All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

15 August 2011

PICTURES FROM MY YOUTH


short story

I knew I shouldn’t have opened my grandfather’s briefcase in the first place. Yet there I was, sitting in his chair (his – it pains me to say that), smouldering over an unlikely picture I shouldn’t have found. But now I knew, though not for the first time in my life, that I couldn’t find it back.


I looked around the room: all in perfect order. The tidiness was dizzying. No time for sightseeing, though, I had to be quick – the bathroom door could squeak open any second now, releasing the fresh, scrawny, toweled body of my grandfather. Unlike me, he never spent in the shower more than ten tight, practical minutes. Me, I could stay there for half an hour without even noticing how my limbs got soaky, soapy, bored. I would murmur, hum, whistle all kinds of noises and songs right until they became a bunch of indecipherable nonsense. Shower time was time I scarcely looked forward to; shower time was time I found hardest to shake off. Grandfather, though, never had a problem with it – or that’s what I felt.


What was there on the picture? It really was hard to say, because the image filled my head, inflamed my lungs, and made my beating heart well up so quickly and so hard that I couldn’t form any clear idea what it was. There was a woman – though what exactly she was doing I could not tell. She was half-naked, and she had her hand tucked deep under her short red skirt – but… This, I felt, was the kind of thing you could only eye, devour – explaining it made absolutely no sense. Explaining it was like describing a beautiful face. Of course, being 14 and a schoolboy, I knew those pictures quite well; they were furtively, uneasily circulating around my class, gnawed at in lavatories, swooned over at the back of the playground and even our school library. But of all the ones I’d seen this one was by far the most inexplicable and, obviously, the most hard-hitting and irresistible. 


Yet the moment the familiar urge to quench my escalating, bloodshot excitement came over me, the water in the bathroom stopped running, and the only thing that was presently occupying my mind was how to put the picture back into the briefcase, move the chair a little closer to the desk, and get the hell out of the room – as quietly, as swiftly as possible. In the next few seconds I did exactly that, without even thinking what a picture like that could be doing in my grandfather’s briefcase – right on top of his old poetry books, useless keys, spare ties.


There was only this nagging feeling of remorse: I shouldn’t have found it, I shouldn’t have found it. Oddly, I felt I could never again look at my grandfather, let alone love the old man. Odd, because I never actually felt any love for him.


In fact, I hated my grandfather, I really did. Not because he was old, weary and constantly inquired about my homework (he never did), but because he killed my grandmother and came to live with us. Now, you might think, this is not the kind of thing a 14-year old would know (the killing bit, I mean) – particularly if that 14-year old used to have so little contact with his grandparents. And yet I knew. There was of course this all-important question of evidence, and I wouldn’t have been able to give you any – other than that my grandmother was dead, and my grandfather was alive and well and happier than I had ever seen him. Unless, of course, you count that memorable evening when I saw him coming from the fields… But all in due time. And speaking of evidence – that’s what I'd been after ever since he settled with us, and that’s why I opened the briefcase that day. Because no one ever bothered to inquire about his alibi.


My grandfather? He was 72, but he looked younger. I would go as far as to say that viewed from a certain angle he could easily pass for my father or, say, my uncle (though my father never had time for those prim, expensive ties). It might have been this queer disparity that made him such a quiet force in our house and started the whole mess I’m about to describe. You see, my firm conviction was that the reason why my parents never looked into the case of my grandmother’s death properly was this strange, unspoken fear they felt for the old man. He ruled our house without even doing anything, without being noticed, with just looking younger than he really was – something that went quite well, I imagined, with the dirty picture I found in his briefcase.


Not once during our Sunday morning meals did I have to endure that sick, painful deference that so characterised my parents:


- Going anywhere, father?


- Yes. Business.


And that look of vague, sinister nonchalance. The 'business' answer always seemed to satisfy my mother (she usually was the one who inquired – after all, he was her father), yet what business could he possibly have, being 72 and hopelessly retired? When I approached my parents and asked them to explain all that, they simply referred me to his age and said my grandfather could now do whatever he pleased to do. When yes, it is precisely his goddamn age that made it all look so fishy and ridiculous.


But I’m afraid my narration sounds somewhat all over the place. I shouldn’t jump around this way – after all, it’s a grown-up, mature me who’s writing this. Mature me, how utterly strange it sounds.


The case of my grandmother’s death was indeed very shady. My parents left me almost completely out of all the circumstances (‘heart failure’, I was told), as well as the ensuing procedures – though I do remember attending the funeral. Childish experience is, I strongly believe, very overrated. It’s futile. It may add to your inner pain, anguish, trauma, but it means nothing for your future life. I saw these black mourners (who, naturally, included me), I saw a surprisingly upbeat priest, I heard suppressed conversations, I scooped a handful of earth and threw it into the grave, I probably cried. Yet it all had nothing to do with me. Years later, when my father died, I was as unprepared and inexperienced as I had been that cold, distant day. Only then, years and years later, did I realize how it is done; and what it really takes to do it.


