I KICK THE JAMMED door open. I alight from the train. Tunnel vision. I can’t see anything to either side. I cross the railway tracks. I enter the yard. ‘Well, you said you’d come!’ I cross the threshold. The chill from the kitchen hits me. The fire in stove is out. The floors are unswept. I don’t venture to look at mother. Only now does she lift her eyes. She’s sitting up in bed, wrapped in a quilt, leaning on a pillow propped against the wall, her white hair poking from under her black headscarf, her face drawn. She is swaddled in my short camouflage jacket, the one with the unravelling sleeves, from which extrudes a kind of mouldy cotton wool lining. She is nibbling one of those cheap, crumbly biscuits they sell loose by the kilo. Like before the revolution. The jacket and the quilt are full of crumbs.
‘So you’ve come?’
She tries to get up, but a fit of choking coughs prevents her. A cough like an epileptic seizure, with writhing and convulsions. She wheezes and rattles. She waves the biscuit, as a sign for me to be patient. She’ll be all right in a minute.
I bend over the bed and kiss her on the forehead. She grabs me, almost grapples me, with her other hand, as if despairing and triumphal at the same time, and presses a kiss to my cheek. She scratches me with the sparse bristles on her chin.
‘I’m very ill, dear. These last three days I haven’t been able to get out of bed and light the fire. I’ve been eating biscuits. I have a longing for some soup. Make me some soup, will you?’
From my bag I take the whole-wheat bread (this winter: ‘What nice bread, dear! Now this is what I call bread. Not like the stuff you find in the shop in Tomoroag�!’), the bag of tangerines, the kilo of kiwis (‘I really like them kiwis, dear! At first I thought they were potatoes. “Why’s he brought me potatoes?” I said to myself’), the round of ‘Sofia’ cheese (I can almost hear her, with each mouthful: ‘Lord, it’s tasty!’), the bag with the hake (she’s always complaining that in the village there’s nowhere you can buy a piece of fish and she’s got such a craving for a nice piece of fish fried in maize-flour; it was a hake that I chanced upon—like in the old days: Zelda and I, not long after we got married, we would stroll through Constan�a and on every street corner we would come across a stall selling hake—and hake I bought). (All right, but hake is very good!)
I turn on the light. The chill in the kitchen, the mess, the musty smell, the fleshless form of mother, the grease-spotted, flyblown Orthodox calendar by the stove, the Singer sewing machine heaped with rags, the green deal cupboard with bobbins and boxes on top, the chairs with the peeling varnish...
‘I’ve brought you a fish! You were saying you fancied some fish! I’ll light the fire and we’ll eat. Just a moment, let me put my bag down over there.’
‘It’s cold on the other side. If I couldn’t get out of bed...’
‘It’s not all that cold—it’s the middle of March!’
I say it. But it’s damned cold. My hands and feet are frozen. When I’m cold, I feel even more awkward. Awkward, a stranger. Maybe not a stranger, but extremely vulnerable. (…)
The pieces of fish have softened inside the bag. They are leaking brownish water. They have not completely thawed. I roll them in maize-flour as they are, on a plate which I found only after rummaging around, following mother’s directions. When I toss them in the frying pan, the oil sizzles and spits, spattering everywhere. I grab the large lid from the pot for water like a shield and cover the frying pan.
‘Now then, tell me in detail what’s happened.’
‘I’ve got a cough, dear.’
A fresh fit of coughing. It’s a lifeless cough, but one that is nevertheless full of energy, as if it came not from the lungs but from the tensed guts. You’d think that the body, at the end of its strength, was mobilising to thrust out a huge, asphyxiating mass.
‘I’ve got a cough and it hurts my back. My whole back hurts, but especially here, look,’ she twists around to show me, lifting up the bottom of the jacket.
‘What are you doing? Don’t uncover yourself! Do you want to catch a cold? Just tell me where.’
‘Let me show you where it is!’
‘Show me what? Have you got a rash?’
‘I can’t see. I asked Rafila, and she said there isn’t anything there, but you can’t have any faith in her. Look, here’s where it stabs me and jabs me, and when I lie on my right side, it squeezes me inside, like red-hot tongs, it brings tears to my eyes. Oh, mother that bore me!’
Wallowing in self-pity. I get annoyed. It annoys me that I’m annoyed.
‘All right, let me have a look. Where? Here? There’s nothing there, just skin.’
(I know, this makeshift ‘consultation’ becomes for her an opportunity to re-establish a subtle contact, beyond words, regulating the balance of bio-rhythms. The same as when she kissed me to say ‘Welcome back!’ She is confirming, once more, that I am really present, in the flesh and blood.)
‘It’s not bruised, then?’
‘Not even a dot of a bruise.’
‘But it hurts so bad, dear...’
‘That’s a different story. It must be because of your lungs. Tell me what happened!’
I step towards the stove. In the kitchen it is beginning to thaw. There is a scent of fried fish. At least hake doesn’t stink. Not like mackerel. I prod it with a fork. The crust of maize-flour has hardened and browned. I turn over all the pieces of fish and replace the frying pan lid.
‘I trimmed the vines, dear. Can you remember that I wrote to you at the beginning of the month to come and trim the vines?’
(Better I didn’t! Her letters turn me inside out every time.)
‘I wrote back to you saying that I was too busy and that you should call Zhybu, that I’d pay him.’
‘Zhybu... Zhybu is a bungler. He’s good for nothing except asking for money. I called him last year and I had to clear up after him. He didn’t even gather up the shoots like we’d agreed, it was still me that had to do it. Why pay Zhybu? I did it myself.’
‘How could you trim the vines! I told you to look after yourself! You never listen. Now look at you! You never give it a rest!’
‘There was no one to trim them! They needed trimming!’
‘Like hell they did! You needed to take care of yourself, like I asked you! That’s what was needed, not to stay outside for two days in the drizzle!’
‘It didn’t drizzle, dear, except on the first day, in the morning. I was wrapped up warm, with woollen jerseys and the jacket on top.’
‘It doesn’t matter how long it drizzled! What matters is that you caught a cold and you were out in the damp!’
‘How could I catch a cold wearing two jerseys and a jacket?’
‘As is plain to see, you worked up a sweat and caught a cold.’
‘The vines needed trimming!’
‘The vines! The vines could wait. In any case, you don’t make anything out of them. I’ll see to them for you!’
‘I couldn’t, because time was passing and I wasn’t sure you’d be coming. The whole village are trimming their vines. Why should we be a laughing stock?’
‘A “laughing stock”? Is it better like this, bedridden?’
‘I didn’t take to my bed because of the vines!’
‘Then what for?’
‘I don’t know, dear. After I trimmed the vines everything was fine, I was coughing, true, I admit it, I did have a cough... my usual cough, but I was still able to go out, to chop wood, to buy bread, to cook myself food. On Sunday Costic� came round with Paraschiva, “Auntie, I was up at Hlipc�u�i to see what father left in his will.” I told them that all I wanted was the hectare from mother. They made out like they didn’t know which hectare I was talking about, nobody up there said anything about my hectare, who was there to tell them, I told them myself, I said, they should have asked, but they pretended they’d forgotten, “What hectare, auntie?” “The hectare I told you about.” “When did you tell us?” I told them when your grandpa Andrei died. That lot can never have enough. I saw them to the gate, “Leave me the hectare, and what you do with the rest is your business!” As I was going back, I started coughing, from down here, look, from the breastbone, and I couldn’t stop, I was gasping for air like a fish out of water... And I was dizzy, my eyes were bulging out of my head, it’s a wonder I didn’t fall down. I had a hard job dragging myself back inside the house. I drank a cup of water, but in vain. How could that get rid of it? It only got worse. I climbed into bed, thinking I was going to die. My eyes were growing dim. Worse and worse. Worse and worse. It was about two weeks ago. The next day, I woke up, still dizzy, I lit the fire and all of a sudden I was better. But after that I felt like I was made of straw. All my strength was gone. I couldn’t grip... Limp... I wanted to write for you to come, but, I said to myself, why worry him, let’s see how I feel, maybe it’ll pass. I’ve had weak spells like this before and they passed. For a week it tormented me, it kept coming and going. Now I felt better, now I couldn’t move... I got Rafila to rub me with unguent, as I said. After she’d rubbed my back it was like I was roasting, dear. I tossed and turned in bed like I was being roasted over some coals, now on one side, now on the other, it was flaying the hide and the soul out of me. Three days ago, I went all limp, all floppy. I couldn’t get out of bed. Since then I’ve been lying here like you found me, I haven’t lit the fire, I haven’t washed, I’ve been eating the biscuits from this bag, Rafila brought me them from the shop.’
