I left the police station at six. That’s how it all began.
I’d spoken to the Madman on the ’phone. He had to see to a few customers before evening, and then we’d meet, at around nine. I was nervous.
If he’s got the stuff on him, I’ll nab it. And I was praying it would turn out like that. I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible, without too many complications. I didn’t want the whole thing to drag on for weeks.
No matter how much it would have been worth it, I couldn’t wait that long. I’d already wasted ten years of toil, being transferred from department to department, and now here was my chance.
I had everything ready, down to the smallest detail: the microphones, the file, and the arrest warrant for the next day, provided by Ștefan, my mate from the prosecutor’s office, the only person I’d told about my plan; the only person I could trust and who could genuinely help me. I don’t know whether he understood how important it was that things should turn out the way I wanted them to, but in any case, in situations like that it’s not a case of understanding or trust: what counts is friendship in the end. And not just any kind of friendship, mate. I mean the kind between two people who would be ready to enter hell itself for each other’s sake, without knowing whether they would ever come back.
Ștefan was like a brother to me. The brother I never had. The brother I earned. The things you strive and struggle for mean more than the ones that are served up to you on a plate, even if you wanted them beforehand. We weren’t relatives, friends of family or anything like that. We chose each other, or maybe we sensed from the outset that there was a bond between us, that we could be of use to each other. In the end, that’s what all human relationships are based on.
And who the hell would have guessed twenty-odd years ago, when we skived off lessons to play pool in the bar across the road from our school that I would be the policeman who would be needing a warrant from him, so that I could yank myself out of my deadening routine?
Things don’t happen like that, no matter how much we’d like to think they do. Coincidences are a result of chaos, even if nothing in general seems to make any sense. It’s something that doesn’t depend on human squalor. It’s way above that, and above rational understanding. What I’ve realised from my own story is that you have to view things at their source, at their base, if you’re going to see them in their pure state. But I don’t want to start at the finish, however tempting it might be to string together philosophical ideas that won’t have any meaning except to me and a very few others.
I’d been in the anti-drugs unit for only a few months. My arrival had coincided with some major personnel changes in the Bucharest force, in 2009, which also meant big changes in strategy. Just between us, there was something rotten behind it all. But I wasn’t interested in whether it was because the general elections were coming up or whether it was for the sake of appearance, to pull the wool over the eyes of the E.U. What was important was that all of a sudden more and more heads were starting to roll among the people who supplied the street, the clubs, and the city’s schools. The time was ripe for me to get in on the act.
All the big bosses start their careers in narcotics. That’s what they say. And even if I wasn’t entirely convinced, it’s true that you can get ahead there with just a little legwork and a bit of patience. I saw it with my own eyes. It all started to look increasingly simple, given that the only thing I was really interested in was the Madman. Everything else was just a masquerade, in any case.
I mean: I knew that the drugs ended up back on the market, or that other people took them. You’d have had to be stupid not to know that many of the men in the squad were users and that that was how they got hold of their supplies. A blind eye was turned to it so that things could carry on as usual. And things did carry on as usual.
But I wasn’t looking to be a hero. What power did I have to change anything? What would have been in it for me? What I was looking for was to make a splash, make a name for myself. Then there would follow promotion and after a few more years in the force, a big fat pension.
Put yourself in my place. I’d been in the force for more than ten years. That meant: small-time bribes, when I could get them, which was once in a blue moon, and I’d be shitting myself every time in case it was a set up; a wife I loved like the eyes in my head, something I realised, ironically, every time I ended up between the legs of another woman; a beautiful, naïve daughter, who thinks she can change the world with her smile (I mean, what could be more beautiful than that?); a decent telly, a decent couch… in fact, I’ll tell you about the couch and all the rest later, once I’ve started seeing things completely differently.
As I was saying: I’d been a nobody for ten years…
At first, I thought my sore spot was my salary. But I couldn’t give a shit about the money, if you’ll pardon my language. In any case, after that many years in the force your earnings aren’t all that shitty. It was my wife and my daughter who were the problem. Or rather, not so much them as me. It was what I meant in their eyes. Not poor, but not rich either. Not depressed, but not happy. Just okay all the time. That’s the way I’d been my whole life: just okay, nothing more, nothing less. I hate that word from the bottom of my heart, and all the other words like it. Alright, for example.
How are you, Radu? I’m okay. How are things? Alright. How’s your health? Not bad. How are your folk? Alright. What have you been up to? That’s when I’d feel my throat quiver and contract like a worm. I’d lower my head, humbly, and answer: nothing. Not a lot.
Okay is in my bones. It’s stamped on them like a barcode. Okay seeps from my every pore. Okay gnaws away my pride. For ten years I’ve been too busy doing nothing to be a great dad, a great bloke, a great somebody, who’s done something great. Damn it, I’m just an okay dad, an okay bloke, the kind of ordinary person you see in the supermarket comparing different products and who you forget two seconds later because he didn’t make any impression on you. And wasn’t I able to change all that in the three months since I got transferred here? Wasn’t I able to do as much as other people are capable of only during a lifetime? Perhaps this is where the story began, in fact.
Maybe it began a month earlier than that. I was at home at the time. It was after two in the morning and I was boning up on soft drugs. I’d printed everything I could find about cannabis at the office the day before. And then Corina appeared in the doorway.
“Hi, Dad… err… I wasn’t expecting to find you awake at this hour…”
I smiled dumbly.
“At this hour? What time is it?”
She took her mobile out of her purse to check. In any case, there was a big clock on the wall in the kitchen.
“I didn’t mean to come home late, but…”
“But what, Corina? It’s two in the morning, and you trying to tell me that you didn’t mean to come home late. Don’t give me that. And why in God’s name don’t you at least answer that mobile?”
“So that you won’t shout at me and tell me to come home. That’s if you don’t give me another of your lectures…”
“Corina, it’s Tuesday, the middle of the week, and it’s two o’clock in the morning. I’ve asked you to come home by at least twelve. It’s not unreasonable, is it? You’ve got the whole weekend to come and go as you please. I’ve never told you off. I realise you’re a grown woman. You’re nineteen. You’re at university. Okay. But how long can things go on like this? Are you trying to send us to an early grave?”
“So, I’m sending you to an early grave again, am I? You’re both usually asleep, and you’d have had no idea when I got back if you hadn’t been sitting here reading some crap or other. What the hell are you reading at this hour?”
“I’m doing research. It’s none of your business!”
“Doing research, are you? What for? In any case, all you do is sit around at work.”
“Just sit around, do I? Your mother and I support you so that you can damned-well study, not come home at two o’clock in the morning, in the middle of the week. And you have the nerve to be gobby like that with me? Have you gone off the rails or what? There are rules you have to follow. We both agreed on that.”
“You’d think I’d murdered somebody! All I did was come home late. Big deal!”
“Don’t give me that, and stop shouting, or you’ll wake your mother.”
“Alright already. Are you going to let me go to bed or what?”
And she rolled her eyes.
“Tell me where you’ve been ’til this hour.”
“In town. Where else? With some friends from university.”
“Always with friends. If you’re in a relationship, why don’t you introduce us to your boyfriend? Do you think we’ll eat him?”
“Really, are you going to harp on about that again?”
“Really,” and here I tried to imitate the squeaky voice she has when she’s on the defensive, “Corina, I don’t want us to raise our voices. All I want is for us to talk. Why do you have to hide? What is there to hide? I don’t get it. Think about it: how would you react if your son or daughter came home at two in the morning, after being in town with… some friends.”
“For the umpteenth time, are you insane?”
“Corina, we hear you when you come in, even if we sometimes turn a blind eye…”
She poured herself a glass of water from the tap and then sat down at the table, sulkily.
“I don’t want to talk about my relationship, okay? I don’t want my boyfriend to have anything to do with you or Mum. At least not yet. Is that so hard to comprehend? In any case, you wouldn’t understand and I don’t need your opinions.”
“And if you don’t tell me anything, do you think I’ll understand any better? Is that the way you see things?”
She drained the glass of water and slammed it on the table. She grabbed her purse and stood up, ready to run into her bedroom.
“Why don’t find yourself something else to do? Why don’t you just leave me alone to live my life, damn it! I don’t want to end up like you, at the age of forty-four and not knowing what the hell went wrong.”
Then she slammed the door.
I wanted to go after her and clout her. But I reined in the impulse, thinking of the pages on the table, and of the future. The future I’m just about to narrate.
I would have been the third time I’d smacked her. The first was when she came back drunk from her start of lycée college ball. It must have been about five years ago. It was about two o’clock in the morning then, too, when I heard the doorbell. And not just one or two buzzes, which would have woken me up anyway, but a continuous buzz, for a good few seconds. She was so plastered that she couldn’t insert her key in the lock, and so she had leaned her head on the doorbell.
When I saw her, I froze. She looked like a tart: heavy make-up, all smeared, shiny, brightly coloured clothes, and an all-enveloping smell of cigarettes and alcohol. I hadn’t been at home when she left the house, otherwise things would have been different.
And so that was when I smacked her so hard that she’ll never forget it. She fell backwards onto the landing. Granted, her lack of equilibrium at the time probably had a lot to do with that. She didn’t cry or even whimper. She just looked up at me from the floor, frightened. She saw a man she realised she didn’t know completely, even though she’d seen him every day of her life. I was transformed and I was showing her I had a limit.
I grasped her arm and dragged her into the bathroom, where I applied a military cure. I dumped her in the tub and turned on the cold tap. Ana, my wife, appeared in her pyjamas, her eyes puffy with sleep, to see what the hell was going on.
“Corina, are you drunk?” she shrieked hysterically.
“What, have you never seen a drunken teenager? Now get out, because my daughter and I have to have a serious talk!”
And I slammed the door in her face.
In the end, it really did turn out to be a serious and a useful talk. She told me about her boyfriend, a lad of fifteen, Viorel or Vio, or something like that, a filthy-rich kid who had dumped her that very evening because she hadn’t wanted to go home with him. Obviously, that made me feel proud and forgive her more readily for the drinking, which we talked about for a good few hours the next day.
The second time was when I found a packet of Pall Mall on her. It was not long before she sat her baccalaureate. It wasn’t because she’d been smoking that I smacked her, but because she’d lied to me. A heavy smoker myself for as long as I can remember, it’s easy for me to detect the slightest signs or traces of a tobacco addict. It was just that I hadn’t caught her with the evidence about her person up until then.
“Corina, darling, why have you started smoking? What, do you think it’s cool or something?”
“Are you insane? You’re really insane!”
“Come off it, Radu, leave her alone. Maybe she doesn’t smoke. Lecture her when you catch her at it,” said Ana, quickly jumping to her defence.
I frowned and that was all. And when I found the cigarettes in a small pocket in her purse, although I wasn’t in the habit of rummaging through her things, I couldn’t stop myself. More lengthy talks. And not even now am I convinced she gave it up. Apart from that, I’ve never laid a finger on her, but I’ve stopped myself a thousand times.
Don’t think that I’m telling you all this so that you can get to know me better. Even if we’ve come this far, I have to confess that I’m not all that interested in what you think.
You’re the one who has to reflect on all the things I’m telling you, if you can be bothered, and you’re the one who has to wonder why I’m telling you, because you’re the only one of us who can understand and use these words. There’s nothing more I can do with this story. Except tell it, obviously.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth