Novel, "Proza" series, Cartea Romaneasca, 2009, 280 pages
The Pocket Watch
WALLET, ALSO KNOWN as Light Fingers, was a gentleman in many respects. You should have seen his suits and hats! Shoes with grey gaiters, gloves of fine leather, and an elegant black cane, with which he measured his strides. Ionicã the waiter knew him from the time when he worked on the Orient Express. On the train, Wallet had been searched under suspicion of pickpocketing. Like the gentleman he was, he did not cause a scene. With icy disgust, he allowed himself to be fingered and frisked. By telegraph, he sent a complaint to the company management. He received a letter of apology and a handsome sum by way of compensation. After such insulting treatment, Wallet never boarded the Orient Express again. Nevertheless, in the trains on which he did travel, always first class, wallets and pocket watches still used to vanish. The police were on his trail. Around once a week, he would alight from the train in Medgidia, at varying hours. He never had any luggage. Ionicã would immediately make ready a table for one, with a bottle of Mott champagne chilling in the ice bucket. First, he would serve him a starter of olives and a glass of plum brandy. Next came a dish of sour soup, to which Wallet would further add the juice of half a lemon. The rare steak, which Ionicã himself turned on the grill, with his eyes on the clock, would be two fingers thick and as big as a plate. Wallet would pepper it carefully, place a knob of butter in its centre, and wring the other half of the lemon on top, gripping it with a napkin so as not to stain his gloves. He would eat without haste and without bread. He would drink two glasses of champagne with his steak. Then, lighting a Greek cigarette and gazing into space, he would discreetly pick his teeth. Some of the diners at the other tables used to know him by sight. They would say hello, and he would reply distantly, so that none would be tempted to draw up a chair at his table. Sometimes, he would stay in town at the Trajan Hotel, next to the station, but almost always he would take the train back to Bucharest, as if the only purpose of his visit was to eat here at the restaurant and be served by Ionicã.
All the townsfolk were taking quinine, against the fever. The wretched river water that ran through the town, and which, in the summer, used to dry up, was undrinkable, and they said that it gave you malaria. As for the well water in Medgidia, they said the same thing. Mihalache the pharmacist had brought out a leaflet, The Causes of Paludism, which languished unsold in his shop, even after he added in ink on the cover: “How we can avoid the fever.” But even if it did not give you the fever, the town’s water was still brackish. A number of the more well off Tartar wagoners used to deliver ‘good water’ to your gate daily. They sold it by the bucket. The wealthier customers would buy up all the water in the wagoner’s barrel every two or three days. The water sellers did their best business with the two soda water pumps, the hotels, and the town’s more salubrious taverns. The water arrived in the morning, in tanker wagons on the Feteºti train. The national railways brought it free of charge. A part was loaded on to the regiment’s vans, a part remained in the station, and in the beginning persons with a certificate of poverty were entitled to one bucket of water for a piffling sum if they came to fetch it from the station themselves. But who would come to the station for water if he lived in the upper part of the town? Or even to the town square? And the town’s poor folk lived nowhere near the station. From talking to Mrs Musica, the station mistress, madam Virginica found out why she had to pay for the water that replenished the restaurant cistern. Mr Stelian, who owned the soda water and the ice factory, had signed a contract with the national railways for all the water and was in charge of distributing it. It was also he who tithed the water sellers. The station mistress had been afraid of Mr. Stelian ever since the judge’s dogs had been shot and the furrier’s shop had caught fire. Her husband had received threats from the Iron Guard men in the town, who still remembered that, while the royal train was being refuelled, he had shaken hands with the King—Carol, not the young one, Mihai—when he had alighted on the platform. And from what the station mistress had found out, Stelian was in cahoots with the green shirts. Madam Virginica knew the Iron Guard men in Slobozia: they went to church, they bid her good day, and they sang their songs when they went down the lanes to whitewash the trunks of the apples trees and clear the ditches. But when the station mistress told her that the men who had beaten up her Fãnicã were green shirts and that the lads who had burnt down the furrier’s shop were also green shirts, Virginica asked her why the stationmaster had not called the gendarmes as she had asked. Because the head of the gendarmes in Constanþa was an Iron Guard man himself, or at least the chief of the gendarmes in Bucharest was, Mrs Musica enlightened her. Didn’t Virginica see what had been going on since that lot started running the country? Didn’t she read the papers? When was she supposed to read them, if she was busy all day in the restaurant and her eyesight was weak? Virginica would not have admitted for anything in the world that she did not really know how to read, so much so that she did not even bother with the headlines in the papers. Fãnicã used to tell her what was in the news, late at night, when they were getting ready for bed, but could she pay any mind to any of that? She barely slept forty winks and then she was back in the kitchen to help the Transylvanian cook if she was hung over again. At five in the morning she would be handing out warm bagels and sweetmeats to the boys who peddled them on the platform to passengers for the early trains and to the railway men on their way to work. The station mistress, who had no such cares on her head, told her that an order had been received in town, against the Jews. They weren’t allowed on the street unless they stitched a yellow Star of David on their coats. I mean, how can you demand that Haikis the wholesaler stitch something of the sort on that beautiful overcoat of his? Or Mrs Lea, the doctor, with her nice fur coat? Why have they got to sew stars on their coats? Madam Virginica couldn’t understand it. So that people will know that they’re Jews. ‘What’s the point of me knowing? Madam Musica, what I want to know is how not to go on having to pay that Stelian for water, and I’m telling you, I won’t give up.”
Like the Nicadors, Professor Caraeni had also fought in Spain, but he had survived. He didn’t like to recall that period. The Captain wanted to bring him to Bucharest, so that he could be alongside the front-ranking comrades. Caraeni had had the privilege of being able to refuse him. He had buried his arms and destroyed his notebook of fighting songs. He looked with pity on the Iron Guard men who paraded bellicosely around town. Some of them had been his pupils. Two were fellow teachers. There were also priests from the surrounding villages, together with their cantors, and three patriotic Armenian merchants. Most of them were Aromanians, like himself; all of them were ambitious, a few of them intelligent, but even the latter foolishly imagined that the party they had got themselves mixed up in was their new family. After the death of the Captain, the man who took his place transformed the party radically, although he did not dare make any overt changes to its philosophy. Where was the elite now, the flower of the Romanian people, when you awoke to find yourself comrade with scum who saw in the green shirt nothing but a disguise that allowed them to beat and rob whomever they pleased? Bucharest allowed a former tavern keeper wanted by the law for shady dealings to use the party for his own vendettas. The dowry Stelian had brought to the Legion were his shop boys and two officers from the Scipion Regiment, who were hoping that if the joined the Legion in secret they would get out of here and rise through the ranks more quickly.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth