Read The Last Hundred Days Online

Authors: Patrick McGuinness

Tags: #Historical

The Last Hundred Days (8 page)

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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‘The church is being dismantled,’ said Leo, ‘then it’ll either stay in storage or get put into some open-air museum.’

‘A working church?’

‘Still consecrated, yes, but it depends what you mean by “working”… they locked it up a week ago, and pulled it down yesterday. It’s one of the lucky ones. Most just get flattened and the stones get used as ballast for the new apartment blocks. Dig up any of these building projects and you’ll find the pieces of some old church or monastery underneath.’

‘Those men…’

‘The men from the ministry – they deal with the Moonies, the Seventh-Day-Adventists and even the odd Christian, it’s all the same to the men from the Ministry of Cults… that’s right:
The Ministry of Cults
.’ He laughed grimly. ‘In the old days peasants on the border would build their churches on wheels, so they could shift them every time they were invaded by the Turks. They should have thought of that here.’

When the car moved again Leo explained where we were going.

‘There should be a hospital somewhere round here, but it’s got no name, and since it’s brand new I can’t find it on the map. Rodica’s had a miscarriage… her husband’s on work detail in Cluj and can’t make it for a while. But that’s not all. Some fuckers from the Securitate took her into the police station for losing the baby. Losing babies is a tragedy in most places; here it’s a crime.’

‘A crime?’

‘As the Man himself, President Comrade Beacon of Progress Nicolae Ceauşescu, Danube of Thought, said – and he meant, oh yes he fucking did, he meant it literally too –
the foetus is the property of the people
… basically, no one wants to have kids in this godforsaken place, but old Nick has decreed that each family shall have at least three children. The population needs to rise! No matter that we can’t feed them or find them jobs, or that their lives are shit… oh no, fuck that, contraception is a crime, abortion is a crime, the pill, that’s a crime. Now losing your baby – that’s a fucking crime!’

After a month here I could believe anything, even that women could be criminalised for losing babies. It was another ten minutes before we reached an anonymous avenue where Leo realised we were lost.

‘Fuck it,’ he shouted and thumped his hands on the steering wheel, ‘where the fuck are we?’

I didn’t need to look at the rectilinear void around us to know this was a rhetorical question. If it was possible to build suburbs that were so bland, so empty of landmarks that they became unnavigable, it had been done here. The place was traceless. The eye sought out something to fix on, but kept rolling off the surfaces. Even the inhabitants must get lost; most, judging by the places they would be coming home to, would probably find that a mercy.

Leo reached for a map but it was no use. ‘Half the fucking places on this map don’t exist any more – I only bought it last year! I thought this was where we were, I just couldn’t recognise anything around me. Christ, this used to be the red-light quarter, the place full of cafés and by-the-hour hotels.’ He shook his head angrily. ‘The only red lights you see these days are the bloody brakelights on demolition trucks!’

There was no one to ask for directions, no car to flag down. Leo got out and found a phone box. These were plentiful in Bucharest, in an inversely proportionate relationship to what you were allowed to say once you got inside. I watched him kick it a few times, find another, and shout into the receiver.

Things moved fast after that. Within ten minutes we were at the gates of a dirty-fronted hospital, half an hour and two world economic zones from the plush clinic where I had seen the
EPIDEMIA
graffiti. Rusty Dacia ambulances stood around, their drivers lolling beside them smoking or swigging Tsuica. Leo parked right up by the front door, and we walked unchallenged up the stairs and into the lobby. The reception desk was empty. There were no signs or notices or arrows pointing where to go; only the drag-marks of blood along floors and walls provided orientation. An open bin was full of crusted bandages on which flies feasted noisily. I swayed at the giddying smell.

‘I know you’ve had your share of Thatcher’s
NHS
, but you’d better be prepared for this,’ said Leo grimly. ‘Don’t even bother to press for the lift…’ He launched himself up a filthy staircase three steps at a time. My foot made contact with something which turned out to be a tooth lying on a bed of its own coiled rootage, like a jellyfish heaped on its tentacles. It was not the hospital’s dirt or mess that frightened me but its apparent emptiness: everywhere signs of illness, damage and trauma, but no one around.

When we reached the ward, Rodica was the first person we saw, our eyes drawn to her bed by the mess of blood on the sheets. She was pale and clammy, in deep but precarious sleep. Leo took her hand. I think he was checking she was still alive. That would have been my first reaction too, had I not been so stunned by what I was seeing. The sheet rose and fell gently as she breathed. Her arm was punctured by a transparent plastic drip and some piping led from her nose to a square box with dials on the bedside table. The box was switched on but its pilot light was out.

All around lay women in various states of pregnancy: some with their babies alive and well beside them, others, like Rodica, in bloody sheeting, the incubators empty, others still waiting to deliver. The mothers-to-be watched the mothers who had lost their babies, and vice versa; the successful births were ranged alongside the stillbirths and miscarriages. The room, above the penetrating odour of sweat, of human and clinical waste, smelled of fear and crushing sadness. A male nurse smoked and played solitaire at the end of the room, a bottle of Tsuica at his elbow. Leo walked up to him. Voices were raised: Leo waving his arms, the orderly turning away and lighting one cigarette off the other, making to resume his card game. Leo grabbed him by the lapels of his white coat and the man pushed him away. There was a pause, and then Leo reached for a packet of Kent cigarettes. Things changed after that.

Some bottled water and a wet flannel were brought to Rodica’s bed for me to administer. The water was cold, straight from the fridge. I pressed the bottle’s flank across her burning forehead, then soaked the flannel and ran it over her face. The nurse got up and shouted down the corridor, and within minutes a young woman doctor came in. She nodded to Leo and came over to Rodica, checked the temperature, and asked me something in Romanian. I expressed my inability to understand, and she asked me in English: ‘Are you a relative?’

‘No, I’m a friend. A colleague. At work.’

She headed towards Leo, then turned back to me: ‘If she wakes up come and tell me. Keep doing what you’re doing. It isn’t useless.’

That double negative expressed the horizon of the doctor’s expectation, where the best that could be hoped for was that the worst might omit to happen. She couldn’t have been much older than me.

What had happened to Rodica, we slowly found out, was terrible. Last night, alone in her flat, she had begun to lose blood. She lived on the eighth floor; the lift was broken and there was no phone, but she managed somehow to get down the stairs and wake a neighbour who helped her to a friend’s car. She had arrived here at 3 am, unconscious and losing blood. Rodica had lost the baby, but by 6 am her own condition had stabilised. She had come round long enough to drink a little and eat some chocolate she had brought with her. A message was put through to her husband, an engineer in Cluj, but he was refused leave to come home. In any case, he had no idea of what had happened afterwards.

Rodica and her husband were part of Romania’s ‘technocracy’, the educated, Party-affiliated middle class who helped run what was left of the country after the regime had finished with it. If this was how someone like her was treated, it was difficult to imagine what those lower down the scale went through.

At 10 am this morning, two Securitate men paid her a visit. All miscarriages in Romania were investigated. The statistics on illegal or self-administered abortions here were frighteningly high and frighteningly grisly, Leo explained later, and many of them produced the dramatically disabled children discovered, not long after the regime’s collapse, filling the country’s orphanages. Party members went to clinics for safe and secret terminations. Ceauşescu planned to increase the population from twenty-three million to thirty million by 2000. A ‘celibacy tax’ was imposed on women who could have children but did not, while officials were sent to interrogate women about their sexual habits. ‘Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter,’ proclaimed Ceauşescu, announcing the ‘Mama Eroica’ scheme to reward mothers with five or more children. But there was no milk, no food; it was impossible to find sterilised feeding equipment; electricity was now as random and inscrutable as Acts of God had been for ancient civilisations.

Rodica, traumatised and in pain, was taken from the hospital for questioning. Two hours later, she was left in the street outside the police station and somehow found her way back to the hospital. By the time she returned she was bleeding heavily. Her body had gone into toxic shock. Her interrogators had refused to confirm whether or not she would be ‘charged’. Leo looked up the offence in the penal code: ‘Crime against the integrity of the Romanian family’.

The young doctor was not ashamed. She was not resigned or fatalistic or sorry. She didn’t avoid our eyes. She was angry, defiant, daring us to implicate her in all this. It was the second time today, though for different reasons, that I had felt challenged to account for something I had nothing to do with: once by Cilea, who circumvented all the miseries of her country, and again here, by Dr Ottilia Moranu, who lived and worked in their midst.

‘She’ll be OK; there’s not much you can do here unless you think seeing a friendly face will help. It might.’

Leo pressed a carton of Kent on Dr Moranu, but she refused it. How long would she keep that up? All the best people here put up token resistance to being bribed. I trusted them more than those who gave in straight away, but the few who never gave in were genuinely suspicious. ‘The dirty bastard’s clean!’ Leo exclaimed on the rare occasions he encountered someone he could not bribe or blackmail. Now he said nothing, just scratched his head and looked pleadingly at Dr Moranu. She was young. Perhaps she hadn’t yet worked out that taking bribes didn’t make you worse, or that refusing them didn’t make you better.

I took the cigarettes from Leo and threw them onto Rodica’s bed. ‘For Christ’s sake take them!’ I said, suddenly sickened by all I had seen here, ‘keep them for yourself or give them to him…’ I jerked my head at the male nurse who eyed us from his card table, ‘it doesn’t matter – just make sure you take them for her.’

The doctor stared at me, at first surprised I had spoken at all, and then furious that I had presumed on her corruptability. Leo stood back. I could feel him watching me, waiting to see how this would turn out. Dr Moranu looked across at the nurse and then back at me.
I am not like him
, her expression said. She went to Rodica’s bed and picked up the cigarettes, holding the carton away from her like contaminated goods.

‘Is this how the private health care we’ve heard so much about works in your country?’ she asked sarcastically, her eyes full of anger.

‘Quite the diplomat, aren’t we,’ Leo whispered as we left, ‘I knew you were the right man for the job.’ As we took the stairs back down to the lobby, we passed the nurse from Rodica’s ward carrying up boxes of medicine and a fresh saline drip. He grinned at us through his cigarette smoke. For the short time we had bought him, he would be completely at our service. You knew where you stood with people who were corrupt, I thought, giving him a brisk, decisive nod.

We had no trouble finding the way home. It was nine o’clock. The sun was sinking fast, the sky speckled with powdery light. Back at his flat, Leo opened a bottle of red wine and poured out two full tumblers. We sat in silence and ate bread and cheese and corned beef as the sun wavered and dimmed out across the western suburbs.

An hour later I walked home through a city with no electric light. Standing on my balcony I looked out and thought of home without longing or regret. Back towards the city centre the frenetic, floodlit building site of the People’s Palace inflamed the undersides of the few passing clouds. Beneath me the blackness was punctured by a flash of sulphur as someone on the pavement lit a cigarette and cupped its glow back into the shadows. Like a ripple down the street, others followed.

I slept well that night.
The sleep of the uninvolved
, joked Leo, not really joking. 

Six

I woke early next day and drank my coffee on the balcony. It had not rained since I arrived, and the smells of Bucharest were becoming increasingly emphatic: petrol fumes, the juice of rubbish bins, the sharp, empty scent of hot dust.

On the ground below me was a cluster of cigarette ends, where the man who had trailed me home from Leo’s had waited and watched. There was no one there now, only people walking slowly to work or killing time between trams. The
Scînteia
vendor was in his kiosk, drinking from a tin mug. He gave me a small wave good morning, looked up and down the street and then at the circle of butt ends on the ground. Below me the
concierge
was back from market. She looked up then quickly looked away, fumbling for keys to a door that was never locked. Nothing had changed, yet everything had that slight emphasis that comes from an awareness of being watched, as if the whole street were now suddenly in italics.

In films, being tailed is represented in an atmosphere of threat, a ratcheting of tension that must always lead somewhere, culminate in something. In reality, the relationship between follower and followed is an aimless affair, a pedestrian shaggy dog story with no beginning, middle or end. There’s nothing dramatic about it, and once the clandestine savour has passed, it becomes another of life’s minor reassurances, like a regular bus service or dependable weather forecasts.

At first it unnerved me. Last night’s struck match had not been mere clumsiness on the part of the man outside. He had been showing me that the darkness was full, but there was no need to watch me all the time. After this, I would be watching myself. That was how it worked: you ended up doing the job for them. Making a second cup of coffee, I became conscious of every movement; starting to sing in the kitchen, I stopped; in the shower I closed the bathroom door, even reaching to bolt it shut. This is what surveillance does: we stop being ourselves, and begin living alongside ourselves. Human nature cannot be changed, but it can be brought to a degree of self-consciousness that denatures it. So it was that the feeling of guilt and furtiveness that had suddenly grown inside me I now projected over the whole indifferent street.

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
8.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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