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Authors: Patrick McGuinness

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BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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When I decided that we were learning about politics not in order to reimagine the world but the opposite – to continue justifying why it was this way and could be no other – I changed to art history and spent my days touring galleries and reading catalogues. I would like to say it fed something indistinct and unformed in me – a desire for beauty, to appreciate it without needing either to own it or break it, and a way of talking about feelings of extremity without letting on that they were my own. Maybe that was a part of it, but what I really savoured at the time was my father’s indignation that I was spending my time and his money – he was always, in his own mind, the living embodiment of that modern Christ-figure, The Taxpayer – in useless, escapist and possibly homosexual occupations. Back from college one weekend, over dinner, I mustered the courage to talk about a painting. I used the word
lovely
. He coughed up his food, wiped his mouth and left the table.

The high point of my first and, as it turned out, only year at university was when I spent a night in a prison cell for decking a commuter who spat into my book as he stepped across me on the Underground at Trafalgar Square. I looked up to find him grinning, a sharp-suited spiv with a briefcase and a humorous tie, part of that eighties craze for accessories that displayed moderate individualism without undermining one’s reputation as a ‘team player’. I yanked his tie, a pattern of rugby balls and beer bottles on a background of green turf, and his head followed to where I kneed him in the face. He filed for assault, and had the witnesses. I had a police record and a caution. For a few days my father was proud of me. It was the sort of meaningless, self-damaging act that made people like us think for a moment that we were winning, that gave us an extra swagger at the pub or in the dole queue. My first act of violence.
Halfway to your first fuck
, was how he put it, betraying, in that conjunction, something of how he saw the world.

A few months later my father, by then a year out of work, on dole and benefits and coughing blood, collapsed in the newsagent’s and called me from hospital. When I got there a neighbour had brought him a dressing gown and slippers and a bag of 2p coins for the phone. The consultant was waiting to see us. Maybe it was the way he explained the cancer – ‘competing cells’, ‘unchecked growth’, ‘hostile takeover’ – but it sounded like he was talking not about a human body but about the stock market. Maybe he thought it was the only language we understood.

Leo hoped I would turn out to be as much of a blank in person as I had been at the interview. I must have internalised the shock of arriving here because he claimed to be impressed by my adaptability. He found me unfazed by it all, though the radical unfamiliarity of Bucharest life was neutralised by my sense of entering an existence that had been tailored with me in mind: the flat, full of clothes that fitted me, books and records I would have wanted myself, pictures I would have chosen for my own walls; a job I was suited for despite never having imagined what it entailed and that had been given to me precisely because I had not sought it. Then there was Leo, who could cram twenty years of friendship into five minutes’ conversation. I came away from our first evening together feeling as if he had implanted a rich and textured shared past into my consciousness, that our friendship had preceded our meeting; that it had even preceded
me
.

Leo had his pragmatic reasons for wanting me to feel at home here. He was Bucharest’s biggest black-marketeer, with a ramifying network of shady staff and shadier clients, dealing in booze, cigarettes, clothes, food, currency and antiques. He needed human cover, a straight man, and I was happy to comply. In exchange, though Leo would never have called it an
exchange
, he gave me friendship that was unconditional.

Soon Leo was storing contraband in my cupboards. He secreted his supplies in hiding places across town, and my flat, on the cusp of three of Bucharest’s slickest suburbs, was a convenient shipping point. Despite his run-ins with the authorities, Leo was at once above and below the law: his clients were usually more important than his persecutors, and he had yet to find a persecutor who could not be turned into a client.

He supplied the embassies with Romanian currency in exchange for luxury goods: wine or
foie gras
, designer clothes, brandy, anything that could be traded or sold on. Sometimes he was paid in cameras or hub caps or hair dryers; but there was nothing he could not sell or barter. It was also Leo who supplied Johnnie Walker whisky to government departments, buying it cheap and selling it on at twice the price to the ministry minions who procured their bosses’ luxuries. With a select few, Leo dealt directly: the minister for transport, his source of petrol coupons, the undersecretary for culture, the deputy interior minister – or, as I knew him long before I met him, Manea Constantin. Leo’s contacts stretched across Bucharest. They connected it together in occult ways, subterranean branch lines nobody saw but which mapped out a city of their own.

Leo’s business partner was known as ‘the Lieutenant’: a tattooed, multiply earringed gypsy in riding britches and Cossack boots who revved his Yamaha Panther through the slums of Bucharest like an Iron Curtain
Easy Rider
. He wore a blue tunic with gold buttons and officer’s chevrons – hence his nickname – and resembled a veteran of some Mongol rape-and-pillage squad. The Lieutenant took care of logistics. He commanded an army of Poles and Romany caravaners who moved about in the night, across fields and mountains and urban wastelands, slid under razor wire and swept over electric fences, insubstantial as the dawn mist. They siphoned off petrol from the state service stations and disappeared equipment from the malfunctioning factories; they subtracted produce from the collectivised farms and re-routed flour and cooking oil from the night convoys. Inventories all over the country adjusted themselves to their passing.

It was the black market that held the country together, kept it afloat by filling its many gaps and rectifying, at a price, its ruinous bureaucracy. It was the system’s other self, its shadow aspect. Perhaps the system even owed its survival to it, the way the wall owes its survival to the ivy that sucks it dry before becoming the only thing that holds it up.

But Leo’s great project was not the black market. It was Bucharest and the book he was writing about it:
City of Lost Walks.

‘Next of kin?’ asked Leo when I told him, a month into my stay, about the form I had filled in at the ministry, ‘I’m flattered. Does that make me your guardian?
In loco parentis?
Are there any… duties?’

There was nothing paternal about Leo, any more than there was anything filial left in me, but I could tell the idea grew on him. Such filiality as I had died with my mother. She was so ill for so long that her death was really more of a confirmation than an event. For two years we had made do with her shade, a hologram of the person who had been so tough and substantial that I never doubted she would rise above all my father’s calculating savagery. What I learned from her was that when the strong break they break irrecoverably because they never cracked, because they never accommodated themselves to what sought to destroy them.

One day, soon after my thirteenth birthday, I came home from the park chewing my cigarette-camouflaging mints to find her rocking on the sofa, speechless, her face blank but her eyes holding a sorrow beyond what could be expressed. My father was shaking her, telling her to snap out of it and make his dinner:
There’s football on in a minute
. He had turned up the television news full blast to make his point: battleships on a churn of grey sea, helicopters and aircraft strafing the sky over the Falklands cutting to a map with an arrow pointing to a patch of land that seemed to me, even in those Union-Jacked times, to be geographically and politically utterly irrelevant. Saying so in school the previous week had earned me a caning from the religious studies teacher and a punch in the eye from one of my schoolmates. My mother had laughed when I explained my black eye. Not for long. My father had blacked hers with a quick, casual flick of his knuckles.

Now I remember the intensity of my sorrow at her dying better than I remember her; and that was a second sorrow, the knowledge that the rest of my life would be her ebbing away: first from the places she had used to be, then from the memory of the child who had loved her. For years I would stop in the middle of what I was doing, drop everything and close my eyes to make sure I still had her image in my mind. Four years later there was only the faintest outline, blanking with overexposure. Now that its object was so faint, it was the mourning itself that I mourned, its lost intensities. They had at least reminded me of what feeling felt like.

I had always been envious when people in books described their parents as
remote
. For me, remoteness would have been a kind of solution.

My father scraped the ceiling of his life, a life he thought he was too big for. But he wasn’t too big: it had simply contracted around him from lack of use. My mother was his slave, and as the little she settled for subsided into the even less she got, he paid her in resentment and with violence that was all the more frightening for being rare and premeditated. When she broke down that day she just stopped. It was as if she had died already but left us the body to help us acclimatise to her loss. That was typical of her – the gentleness of her going.

Him I grew to hate, and it energised me. But I couldn’t make a life out of it, or not a life that was my own. So I discovered forgiveness, and the secret malice of it: people forgive not out of grandeur of spirit but as a way of freeing themselves. The forgiver always floats free, the forgiven slides a little further down the soft shute to hell. Maybe that’s why so many religions use forgiveness as a secret weapon. Thus I forgave him, and made sure he knew it. Throughout his cancer I was there. I dropped out of college for him, left my student bedsit with three carrier bags of books and clothes, and took the train back to Wapping, back to the house, back to the front room where he sat in his favourite armchair, a black sun around whom everything revolved. At the hospice I came in every day; I held his hand and read the newspapers to him while he squinted at the spaces between the letters, measured the print size, scanned the indentations and margins with his failing expert’s eye. I showed him how we could have been.
It’s not every day you bury your father
… I had been burying mine a little every day.

During the Wapping riots the year after her death, I came home from school and helped my classmates collect the police-horse shit for their grandfathers’ docklands allotments. The bags steamed in the cold and the manure juice seeped down our backs as we hobbled under their weight, dodging the bricks and broken glass, the water-cannon puddles and abandoned placards. The harvests of ’86 and ’87 were miraculous, the allotments bright with vegetables, the old men guarding their patches as the bulldozers moved in to develop the docklands around them, parcelling it up and renaming it in the new language of service-industry English: ‘Enterprise Quay’, ‘Atlantic Projects’, ‘Sterling Wharf’. And then the jokes: the cucumbers were tough as policemen’s batons, the cabbage rows lined up like riot shields, the winter greens sharp as tear gas.

‘It all connects up,’ my father would say, unboarding the window of his front room as he did every day regardless of the weather. It had been broken so many times he now just nailed a screen of chipboard across the pane. Before his first drink I might catch him philosophising – not wrongly, never that, just helplessly. I might catch sight too, somewhere between the unscrewing of the bottle and the first splash of whisky on glass, of the man who had once told me that thinking about how the world worked gave you the tools to change it. ‘It all connects up: from a row of Paddy’s allotment carrots up to 10 Downing Street through the crack of a police horse’s arse.’

Yes: family life had been a good enough schooling in totalitarianism, eking out small permissions, learning to live under the radar of his vengefulness and failure. There can’t have been many people who came to Ceauşescu’s Romania for their first taste of freedom.

Leo stared at me as I told him all this. I had not meant to say it. I had never said it to anyone, or not like that, shaking as I spoke, horrified as much by my coldness as by my fragility. For a moment I thought he would tell me his story, the story of how he came to be here. Instead all he said was, ‘Christ, we hoped you’d be… I don’t know, a little more of a blank slate.’

Four

In his spare hours, between days of teaching and nights of deal-cutting, Leo worked on his book about Bucharest. The longer I knew him, the more frenzied his writing became. He could not keep up with the city’s obliteration. The place was coming down faster that it could be described. In the eight years he had been here he had watched nearly a quarter of old Bucharest go down: churches, monasteries, private houses and public buildings. It survived in guide books and memoirs, and in the trove of notes and photographs that lay heaped on Leo’s dining table, waiting to be turned into prose. The prose, meanwhile, went from topical to commemorative in a fraction of the time it usually took for such transformations: months, weeks, sometimes days. Leo had begun writing a practical guidebook for a travel company, but had finished up composing an urban elegy, a memorial to a place gone or going at every cobble and cornice.

Against the wall a metre-square map of Bucharest, stuck with lines and clusters of coloured pins, was attached to a cork board. ‘Red pins are the walks taken, blue pins are the walks yet to take. Black one are the walks you can’t take any more – the lost walks.’


The City of Lost Walks
… is that really your title?’

The finished sheets of his book lay piled on his dining table, indexed
quartier
by
quartier
. I read the names aloud: Dorobanti, Dudesti, Herastrau, Lipscani… while Leo sought out the pages that described where I lived. He handed me a typewritten sheet with lines and arrows in red in the margins:

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
7.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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