Our English teacher had gone on maternity leave, and so on Saturday, after tuition, we quickly gathered our stuff together and off we went in our usual formation : me, Hari, Ina and Dana. I walked them down Sarii Road, to the end of the no. 88 bus route, and on the way we stopped off in the little park, so that I could smoke a cigarette and Hari and Dana could stock up from the old woman who sells sunflower seeds, and after that we each gobbled an ice cream from the booth where they sell the really good stuff. We gossiped for a bit—ever since I started hanging out with them, I’ve gone daft and started gossiping—and then Hari took the tram for another two stops, and I took the no. 88 in the opposite direction, to my house on Panduri. Dana only had a little way to walk, and Ina lived right there, by the intersection.
It was something past four and it was nice out, it wasn’t as hot, but we weren’t talking, our minds were elsewhere. Hari started humming Yesterday. We still had another week of school and the reports on most subjects were written up already, and so we were mostly just idling, getting bored. From next week, it was going to be mostly tuition, with Popeye, that’s Mr Pop, the gym teacher, who was our tutor. The others always went on about how he was all right and how it was really crappy that he was going to be retiring next year, but to be honest, I thought he was a bit dull and annoying. Him and his faded tracksuit with the patches, and his Chinese plimsolls, what can I tell you : the embodiment of modesty and conscientiousness ! When he found a coin on the floor of the class, he would pick it up and start blathering about how it was a shame to throw money away. He was an old man and couldn’t afford to ! If he saw a five bani coin on the ground, he picked it up and put it in his pocket ; he wasn’t ashamed ! Five bani plus five bani make ten bani, heh heh ! And with twenty five bani you can buy yourself a tram or a trolleybus ticket. With ten five bani coins, you can buy yourself a roll to eat in the break, or a really posh Chinese pencil with a rubber on the end.
Today he went all loony on me ; I think his brain’s seized up or something. He started yelling at me out of the blue, what’s with that long hair of mine and I shouldn’t be surprised if he gives me a nine out of ten for general behaviour, because how many times has he asked me nicely to get it cut ? I was gobsmacked, I can tell you, because he did tell me, but when was it ? It was all the way back in the second term ! I told him that I’d come back the next day with a haircut, no problem, but then Hari, Ina and Dana talked me out of it. Because Hari was always stroking my hair, saying she liked it the way it was, curly, and because it wouldn’t stay straight, which was exactly what annoyed me about it. They started pleading with him : “Ple e e ease, Comrade, his hair’s not all that long, let him leave it till next week, pretty ple e e ease !” And Popeye, good bloke that he is, smiled, sighed, looked out of the window, at the sports field, and for the next two months he didn’t breathe a word about haircuts. But now he starts on at me, in the last week of school, when all the lads are growing their hair long—Raz and Mitroi and the Herbivore—and when not even Comrade Anton, the headmistress, gives us any gip about it. Isn’t it absurd ?
I didn’t say anything, but at the end of the lesson he decided to make fun of me because of it. He pushed his glasses down his nose, looked at me over the frames and cracked his old joke : “What’s his name escu ? Good cheese in the dog’s belly !” Apparently, that spared him having to repeat all the faults that he had detected in me since he’d been our tutor. I was clever, I had a sharp mind, but I was unreliable, you couldn’t count on me ; I let my mouth run away with me. I read a lot, I knew lots of stuff, and I was really talented at Romanian—he didn’t believe it himself, but that’s what Mrs Pislaru said, and she used to read out my textual commentaries in the staffroom. My grandma had been an illustrious teacher of Romanian and so, duh, I was treading in her footsteps, but what was the use, if even Mrs Pislaru said I gave her white hairs ? Wasn’t it a crying shame, because I was a handsome lad too, taller than him, and all the girls probably... (cries of protest from the girls).
He was right about me letting my mouth run away with me, I don’t deny it, because I was the class joker ; I couldn’t stop myself. Obviously, the others told jokes too, but when I was on a roll, I could pull them out of the hat one after the other ; they’d be rolling around on the floor with laughter ! On the other hand, all that stupid stuff about me being talented at Romanian got on my nerves ; it was no big deal if I began those commentaries a bit differently, with a question or a couple of pilfered quotations. I mean, in the end it’s just logic and common sense. Besides, the ones he said Pisla read out in the staffroom were from the eighth grade ; I hadn’t bothered writing many this year. In any case, she still swooned whenever I opened my mouth and didn’t ask to see my exercise book, and so I just winged it in her class, pretending I’d read the stuff.
Oh, God ! On Monday, Popeye will be starting his individual character descriptions for the general behaviour marks and I’ll bet that I’ll be “good cheese in the dog’s belly” the whole week. No problem, I like proverbs and sayings too—I like to mix them up : “Early to bed, early to rise, may the Devil take your eyes !” But that thing with the cheese began to obsess me : I remembered a black poodle that had died around our way a few years ago, after it got poisoned. It died in the ditch by the old man’s place. When I went out to play football with the lads, we’d go and look at it, rotting in the sun, with grinning teeth and glassy eyes, and its pink belly kept swelling because of the maggots, and that idiot Cipri, my mate, said that it was “good cheese in the dog’s belly.” Yuck !
What the hell was going on ? I kept having to walk ahead or fall behind, I kept stumbling on the kerb and having to go round the trees by the side of the road, as if Sarii Road had got narrower since yesterday. When I take a better look, I see that Ina is being crowded by Hari, who’s walking down the middle of the pavement like a haughty lady, with Dana half a metre away from her. How about that ! Dana was a wee bitty thing, Ina was tall and it was obvious she wanted to stand out, so that every male on Sarii Road would boggle at her. I restrained myself for as long as I could, but Ina kept bumping into me, and when we came to the photographer’s studio, where we always stopped to laugh at the brides and bridegrooms in the photos, I elbowed her and told her to give me some room, because we were standing there in height order, like a donkey’s leg.
She leapt away and cast me a look like I’d said God’ knows what. She’d taken it as a snide remark about her height and it came out like I’d said it just so I could stand next to Hari. True, I didn’t phrase it very well, I don’t know where I came up with that thing about the donkey’s leg, but what the hell, I’m not one for making snide remarks.
“What,” I said, “can’t you see I’m in the middle of the road here ? Want me to get run over by a trolley bus ?”
Hari rolled her eyes and looked up at the sky, in other words, now I’d really done it, I shouldn’t have said anything. God, how annoying it is when she acts the lady like that ! I went up to her and I was about to say something else, but that stupid Dana pretended like she was taking our picture and went : “Look at the two lovebirds !”
I was getting a bit sick of it all, what with walking them to the no. 88 and all... In fact, I was doing it for Hari, and Ina and Dana were just stage scenery, but what the hell was I supposed to do if they were her inseparable friends ? It was obvious that Hari was “filtering” with me, as she put it, but because everybody was looking at us all day long at school, we never got to talk to each other properly. We both played it up, saying stuff like : “Ah, my boyfriend !” and “Oh, my girlfriend !” and unfortunately the whole thing was dragging on a bit too long. But never mind : next month we were off to summer camp in the mountains, to Piatra Arsa, and there we’d get an opportunity to be alone together and I’d be able to call her my chickadee. That’s why I signed up for it, because it wasn’t going to be much fun otherwise : I was sick to the back teeth of the lads in my class, but I thought that if we were going to be hiking in those mountains, through those dense conifer forests, maybe the two of us would get to be alone together and I’d be able to tell her : “Look here, not to put too fine a point on it, and without beating around the bush : would you like to be my girlfriend ?”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth