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Authors: Patrick McGuinness

Tags: #Historical

The Last Hundred Days (9 page)

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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I called Leo but there was no reply. He had probably come back late and was sleeping it off, or was at Ioana’s, splayed across the sofa fully clothed.

The phone rang.

‘Leo? Is he over there with you? Can you put him on? He’s meant to pick me up and take me to the station. I’m going to miss my train.’ It was Ioana, Leo’s fiancée.

‘Ioana? I thought he was with you. I’ve tried him at home and there’s no answer.’

‘Well he’s not. What were you up to last night?’

I told her, avoiding most of the details.

‘Poor Rodica. I will have to go and see her when I am back. Typical that Leo didn’t call me. Anyway, where is he now, that is the question?’

‘Ioana, I don’t know – I left his flat around ten and came straight back here. I assumed he went back to the hospital and returned home later.’

‘Doesn’t look like it. Which hospital?’

I had no idea. The place had not seemed to have a name, and there was no way I could retrace our steps. I tried to describe the building to her.

‘Mmm… that narrows it down. Thank you very much.’

‘He’s teaching at ten, so he’s bound to come in for that.’

‘He is not
bound to
do anything. This is Leo we are talking about. And what about my train?’ I heard her shuffling papers. Her voice had a strained receiver-in-the crook-of-the-shoulder tone. ‘I will ask the neighbour to take me over. Tell him to ring me at my parents’ this afternoon. He knows the number.’

At the department I knocked on Leo’s door. No answer. As I turned Ionescu intercepted me: ‘Ah! The very chap!’ he said brightly. The morning Tsuica was discreet but unmistakeable behind his cologne that smelled of fly spray. ‘Our friend Leo has got himself into something of a scrape. Shall you and I go and fetch him from his current lodgings?’

‘And where are they?’

‘Central Bucharest police headquarters, apparently.’

Ionescu called for a car, which arrived after twenty minutes during which he sat at his desk and ignored me, typing and munching through a plate of strudels. He picked up the phone and held a brief staccato conversation in which I could only make out Leo’s name and that of some gravely titled personage Ionescu addressed as
– Sir – a form of address to a superior officially abolished for
, Comrade. It was still in one’s interests to have it to hand when, as often around here, life turned you into a supplicant.

‘So – are you going to tell me…’ I began when we were sitting in the car.

Ionescu cut me off. He raised a finger to his lips, and then to his ear, and looked out of the window with an exaggerated interest in some lorries, just then unloading sacks of cement.

‘It’s good to see so much building going on. That’s what Bucharest needs: a proper Metro.’

Though there was only me and the driver, Ionescu spoke as if he were addressing a group of strangers, which, given the likelihood that the car was bugged or the driver an informer, was a sensible wager. Everyone was adept in this public-private voice, used for statements that meant nothing, or that slid inconsequentially past whoever one was with. This second degree dialogue was transcendent in its banality, pure and meaningless as a sheet of water. We all spoke it. Flaubert had dreamed of writing a book about nothing, but found it was impossible, that language cramponned onto things, that there was nothing he could do to break the shackles that bound it to the world. Here in Romania, they had made a real start on the Flaubertian mission.

In front of the station, a statue of The Comrade in white marble dominated the little that there was, Ozymandian against a background of broken stone and half-erected pillars. A gypsy on a stepladder was buffing the leader’s clear brow. Ceauşescu sculptures were always one-and-a-half times life-size, so that when you stood beside them you were outscaled, but realistically – diminished yet in a discomfitingly human way. Saddam Hussein or Kim Il Sung had seventy-foot sculptures of themselves; not Ceauşescu. He made sure he looked as if he was simply made differently, a superior version of the human, as befitted the leader of an atheist state that believed in the superhuman and not the supernatural. With Ceauşescu statues, it was their very moderation that made them so excessive, so troubling to be near.

We reached the police compound; Ionescu tensed up at the checkpoint, his hands gripping the armrest of the Dacia. He needed a drink, but smoked one Carpati off another instead. In front of the building, he told the driver to wait, took me by the elbow and walked through the double doors.

Ionescu flapped open his identity card in front of a succession of checkpoint staff. I assumed he had phoned to arrange Leo’s release, but I caught nothing of the whispered transactions that were going on now. All I saw was that we made our way easily past guard after guard. Each time Ionescu’s ID card opened there was a flash of dollar bills: a butterfly with wings of cash. We descended further and further into the building, finally in a lift so small we could only use it one at a time. As I stood in it the fear crossed me that it was a trick, that I’d never leave here, but the lift went back up, bringing Ionescu to join me. He walked, I thought, like someone who knew his way around places like this. But from which side of the bars?

Finally, we reached the end point: a long corridor with smaller barred corridors going off it, like the set of a Soviet-bloc
Alice in Wonderland

The tunnels narrowed as we went. They were made of brick, painted in beige lacquer, with curved roofs and square electric lanterns that swayed on their chains in the draft. It smelled clean and antiseptic; the chilling hygiene of the frequently cleaned. It was a place where violence was not wreaked or loosed or unleashed, or any of those emotive, dynamic, driving verbs; violence here was administered. Distant bars clanged and echoed, but there was no human sound. We waited at a plastic table. Ionescu, arms crossed and looking at his shoes, breathed deeply and looked down. I focussed on an efflorescence of rot that had climbed the curved wall beside my knee. As I stared it seemed to be moving, growing in front of my eyes. I leaned across to touch it, and it came away as powder on my fingers.

We heard Leo before we saw him.

‘Oh yes, I wish to speak with your gynaecological security unit immediately!’

He was interrupted by the sound of a dry slap, which echoed along the corridors but only stopped him for a moment.

‘I want the fuck police. I called the emergency number, but no answer. Maybe they’re still in the sack, doing their patriotic duty?’

The men who delivered Leo and who, I assumed, were responsible for the black eye and the bleeding lip, looked exasperated rather than evil. They were functionaries of violence, and though they were the ones giving it out, they looked oddly passive beside their victim. One even patted Leo’s shoulder. The knuckles of his left hand were raw. His colleague puffed out his cheeks and exhaled, relieved to be getting back to more straightforward power relations. Leo saluted them as they left, shaking their heads. It was they who looked hard done by, two teachers handing over an unruly child to his parents.

Leo was bullish. If anyone could come out from a night in a Romanian cell in better shape than they’d gone in, Leo could. He smelled bad – sweat and alcohol and a topspin of piss – and looked worse, his split lip caked in a black crust that didn’t look like a healing scab. His left eye had closed up. A deep gash sliced through his eyebrow which was sticky with blood and shreds of tobacco where he had applied a cigarette paper to stanch the flow. He needed stitches. Nonetheless Leo vibrated with energy, high on drink and pain and sleeplessness.

He threw open his arms: ‘Comrades! You shouldn’t have. I was just leaving anyway…’ He wiped his mouth, leaving a smear of blood across his hand.

The journey back into daylight seemed to take hours. This time, with no bribes to give out, each checkpoint and each security desk took longer to pass. People to whom Ionescu had only minutes before given dollar bills appeared to have no recollection of him. They just furrowed their brows and strained to spin every transaction out to its limit. ‘Even the corruption doesn’t work properly around here,’ – Leo’s loud stage whisper. Papers were checked, taken away and examined. I found a packet of Kent and two ten dollar bills in my jacket pocket, and gave them to Ionescu, who slipped them to one of the officials. As we finally stepped outside, the three of us flinched and shielded our eyes from the sun.

‘Where’s your car, Leo?’ asked Ionescu.

‘I left it in the Athénée Palace car park. If you’d be so kind as to drop me there, I’ll drive home and do a bit of grooming. I might just catch my eleven o’clock class.’

‘You’re off today, Leo. I don’t want to see you. Your classes are covered.’ Ionescu continued sternly in Romanian. Leo listened and answered brightly, trying to turn whatever was being said into a joke. He turned and tried to wink at me with his good eye.

At the Athénée Palace, Ionescu dismissed the driver, telling him we would walk the rest of the way. Out of electronic earshot, he gave Leo a sharp smack on the shoulder. ‘Do you have any idea how dangerous this is?’

‘Well, Professor, take a look at me – I’d say I’ve developed a rather clear idea of how dangerous it is…’

‘You make light of everything! This is not a game. Being a foreigner won’t always get you off the hook. Being
won’t always get you off…’

‘Sorry, boss.’ Leo put on a look of exaggerated contrition and rolled his eyes at me.

‘Look, things aren’t straightforward for me at the moment. My position isn’t safe enough for me to take risks like this, and anyway, I don’t have the time to bail you out each time you get into trouble… I’ve barely got the time to wipe my own arse these days…’

‘Professor, I hope that’s one area where you aren’t cutting corners. For your colleagues’ sake if not your own…’

Ionescu looked at Leo and shook his head, then put his arms around him. Leo sagged forward and closed his eyes. They were both exhausted with sorrow and relief and for a moment Leo looked small and defeated. I looked aside. Eventually, Ionescu pulled away and adjusted his spectacles.

‘And by the way, Dr O’Heix. That’s fifty dollars you owe me, and a packet of Kent and twenty bills for our new colleague here!’ He began to walk away, leaving us in the car park.

‘Cheque’s in the post!’

‘Ha!’ Ionescu’s hand rose and swept the air with a grand carelessness.

Leo patted his pockets and found he had lost his keys and wallet. ‘Gone. Car keys, house keys, office keys. Money. ID card. The lot. Shit. Must have been my cellmate, the fake drunk with the real Tsuica. Phone Ioana, she can let me back in the flat at least.’

‘Ioana’s gone to Iaşi. She called this morning. Wondered where you were.’

‘Well, looks like you’ll be giving your old chum Leo somewhere to kip for a few nights.’ He walked over to his car. It was parked diagonally across two spaces, and had been clamped. Leo scratched his forehead, raised his foot to kick the car, held himself back.

‘I’m up for a drink,’ he decided, settling beneath a parasol in the hotel’s beer garden, ‘You’d better get them in – I’m barred and out of cash.’

The Athénée Palace bar was a drinkers’ Capsia: elegant and retro and discreetly underlit. Its only concession to the twentieth century was a long strip of lighting underneath the lip of the bar, which brought out the carpet’s wavy design. After a few drinks you got seasick looking at the floor.

It was empty but for some Cuban businessmen cutting a deal over whisky and club sandwiches. It made me hungry to watch them, and I ordered some for us. I was hungry all the time in Bucharest, I realised, though I myself never had difficulty getting hold of food. I was absorbing the place’s hunger without ever experiencing it.

A lethargic prostitute looked up at me from behind the ashtray where she was rolling the ash of her cigarettes into a sharp point between puffs. Her eyes were hollow and bloodshot and her thin, wasting body was at once garishly on display and in sunken, hollow retreat. Girls in her state were not usually allowed into tourist hotels. When their bodies and faces became overwritten with illness, they were moved on. I gave her a few weeks before she would be servicing drunks on building sites outside the city limits. And then another few weeks. Two others, hard-faced but with a worn and savvy beauty, were reading a German lifestyle magazine at the bar. They raised their heads as I came in, horses jerking from grazing, then looked back down.

‘Yes. Now are you going to tell me what happened?’ I asked.

After returning to see Rodica, Leo had stopped off here, at the Athénée Palace bar, had several drinks and started a fight with some German businessmen. ‘To be honest, I’ve forgotten what the bone of contention was. Something I said probably… or was it something they said? …anyway, this big Kraut grabs my throat and starts banging my head into the table. But they’re guests and I’m not, and they’ve got a couple of hookers and a bar tab the size of my arm, and I get thrown out by a couple of heavies.’

‘So of course you did the sensible thing and went home?’

No. Leo had found himself outside the hotel, where he spotted a black Mercedes Benz with German plates. His next step had been to carve
, or rather – because he had the German and wanted to use it –
across the bonnet. That might have been it, but Leo had decided to go back in and explain the joke. When the German businessmen laughed, Leo was puzzled. When two Romanian policemen came in, dragged him outside and clubbed him on the arms and legs with their truncheons, he saw that the joke was on him. The car belonged to the Romanian Ambassador to Germany, who was entertaining ministers in the Athénée Palace. Leo had been lucky with a night in a cell and a moderate beating. He had shared a bottle of Tsuica with his cellmate, a good-natured drunk who was probably a Securitate plant, dozed a few hours, and was now back at the scene of the crime.

‘Yep…’ he concluded, mulling it over, ‘it could have been a lot worse.’

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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