“Yes, Madam Delcă, the funeral service for General Pantazi’s wife was on Wednesday at the White Church. You must have heard of him, from the days when we were young. How quickly youth flies! I don’t know, you feel the same as before inside, no? But when you look in the mirror it’s another story. He died a long time ago, of course. She was a fine fine woman–as good as they get. There must have been a hundred people there, maybe more. The church was full, and when I looked around I saw what it means to be well educated. No one was even a minute late, and we all stood without moving for an hour because the priests hadn’t arrived yet. You know what, no one moved an inch–to walk round the church, to kiss the icons, to eye one another up. Not an inch! We just stood there until the priests and the archimandrite showed up… Help yourself to some cheese and sour cream, Madam Delcă. Florica brought it for me. I don’t know how much longer she’s going to keep coming; she’s getting on herself and, well, it doesn’t get any easier as the years go by… Anyway, the archimandrite performed the long service, as if for princes, and everyone went on standing still. I really liked that, believe me. After all the horrors they’ve been through, a hundred people were still behaving as people should. In the end a colonel from the reserves who’d once been the general’s comrade gave a speech–a man who was, let’s say, a little simple. But he spoke from the heart. They were a family of boyars, he said, who had lived like boyars and endured poverty and the increasing vulgarity of life like boyars. Left alone to suffer her lot, the general’s wife had devotedly brought up their daughters as daughters should be brought up… One of them, who’s been living abroad for a long time, attended the funeral, though without her children–both because they’re too little and because there’s no point in bringing children to such ceremonies… The younger daughter, whose husband managed to get her out to the West just a year ago, can’t return to Romania yet, especially as she hasn’t been given citizenship over there. As for the general’s wife, I guess they’d probably have got her out too, but she was a woman of great dignity and wouldn’t have easily agreed to being a burden for her children. However close parents and children are, you have to remember that it’s not easy for those who start a new life from scratch in the West. And instead of helping your children, as any parent should, you end up doing the opposite. You land yourself on them without a pension, without anything. It’s hard being a burden for your children, don’t you think?”
“Yes, you’ve got to have money of your own when you’re old; you can’t go round begging from others. Whether it’s family or friends, you can’t be at anyone else’s mercy. Madam Ioaniu used to say the same, God rest her soul…”
A yellow curtain, stained with oil and frayed at the edges, hangs over the kitchen window and its dirty iron bars. Madam Ioaniu sewed the curtain together, while the general himself put in the bars, after the umpteenth burglar had climbed over the roof of the shed and through the window. They no longer had an orderly by then, and the general was arrested three months later. A layer of dust and soot has covered the outside of the window. Leana will wipe it away, as usual, if they can get her to do the spring cleaning.
That’s assuming they will have the usual guests for Easter.
A yellowish-gray light slants in through the window. The morning is already over, and the invisible sun will soon begin to go down in the ivory sky. Ivona stands up and walks over to the food safe. She glances outside but can only see the corrugated roof of the shed, shriveled over time, and further away the dark, damp pavilion on which leftover patches of snow glisten like bird droppings beneath a hard sugar-glazing.
“Hum, I thought I still had a little vegetable stew… My God, what disorder in there. I don’t understand how people can be short of time when they no longer have to go to work. No doubt their strength starts to fail… Do you like vegetables stewed in oil? Tell me honestly, Madam Delcă. You’re not a vegetarian, so I think it’s only normal to ask. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you told me you don’t.”
On the wall above the stove, the yellowing tiles are splashed with glossy solidified oil. They were white when Mrs. Ioaniu put them up after the tenants left-the same white as the repainted sink and water pipes. The paint has peeled away since then, allowing dark metal to show through like ladders in a pair of stockings. A dark-green damp stain looks down like an aqueous lens from the top of the wall, and beneath it beads of crystalline water form on the surface. In the shadowy corner opposite, high above the food safe, long strands of spiderweb hang trembling from the smoke-blackened ceiling.
“What did I want to ask you, Madam Delcă? Huh, the things age does to your memory! You end up birdbrained, as the common people say. It’ll come to me in a minute. But finish it up. It’s a long time since breakfast, and you must be hungry.”
Well now, we’ve stopped being so snooty, have we? I must have given her a fright just now. She saw she couldn’t get away with it and dropped all that bullshit. So now it’s all lovey-dovey, just us two, such good friends: nothing but sweet talk. You must be hungry, Madam Delcă, blah blah blah, you’re not going to walk out on me like that, Madam Delcă… And crocodile tears. “What would I do without you? I’d fall flat on my face.” If I’d taken what she did to heart, I’d have been out of here long ago. Anyone else wouldn’t have let her forget it. But I know how to behave in society; that’s why everyone likes and appreciates me wherever I go. That’s why this crackpot Ivona has suddenly seen reason. She’s changing her tune now.
“What do you say, Madam Delcă, shall I fry you a couple of eggs?”
Has she got ants in her pants or something? There she goes again, fidgeting around in the food safe. Well, I suppose she’s not really evil, just not quite right in the head. Take all that jabbering about the stiffs in the church. So what if they just stood there–big deal! Who wouldn’t if they knew their work was being done for them?
“Just you sit there, Madam Delcă. I’ll take care of the eggs.”
No, she’s not really evil, but look at her: all thumbs! Can’t even fry a couple of eggs. Waving that fork around as if she’s going to stick it up her ass next. And if you take your eyes off her, she could quite easily burn them to a cinder. She may read books and all that, but she’s completely lost in a kitchen and doesn’t have a clue how to behave with people. What she did today, her mother wouldn’t have done in a million years. Madam Ioaniu certainly had her head screwed on right. Sure, she had plenty of faults, but which of us is without sin?–as the priest says in church. And she lived longer than most: she was nearly a hundred when she finally croaked. Not that it was such a good thing to hang on like that: she hardly knew she was still alive, hunched up on that oilcloth in the armchair. In the end there was no point asking her if she recognized you. She’d just stare at me with her beady eyes. All she remembered was where her little cloth purse was. But she still kept watching in case the door was left open. Then she’d be off like a shot, and Ivona would be phoning like crazy and wandering the streets looking for her. And just when she’d given up and was kissing her good-bye, some stranger would call from the other side of Bucharest and ask them to go pick her up.
How Ivona would soft-soap her in those days–even more than she’s doing now.
“Please come and see us more often, Madam Delcă,” she’d say. “I’m so worried about Muti! It’s as if I had a little child in the house. I daren’t leave her alone for a minute.”
But I can only be pushed so far! They could have paid me in gold, and I still wouldn’t have gone more often. I don’t have patience with little children, or old people either, especially if someone’s standing over my shoulder and telling me what to do. I didn’t fancy spending hours and hours in that empty house, where the shutters were kept drawn and the only light was from the candle burning in Madam Ioaniu’s room like in a cellar, and where you heard creaking sounds all the time. What a life: to sit beside that stuffed mummy in the armchair, who didn’t move and didn’t breathe, just stared blankly at the walls! And you had to change her each time she let herself go. And again the floor or God knows what would creak, and you’d expect a ghost to spring out from somewhere. It was enough to scare the wits out of you, to give you a really funny turn.
So Ivona didn’t get her claws into me, or anyone else for that matter. And Madam Ioaniu kept doing a vanishing act–only she knew what she got up to. Last time she did it, they took two days to find her.
They never found out where she’d been. She was in quite a state when they brought her back: her slippers were covered in mud, and she’d lost the cardigan she was wearing when she skipped out. The weather was like it is today, late winter, and they didn’t understand how she could have gone two days without freezing to death. They questioned her, dropped it, then questioned her again–but nothing! She must have remembered something, because she kept muttering: “It was dark, dark, dark…and a big white bird…”
“Muti must have slept in a dovecot,” that scumbag Niki laughed.
Where could she have spent those two days? And what happened to her cardigan? They never did find out. As long as Madam Ioaniu was alive, she kept muttering without being asked: “Dark, dark, dark…and a big white bird.” That’s all they ever got out of her.
One day it finally got through to Ivona that the only thing to do was give up her job. She retired on what they saw fit to give her and started looking after her mother full time. She didn’t like losing out by taking her pension early, but she never groused about it. Anyway, it wasn’t long before Madam Ioaniu passed away. It all happened very quickly.
Ivona couldn’t go back to work then, and she’d never liked to stay home cooking and cleaning. The years she’d enjoyed were when she taught at the Italian School, but that was a long time ago and they kicked her out when her father, the general, was arrested. Or maybe they closed the school down. Yes, she was always unlucky, Ivona.
The one thing I regret, she told me at Madam Ioaniu’s funeral, is that, if I had to retire anyway, I didn’t do it earlier. Then Muti wouldn’t have got into that state and suffered the way she did, sitting in that armchair without anyone to change her. She developed lots of sores and didn’t even have the strength to complain any more. When I think of what must have gone through her mind as she sat there alone and immobile! In the end she could hardly even move her hands.
Well, that’s life, I told her. When you get to that point, your body and mind just pack up. Like it or not, the time will come for all of us to get our marching orders. Not one of us is going to be left hanging around.
“You’re very quiet, Madam Delcă. What are you thinking about?”
“About Madam Ioaniu, God rest her soul, nothing else.”
How many years it is since the three of us used to eat here together: Madam Ioaniu, the boy, and me! Ah, what a load of macaroni we had to eat in those days! That’s what I brought Tudor up on, she said to me once. And when I sit on this chair it’s as if I’m sitting at home. I can almost see the boy wolfing his food down, in a hurry to get to school or to go out and play. You must chew more carefully, I told him, otherwise it’ll go down the wrong way. But the poor thing wolfed it all the same, with one eye on the clock–just so they wouldn’t find an excuse to kick him out of school.
What’s she doing now, wringing her hands and fiddleassing around in the food safe? They don’t like anyone to know their secrets, but nowadays everything gets found out in the end. Even Madam Ioaniu blurted out once that the school had wanted to give Tudor the boot but she’d demanded an interview and saved him. She and Tudor stayed on edge for years, though, in case they tried to get rid of him again. Anyway, he was a right old bookworm and had tons of ambition: he’d cry to himself in bed at night if he got a bad mark, till Ivona and Madam Ioaniu wondered what was up and what they could do to calm him. It was obvious he didn’t take after his whoring father; he was more like Ivona’s father, who’d been somebody in his time. A fat lot of good it did Tudor, though. He had to carry the can for everyone: for his real grandfather, for his step-grandfather, the general, for the whole family. At least that’s how it was until the general died in prison. They used to drop like flies there: anyone who’d been anyone in the past-ministers, generals, people who’d been close to them, people who’d been nothing at all, just struck it unlucky and found themselves behind bars… In fact, Ioaniu had already been dead for some time, but no one had wanted to go to Madam Ioaniu’s house and tell her; it was no fun being a bird of ill omen. So it was only after two years that they got round to telling her in writing that he’d died like a dog in prison. But, you see, that meant there was one less that Tudor had to pay for: it meant he could go on studying and finish school.
“What do you put on your face, Madam Delcă, to keep it looking so nice and wrinkle free? It’s not so easy at our age. What do you wash with? What cream do you use? Or is it a secret? You don’t have to tell me if it is…”
“A secret? Oh yeah, you mean like beeswax floor polish? No, all my life I’ve washed my face with anything around–laundry soap, dish soap, you name it. And I’ve never used any creams or powders: they’ve got poisons inside them that ruin your skin.”
Yes, incredible what a fresh complexion she has. You wouldn’t give her a day over fifty, if that. That’s one of the advantages of being fat. Over time, your muscles become flabby, and only fat can still keep your skin taut. It’s well known that obese people have a good complexion. Unfortunately you can’t have both: good skin and a good figure. One or the other has to go. That’s life.
“Leave the dishes, Madam Delcă. Please don’t wash up. Come on, let’s go through to the lounge.”
As if Vica’s the kind of person who’d just drop everything and follow me! If I’d got her to wash dishes, she’d have pulled a horrible face. But, well, let her scrub and scrub if that will calm her. It’s dark in the lounge, but that doesn’t bother me. The world is so ugly in broad daylight–especially here in Bucharest, where the shop windows are so dull, the streets are so dirty, and people dress with such bad taste. No one looks after the parks and green spaces. And if a tree gets planted somewhere, the passersby trample all over it like a herd of cattle. Even old trees, which could clean the air a little, are pulled down for no reason. People you see in the daylight look ugly but couldn’t care less. Long ago–when I was still at school, I think–I read a short story in a magazine; the action took place on the beach, at Balcic, but there wasn’t much of it, and the story was really about the states of mind of one character. In fact, I don’t remember what he was like, only that he looked with a very critical eye at everything around him. He was particularly merciless about the women he saw there. Well, the character or the author–anyway, the one doing the descriptions–suggested that only girls up to the age of twenty should be allowed to take their clothes off on the beach. Motherhood, he wrote, makes women look ugly; only a fresh young body is beautiful. I was shocked by this rather original author. But that’s the thing about art: it’s what shocks you that stays in your mind.
Ivona goes slowly up the stairs, opens the first door, and enters the room, running her dry fingertips along the wall. She switches on the ceiling lamp–it’s the darkest room in the house–goes up to the dressing table and turns on the wall lights. She stares at herself in the mirror too intently, greedy and impatient in case the old woman finishes the dishes quickly and catches her unawares. It drives her to despair that she looks worse and worse as the years go by. She studies the white locks, white for the length of two fingers from the roots up, and clumsily ruffles her thin dry curls. Her long nose is too wide at the tip and pockmarked with large pores, and her colorless lips have grown thinner and receded. Little burst blood vessels stand out in the yellowish white of her eyes.
Screwing up her thin drooping eyebrows, Ivona tears her face away from the mirror. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her silhouette moving in a misty haze. At the end of the dressing table stand two silver candelabras, blackened and covered with dust.
When Leana comes, she must get her to clean and polish them.
After Ivona switches off the wall lights and the ceiling lamp, only a thin strip of light percolates in through the closed shutters. It is a soft, calming darkness. She turns to the dressing table and feverishly hunts among the objects there, pushing aside a silver casket so that its pearl and amber necklaces spill out with studied carelessness, pushing aside too a powder case and atomizer, until she finds her tube of lipstick and vigorously draws a cross on each cheek. A dark-red cross on the right, a dark-red cross on the left. Then she takes a few steps back. How funny she looks! She closes her eyes, to blot everything out, and mechanically smears the lipstick along her cheekbones.
She moves back a little more.
Ah, yes, that’s better. Just a dash of lipstick and everything looks different. It’s true that the darkness helps. A woman must be appearance conscious for the sake of her own morale… Again she ruffles her thin dry curls. How quickly they’ve sprouted this time!
She turns on the heels of her flat shoes and is delighted with the youthfulness of her movement in the soft shadow. The bracing scent of lavender has long seeped into the rosewood of the wardrobe. A sunbeam suddenly produces a dazzling sparkle in the encrusted mother-of-pearl of the dark mirror frame, then just as suddenly moves on and loses its brilliance. A single worry still haunts Ivona. She leaves her bedroom and searches for the lounge clock with her eyes. It was about now that Niki said he would be home. Assuming he’ll be half an hour late, that means the old woman should be going. Rightly or wrongly, Niki can’t get on with her at all, so it’s best if she goes. Anyway, she has no reason to stay longer: she’s used the toilet, she’s eaten something. What about her fifty lei? Ivona could give them to her, as she’d otherwise have to mail them to her in a week’s time. But she’ll only draw her pension tomorrow and doesn’t have enough cash. Maybe she should take it out of Niki’s money, or from what she’s set aside to pay for the hot water. If she gives the old woman her fifty lei, she won’t have anything to hold against her. Ah, how little details like that can throw a touchy, emotional soul! Look at how the old woman shuffled without a word to the coat stand and made ready to leave–she who is usually so impertinent. And that ridiculous beret she’s had for thirty years, which Tudor, the dear boy, mentions in all his letters: How is Madam Delcă? Does she still call on you in that fantastic beret of hers? How her hands were trembling when she stretched them out to take her coat! No, there’s no doubt about it, she’ll never become the practical woman that Niki would like to have around the house. When she saw her there in the hall, she said to herself that it’s not right to behave badly with someone who’s been coming to your house for so many years. And at her age, can you know how much longer she’ll last?
In the end she’s just a poor old woman, whose property was confiscated by the regime, and for whom the future can bring nothing but troubles. If she’d let her leave and then heard, God forbid, that something had happened to her on the way home, how she would have blamed herself in the future! The poor woman felt so ashamed at being put in her place that she didn’t want to say another word. So she’d just tried to gratify her in ever way possible.
“I’ve been in this room so many times, but I don’t know that picture there. I thought there was nothing in the house I don’t know.”
“There’s no way you could have seen it, Madam Delcă, because it’s an old photograph I came across by chance a few months ago. I was so happy to find it! All our family is there. My God, look how young they are! Tante Margot was a pupil at the Central School. I think Muti avoided displaying the picture out of respect for Uncle Georges, because, you see… here is Papa. He’s her first husband! Papa and Uncles Georges knew each other, thought highly of each other, but nevertheless, you understand, it wouldn’t have been a good idea to hang it on the wall. Yes, Papa is the man reading at the pedestal table; of course I look like him. And the other, younger man, with the blond moustache and boater, is Titi Ialomiţeanu, a good family friend, also from Muti’s hometown of Buzău, where my grandparents and his parents used to see a lot of each other. Both my grandparents died in a terrible accident: first their train’s brakes failed and it crashed into another one carrying petroleum, then it went off the rails and a number of wagons caught fire. What a horror! The doors wouldn’t open. That was how Muti and Tante Margot became orphans. Muti married Papa, and Margot started boarding at the Central School and spending her Sundays and holidays with us. Afterward, as you will remember (not I), the war broke out.”
Glossy new walnut paneling. Two doors on the right, and between them a little table with tall legs and a heart-shaped panel. Above, on a marble base, an ordinary table clock with a large white face, whose Roman numerals can be read from across the room.
A quarter past five, in the afternoon.
Along the left wall, beneath the mirror, a mahogany sofa. Its back, in the form of three semi-ovals, is rounded off by a garlanded frame. A young girl–fringe on her forehead, curls covering her ears–sits back against the cushions on the sofa, in a posture of rigidity and indolence. Her slightly raised skirt reveals delicate ankles and patent-leather boots with low heels and silver buckles.
A young man, who a moment ago was keeping her company, sits cross-legged on a chair drawn up beside the sofa, his arms draped awkwardly over its rounded back. His fresh face is frozen into a dreamy look. He has gently slanting eyes, or perhaps they only appear to be so because of his prominent cheekbones. His slicked-back hair, with a parting right down the middle, does nothing to conceal his rather large ears. He is formally dressed for a visit: beige suit, stiff shirt collar.
Another tall little table, also with three legs, to the right of the sofa. On it a photo of a young couple in a wide frame. Thin and short, in a Prussian officer’s uniform, the man rests his elbow on a pedestal table.
King Carol and Queen Elisabeta.
A bronze Apollo plays a lyre on the mantelpiece behind the sofa, under a mirror that reflects the bust of a young woman on the other side of the lounge. A huge bun, two large waves of hair, a slightly fixed stare. An impression of hauteur and inner calm, intensified (or actually created) by the haziness of the mirror. It is enough to look at each detail with a magnifying glass: for example, her forehead is quite low, her thin lips are tightly pursed, her nose…and so on. But, as soon as the glass is set aside, her gaze again becomes dreamily detached. The high black collar of her lace blouse is visible beneath a sprawling white silk shawl.
In the middle of the room, a pedestal table and gris-vert velvet cover layered with lotuses or water lilies. Its twilled silk border has large bows and fluffy white or golden tassels that stretch down to the carpet.
A single person at the table: a middle-aged man, his forehead and temples extended by baldness.
He is absorbed in a magazine, although, judging by the way he holds it between his skinny fingers, he would seem to have originally intended only to leaf through it. His face is emaciated, with dark circles around sunken eyes. His cheeks are closely shaven, while his moustache, its tips twirled in the old style, is surprisingly thick in comparison with the sparse covering of blond or grizzled hair on his head. His watch chain runs from one waistcoat pocket to the other, where it is attached to the end of a mechanical pencil. His frock coat has been put on properly, but he is not wearing a collar or tie.
On the pedestal table, a cigarette case, an ivory cigarette holder, and a finely carved ivory paper knife. Next to it, a wastepaper basket and a potbellied bronze vase with little twisted loops, full of papers, envelopes, cuttings, and magazines. The hour for correspondence.
Above the table, the long stem and translucent pendants of the Dutch chandelier, the only patch of light. Solemn shadow everywhere else: dark-sheened paneling, heavy furniture, a slight tension on the faces. It is a special moment, a pose of people caught up in ordinary conversation that the camera begins to capture, and whose solemnity their faces try to retain.