulders, to go to the market together, to have five children, a dog and, without fail, a cat. To wake up next to him in the morning. To talk about UFOs, about ghosts and monsters, to get frightened and, trembling with fear, to hug until it passed, then to sleep on his shoulder, to hold each other from evening until morning. To drink lemonade or even beer, to eat peanuts and stuff ourselves with ice‑cream, to dance to lilting music in each other’s arms, to sit around the fire in winter and so on. We would play this game a number of times a day, and sometimes it would come out he’s cheating on you, sometimes he loves you, sometimes you are gong to split up, so that I would never be able to understand anything and would start all over again the next day, seeking out that girl with her table. And she would make you picture somebody in your mind all over again, and she would ask you who knows how many questions all over again, and then tot everything up. She didn’t get annoyed with you for pestering her all the time, because she used to receive scented pencil‑erasers from you, coloured glass beads, sweets, and chocolate wafers.
However, the most frequented game was called squares. Inside a square were inscribed a few horizontal lines and two vertical ones. So, there would be a number of rows of three squares each. For one line of squares, you had to say the initials of three boys you really liked. The next row included three favourite colours, the next three favourite cars, then three towns, three countries, three favourite foods, three items of clothing, three drinks, three favourite animals, and the list could go on, depending on how much time and patience the girl playing had (this one was only for the girls). Above the square was placed the number of your future house. According to this magic figure, the numbering would begin and, by exclusion, you were left in the end with you will marry G, you will dress in purple, you will have a Mercedes, you will live in Tokyo, in the country of Holland (well, there could arise mix‑ups because of the numbering), you will have ten children (or none at all), you will eat whipped cream all your life (or mandarins or bananas or chips or aubergine salad), you will dress in furs (or spangled trousers or velvet or hats), you will drink lemonade (or Pepsi or “wheeskey”) you will have a dog (or a parrot or a fish or a monkey). These games were especially played during breaks, on the blackboard, and anyone could watch. When it was my turn at squares, Harry would be there, but I couldn’t include his initial among the three, so I used to put down E. But he knew that, in the whole neighbourhood and in the entire school, there wasn’t any Eugene or Emile whom I was thinking about ; he knew that the E had to be the initial of his real name, Erhard. It would always work out the wrong way for me at squares. I never ended up marrying Harry, I would get married to Călin, let’s say, and I didn’t care if I had a Mercedes, that I would eat peanuts, that I would drink Chico or that I would dress in blue lace. I wouldn’t care and so I used to break off the game, turn around towards him with a look laden with reproach and go back to my desk, crushed. I used to try to imagine for a moment what my future would be like without him and it would be impossible. Impossible. There was a mad agitation in these games. They would stir up envy. They were grist to the mill of teasing. And the atmosphere was laden with a kind of strange eroticism. It was as if we were all possessed. We were dying of curiosity to see who would end up marrying X or Y. It was all continual spectatorship, insinuation and desperation. These excruciating games, the numbers and the randomness, the sophisticated totting up, the secret and wearisome figures, the mystery of the deciphering, of the interpretations – they were a tangle which we by no means wanted to name. Grown‑ups called it “love”, but that wasn’t appropriate to us. We ought to have had our own word for all that unreason, for that knot of mixed‑up things, for our senseless, pointless fretting. Then there were the suppositions, the unfounded jealousies, and the absurd competitiveness (we were some twenty girls and only a handful of boys). There were no certainties, but there was a whole heap of hopes, especially when you received trinkets on the first day of spring, when you heard that X had spoken about you to the other boys, when you saw one of them making daring pirouettes in front of you at the skating rink, when you were playing hide and seek and some handsome boy came and crouched in the same place as you, when you received notes during a lesson with questions of the kind, “What have we got to write up for grammar tomorrow ?”, or when he asked you for some chewing gum, a ruler or whatever, just like that... just so that you would look round towards his desk.
Now, I would be old enough to be the mother of the boy I was in love with twenty years ago. I perfectly remember his mouse‑like face and big ears, his silky, swarthy skin, his tobacco‑coloured hands, with his nails pared down to the skin (which I used to detest in others, but not in him or in Dana), his spotless shirts, with little blue and grey checks, the collars and cuffs fastened with buttons. He even started a fashion at school, and after a week of pestering I too had my mother make a collar and cuffs. Now, it is enough for me to focus and, while all the other thousands of things from the past (and the present) blur and fade away, his face reappears, the face I learned off by heart, the same as you learn a poem by heart, summoning him up before my eyes dozens of times a day, during one period, so as not to forget him – just as once, when I was little, I had had the cruel revelation of the fact that everything around me would one day disappear and so, on arriving back home, I had “learnt” mother for ever.
His only fault was that he had a bit of a stupid habit. Whenever it had been raining, when the unpaved street that led to the school filled up with puddles, he would wade with his yellow wellies to where the water looked deepest, wait for me to catch up with him and kick the muddy water to splash me. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t flattered by this, although my socks would be all covered in mud. Essentially and in the end, I was privileged, because it was only ever me he felt like splashing. I pretended to get angry and this would give him the opportunity to walk me home apologising, trying to make me laugh so that I would get over it. And then, when it rained again, I would be happy, I would see him from the school gate waiting with his feet in a puddle and, instead of avoiding it, I would pass right by him. I think I would have suffered terribly if he had splashed some one else or if he hadn’t splashed me at all. For as long as we sat at the same desk, we never copied from each other, out of pride. I preferred to get a bad mark than to ask him to help me, and he did likewise. Another thing I liked was that he used to score a blue line for a margin in his exercise books, not a red one like all the rest of us. Perhaps this was why I decided that blue was my favourite colour. I also liked the fact that he didn’t have a “musical ear” and couldn’t sing. I would listen to him hitting the wrong notes in music lessons and I loved his husky voice, always either too high or too low. At school, we were in fierce competition. We were the only ones in our class who both managed to win first prize with a garland. The garland was always of roses, bought from the market, and cost a lot of money. Mine was of daisies ; my dad would make me one every year from flowers he himself picked. Lord, how much I loved my dad, not only because he made me the most beautiful garlands, but also because he was a dab hand at all kinds of other things I could show off at school. He would plait rugs for me out of scrunched‑up paper. He could paint amazingly well, and I would stand next to him and watch how he picked the colours, how he pursed his lips as he concentrated. He would stitch houses and flowers onto cardboard with coloured thread, and for my sake he would always contribute to the class “didactic fund.”
A garland of daisies keeps for a month. A garland of roses keeps for years, while a rose that fell out of his garland sat in my jewel box for about five years, blackened and papery, and perhaps it might still have been there if someone had not thrown it away.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth