Daring to Remember

The Piano in Block 31

Foto: Nikola Mihov
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  • An excerpt from The Piano in Block 31 by Lea Cohen
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A story by Bulgarian author Lea Cohen, translated by Aglika Markova.

Foto: Nikola Mihov

It came as a big surprise to everybody in our block, this piano. It was as though we saw a formal dress at a village fair, an American film in a Bulgarian cinema, or a truffle recipe in the “Socialist Woman” magazine. Today, thirty years since, things are palpably different. We watch men with highlights in their beards and in dressing gowns on TV Prime Time, American films are screened in nearly all cinemas and our MPs explain to the impoverished population how special is that strange mushroom sold at the price of gold…

Block 31 was right next door to block 13! Nobody could ever explain to me the erratic order of those numbers. Before and after it the symmetry of the buildings in our neatly arranged housing estate followed the expected arithmetic progression. Numbers 11, 12 and 13 snuggled next to each other and then, suddenly and inexplicably, on the northern wall of the next building, lying somewhat askew and facing east, there was this huge sign with this fat lopsided figure: Block 31.

“Housing estate” is a combination of words, which, to this very day, means directly the opposite of my idea of a cosy home. For me the concept is identical to the meaning of “barracks”. I had also heard it in a very improbable context, signifying mental imbalance, which I visualized as a nervous tick. Not that I was particularly interested in etymology. I simply related the two words to other new coinages that had stormed, unexpected and uninvited, into our language and life. COMbined metallurgic/meat factory, COMmand (emergency team, once described in a book by a recommended Soviet writer), COMmmanding officer (of the valiant fighters against Bulgarian bourgeoisie, of course), a COMbine (the machine, complete with its driver who in one Soviet film also happened to be a woman), COMmmissar (the political officer in the extolled Soviet revolutionary films and the immortal hero of the anecdotes about Chapaev), COMsomol (I was a member until I got pregnant for the first time) and, of course, COM(munist) party and the COMintern (at school, when I was fifteen and still an excellent student, lessons on their history were compulsory). In my reckless youth, I seriously believed that, when I grew up, my address would express a poetic notion, like “Acacia Street”, say, or “Forget-me-not Square”. It never even occurred to me that I could live in a building with a number like a prison cell. Later, when I did spend a short time in prison, one of the inmates told me that the streets in New York had no names either, just numbers, Third Avenue, Fifth Avenue… She claimed to have visited New York and maintained that the corner where the Fifth Avenue met an unnamed street - 42nd Street, if I am not mistaken - was one of the liveliest places on earth. It could have indeed been the liveliest, except that I had absolutely no way of checking.

Occasionally I asked myself whether my biography would have been different, had some people, unknown to me, not used their “connections” to obtain a permission to build their illegitimate block 31 where the original designs had provided for a garden… I was not asking that seriously, of course: at that time we had no biographies and did not write CVs when asked. Instead, we were required to write extensive “autobiographies”. There was a strict rule as to how those autobiographies ought to begin: we needed to start by saying either that we came from a “poor workers’” family (excellent choice, a win-win situation!), or from a family of “industrious peasants” (also useful) or (in my case), a family of “civil servants” – woe is me, I had absolutely no chance with my divorced parents. My father was an architect and my mother taught German at school. That was a complete disaster!

Photo: Nikola MihovLuckily, Costa my husband was in a position to present a very desirable and acceptable autobiography to the authorities and that was how we obtained the flat in Block 31. That was how I finally settled on the fourth floor. The COMmission in charge had studied our application, had found it satisfactory and had issued the housing order. Adieu to acacias, forget-me-nots and other unhealthy dreams!

The block was diversely populated. The three highest floors boasted spacious flats with terraces. There lived people “with connections”.  We knew this because they seldom spoke to us, passed gingerly by our doors to get into their life, and enjoyed specially reserved parking lots where they parked their brand-new “Ladas”. Workers in the huge metallurgic COMbined works inhabited the lower floors. They came from the countryside. There were also people who did not have anyone, absolutely no “connections”, to help them find a flat in a more welcoming part in the city centre, or in the southern skirts of the city where the streets were indeed named after flowers, or after Communist poets and murdered anti-fascists, and where one could not find a single building marked just by a figure. How very unlike our block where number 31 was painted in black oils on a stucco!

Our next-door neighbours were very different from all the rest on the block. To live side by side with a family of musicians was highly unusual, even embarrassing, for us. I felt different and that was what was embarrassing. We were five in our flat; I was used to the kids’ loud voices and Costa’s noisy belching, which made the elder children laugh and evoked tears of frustration in our youngest daughter. I did not notice the stench of fried onions, which Costa expected with every meal… No smells were coming from our neighbours’ flat, and the stairs resounded in piano scales, in sounds of the violin… or in silence. Our flat was as noisy as a pub; their flat, especially when they were not playing, was as quiet as a reading room. As they did not go to pubs and we did not visit reading rooms, there was no other meeting point for our two families but the little area in front of the lift.

My marriage to Costa was a strong disappointment to my mother who was a refined lady. Together with a friend, also a divorcee, they tried to channel my education in the right direction by repeatedly taking me to choir concerts and, later on, to concerts of classical music. Their efforts failed miserably, as once at a poetry reading I was caught aiming at the main reader with small paper balls. When I was found deeply asleep at the performance of the “Queen of Spades”, I was totally dishonoured.

Photo: Nikola MihovI had no way of explaining to my mother that the functions Costa took me to, at least at the beginning, were much more attractive than her concerts and poetry readings, and that the “Queen of Spades” was to blame for my heart-felt hatred for the opera, since the four-hour-performance proved to be the longest cultural torture, to which I was subjected. Costa was a hockey player and a goal keeper and he used to take me to hockey matches and to places where his team used to train. All that was accompanied, before and after, by short stops in day bars and pubs. His rooms were rented to him by his sports association. There his bed was the greatest attraction. There I got pregnant before I graduated from high school so that I had a choice at last. Instead of enlisting in the university as my mother wanted, I opted for the pram behind which I used to walk, year in, year our, for seven years. My pregnancies followed the rhythm of the hockey seasons…

Eventually, Costa stopped playing hockey, and I stopped getting pregnant. At first, my husband tried to fill the vacuum following his luxury sport career by luxury alcohol. True, he could no longer buy it with the foreign currency, which he was generously given when playing matches abroad. Yet he solved that problem, too. New friends appeared in his life, who would bring expensive drinks. I suspected they were in close partnership with the militia. Drinking soon became Costa’s sole occupation. He got drunk very quickly and was pathetic, even the kids resented it. How did he pay for this alcohol galore and for the stacks of bank notes that he received, I did not know and did not care to know. After the first six months, which Costa spent in drunken stupor, I decided to find myself a job, even though money was no issue at home. Being employed seemed the only way to get out of the house and escape Costa’s presence for at least several hours a day. I started working as a telephone operator in the post office. I chose this job because we worked in shifts and that gave me some freedom, as well as the opportunity of talking to various people. I did not want to talk to Costa any longer, because of his endless complaints and his dirty insinuations, which he mistakenly thought demonstrated his attention to me and were a sign of his refined sense of humour.

We seldom saw our neighbours, even though I personally found their daily life highly intriguing. It seemed I was not the only one to have given them some thought.

- Do they never fuck? – Costa asked one day in his typical elegant and delicate manner.

- Why? – I asked him to keep the conversation going.

- Because I never hear their bed springs, and never feel their bed shaking.

Indeed! Well, it was true that the two flats were only separated by a single wall and that the wall was made according to Socialist pre-fabricated walls standards, in other words, it was very good in transporting not only stronger sounds or smells but also information of the type Costa longed for.

- She is rather pretty – Costa continued. I looked at him suspiciously. I knew my husband well – it was his manly pride to go about shagging every female that would allow him to do so; and if not that, at least trying, in thought as well as in deed, probably to keep in shape. I had absolutely no cause to feel jealous, since our neighbour was an elegant creature with elongated shapes that used to walk followed by a cloud of fine floral perfume. Sometimes I would ask myself whether she ate at all and if so, what, since kitchen smells never permeated our flat through their wall, something rather uncommon for our community. Also, I did not believe at all that she might as much as look at my Costa who, despite his former hockey glory looked somewhat inflated; he even walked strutting, as though there was something between his trousers and his legs.

- Mummy, I learned how to play the piano today – my daughter Iva announced, quite unexpectedly, one day. - Nina invited me to their flat and showed me how to move my hands over the white and black keys.

This was how I learned her name.

- What else did Auntie Nina tell you? –Costa asked eagerly.

- Not to call her “Aunty”, she said it was not nice.

So I decided it was my turn and bade my time until, several days later, hearing neither the piano, nor the violin next door, I pressed their bell. A couple of minutes passed before Nina’s husband opened the door. It was nearly lunchtime yet he was in his pajamas, unkempt, his eyes puffy with sleep. It was dark behind him for the curtains were not yet drawn. He looked at me in surprise, yawned, smoothed over his pajamas and waited. I had brought a plate with apple-pie I had made that very morning (it was one of my mother’s favorite recipes), so I handed it over to him. He hesitated slightly, and, smoothing over his hair, explained:

- We were recording last night, I came home at four in the morning and simply cannot wake up. Nina has obviously gone to rehearsal already. Do come in, don’t stay at the door like this, I’ll make some coffee.

I did not wait for him to repeat the invitation. I was eager to see with my own eyes how our strange neighbours lived. We went straight to the kitchen. Their table was pure orange, their chairs – a transparent Plexiglas. I had never seen so many unusual colours combining in an otherwise quite ordinary kitchen. The cupboards were pale green, like blades of grass, like kids’ toys. Their kitchen was as big as mine, yet I felt I was somewhere else, in a garden of pale green, bright orange and transparent purity, a place where I could sit down without bothering whether grease would spoil my dress.

- It is very beautiful, I said, not able to refrain from extolling the idea.

- Well, Nina is keen on beautiful things; she is able to tour the world in order to find something no one else would know where to look for. My name is Vladi. What is yours?

- I am Zheni - I said, surprising myself. In fact, my name is Ghenka. The divorced friend of my mother’s was the only one who called me by that invented name, “Zheni”. I disliked it because it sounded so pretentious.

Vladi made the coffee in a percolator (that miracle had recently been imported from Cuba) and the aroma filled the kitchen. We began sipping the fragrant beverage. I noticed with pleasure that he ate some of my apple pie and hmm-ed appreciatively. His pajama was open at the top and I noticed how smooth, hairless and fatless his body was. While he was moving, I had a glimpse of a couple of rogue hairs nearer his waist and the sight moved something in me.

- Well, Zheni, how are you faring in this block? Have you lived here long?

- O, it’s not bad at all – I said overenthusiastically, to cover my unexpected response to his unbuttoned pajama. – Costa – that’s my husband – says this will soon be an upmarket part of Sofia.

- Really – Vladi said ironically. – And what’s so upmarket here?

-  Well ––I said uncertainly- here one can live better.

- You call this life? – My neighbour laughed. – Please, pay no attention to my words, I am still half - asleep. The apple pie is delicious. See you again soon. I am afraid I am late again – he added and got up, suddenly in a hurry. The pajama opened fully and I could not but think again how delicate his body was, how smooth and white. It challenged my moribund sensuality, bored by Costa’s drunken attentions and his habit to treat me in bed as one would treat a prostitute. Vladi followed my glance, straightened himself up and almost pushed me through the door.

- You know – I said to Costa that very night without even understanding why – I think that our next-door neighbours actually enjoy perfect fucking.

-What? Who? – Costa choked. He then recovered his particular sense of humour: - What, have you tried them? – And he laughed hoarsely while I sniggered to avoid further interrogation.

Next Saturday was again dedicated to Lenin. For those who have missed that experience in life, I shall explain that once month we all had to sacrifice a Saturday to voluntary community work, the way Lenin required from the Soviets early in 1920s. Streets were supposed to be cleaned and small local gardens smartened up by the citizens. Auntie Penka usually announced the date to us. She was semi-illiterate and worked as an “Auntie” in the nearby kindergarten. She was a nice person, lived opposite us in a smaller block. She never forgot my children’s birthdays and always gave them presents. Books, mostly. Maybe because she was hardly able to read herself, she nearly always brought them books. She even tried to write a dedication on the book she gave Iva for her latest birthday; her knowledge of grammar being pathetic, she had produced the following pearl of a sentence: “Hapy Bird Day”. Even Winnie-The-Pooh couldn’t have done better.

That same good woman whose profession was obviously to be an “Auntie” was very easily transfigured into a harpy when she had to organize a public event in our neighbourhood. She revelled in her responsibility, she would tour the blocks, waving all kinds of lists, raising money for the Red Cross or for the local municipal structures; she would make you buy stamps for the construction of the new memorial to Socialism on the Bousludja peak in the Balkan range, or for the cause of our Socialist comrades in Chile, Somalia, Cuba and wherever; even for “Patrice Lumumba” University. That particular name had required some additional effort on her side since she had spelled it “Petrislo Mumba” and inexplicably announced that he was brother of Fidel Castro. One way or another, her cause and the accompanying lists seemed to affect our life in a mysterious manner. We believed that the insignificant money we contributed, complete with our signatures, were to guarantee us a short breathing space: they protected us from the constant presence in our lives of Auntie Penka, that staunch champion of Socialist order in our neighbourhood.

- No, I am not going to sign – I heard the confident voice of my new acquaintance Vladi. Auntie Penka’s angry loud voice followed immediately: the forthcoming task of organizing all of us for the ritual of “voluntary” work on a Saturday had again transformed her into a harpy. I opened the door cautiously and saw Auntie Penka trying to force a ball pen into my neighbour’s hand. He was refusing to take it while trying to reason with her:

- Madam, I have repeatedly explained that neither I, nor my wife could possibly join your Lenin Saturday. If we start digging the soil, the spades could harm our hands. We are musicians, our hands are our instruments, we work with our hands, physical labour is counter-indicative for musicians.

- Did you hear him calling me “Madam”? – She was beyond herself. – How dare he be so rude!

I was between Scylla and Haribda in that particular case and did not know what to say. Suddenly Auntie Penka had a brainwave:

-We are to work, and you are to play, is that so! How nice! Why not swap jobs for a change? I shall be playing and you will be working.

- I am afraid this will be quite impossible – said Vladi calmly.

-  Indeed! Who is going to clean the streets then, who is going to plant the trees if you only opt to play?

-Somebody who is not a professional musician. Anyway, this is not my problem.

- There are people for every job – I tried to reason with her to put an end to the whole nonsensical conversation. I knew why a musician would take exceptional care of his hands. Why could not Vladi find some simple way to explain that to Auntie Penka? Suddenly it dawned upon me that he was not arguing with her, he was arguing with the whole damn system in which the state was forcing him to do something he not only did not want to do, he considered utterly stupid.

– We shall do it, Auntie Penka, the whole family will come, the children will be helping, too. People do what they are capable of doing – I continued my efforts to appease her but to no avail, for she attacked Vladi again:

- Sign here, or else!

Vladi was about to say something but, meeting my glance, he shrugged wearily, signed, and said:

- Anyway, do not expect me to come – and shut the door in her face.

- We shall see! – She threatened.

The “Lenin Saturday” came and went, as usual, producing more propaganda noise than tangible results. Auntie Penka distributed some rusty spades, a wheelbarrow appeared from nowhere, men stood in groups, smoking, we women felt embarrassed by them and started sweeping the plots in front of the block entrances. At nine sharp Vladi came out with his violin case, passed us, saying a polite “Good morning” and went away. Auntie Penka was purple with anger but said nothing. We whiled away the time until noon, then the men drank some beer and we all went back to our homes. Once again the beautiful garden that existed in Auntie Penka’s imagination complete with lists to be signed, failed to materialize. We left its completion to the next Saturday, to be dedicated to the Revolutionary Leader whom Auntie Penka sincerely believed to have been somehow connected with cleaning of neighbourhoods. Our own neighbourhood alas, remained a no-man’s-land, a site of homeless dogs cluttered by empty plastic beer bottles. It was the beginning of October.

Two months later the doorbell rang and a man in a military uniform introduced himself to me. He said he represented the Reservist Office.

- Aren’t the Dragostinovs here? This is the third time I come and no one answers the bell.

I shrugged.

- I have got to submit a reservist summons.

I have twice left a note for him, he never responded. Could you take the summons and give it to him?

I took the document without thinking and signed in a book. According to his summons, Vladi had to report at 7 a.m. next Tuesday and to spend a period of 45 days on military exercises in mid-December. Now, I do not have a suspicious mind but I saw an invisible thread connecting the absence of the violinist from the Lenin Saturday and the summons. Summons like that were very seldom sent to some categories of the male population who practiced rare professions. Sportsmen, musicians and actors belonged to that group and were usually spared the burden; it was habitually enforced as punishment, rather than duty and anyway, to obey all compulsory rules and laws was always considered a burden. When he was still active hockey player, Costa never received reservist summons.

The existing law for military service was not observed at all by the privileged ones; actually, they also managed to somehow avoid the usual fines for speeding and use of alcohol while driving; or the draconian restrictions in buying a flat, a car, or for travels abroad. The connections Costa had managed to set up with the Military Command had already guaranteed his immunity from military duty. He told me in confidence that for a bottle of whiskey he had been promised that his military dossier would never be found so that no one could call him up as a reservist.

-Our neighbour will be summoned up in the reserve – I said to Costa that same night and showed him the military papers. He laughed hoarsely and, I believe, maliciously.

- They only rarely summon up musicians, he must have slipped somehow.

- Could you help him to avoid it? It is winter; he does not look particularly strong. You can use your contacts with the military.

- Can I really! - Costa jumped at me. – Look at you! Why this solicitude all of a sudden? What do you care? Or are you carrying out a secret affair?

I knew how rude Costa could be and did not want to challenge him.

- Of course not, I was just thinking, they are our neighbours, after all.

- Oh, really? And have you been thinking with this? – He pushed me against him and put his hand under my skirt.

- You are rather wet at a certain place – have you been up to something?

- Will you stop it! I cannot stand this nonsense any longer!

But Costa was already pushing me towards the bed, and since the kids were at school, I had no retreat and just did what he wanted. Once more, I thought, that would buy me a period of calm.

Vladi left a week later. He left home early at 6,0 a.m., which was a miracle since the previous night the thin pre-fabricated waffle that separated our two flats leaked, for the first time ever, not only the wild screeching of their bed but the stormy sounds of a row, with him shouting angrily and her sobbing uncontrollably. Through the wall we heard words and expressions which I would have preferred not to hear or, having heard them, to forget them immediately. I was shuddering at the thought that I may not be the only one who was listening, that the other neighbours could also hear. Vladi was saying the state was a joke, the government were all idiots and all neighbours were cops and informers. He promised tearful Nina that he would never, ever (this was repeated endlessly) get used to this situation. Unlike me, Costa pretended to hear nothing, even though he had already made sure they were talking in bed, and the bed was screeching. He even got up, went to the drawing room, set the TV simply blasting and poured himself a double whiskey from the case brought to us very recently in a white state-owned “Lada”.

Since I suspected Auntie Penka’s role in what was happening, and held her responsible for the unusual punishment that had befallen our neighbours, I failed to say hello to her on the next day and even crossed over to avoid facing her. She expressed shocked disbelief, and that made me happy.

It was mid-December, New Year was approaching. From time to time, I would go to Nina’s and we would have coffee in her light green kitchen. We would sit on the transparent chairs at the orange table. The bright colours could not blind me to her sadness and anxiety. She went to see her husband twice at where the maneuvers were held and came back even more depressed, her eyes red.

- You should not torture yourself like this – I said to her once. - Time flies, your husband will come back soon, you will forget this unpleasant episode, trust me. As long as he remains healthy and well, the rest is of no importance. I just envy you your close relationship.

She looked up in surprise and I said truthfully:

- Have you got any idea how many wives would be happy to get rid of their husband’s daily presence for some time?

At this, she looked at me askance and I admitted:

-Well, yes! I wish summons would arrive for my Costa! It will give me some breathing space and will stop him from drinking for at least some time. It won’t hurt; men sometimes prefer male company to family.

-Vladi detests the military, the barracks; violence and coercion. Hence his adverse response, he just suffers so.

- I know – I said. Nina looked at me in surprise. – I know because I heard you the night before Vladi left. These prefabricated walls, they are thin as waffles and one hears everything. By the way, you ought to be very careful in what you are saying.

She froze; then she said:

- You are not going to report on us, would you? Please! – Her eyes were full of fear and desperation. – I am not asking for myself but if Vladi gets to prison, he would not survive.

“Report” on what? ”To prison” – why? I was hectically trying to remember what I had heard. True, Vladi had called the state a joke and the government idiots but this was not a crime even by the then standards. People would say things like that all the time and the militia would pretend they had heard nothing, except of course in cases where they suspected something more than idle talk. Otherwise, half of the population would have ended up in jail.

- I do not know what you are up to – I said non- committantly – but you really ought to be very, very careful.

- Oh, Zheni, please don’t tell anyone! Vladi has planned everything very carefully. What’s the use of pretending, since you must have heard everything? We shall leave this country. You must have heard he is about to go on a concert tour with the orchestra in two months’ time. He will then stay on with friends. I have already joined an organized trip to Hungary for the same period. En route, I shall stop in Belgrade where somebody will be waiting for me. Please, please, if only you would not tell anyone!

I listened stonily. I did not know what to say. I had not heard any of this. Because of Costa and his TV, I had missed the most important thing. No! It must not happen!

That same night I asked Costa whether he remembered anything of what we heard through the wall but he pretended he did not understand. He may have taken my question for a petty female meddling. Be it as it may, I tried very hard to forget Nina’s secret but it was difficult for, having been shared, it suddenly transformed into my own secret and I was unable to shed it off easily.

- I shall need foreign currency – Nina said to me a couple of days later during our ritual of coffee drinking at her orange table.

My neighbour had visibly changed over the past few weeks. There were black rings under her eyes as though she was not sleeping, she had lost weight and her skirts would slip down on her slight body.

- Do you think you could find me at least a few hundred US Dollars?

-It is dangerous – and how do you plan to take it out of this country? If somebody finds Dollars on you, they can even put you in jail.

- No worry, I shall find a way, if only if you would help me to buy Dollars. I have some jewelry from my mother; I shall use it to pay for them.

She went to the other room, opened the wardrobe and started searching. She then came back with a small ancient-looking purse of dark blue velvet and emptied it on the orange table. A massive gold ring rolled over and stopped in front of me. I took it and studied it.

- It used to belong to my Grandmother. Grandfather gave it to her as an engagement ring. Made in Vienna. Her mother-in-law gave the bracelet to my mother; it is encrusted with an emerald and diamonds. Also those matching earrings. How much do they cost, what do you think?

- No idea! Do you want me to ask Costa? His team used to tour the West; I am sure he would know.

Nina did not answer; she put the jewelry back into the purse and gave it to me.

- Ask whomever you decide to ask. 300 Dollars is what I need.

To be honest, it was with utter displeasure that I took the purse. I felt frightened, as though Nina had put her head in there. I was yet to learn that the head was to be my own.

That evening I waited for the kids to go to bed, then poured Costa a double whiskey and even touched him suggestively risking his immediate physical attention. No way – he did pinch my bottom but went back to his whiskey and the “Golden Orpheus” song competition on the telly.

- Nice buxom lady, this Danche – he remarked knowingly. – They say she is fucking Fidel Castro.

- Forget the crap; she is in fine voice tonight.

- Of course she would be, she is about to swallow the mike as though it is… hmm. You, too, could sing like that if you were sucking it.

I felt sick. I took out the velvet purse and said:

- I want to show you something – and emptied the purse. Costa jumped from his chair.

- How come you have these?

- Nina gave them to me, they used to belong to her mother. She wants to sell them and buy dollars.

- They are not poor, why would she need dollars? Do you know how much these cost?

- I don’t – I said truthfully.

- At least five or six thousand levs, enough to buy half a flat. Has she declared them? If not, she could get into trouble under the Jewelry and Gold law.

- This is crap, too. She needs money, wants to sell them for 300 dollars.

- Three hundred dollars! – Costa sobered down suddenly.

- They must have done something wrong, those two. You are to tell me immediately what you know, otherwise we shall be in trouble, too.

- Costa, please, leave me alone – I cried out trying to escape his iron embrace.

- Tell me, or I am calling my boys and those trinkets will be seized by the militia.

-OK, I shall tell you but promise me not to do anything stupid!

Costa let me go, went to the wardrobe, searched there for a very long time, took out a handful of green banknotes and gave them to me:

- Here are your 300 dollars to show you I understand, I am putting the trinkets in the wardrobe but you are to tell me the truth.

- I took the money, heaved a sigh of relief and said:

- They have decided to travel, they would need money.-

- To travel, you say? Travel where? Oh, never mind…

He put the jewelry into the purse, and the purse in the wardrobe.

I was so happy that all was solved comparatively easily, that a little later I clenched my teeth and patiently endured his grunts. I thought how glad Nina would be. I also thought of Vladi whose white delicate body I could not forget.

Vladi came back at the end of January and, much to my surprise, did not look tormented and suffering at all; on the contrary, he looked more mature and stronger, even sturdier. This suited him but it also affected me; I immediately felt those butterflies in my tummy or, shall I admit, in some more sensitive zones in the lower part of my body.

He looked calm as though he had found answers to all questions and only had to apply in practice what he learned in theory. Nina and I knew what the answers to the questions were and that made us anxious. I gave her Costa’s three hundred dollars on the very next day, she took the money without any comment, she was neither happy nor fearful and that made me understand that the money was just part of the burden that she was carrying and that she secretly wanted to shed off.

Vladi’s orchestra went on a tour at the beginning of March and the night before I once more heard through the waffle wall their wild love caresses and the suppressed sobs of my neighbour.

- These two are at their noisiest while making love before they part – Costa said philosophically and put the TV set at its loudest.

I was listening to the screeches of the bed, now slow and rhythmical, now accelerating according to their love rhythm, and my heart was breaking. I felt that Vladi was parting from me, too, and the butterflies were there, and tears forced their way into my eyes. I was not to see them again, in three days’ time she would go on her organized tour and take Costa’s three hundred dollars with her – was she to hide the money, or just put it in her pocket?– and she will go all over the world, in search for him. My heart was breaking, I was going to miss them, and I was especially going to miss him.

School started at 7.30 a.m. and I usually woke the kids an hour earlier. I was about to wake them on the day after Vladi’s departure, when I heard noise and heavy boots up the stairwell and a prolonged ringing on the bell at our neighbours’ door. I looked through the keyhole and saw two men in uniform and one plain-clothes guy stand in front of their door. The door opened, Nina went out, she looked confused and frightened.

- We came to search your house. There has been a signal reporting that you trade illegally in foreign currency and that you intend to leave this country illegally.

The plain-clothes guy pushed the startled Nina back into the flat and the three followed her inside.

- What are you staring at? Don’t you have anything better to do? – Costa shook me rudely. He, too, had appeared at the door.

- But they are going to arrest her!

- So what! Everybody should be held responsible for what they have done!

- But... Costa… how do they….

He looked at me threateningly, turned and went into the bathroom.

Blast and damnation, it was his doing, then! I did not even pause to think, all the time Vladi’s face was before my eyes, his glance reproachful. If he were to speak to me at that moment, I would have heard… not the loveliest words you could hear from a man…

I crossed over and pressed the bell of their flat until the plain clothes opened the door and looked angrily at me. Before he could act, I stormed into the flat and shouted at Nina:

- Give me back the three hundred dollars I gave you for safekeeping, to prevent Costa from seizing them.

She looked at me without understanding, the civilian looked at me with suspicion yet I went on:

- This is my money, why should I not admit it. I bought it without my husband’s knowledge. He is so possessive, he actually took away all my jewelry, and I had bought everything so advantageously. He even wanted to warn the militia I had those trinkets, would you believe it! The stupid bastard! I told him militia had more important things to do!

- What is this about jewelry? – The plain-clothes guy asked eagerly. –In the report no such thing was mentioned, it only said “illegal possession of foreign currency”.

- Illegal possession, my foot! Both currency and jewelry belong to me! Costa would often speak nonsense.

- Let’s see then, where is this jewelry?

I did not wait a second more, almost dragged them to my flat, we could hear the shower running, the water gurgling in the pipes. I opened the wardrobe and started searching for the velvet purse. It was not there. The cop waited for some time, then said sharply:

- You are coming with us to the militia station:

Costa went out of the bathroom in his bathrobe, and frowned at the men whom he obviously did not know. He tried to speak but I gave him no chance, I grabbed my bag and went out with the men. Nina was standing in front of the elevator deadly pale and tried to stop me but I pushed her aside and went with the three militiamen.

They gave me eighteen months for illegal dealings in foreign currency and jewelry, owing to my own admission that I had been doing this for quite some time. I remained in jail for eight months only and, to be honest, it was not the terrible time I used to imagine it would be. The inmates were good company, we played cards in the evening, sometimes we even played in daytime, the cigarettes we smoke were tolerable and – what was most important, I did not see much of Costa. I only missed the kids but I had banned their coming to the prison, I did not want them to remember me in those strange clothes and sheared hair, which I covered with a kerchief – I knew that once upon a time typhoid patients used to look like that.

„You can get out of prison but you cannot get out of the grave” was the motto of one of the inmates who had been to New York and had been imprisoned for that very reason.

Except that in her case it was not about three hundred, it was about three thousand dollars. Except that she had not tried to take the money out of the country, she had tried to import it into the country. Her aunt who could not even suspect the damage her gift had brought upon her niece had donated the money to her.

When I was told I was free to go, both of us wept while the rest of the women kept us company by sniffing in unison. I felt they had become closer to me than anyone from “outside”.

The first thing I noticed when I came home was that the nameplate of the Dragostinovs had disappeared. There were still traces of the removed plate and I remembered the calligraphy of their names.

- Who occupies the flat now? – I asked my elder daughter.

- The family of a militiaman, they settled in about a month ago.

- Where is Nina then?

- She left immediately after…

I sighed with relief. It made me glad to think that she had succeeded in joining her Vladi even without the wretched three hundred dollars.

A week had passed when somebody rang the bell of my flat. It was a thin middle-aged man, holding the hand of a little girl of the same age as my youngest daughter.

- We have come for the piano – he said quietly.

- What piano?

He showed me the evening paper and pointed at an ad:

“Piano sold.”

- It is for her – he added and turned to the little girl who stood pale-faced, dark shadows under her large eyes.

- My neighbour is out, give me your telephone, I shall give him your message.

The man searched long and hard in his pockets, found a ball pen and wrote down a telephone number

on an old tram ticket. I made the ticket into a neat small ball while they were still going down in the lift. I suddenly realized that, my painful experience of the past year notwithstanding, the very thought that Nina’s piano could leave the block was more intolerable than my grief in going to jail and then leaving it. I felt as though I was going to be deprived of something of a personal value to me. I even thought for a moment that, had it not been for the piano next door, I would not have gone back to Costa. This was naturally untrue, since I had returned not to Costa but to my children, especially to Iva. Never in my life had I felt affiliation to a thing. Costa at the time fell in love with his new “Lada” car and my mother was in love with her colour TV set bought, as it was usual then, thanks to her contacts. Nina’s piano however was something completely different. Its beautiful black lacquered surface reflecting people and things like a mirror, the beautiful music it produced and sent as a brilliant message to all and sundry; its uncanny gift to sound now sad, now happy, now ironic, had transformed it into something live, something possessing heart, soul, breath. I did not want to lose it the way I had lost my neighbours, and I decided to buy it. Buy it at any cost.

All that day I held my ears pricked for the usual noises and when I heard the key turn in the neighbours’ door, I opened my own and pretended to be happily excited to see the man in a militia uniform, the one who had come to live next door to us.

- Hi, I am Zheni, I shall come to take the piano immediately, Nina had promised it to our youngest daughter, of course, I shall pay for it, just name the price, the fact is, my daughter had already begun taking lessons and she badly needs the instrument…

- Which Nina? Who is Nina? This flat was given to us complete with the furniture. Come to think of it, the piano is no furniture at all and fits nowhere, absolutely useless it is, you can put on it two flower pots at the most. And the space it takes! Two Hundred levs! – He finished abruptly and I rushed out to borrow this money. I wanted the operation completed as quickly as possible so even before noon I had already recruited two young Gypsies and convinced them to bring their ropes and move the piano from the next-door apartment into mine. I moved my own furniture round until I found a suitable place for the piano. I pushed it deep in the corner when it stood as though it had always been there.

I opened the lid and passed my fingers over the keys. I heard crystal sounds, as though silver bells were ringing, and I remembered the brief spell of time when I could hear, coming from my neighbours’ flat, scales and bravura passages, romantic violin cantilenas, played by Vladi with so much emotion. I lifted the lid higher, as I had seen Nina doing when she wanted to make the sound louder.

Suddenly I saw a mothball hidden there. I took it out and saw behind it an ancient-looking velvet dark blue bag. I was already shaking. I opened it and emptied it on the piano lid. It was Nina’s jewelry. Had Costa given it back to her, as a sign of repentance? I could not believe it!

Before I could decide, Costa returned and made me jump by shouting behind me:

- Why on earth have you brought this piano? And what have we here, I beg you? Give it to me now!

He tried to pull the bag from my hand but I put it behind my back.

- So, Costa, your conscience had acted instead of you! You have given her jewelry back. I wish you had told me earlier!

I was near tears. The situation met my heart’s desire to discover that Costa’s rudeness was just a defence against the fact of his failed sports career and that he was actually a kind-hearted man who could eventually show his real nature of a loving husband and father.

-You are a pathetic fool! I took the bag that day, while you were still blubbering on the staircase and hid it in the toilet.

- But you then gave it back to Nina!

- Well. I did visit her before she left. She was begging me not to report on her. I did not, as you can see, even though it was a perfect opportunity to do so. I did not do it, for she had a wonderfully persuasive way of asking, he added, giving me a wink and his dirty smile. – Fucking her was a real pleasure, believe me.

However, I did not believe him, I knew he was saying this to punish me for getting myself into jail; he was perhaps suspecting that I had done this not for Nina but for

Vladi. It never even occurred to him that I had sacrificed myself for him, that I did not want my husband to live with the stain of an informer.

- So great a pleasure that you returned her jewelry?

- You are really stupid. What did she need those trinkets for?-She could not have possibly taken them with her. She would have been arrested immediately and they would have sent her to keep you company in jail. I just put them under the lid and even told that idiot, the plain-clothes man, that I was going to buy the piano, how was I to know that they would send another family to the flat so soon? You did well to buy it, though. How much did you pay?

- 200 levs – I said mechanically. I felt as though all this was happening in a dream.

- Not bad at all, we could always sell it for 1,000.

- No – I said firmly. - The piano belongs to me, we are not going to sell it; we shall turn the jewelry over to the militia. I am glad you made love to her. We are quits now; her husband was just great in bed.

I said this and waited impatiently for him to hit me. I just wanted him to hit me, this way all would have ended there and then. On the top of it, it would have proved that he had believed me about Vladi.

Costa turned dark red, his eyes swam in some tear-like liquid, rage threw him completely out of balance. I was aware of his desire to spill his gall all over me, I even imagined its yellow-green colour, I am sure his belly was full of it. However, he regained control.

- I am the militia, you dirty rag – he said, seized the bag and put it in his pocket. – You can keep your piano – he added, opened the door, stormed down the stairs. He was to be a “loving husband and father” only in the eulogy of his obituary.

Nina’s piano is still at the place I chose for it. My youngest daughter learned to play it decently but gave it up when she became a teenager. I never sold it, not then, not later on when Costa walked out of me for good and I really needed money.

I was right to keep it. Iva’s daughter, a six-year-old with clear clever eyes and deft little fingers, often opens the lid, which I dust every day and tries to play tunes she had heard. I look forward to the day when she would practice scales and go through bravura passages just as my neighbour Nina used to do. Rumour has it that Nina had succeeded in joining her husband in Germany. Anyway, they never came back, not to our neighbourhood, not to our city, not to our country either.

Block 31 exists no more, at least officially. Some time ago, the local authorities decided to get the erroneous arrangement straight, took the number away and instead, fastened a plate with a name, thus turning the block into a street. Much to my regret, the street was not named after a flower, not even after a young poet who died from tuberculosis, but after a Tsarist general whom the Communists had shot dead. This is obviously too much for some of my neighbours because very often I can see graffiti superimposed on the plate, the Nazi cross alternating with the Communist five-point red star. Because of this, no one can read the name of the general and people still refer to the building as “Block 31”.

     

    © David Marchon
    Lea Cohen from Bulgaria
    Lea Cohen was born in 1942 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and lives in Switzerland. She studied piano and musicology in Sofia and Utrecht, completing her PhD in 1975. From 1975 to 1979, she was the director of the Sofia Philharmonic. She has served as a representative of the democratic opposition in the Bulgarian Parliament (1990) and as the Bulgarian Ambassador in Brussels (1991-1996) and Bern (1997- 2001). Since 2002, she has been leading the “Ardente” Agency for Cultural Exchange with Bulgaria. Lea Cohen is the author of books in the area of musicology (Paul Hindemith, monograph, Narodna Kultura, 1967; Liubomir Pipkov, monograph, Narodna Kultura, 1969, Monsieur Croche et Monsieur Debussy, Muzika, 1988), as well as publishing eight novels and a play, the most recent of which are Консорциум Alternus, novel (Riva, Ciela 2005 and 2008), Кандидат-Президента, novel (Ciela, 2007), Близка връзка, novel (Ciela 2008), Преследвачът на звуци, novel (Ciela, 2009), Горчиви череши, a play premiered in September 1999 at the international “Apollonia” Festival in Sosopol, Bulgaria, Кратката вечност на Алма М., novel (Kraliza Mab 1997 and Gal-Iko 1998),  Докато смъртта ни раздели, novel (Kraliza Mab 1996 and Gal-Iko 1999). One of her novels recently appeared in German as Das Calderon Imperium, published in February 2010 by Zsolnay in Vienna.

     

    Translation by Thomas Frahm
    Thomas Frahm, born in 1961 in Duisburg, now lives and works as a journalist and translator from Bulgarian in Sofia. At present, he is working on the translation of the second part of the Bulgarian novel trilogy by Vladimir Zarev, the first part of which was published in 2009 by Deuticke in Vienna as Familienbrand (first published as Genesis in English, and later on as The Being). Frahm was also awarded a grant by the German Translators’ Fund in 2009, and in 2010, he was nominated for the Goethe-Institut’s Brücke-Berlin-Preis (Berlin Bridge Prize) for Bitieto (German title: Familienbrand) by Vladimir Zarev.