‘Haven’t you been outside?’
‘Eh, that’s a good one...’
I place the pieces of fish on a plate. I forgot to keep turning them over. They’re slightly burnt on one side. I scrape off the black crust and throw it in a basin. I sprinkle coarse salt from an old plastic pot for cream. I like raw salt. The savour of the crystal cracking between the teeth. Nothing surpasses it. The water for the tea has boiled.
‘What can I use for tea?’
‘Go into the front room. On the table you’ll find some sprigs of mint on some newspaper.’
I pause in the passageway. I try the bathroom door. It won’t open. It has jammed. The bathroom... So-called... A room with unplastered walls and no floorboards, in which mother has piled up garden chairs, pots, my green trunk from the army, and the cross for the grave, wrapped in nylon sheeting. ªtefan: ‘We came from the other end of the village with the cross, folk are asking when did auntie die, I say she’s not dead, and they’re amazed, “You don’t say...”’ I go from ‘my room’ to the ‘front room.’ I never really lived in it. It looks more like a storeroom, even though it’s furnished, it has carpets on the wall and family pictures. But on the bed mother has spread clothes sprinkled with tobacco, so that the moths won’t gnaw at them (she has been complaining that the wardrobe is infested with them), next to the mirror with the piles of Jules Verne, I built a thousand years ago mounds of magazines, of every variety, from The Daring Pioneers, Luminitza and Hedgehog the Guard Dog to Literary Romania, The Contemporary, The Week, Hearth, Chronicle, Literary Conversations and even a few dozen issues of Soviet Union. Crates of empty jars. Full jars lined up along the wall. They’re barely distinguishable. Chutney, aubergines, pickled cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers in vinegar. Half-filled jars with raspberry and blackberry syrup, apple and peach juice, already mouldy tomato juice. At the back of the room is the table, from which I take a few sprigs of dried mint. And in the middle of the room, covered in rugs and blankets, the coffin. She showed me it four or five years ago. She was very satisfied with her purchase. ‘I’ve dressed it up just how I like it!’ Her merry air, like a naughty young girl. She opened it up so that I could admire the felt lining with its blue flower print.
I crumble the leaves of mint and sprinkle them into the simmering water. The strong scent of mint freshens the air in the kitchen, dissipating the smell of fried fish. It’s warmed up a bit more. My feet are no longer like ice. The room is slowly regaining its domestic feel. I remember, with some long-numbed sense, the feeling of home. It doesn’t necessarily do me any good. I still can’t shake off the impression of a simulacrum, a mime, an as if. Of time parallel to a real and unrelenting time. I breathe crammed within its fragile alveolus.
‘Do you think you can get up to come to the table?’
‘Better give it to me here in bed.’
I lay a hemp cloth over the board which in days gone by was used for chopping aubergines, but which now serves as the base for a defective portable hob. Fish, whole-wheat bread, fresh and fluffy, a mug of mint tea. I rearrange the pillow behind her and help her to prop herself up.
‘Take that rag off your back!’ (I point at the camouflage jacket, from whose sleeves the blackening padding dangles.) ‘It’s warmed up now.’
‘I’m still cold.’
‘Just now, when it was cold, you said that you weren’t cold, that you were used to the cold.’
‘Yes, but now I’m cold.’
‘Can you rest this wooden board on your lap?’
She grips it determinedly with bony fingers and, groaning, settles it on top of the quilt.
‘That’s no good! Why did you put this cloth on top of the board? So that the wood won’t get dirty, Tanasy? Lay it underneath, on the quilt!’
(That’s what she’s always called me ever since I was little, whenever I did something wrong or was too slow.)
‘Is that better now?’
‘A hearty appetite!’
‘A hearty appetite to you too!’
‘I almost forgot: what do you want for afters, kiwi or tangerines?’
‘What are “tangerines”? I’ve never heard of them.’
‘They’re like oranges, but sweeter.’
‘If they’re sweeter then give me one of those, to see what they’re like. Just half of one. You eat the rest.’
I peel the tangerine. I crush a piece of peel and hold it under mother’s nose.
‘Ah, what a nice smell, dear!’
She smiles for the first time since I came through the door.
‘Don’t throw away the peel. Grate them, and we’ll use them in a cake.’
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth