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Authors: Patrick McGuinness

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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Amazingly, no one bore Ionescu any animosity. I once saw him and his predecessor, the latter in the regulation blue overalls, talking amicably and shaking hands in the street. Leo had warned me: people and what they did were two separate things, they and their actions parting like a body and its shadow at dusk. It was a species of reverse existentialism that would have given Sartre and his acolytes something to account for.

The professor welcomed me into his office. Behind his desk large French windows opened onto a balcony that gave onto a skyline broken up with cranes and scaffolding. Down below a vast cavity gaped where a new Metro station was being built. No one worked there now, and a straggle of red ribbons cordoned off the area from traffic and pedestrians. It resembled the site of some space debris that had crashed and burrowed deep into the city’s innards. But this was common enough here: buildings were suddenly begun and then just as suddenly abandoned. It was done on a whim, but a whim with hundreds of cranes and diggers and bulldozers, tens of thousands of workers and tonnes of concrete to express itself… the
whim to power
Nietzsche would have called it.

On either side of Ionescu’s windows hung portraits of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu in academicians’ caps and gowns, icons flanking an altar. Ionescu put an arm around my shoulder and gestured at the view, nodding in secular worship of the new Bucharest and of the deities who oversaw its making.

I was invited to sit. Rodica brought tea and Tsuica, the Romanian plum brandy. Ionescu took a sip of tea, sweet and milkless, Turkish-style, then downed the alcohol in one suave tilt of the glass.

It was 9 am, and he was enjoying that morning lift a first drink gives the practised drinker. Later would come the noonday plateau of good humour (the best time to ask him for things), then the mid-afternoon descent when we all stayed out of his way. After a few moments of social autopilot – my flight, my flat, my first impressions – Ionescu, as he put it,
cut to the point
. His English was excellent but full of odd reworkings of set phrases. As he warned me once, wagging his finger and trying to be avuncular, a pretty woman can get what she wants by
fluttering her eyeballs
. Another time, as two colleagues argued over new offices, Ionescu suggested they resolve the issue by means of a
toss off
which he offered to adjudicate.

‘I have a job for you – a reference for a very good student, a very good girl,’ Ionescu took off his spectacles and pushed a form across his desk – an application for a two-week scholarship at a London college, already filled out and authorised by him. Someone had taken the liberty of filling in my name as the candidate’s British sponsor. I only had to sign.

‘But Professor, I know nobody here – it’s my first day at work. How can I write a reference? I’ve only met Leo…’

‘Exactly, the first day is as fine a time as any to get stuck in. Here, I have had Rodica fill in the reference to save you trouble. You merely… what is the phrase?
append your autograph

I scanned the form. It was made out in the name of a woman, and complete except for my signature. I had never heard of her, and her name,
Cilea Constantin
, was not on my student lists. My reference, neatly typed and in Ionescu’s punctilious English, was full of warm praise for this ghost-protégée of mine.

‘But she’s not one of ours,’ I said, wanting to be awkward. It is a sign of how little I understood the protocols of coercion that I thought I was making a stand. To Ionescu’s expert eye, I was already relenting. To engage with people like Ionescu is already to have capitulated to them.

‘Not as such…’

That versatile, evasive answer. How often did I hear it, from Ionescu, from Leo, from so many others in everyday situations of little legality and no morality? Soon I was using it myself.

I protested a little: it was
unethical, unprofessional
; besides, all he had to do was sign it himself, since it was clear he had dictated it. No –
it was wrong, full stop. This wasn’t the sort of thing that happened at home
… I tried out a few such stern rectitudinous phrases. They sounded pretty good, just not mine.

Ionescu changed tack. ‘Dr O’Heix tells me you were most impressive at the London interview.’ He smiled and inched the form nearer. Had Leo lied to him or were they in it together? Was this Ionescu’s way of letting me know that since I had got here on the basis of a non-existent interview, I owed it to him to perpetuate the tradition of phantom appointments?

As I signed he came round the side of the desk and put his arm around my shoulder, as if welcoming me to a club. ‘I am very grateful. Come now, do not look so preoccupated, you have already proved yourself invaluable.’ Then, like a barman turfing out a customer who has used up his tab, he called Rodica to show me out.

Signing a reference for a complete stranger, obviously a Party apparatchik, should have felt like crossing some sort of border. I should have felt more…
. But no: I thought no more about it.

My life began to take shape: the walk in to work; the long lunch break that drooped over both sides of the short lunch; the walk home and an evening’s reading. Leo made loneliness impossible – there was always something to see, someone to meet, expeditions to new parts of the city researching his book on Bucharest. As I returned to the flat each evening I felt there was more and more to come back to: more of myself, more of what could pass for a life and a profession. I worked hard at the Romanian language, liked the students, enjoyed preparing for my classes. My new degree certificate was framed and up on the wall. Apart from that I left Belanger’s flat exactly as I had found it. It suited me.

I did not have to wait long before witnessing a phenomenon known as
the motorcade
. By the end I had seen it so often I barely noticed it – so often that when I heard it start up that late December morning eight months later, I ignored it. That was how I heard but failed to
Ceauşescu’s ‘last motorcade’. Hours later he would be toppled from power, lying like a shot dog across the pavement, and I would be watching it endlessly replayed on television, hundreds of miles away, in Europe’s waiting room. It is difficult not to project some aura of finality onto the sirens of the last motorcade, different from all the other sirens as a last breath is different from all that have come before:

First, the roads would freeze up, then diggers and cranes quivered and stopped dead like animals scenting danger. Men in suits appeared from nowhere, by which I mean everywhere, and broke up the food queues. Then you waited. Ten, twenty minutes, half an hour…Then a faraway siren; faint at first, then stronger and stronger until you had to stop up your ears. And the cars. One, two, three, four… six identical black Dacias with black-tinted windows. If foreign dignitaries were being shown Bucharest, police vans unloaded goods and stacked them in shop windows: bread and vegetables, cuts of meat and fruit most people had forgotten existed. The cars slowed down to take it all in. When they had passed the same vans took everything back again to the diplomatic and party shops. If it was just the Ceauşescus, the cars sped down the emptied streets at a hundred kilometres an hour. Nicolae and Elena didn’t like to see their people waiting; the place needed to be swept clean of want, of the demeaning spectacle of shortage. At the same time, in two other parts of Bucharest, the same scenes were unfolding: sirens, cars, Ceauşescu’s motorcade – the real one and its decoys hurtling through Europe’s saddest dictatorship. One of the cars was for the Ceauşescus’ dog, and even he had two doggy decoys, a punchline to a joke no one could any longer bear to tell about a world whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity.

Cushioned from the reality of daily life even as I dipped into and out of it, it seemed the easiest thing to separate myself from what was around me. I had had plenty of practice before coming here. Perhaps these were the ‘particular skills’ Leo mentioned when I confronted him and asked him outright why I had been picked. Even so, looking back I would find it hard to explain the peculiar disengagement between my own life and the life around me, with its shortages and routine repressions or violence.
Hard to explain?
To others certainly. But it was not hard to live. Oppression makes its own normality, levels off amid the everyday. It breaks the surface of our existence, and then our existence closes back over it, changed and not changed by the violence inside. Soon I was shopping in the diplomatic shops, swimming in the diplomatic club, doing the rounds of the western party circuit. I went to the city centre’s pseudo-western bars, where cocktails that were parodies of American cocktails were made by waiters who were parodies of American waiters. I was attuned to the place’s duality; to its duplicity.

My home attachments fell away – mostly from disuse, but always helped by the Romanian postal service and telecom network. I never broke contact with home – it was nothing so deliberate. It was more like a loosening of the moorings coil by coil until one day, without noticing it, I had drifted out of sight of land. After some desultory letters my relationship with a girl from college dwindled into an exchange of half-hearted recriminations, then into nothing, or at any rate no letters. With my friends, our lives had become so different we barely described the same world to each other when we wrote. Ionescu let me use his fax machine to deal with the solicitor in charge of something called my parents’ ‘estate’, and with Deadman and Sons, ‘tailor-made house clearance solutions’. I was due to supervise their tailor-made clearance in July. It was a task I dreaded more than all the militia, Securitate agents and police dogs in Romania, because if, as I hoped, I had begun to float free, that house remained my dragging anchor.

I could never have felt homesick, not after the home I had come from, but I might have felt violently transplanted, especially in those first weeks. Or afraid. But instead it was curiosity that consumed me. Here the lack of options was balanced by the fact that everything you did had consequences. Leo told me one evening: ‘You’ll like it here. The margin for manoeuvre is very narrow but very deep…’ But I had known that from the moment I set foot on the sticky tarmac of Otopeni airport.

When I left home in 1987 to go to college the October after the strike ended at Wapping it was not freedom I found but drift, a sufficiently plausible imposter to have me fooled for the first few months. I even believed that university would let me make good on all the dashed promise of my parents’ lives. My father had wanted to be a journalist, my mother a teacher. In a different generation they might have done so: certainly in a different social class.

They came close, at least in terms of physical proximity, the kind of proximity that emphasises only unbridgeable distance: he in the printing works and she as a supply secretary, working from school to school on short-term contracts for the council. Twice she worked at my school for two weeks at a time. I remember one day finding her during the lunch break eating her sandwiches from a Tupperware box, alone and apart from the full-timers who chatted and laughed and smoked together. Her hands were trembling – he had already begun his war on her, his relentless, vengeful campaign of belittlement and diminution – and she looked at me and smiled uncertainly over her sandwich. She looked absurd and pitiable, but school was no place for pity so I looked right through her and passed by.

‘Wasn’t that your son?’ I heard someone ask her behind me. I didn’t hear her reply.

She never mentioned what I had done that day. We never spoke about it until a year later when, on my twelfth birthday, he had knocked off from work early to come home and start drinking. She had bought me a present, a model plane, and I had made a start on it. We sat in silence: I with my glue and pieces of plastic, he with his newspaper, cigarettes and glass, she looking into the middle distance as she always did, trying not to move, trying to escape his inevitable attention. Then it began. The insults, the curses, the accusations of being stupid and parasitic; of being sexless and ugly, a
shivering, useless fucking mouse of a woman.

I leapt up at him and went for his eyes and as his right hand clipped my face I bit into the knuckle, blood filling my mouth as I felt his left rip my hair and pull my head right back. He twisted his hand free from my teeth and punched me in the throat with just the right amount of strength to floor me, gasping for breath like someone drowning. He stood up and rocked on the balls of his feet and laughed at us both, then left the house, crushing my half-built plane underfoot and kicking its pieces across the carpet. My mother held me to her and all I could do was apologise for blanking her that day at school. I kept telling her I was sorry, and she kept pretending she hadn’t noticed, or had forgotten, though I knew she hadn’t. I knew too that it had hurt her perhaps more than anything he had ever done. I buried my face in her neck, smelled the face cream she wore at night, the washing powder of her clothes, the sweat of her banked-up fear. I kept the tears back, refusing to cry. Who would I have cried for? Not for myself. For her? If I started to cry for her, I thought, I would never stop. She would have thought of my being at university as a kind of restitution of something she had deserved. He thought of it as usurpation of what was his by right. Perhaps it was the same thing, just seen through two different temperaments.

I had a scholarship and enough money to live on so that for the first time in my life I was financially comfortable. And ashamed of it: I had almost as much as my father had earned in work, and received more than his dole brought him now.

I studied politics, though study isn’t the word: I went to lectures on political theory from which I memorised the slogans and disregarded the thought behind them. I threw myself into what at first looked like
the life
. I even sold the
Socialist Worker
outside shopping centres until I became sick of its mix of spite and outrage, the pissing-in-the-wind confrontationalism that masked its complete marginality. I even preferred the abuse I got from passers-by to the cloying liberal guilt of the few who stopped and bought the paper, never read it, and who discreetly binned it a few streets away when they thought no one was looking.

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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