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Authors: Patrick McGuinness

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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The club sandwiches arrived, toppling towers of toasted bread and meat. Why had Ionescu been so keen to get Leo out? What, for that matter, could an old university professor do?

‘Yes, Ionescu’s a good man. Takes care of these things. You have any trouble, real trouble I mean, get onto him.’ What Leo said next shocked me: ‘You’ll find it helps to have a Securitate colonel as head of department.’

He refused to elaborate. I pressed him for details; I asked for more background, some stories. But all he said was: ‘I’ve told you all I know,’ which translated, in this place and at this time, as: ‘That’s all I’m going to say.’

I gave Leo my keys and watched him jump into a Herastrau-bound tram. He had left his belt at the police station, and as he leapt into the tram I saw he was holding the front of his trousers up with one hand while with the other he grabbed hold of the moving handrail. You can know people for years. Everything about them can change, but somehow there is one image that defines them for you. For me, thinking about Leo, that was it.

Back at the department I passed Ionescu’s office and hovered at the open door, as if by looking once more at his books and furniture I might learn something about his clandestine life. He sat in his usual place, the windows open behind him and the net curtains flapping like ghosts at his back. His glasses were balanced on the tip of his nose as he read. His eyes swivelled up at me, head perfectly still. ‘Yes?’ he said, in a tone of such neutrality I wondered if I hadn’t simply daydreamed the whole morning.

I called Leo to see if he had settled in. When he answered, there was loud music in the background and a bath running. ‘Great, yes, thanks. Just freshening up!’ He promised to have dinner ready for me. I visualised a meal of semi-defrosted bread, baked beans and anchovies – the only things Leo kept in his own kitchen. That was bad enough, but his speciality was
Chicken Chassewer
. I had never tried it, but Ionescu had: ‘If you think that unfortunate title is just Leo mispronouncing his French, then think again: one mouthful of
Chicken Chassewer
and you know the dish could be called nothing else.’

An hour later than arranged, Cilea walked into my office without knocking. A car was waiting, engine running, with a driver in pale blue jacket and cap. He drove us to the botanical gardens, and parked outside, right across the words ‘NO PARKING’ marked in bellowing yellow letters.

Cilea took my hand. She must have felt how much I wanted her from the way my body jolted as she touched me, because she took off her sunglasses, smiled the distant, modest smile of someone used to letting men down gently, and let me go again.

She had brought a bottle of Greek wine, which she opened and set on a tartan blanket on the lawn. Then she lay back and pushed her sunglasses into her hair, letting the sun into her eyes. Her shirt rode up, revealing the skin of her midriff and the top of her black pants above the line of her jeans. I had not seen much of her body, but I wanted all of it and most of all I wanted the taste of her skin, close and perspiring and smelling of Chanel and sweat; skin so smooth and so deep that it seemed to be tanning in the sun as I watched.

The earth had just been watered and the hexagonal domes of the greenhouses were quiet but for the faint sucking of soil hydrating. In the tropical palmhouse, the plants were livid, leaves like upturned hands supplicating something beyond the glass that held them in. Many had leaves edged with brown: sudden drops of temperature, too much or too little water. They were dying slowly, from the outside in. This was more like a sanatorium than a greenhouse, full of gasping, stricken patients. Coal fires were gone to ash and electric two-bar heaters stood disconnected in corners. In between the resident exotic flora, dandelions grew to terrific proportions, fat and bloated dockleaves had crept in and begun replicating across the mounds of humus while bindweed curled and twisted around every stalk and trunk.

‘So, what made you come to Romania?’ Cilea rubbed a leaf between her fingers, smelling the plant’s scent: exotic, mentholated, clean. She asked it as if it were a trick question. Perhaps the only trick was in the answer: my simply having no idea I was falling in with the machinations of Leo, Ionescu and who knew how many other people I didn’t know and might never meet? I told her instead that I had wanted to visit a country whose language I could learn, and that I was politically in sympathy with the ideals of communism if not, or certainly no longer, their execution.

‘I think you knew nothing,’ she said, matter-of-factly.

‘That’s true, or else I wouldn’t have come. I’m glad I’m here though.’ That second statement was not strictly true, or not then. I tried it out and it sounded plausible. By the end, which was not so far away after all, I meant it.

‘No one knows about Romania, about us, our culture, our problems. We’re the forgotten country. We’re not sexy like the Czechs or plucky like the Poles. We don’t have our Havels and our Walesas…’

‘You don’t look like you’ve got that many problems.’ I looked at Cilea, then thought of Rodica in her hospital: ‘You’ve got Greek wine, Italian sunglasses, you dress like a westerner – better than most westerners… you drive your own car, no sorry,
you get driven around in your own car
… you – you personally I mean – you don’t look like you need any Havels or Walesas. Not sure about the majority of your compatriots though…’

‘I’m not part of all this…’ she said, gesturing at all that lay nearby, outside, beyond, ‘if that’s what you mean…’


Part of this?
Part of
what
exactly? It’s not your fault or you just don’t have to go through what the rest of your people go through?’

I thought I’d ended our relationship before it had begun.

‘You don’t know – you’ve got no idea, and I’m not going to explain to you, some gap-year deprivation tourist…’

Nice phrase. I wondered if she’d prepared it. Cilea flushed, and when she was angry I seemed to smell her more: the closed spicy scent of her perfume and body heat.

‘Are you sure you didn’t come here so you could be part of something you’d never need to live with?’ she asked, as if she were sorry for me, as if I were a stranger to my own motivations. I didn’t answer. The sun hid for a moment behind the clouds and the temperature dropped.

‘Come, I want you to see this…’ Cilea pulled me up by the hand and took me to a small, immaculate glass dome set apart from the rest of the gardens and guarded by a man in green overalls with a walkie-talkie and a holstered revolver. Even the garden attendants had a paramilitary air. The
nomenklatura
had their own shops and clubs and travel agency, their own schools and spas and restaurants. Apparently they even had their own greenhouses in the Botanical Gardens.

Inside was a plant that flowered every decade. We were catching it just at the end of its span, turning inwards, readying itself for another cycle of sleep. There were insects that lived half a day, whose existences were frenzied miniatures of life, and there were plants, like this one, that existed a hundred years, but lived only for a week every ten. This one crammed all its life into a few tight petals around a delicate stamen. To me it didn’t look like much – one part flower and three parts reputation – but it was sufficiently rare for the greenhouse to be empty of any other form of botanical life. For the remaining nine years and fifty-one weeks of the decade, viewers had to make do with a colour photograph stapled to a wooden frame. A notice alongside announced proudly that other examples of the plant were in the
Tuileries
and the Oxford University Botanical Gardens. In a glass case to the right, a faded newspaper image from 1979 showed Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu bending over it, and a sepia photograph of Queen Marie of Romania holding the infant plant, or one of its ancestors, in a terracotta pot. We stood there in the glass room, perspiration beading on our bodies, as an attendant ladled water over a tray of burning coals. My skin prickled in the swaddling heat. The place smelled musky, like a bed after sex, the air twice breathed.

Later, I tried to kiss her mouth. She turned away. ‘Please don’t try to kiss me.’ Not hurt or offended; fending off clumsy advances was just par for the course.

It was early evening when Cilea took me home, her driver’s eyes, half-shielded by a cap, looking me over in the rear-view mirror. At Calea Victoriei we became stuck in human traffic: a long queue of people walking slowly down the avenue, hemmed in on all sides by soldiers blowing whistles at them. They marched to an unseen, unheard band, in step to some collective hallucination, half there and hollowed out with boredom. Some had poles in the air, others raised and lowered their fists in unison. A woman with a loudhailer and a stopwatch was growling orders at them to stop and start and wave their arms at precisely timed intervals. She was dressed in a tracksuit, looked like a cross between an Olympic shot-putter and an army major, and was probably both. ‘They’re rehearsing,’ said Cilea, ‘for May Day.’ The bull-jawed woman stomped over to the car and looked in. The driver flashed some paper at her and she nodded, backtracked and yelled something at the soldiers, who parted the crowd to let us through. As we passed she saluted. I looked back to see her watching us, full of admiration and disgust.

Cilea dropped me off outside my house with a kiss on the cheek and a wave. That was it. The whole afternoon, so promising, had sunk into anticlimax. The wine had given me a headache and my mouth clicked with dryness. I took a long deep breath before going into the flat.

Leo lay on the sofa wearing my dressing gown. His eye was still oily and closed over, but his mouth was cleaned up. He let out a long rolling fart, muffled by the towelling of my dressing gown, and lolloped sideways off the sofa. Through a slit in the gown I saw his swollen balls the colour of boiled ham and a boot-shaped bruise on his inner thigh. Two cigarettes lay in the ashtray, and a cold
cafetière
half-full of sodden coffee grits stood beside a British Embassy mug.

‘There’s a hell of a show on Calea Victoriei…’ Leo said, putting on the kettle, ‘some big woman, a Brezhnev in drag, making all these poor sods march in step. Looks like a wake.’

‘It’s May Day. They’re rehearsing for the parade.’

‘No shit? Thanks for that. Been here a few weeks and already telling old Leo the low-down?’ He poured himself a scotch. ‘Should get yourself a job on the Foreign Office Romania desk with that kind of insider knowledge. May Day, eh…?’

‘Bugger off, Leo. Put some clothes on and give me back my dressing gown.’ I looked at him, then at it, and thought of Leo’s flatulent puppy-fat broiling away in something I myself would wear. ‘Actually, you can keep it now. I’m going for a wash.’ I remembered I hadn’t eaten. The thought of what Leo was capable of in a kitchen was chilling. I suggested we go out to a restaurant.

‘Already taken care of, Comrade. Your job is to open the
apéritif
. We’ll be eating in an hour or so.’

I thought of the dinner I was having with Cilea in some luckier parallel universe: a meal somewhere expensive, candles and wine, finishing with a smooth Dacia ride back to her flat and a bed suddenly made whole by my presence.

I went for a shower. The bathroom floor was soaking, and my only towel had been used as a bathmat. The soap was inlaid with pubic hair and a soggy, discoloured toe-plaster was curled up on the floor tiles. Back in the living room, Leo had put on the World Service so loudly I heard the frame of the radio vibrating around it.

In a move interpreted as further evidence of Perestroika, Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev has called for limited liberalisation of trade and freedom of expression in the Soviet Union, and indicated a readiness to remove Russian troops from eastern bloc countries. Meanwhile wildcat strikes in Poland have led to a state of emergency in several cities. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa

‘It’s happening. It’s happening,’ Leo called out. ‘Can you hear me? Hang on tight. They say it’ll never happen here but it will. You watch… hey! … you listening?’

‘Yep, every word, Leo, every word…’ I closed the door on him.

I lay on the bed, dozed and dried in the air. I woke with a start as the doorbell rang. Leo was showing the new arrival to the kitchen: the Maître d’Hôte from Capsia, tucking some hard currency into a back pocket and carrying two suitcases. Leo was dressed and had shaved in his usual pyrrhic manner, clumps of bloody toilet paper stuck to his cheeks and chin.

‘We’re having dinner cooked at home,’ he explained, ‘Capsia style. I’ve hired Dumitru – just one of his mid-price menus mind: consommé, beef stuffed with olives and crêpes Suzette. Now stop looking so grumpy and wanked-out and knuckle down to some proper pleasure.’ He threw me a corkscrew and pointed at a row of bottles.

In the kitchen, the Maître d’ slid two slabs of beef from their wrapping, a double page of
Scînteia
on which it was possible to make out the Ceauşescus in traditional costume receiving some mountainside homage from a group of peasants. The Maître d’s fingers worked at the beef, slippery with blood, seasoning it then slitting it open like an envelope and stuffing it with olives and rice and chopped onions, then tying it with string. The black market in meat had led to a black market in animal slaughtering, and makeshift abattoirs had sprung up in the most unlikely places: the back rooms of restaurants, basements, even the city’s two morgues –
after all, the equipment’s there
, Leo explained. In the shops, it was impossible to tell, aside from by the smell, how long the meat had been in transit. This way, though the hygiene was questionable, you knew it was fresh.

The food was delicious, for all that watching its preparation had made me nauseous, and served with a surreal degree of expertise. The man from Capsia had changed into black tie and now served clear soup from a silver tureen, then wine with the bottle wrapped in a napkin and a brisk twist of the neck at end of each pour. Leo and I sat at either end of the long dining table like a baronial couple reduced to candlelight and their last manservant.

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
8.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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