While I did not feel particularly affected by my grandmother’s death (I’ve already hinted at our rare contacts), I still felt deprived. Deprived of what, you might ask. Well, we weren’t close, but since we never had any kind of relationship with grandfather to speak of, my grandmother was the one I had to relate to during those short summer spells in the country house – a dull, grey place where I could never feel at home. She was kind, but never excessively so – and it’s excessive kindness, remember, one expects from a grandmother. She talked to me, but she never talked too much; she prepared my meals every day I stayed with them, but those meals were badly undercooked; she ironed my trousers, but she did it carelessly and always left many wrinkled patches. She was a big, benevolent, but ungiving woman, soft-spoken and smelling of something stale. It sometimes seemed to me that she smelled of rotten apples. But I liked her smell, and always found myself cherish those rare moments she happened to be near me. My grandfather, on the other hand, never smelled of anything. Or, to be more precise, I never had a half-decent chance to get to know what he smelled like.


It’s not as if we never communicated, my grandfather and I. We did, and occasionally he would even tell me long and tedious anecdotes about his former business career (car dealing), and, encouraged by this peculiar confidentiality, I would make excited remarks and ask him questions that never really interested me in the first place. But now that I remember those conversations, I’m reminded of the way a pretty girl might talk to a good, kind, but perfectly plain boy. There was no involvement.


Was there any involvement when he talked to my grandmother? No, not at all: a curt exchange is as much as I could ever overhear. Not that there was anything strange about it, but I always felt uncomfortable during those two summer weeks. Like I was surrounded by a barbed wire at a place I didn’t particularly dislike. Like I was the odd one out at a place where there was no intimacy or love anyway. My grandparents were just living it through: my grandmother cooking dinner and looking after the house, and my grandfather, well, but I have to get specific.


Strange though it may sound, one of my grandfather’s favourite preoccupations was reading poetry. Classic poetry. This was a mystery, one of many. I distinctly remember one occasion when he was not around, probably gone somewhere ‘on business’. One of the things I disliked most about that country house was that you didn’t have chance to enter anything when no one was around: no, you had to sneak inside. And so I sneaked into the sitting-room, got to his desk and opened his withered, dust-smelling anthology of verse. It’s not that I suspected him of anything – no, my intentions were quite innocent: I wanted to see what he read. What he liked. Did I enjoy any of it? At that time certainly not, but a child can’t enjoy poetry. When it comes to poetry, a child thinks the rhyme is all there is. Poetry felt like a maze for someone who was only imagining being inside a maze. I read a couple of lines, but they made little sense to me. Something blurred, frustrating, slow. It was probably on that particular occasion that I started hating the old man. He kept giving me something I could not understand – capital offence when you are a child.


And oh those lines, I’m still trying to recollect them. My biggest problem, though, is that I might not be able to recognize them even if someone showed them to me. If you opened that very book, nudged my face into those very lines and told me there they were – there’s a chance I would still fail to remember. But then maybe not – maybe they are still dangling, like the ever-sleeping bats, in the most remote nooks and crannies of my memory. Sometimes most unremarkable things stick… Actually, as recently as last week I even went to a local library and described the look of that anthology to a girl who is working there. Libraries look tragic; they make everyone look so decrepit – everyone, even young girls. Anyway, she was very helpful, and was good enough to bring me all the verse anthologies they had. I didn’t recognize a single cover – it could help, though, since I remember those lines were at the foot of the right page. Oddly, I was secretly happy about that failure – after all, what if I liked them now, those lines?.. Before leaving, I helped the girl put all those anthologies back. At first she gave me a fleeting, confused shudder of a smile, and said she could easily manage herself, but I insisted. I said I wanted to help, but in fact I wanted to tell her why I needed that particular anthology with that particular poem. I wanted to tell her all, I wanted to plunge into every little fact, every detail – but she was so young and pretty, and there was so much to tell, that I never really said anything. I just kept breathing heavily, wondering about the quality of my smell, passing the hefty books to her as she was climbing up the stocky, dilapidated stepladder.


So what else did my grandfather do? He ate, he slept, he watched news bulletins and, in his typically contrarian manner, Indian films. He loved all that Bollywood crap. That self-forgetful wallowing in low budgets and bad acting. When I was a child I thought they seemed so preposterous and unreal, those films, because I was still too young and could not really understand all the peculiar, eccentric mysteries of adult life. Come the years, and I would definitely unravel the hidden depths lying there… As a matter of fact, nothing of the kind ever happened. Indian films still look like a banal joke told ad nauseam and in a most irritating way. He also had what seemed to me at the time a perfectly harmless passion for buying new ties, though when he moved to our house I began to find it annoying. Wearing them inside the house, in his room, in the kitchen – God knows what it was all about. Also, my grandfather was the kind of man who could have spent hours doing his hair – except he didn’t. He was bald, and something told me he had a heavy feeling about that.


On a sunny day he occasionally toyed with his old, dwarfish car (I always found it bizarre that a former car dealer wouldn’t have a decent car) of a brand quite unknown to an effeminate, family boy like me. The car that looked like a mongrel dog with those huge headlights resembling the eyes of an owl. He didn’t seem to mind, though. He rarely used it. Strangely, he preferred to walk. And the point being – my grandfather walked a lot.


Each non-rainy day after the copious, but decidedly tasteless supper we had to endure my grandfather slipped outside and disappeared somewhere. Dressed casually, almost scruffily, and with a crumpled little bag that he carried over his shoulder. Once, when the door slammed shut behind his back, I turned to my grandmother:


- Where is grandfather going?


- What does it have to do with you? – she said, her tone being tired, slightly irritated. Not angry, though. – Mind your…


But then she glanced at me more warmly from her lather-smeared cups, bowls, plates, frying pans, and said, somewhat pensively and almost apologetically:


- But he’s always been like that, your grandfather. Going outside. He likes a walk. He had a difficult life, you know.


As a matter of fact I didn’t. My only source of information were two red, badly faded, leather-clad picture-books that I kept leafing through whenever I had a chance. My grandfather, I was quick to note, used to be almost gratuitously handsome (my grandmother, and there were loads of pictures to testify, looked remarkably plain even during their wedding ceremony), but the pictures could never tell the whole story. And they certainly didn’t tell me of any hardships my grandfather supposedly had to go through. Those picture-books!.. I did study and scrutinize them to death, always expecting something, ever hoping to find some minute detail I’d missed before. I remember that once my grandmother joined me on the sofa (that delicious, wicked smell!) and, her eyesight being not too good, asked me to draw the picture-book a little closer to her face. I did that, even though very soon my arms grew very heavy, leady, uncomfortable in mid-air, with no support from my knees. With her bittersweet breath so close to my face, I tried to give her every impression of enjoying all the snapshots the picture-books contained. I took great care to pay as much attention to her own pictures as to those which showed my grandfather. But it was as if she saw through me and sensed what I really wanted, and explained to me only those pictures that really interested me. I particularly remember one where my grandfather (at that time aged around 25) was standing on a lawn, surrounded by several young people looking as smug and handsome as he did. My grandmother, though she herself didn’t feature on the picture and would have seemed decidedly out of place there, gave me all the names – which I found awkward, for what use could I possibly have for those names? But my grandmother seemed to get so carried away remembering all of those young faces that I feigned interest. She then said she could not place one girl, the prettiest one, the one who was touching my grandfather’s shoulder in a way you could call rather alluring. I had a feeling that the fact that she could not recollect the girl’s name upset her. But I don’t know – I might only be imagining it now, memory overburdened by life, so many years later.


Or another picture. My grandmother pointed me to an old photograph of my grandfather, tracksuited and already white-haired, playing badminton with some kid. My grandfather looked so affectionate, so amiable there – something he didn’t carry with him into his old age. “A son of a friend, – said my grandmother. – A good boy. Your grandfather was so fond of him. Always wanted a boy”. I still can’t believe she said that. This was perhaps the biggest piece of intimacy my grandparents ever gave me. Always wanted a boy. I didn’t know how to react to that, so I kept silent and still, expecting my grandmother to continue. She didn’t, of course, leaving me hopelessly, helplessly curious. As ever.


As for my grandfather, he definitely saw me looking through the picture-books, numerous times, but he never came up to me or uttered so much as a single word. Me? I dreaded to ask. There was this constant fright. I was not frightened of him, no, but I was always frightened of the way he might react to me or my words.


I sometimes wonder where those picture-books are now. When he sold the house and came to live with us, my grandfather didn’t bring them with him. So I presume the new owners threw them away in that disgustingly offhand, matter-of-fact way that is so typical of new owners, or maybe burned them in the fireplace. Speaking of my grandfather’s arrival – it was a bizarre spectacle. The picture of him standing in our doorway can still attack, invade my vision when I least expect that. Perhaps that is the most vivid living memory I have of him... It has this power to entangle me like a giant forest cobweb, glue me all over. The old man only brought two suitcases with him – and one of those, I imagined, was filled with cash.


My problem was that I couldn’t follow my grandfather in the open without causing a great deal of suspicion. Of course, I was itching all over to know where he went, but after dinner I was supposed to help my grandmother dry the dishes, an arrangement I could not neglect, and by the time the damned thing was finished my grandfather was nowhere to be seen.  He was old, he had to be slow – and yet all my ensuing search was futile. He came back late, when I was already in bed – though never sleeping, always expecting the quiet, muffled clicking of the front door. I remember that on a couple of occasions I made a point of drying the dishes so fast that I ran out of the house just a minute or two after my grandfather. I would look for his traces, footprints, anything – but it was as if he never even left the house. I might as well have been searching for the colours in the wind that was playfully slapping me on the face. Well, I figured, he never had any smell, so there was no problem for him to have no footprints either. Yet once I did see him – on his way back, looking like a black ghost, coming from the fields earlier, at about 9. The scene is perhaps unreasonably impaled on my memory – or maybe not the actual scene. Maybe it is that look. I did think he looked happy then. Happy and sinister – when it came to my grandfather, those two always went together.


But two strained, addictive weeks – and I was gone. City, school, family, friends, comic books, it all dried out the memory of the country house and its inexplicable shenanigans. Dried out, drowned out, yes, but never quite. For sometimes during my school test on biology, during my sleepy cornflake breakfast, during our Christmas shopping I found myself thinking about my grandfather. Where was he now, what was he doing? Was he reading his poetry books, was he trying on a new tie, was he coming back from the fields – circled by spirits and fairies? I didn’t know – and hated him for that. Hated him more and more with each new flickering image or a splinter of my memory.



As far as I remember, it was my mother’s idea to settle grandfather in our house. I don’t think she liked that idea herself, but once she voiced it there was no turning back. This was supposed to be the perfect arrangement, and the one I could only be a witness of: alone and probably frightened of darkness (her words), my grandfather could not look after himself; plus, we needed money (that would come, naturally, from selling the house); plus, and this had some perverse inevitability to it, we had a spare room. What did my grandfather have to say to it all? Oh, he didn’t really mind! Nobody seemed to mind – though I can’t say anything about myself. I was never asked. Yet once late at night, two days before the old man’s arrival, I heard a rather violent row between my parents about our new dweller (though I preferred the word ‘tenant’). Like the ever-silent me, my father, it now transpired, was not too happy about that arrangement. But my poor poor dad, he chose the worst time for expressing his frustration – the old country house had already been sold, and grandfather had already burned or packed his few possessions. My father was weeks, months late.


It was on a warm, breezy May Sunday morning that my grandfather made his gloriously understated appearance in our doorway. With his money, with his expensive ties, with his ancient poetry books, with a briefcase I had never seen before. And this was the briefcase, I’m now tempted to believe, that set my mind rolling and ticking and yearning for blood. But it got worse. The first thing he said was “where is my room?” We showed him his room, me trailing gloomily at the back. He asked whether there was a key to the door (yes there was) and then softly demanded to leave him alone. As if we were a bunch of irksome footmen irritating his eyes. I thought about his age. I thought about his age to death. He was 72. Okay, 72, but when was he supposed to die? This was an idle question, but I badly needed a definite answer. And also I wanted to know why I was so excited about that arrival. The arrival that looked like a visit of a guest who is humble but will drive you mad if he doesn’t get what he wants.


The routine began. And if I had thought that this new city life would intimidate the old man – then I was very much mistaken. As far as I could see, my grandfather felt no discomfort in his new home, and was very much successful in dragging his country-house ways into the city. He quickly isolated himself from the three of us, and was giving every impression that he could well look after himself. Indian films, detached manners and looks, half-baked presence, new ties – all was in place; perhaps, the only thing missing was his stupid little car (which had been sold together with the house – I wonder to whom). But the car was pretty much expendable even when he had it – after all, here was an old man who walked.  


He would wake up at 10 or 11, put on one of his priggish suits, take his briefcase, and go somewhere. Somewhere ‘on business’. This was interesting, because while in the old country-house, he very rarely went anywhere until after dinner. But this was supposed to be his city life, I thought spitefully, so he might as well put more time and effort into his ‘dealings’. He would then come back home at around 4, take a shower and watch TV, then have his dinner and be off again. Not much variety, but then it looked like he never needed any – him ever looking so cold, distant, and at the same time quite remarkably content. Happier – yes, happier than I had ever seen him. This schedule of his I of course learned during my weekends, when I had no school and could observe the old man’s ways more closely. That his Mondays did not in fact differ from his Sundays was something I had to drag out of my mother. My father was always tongue-tied about the old man, particularly at that time, with the latter’s unnerving presence lurking around.


Interestingly, first two or three weeks after his arrival my grandfather preferred to stay indoors and never left the house after dinner. I do not know why, but this behavior made me feel uneasy. Not because I now had more chances to stumble upon him in the hall or on my way out of the bathroom, but mainly because I felt there was something wrong in that behavior. It was as if something was lacking; as if I was standing in a cold street wondering why my neck grew so chilly – still not realizing that I had simply forgotten to put my scarf on. But the mystery was soon resolved, and in a most surprising way. Once after school my grandfather knocked on my door, and asked if he could enter. Some people ask that and enter without bothering to hear a reply (like my parents did, for instance), but my grandfather didn’t even press the door knob. No doubt suffering from an acute panic seizure, I told him to wait a second, and spent the next few chaotic moments tidying up my room. Having made sure that he would not see my socks lying around so carelessly, having repaired my disheveled hair (though why?), having caught a fleeting, hazy glimpse of my reflection in the window, I finally opened the door. He entered – slowly, coldly, indifferently, without paying the slightest attention to my room or the way I looked, and said he wanted to ask me a question. I said okay, feeling ashamed I wanted to know the answer to that question so much.


- Do you happen to know a good place for walking? I mean here, around. – He had a thick, somewhat youthful voice that I always had to recognize anew.


- Yes, – I said.


- Because you see, – he continued, – I like walking. You know.


- Yes, – I said, for some reason studying his long, bony fingers that never left the edges of his tie for a second.


- I’ve always liked walking. And this house happens to be on the outskirts. Right? Some good field – that’s what I need. I think I saw one on my way here…


- Well, – I said, quickly gathering my wits and feeling like I was taking a most dreadful exam. 


– There is a field. Only it’s rather far away.


- Far away? – he muttered, surprised. – How far?


Since at that time I had problems with putting distances into words, I said something that now seems to me too daring, if not unlikely.


- Well, it’s about two times farther than that field in the country.


He took it casually, though. He took it calmly.


- Oh, very good. That will do.


While my grandfather kept fingering his glowing silvery tie, I was trying to explain to him how to get to that field. In an earnest, business-like manner – for that was what the situation demanded; that and the no-nonsense look on his pleasantly wrinkled face. My grandfather was quickly growing content, satisfied. Then something abrupt, disquieting appeared in his eyes, like some passing thought, alluring yet dangerous. And it was then that I suddenly thought of my grandmother. Something snapped, something I could not yet put into words, and I started seriously suspecting him, the old man. This was a turning point. I started suspecting him of killing my grandmother. He was so happy then in my room – as if his being there, in the city, in that apartment, was his plan from the start. I wanted him to say something else, and for a blitz of a moment I imagined he wanted to, but then he just turned round and left. Shutting the door behind him very carefully, like I was his sick lover trying to fall asleep. I thought he shut it more tightly than it was even possible. Also, he could have used my name. I know I wouldn’t have minded.


Our conversation – all so business-like, vague, so much smelling of smoky city pavements. But that was the only kind of conversation he knew. That was the way he talked to my mother, his daughter. Like I said, he wasn’t rude – it’s just that there was no involvement.
But however unsettling my grandfather’s arrival may have been, it didn’t really have any significant impact on what was going on inside our home. It should have, but it didn’t. Nothing noticeable in any case. We were an old-fashioned, ideal sort of family: close-knit and quiet – the kind that would have made my peers cringe. I did enjoy the company of my parents, still. Amazingly, none of our family rituals were broken or even slightly altered with the old man sticking around. We were still watching films and weekend shows on TV – together, in quiet, trying to catch each other’s reaction. My father and I were both huge fans of all kinds of board games. So much so that my father made a point of giving me a new board game every Christmas and every second birthday of mine. Hockey, Mancala, puzzles, logical and dice games – there was not a single one we couldn’t make enjoyable. We also played cards, sometimes till 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening, much to the annoyance of my mother – ever so concerned about my lack of sleep. She herself rarely joined us, preferring to knit quietly in that deep brown armchair of hers. I seem to remember that armchair well, and sometimes can even feel those fizzy, tenacious textures – as they bury me again, as they bog me down yet another time. That armchair, which so often accounted for my slapdash ways with the homework (for it was there that I dragged my textbooks), stood like some gigantic boxing mitt and could easily drown me even when I was 14. My mother’s knitting – she always seemed to be at it, yet I don’t think that besides two or three scarves I ever saw any of her finished work.


So most of the time my grandfather’s presence was remarkably unobtrusive. He was like that black, screen-limiting frame that you get used to fifteen shots into the film. Only whereas my parents kept practicing their silent deference (though I sensed it was mingled with strain), I kept scratching my sleepy eyes. Not to stop noticing him, not to let him disappear from my view. That, I felt, was my only chance of exposing him in the end. And so for me the black frame never really left the picture – for me it was always stuck there, in the corner of my eye, like a speck. Yes, the old man kept closing himself in his room; he never left his poetry books lying around, never spilled a single glass of milk – it was as if he wasn’t there. If you thought about his presence, it seemed awkward. But if you didn’t – it could look agreeable. But then I only had to remind myself of the cups he drank from, of the chairs he sat on. The objects my memory could hardly associate with his presence. The objects that had nothing to do with him.


Surprisingly though inevitably, on the very next day after that talk in my room the old man started having his walks – his usual way, after dinner, provided the weather was good. Taking that old, haggard bag with him; dressing into his blue frayed jeans and a long, formless, gaudy T-shirt that had a withered name of some American state on it. Scarecrow-like look, really, only I thought crows wouldn’t get scared. His loose, casual style – the one that required no tie. Ties he had for the indoors and, of course, for his midday ‘business trips’ into the city.


I started watching him then. I embarked upon my mission – to crack him, to cut him open. My knife was dull, but then I had all the time in the world. And that is why I sneaked into his room the day I opened his briefcase and found the picture – this happened two months after his arrival. This was, I think, early July.


The fact that my grandfather did not notice any of my traces in his room was, of course, a relief. What is more, it made me sheepishly reconsider my plans. Those were clearly very dangerous waters I was stepping into, and perhaps it was wiser to stay away. Maybe the reasons for that picture were, if not quite innocent, explicable enough. That amateurish investigation could take me too far, and that scared me. Of course, I had no idea what I was chasing – but having a pervert for my grandfather could hardly explain anything. I figured that a thing like that could throw me into an even darker, dingier place. Interestingly, the evening I found the picture my grandfather stayed at home – something I did not see as particularly straightforward. But then: it was probably raining…


While my grandfather was watching TV in his room, (the sound was always loud – the old man’s only physical deficiency was his slightly impaired hearing), I was lying on my bed thinking of how I could see that picture again. The trouble was that it could only be done when he was in the bathroom – at any other time I stood no chance. At any other time he preferred to keep his door locked.


How many times did I see that picture again? Five? Six? I don’t know. Actually, the number’s not too high only because after some time my grandfather replaced it with another one. The new picture had three girls on it – and was, therefore, no less impressive. It made my eyes blush intensely. While looking at those pictures with the eyes of a panicky paranoiac, I of course did not have time for much. But if anything, that tempted me even more. An hour session, I knew from my rather precocious experience, could forever hijack my enthusiasm.


And oh how I waited for that snap of the bathroom lock, the heavy crash of the water flogging the bathtub as well as the body of the old man. I knew I could not afford to waste a second. Only there was this steaming heart of mine, leaping like some giant frog, anticipating the scoff of a closed door. But it never happened; for a quarter of an hour each day the door to my grandfather’s room was always open.


And so it all continued, on and on.


But soon an odd, awkward feeling started to come over me: my grandfather knew about my visits. There really was no way he didn’t. I must have left traces (on a couple of occasions I jumped out of the room at what was probably the very last moment): smell, footprints, carelessness. In that nauseatingly perfect cleanness and order of the room I was bound to step on a midget or at least tickle a giant. I was bound to do something wrong, something that would give me away. So little by little I began to suspect that the old man deliberately left the door open for me to enter. For me to open his briefcase, for me to find those pictures, for me to come back again next day. Of course, I had no evidence that this was indeed the case, but with each new visit I found it harder to believe he could be so unbelievably shortsighted.


But God, did he have loads of those pictures! And each new one – there really was no getting away from it – was dirtier, ever so slightly dirtier than the previous one. Overbearing, extreme, hardcore they were not – for I knew I wouldn’t have tolerated that. Also, he now started to change them every single day.


Very soon I could swear my grandfather knew about my frequent intrusions during those short bathroom breaks. After all, the old man locked the door when we all went to have our dinner or lunch – so why wouldn’t he lock it when having a shower? There is perhaps only one answer to that: he actually wanted me to enter his room…


I try now but I fail. I try to recollect how I let such an idea enter my mind. The idea, I thought, was ridiculously good. Chuckling nervously, I knew exactly what I was going to do: I would start altering the position of certain objects in my grandfather’s room while he was in the shower. The idea worked its way through me in a worm-like fashion, and asked for no reasons. The reasons might appear only too obvious now, but where did I take the audacious courage to carry it out? The shy, thin, nervous boy that I was? I suppose it came from impunity, like so many things do, especially when you are young: my grandfather could hardly harm me, for that would mean admitting the fact that he had pictures like that hidden in his briefcase. I could testify. This was a case of some twisted, perverse blackmail, though at that point I didn’t see it that way.


It worked perfectly. At first I moved a cup with his still lukewarm tea from the centre of the desk to its edge. The old man kept his face characteristically blank during our dinner that evening – which was enough for me to go on. The next day I put that same cup (already cold; why didn’t he bother to change it?) on his chair. Nothing, no reaction. I got so carried away with my experiment that very soon a plan for my next alteration became the only thing that occupied my mind. I took different objects out of his briefcase and placed them on the floor, I opened his window, I drank his tea, I ruffled through his money (clearly he gave my parents only a small part of what he brought with him), and once I even undid one of his ties. I didn’t know what I was doing, and why. At some point I was close to actually stealing something, and spent one whole night deciding what it could be. I settled on a picture. But then I never did it – no, I could not steal a picture. I could not steal.


Meanwhile, the new pictures kept coming. And even though I had a little less time for them now – what with my opening poetry books, moving furniture and switching on TV – I was still very much drawn to them. There’s a good trick that children know, when you look at something for five or ten seconds and then press your eyelids as hard as you possibly can – right until you see that intense, terrifying blackness reddening your vision. That is when you know that the image will stay there and won’t go away for several hours at least. You only have to close your eyes. The trick never failed.


The big revelation came on the day a picture slipped out of my hand. Because that is how I learned that each and every image from the briefcase had a date on the flipside. The dates were written by the same hand. My grandfather’s hand, the same hand that wrote the dates in those lost picture-books from the country. More shocking still was the fact that the dates were recent. Obviously these were no postcards, and I searched the contents of my grandfather’s briefcase yet another time. And of course: there it was. Beneath the entrails of all that useless junk lay the camera. I took it out, had a moment’s consideration, then put it back.


One thing about the insides of my grandfather’s briefcase: the insides were a mess. Which is the case with most people, of course, only there was this blinding contrast with the spotless cleanness of his room, his ties, his suits.


I was beginning to change. Face smeared by insomnia, mind clogged by the old man’s secrets, I was no longer a family boy. I distinctly remember that by the start of the upcoming school year I was not to be found in our sitting-room enjoying sitcoms, TV shows, or playing poker with my father. When I wasn’t altering objects in my grandfather’s room (10-15 minutes), I was stuck inside mine. Or, and this was the inevitable bit, in the bathroom. My parents were concerned, I could tell, but there’s little teenage years can’t account for. Sometimes during dinner my mother would still ask me whether I was going to watch a new episode of our beloved TV series that evening. As a way of response, I would mumble something vague about my homework and the difficult start of the new semester, simultaneously trying to detect anything remotely resembling reaction on my grandfather’s face. As ever, there was no reaction (he rarely thanked my mother for those dinners – as if his being there, at that table and in our company, was a thank you decent enough). My grandfather was chewing his meal; slowly, despondently. And now that I think of it, it should have been hilarious, an old man dining in a tie and a suit with a casually dressed family like mine. It must have looked circus-like, and it could have at least caused a smile. But no. Our dinners were solemn, mirthless, which probably goes to show that the old man did change something about our family ways.


- Going anywhere, father?..


The few school friends I had stopped calling me. And speaking of school – I started missing classes. My comic books were now gathering dust under my bed.  And in the midst of it all I kept telling myself about how smart it was, putting all those screws on my grandfather. You see, I was still entertaining the thought that I was looking for clues, trying to get to the bottom of my grandmother’s death. Death which presently hardly even registered in my mind, my thoughts or my insomnias. The latter were more to do with red skirts and clipped stockings.


You know how when you sleep and dream of chasing someone, you can never really catch him. Suddenly the way’s too slippery, a hedge is on your way, or simply your legs won’t move. You are sagged by helplessness, seized by limpness. A similar thing kept me from following my grandfather going on his business trips or his walks to the field. For some reasons I preferred to lie on my bed and wait for a new picture to appear in the briefcase or for another chance to change the position of his teacup. But I did follow him in the end. Why did it take me so long? Well, there was a reason: I knew where he went. What was more, I knew why.   


I decided to start with his business trips – which meant I had to miss classes, again. First couple of times I lost him; in a crowd, behind a bus, in a shopping mall selling his favourite ties, beyond an unexpected curve of the street. It was, I believe, a combination of things: on the one hand, I was afraid of being found out and on the other hand, I didn’t really want to see his destination. Like a policeman sympathizing with a criminal, I kept procrastinating – giving him all the time in the world to prove he was innocent.


While his sinister, robust figure just kept plunging itself, like a germ or like a knife, into the heart of my hometown. It was the city centre that he needed, and there was no bus or taxi to take him there. Or, to be more precise, none that he could trust more than his own legs.
But finally I made it to the end of his trip. The building appeared. The building had no signboard on it, and it could be anything. Could be a motel, could be a dwelling place, could be a casino. The building was dark, neat, and didn’t have too many windows. Just what I had expected. There are buildings like that in every city – you pass them by without even wondering what their anonymity is all about.


When someone does a bad thing right in front of your eyes, but does it gloriously, confidently, you sometimes realise you admire what you see. And what I saw that day was indeed very impressive. My grandfather needed no invitation to enter. It was the solemnly mundane way in which an old accountant would enter his bank. His was the pace of a workingman.


I didn’t know how long I had to wait, but I was determined to go all the way to see him reemerge. I stood crouching behind a telephone booth on the opposite side of the road. As it happened, the whole thing was over in no time. It took me about half an hour to see my grandfather go out in his typical matter-of-fact manner, his facial expression characteristically blank, and head towards the way he came from. That was it then, for his one day’s business.


I let him go, I didn’t need to follow him on the way back. And besides, I had a plan. The plan was to enter the building, see it all for myself and thus get rid of all of my questions. But I only had the courage to approach it – slowly, feigning indifference . And immediately I saw them: a flurry of girls running out of the door and not giving me so much as a single superficial look. And I knew how my woeful, morbid face craved for a filthy joke. While I of course recognized their faces, having seen them so many times on those pictures from my grandfather’s briefcase. I knew those girls, and it was somewhat comforting to realise they didn’t know me


How can you tell the coming of a crucial day? You probably can’t, because in real life (and in fiction, too), a crucial day never looks too likely in the morning. It starts giving off its menace gradually, bit by bit. While in my case, I felt its full impact the instant I woke up from the pits and gutters of my sleep. That gnawing, insistent feeling of anticipation – it might have come from my decision to follow my grandfather again. A plan conceived by that heavy sleepless heart of mine.


This was a warm, bright late September, and it was my fourth or fifth time accompanying the old man to the city centre. And then waiting for him, of course, to reappear on the porch of that grey, nameless building. The problem was, I had had too many dreams and too little sleep the previous night, and kept leaning on the phone booth in a way that could make me pass out into the numb drowsiness I was so good at. And I did lose myself several times, for I distinctly remember irksome, shrilling voices of passers-by charging through me like alarm clocks or bolts of lightning, playfully urging me to wake up, stay on my feet. It was during one of those severe bouts of sleepiness that a figure rushed past, literally slashing through me with the air it stirred. I woke up from my temporary oblivion and saw my grandfather walking away. I must have completely lost all sense of time to miss his coming out like that. But there were no doubts left: the old man knew. Because he saw me, because he recognized me. Even if he didn’t acknowledge it with a single uttered word.


As for my evidence, I no longer cared. I was loaded with it, and it felt like being stuffed with one of my grandmother’s worst oversalted meals. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do with it all: the pictures, the strange house, the girls, the briefcase, the field... But seeing his back and its gloomy abandon, I grew fearless like only a most naïve boy could. This time I followed him back, and I was steaming with vengeance.


Will he go to the bathroom? Will he lock his door? Will he let me rummage through his stuff? Having seen me today, having been discovered, having deprived me of all my doubts, he could be on guard now. And it was immaterial whether my standing there, near that phone booth, amounted to something of a surprise.


But the water poured down, just as usual. He was going to take his shower, like he always did. Only this time I came closer to the bathroom and listened up. I had an uneasy feeling that this was a set-up, that this time it was merely a distraction and he was going to catch me red-handed… The only thing I heard was his muffled, watered down voice saying something. I pressed my ear against the door. Yes, there were doubts: the old man was reciting poetry. I felt stunned at how out of place it was. Really, this could have been some cheap comedy. Except it wasn’t. You know how bad you look when you walk into the room in the middle of a film and start laughing at a conversation you find somewhat funny, amusing. When in fact it isn’t: it’s tragic. And with my grandfather – you always had to be following the plot.


The door to his room was open. I rushed to the briefcase and took out the new photo. This time the first thing I saw were intertwined legs. There was a young couple making love on the slightly yellowed autumn grass. And suddenly it dawned on me, an obvious thing that had been escaping me all this time: he would only take a shower when my parents were not around…


My vengeance? I took the camera out of his briefcase and put it on the desk.


But this was not all, of course. For it was all about the field, wasn’t it? And so for the first time ever I also followed him after dinner – doing it quietly, of course, without even locking the front door properly, so as not to let my parents suspect anything or wonder where I was going. Even when being a scruffy, spiteful teenager I wasn’t too good at telling lies.


There was nothing in it: following my grandfather to the field was as easy as following him to the building where he took his pictures. Yes, there were no phone booths or bus stops or ice cream stands to rely on in case of an emergency, but that day I had the cheek to disregard a thing like that. Even if my defiance was all but nullified by the fact that my grandfather was so determined not to turn around and notice my pressing presence.


I wonder what he did in winter or late autumn or early summer. I wonder how often he was unlucky and didn’t see anything. I wonder how many times he had to go back home overburdened by failure and maybe even despair. But that evening everything was going according to a plan. Which, generally, is the way with crucial days: everything goes so smooth. Even tragedies, even disasters.


I wouldn’t dare to explain what makes people do it in the field, but apparently it has its appeal. Could be the arousing prickliness of the grass blades, could be the wild yet thrilling buzzing of insects, could be the coldness of the ground against the heat of the act, could be the sweet and dashing feeling of danger. Maybe something Freudian. How would I know? But the fact remains: my grandfather was taking his walks to the field to find naked bodies rolling around in the grass and making love. And sighing, of course, sighing and screaming with the desperate dedication of someone who’s not afraid of being heard. And maybe doesn’t even mind being heard.


I knew it all along, of course, from those pictures of his. Except nothing could prepare for the real thing, for seeing it all with my own eyes. The safest thing, I figured, would be to do it like the old man did. Listen up like he did, crouch like he did, lie down like he did…


My spot was about seven or eight metres from my grandfather and slightly farther from the two lovers – looking so impossibly white, snowy against the intensity of the grass. I remember that I kept turning my head from left to right as if watching a game of table tennis. My position was better for hiding than seeing anything, but the grass was not too high, and the dusk was only beginning to set, so there were certainly things I could detect. Like some wildlife photographer, he was lying dangerously close to the lovers and fearlessly clicking away. And how cleverly, how expertly he did it. The old man was only clicking the buttons of the camera the moments the lovemaking shrills got particularly powerful and high-pitched. The whole thing was like being in a fairy-tale or in a dream (a wet one, of course), but shocking it was not. After all, I’d seen pictures like that many times in the old man’s room. This was what I had expected. Or this was what I had to expect.


And then my grandfather dropped the camera. This was desperate, of course, this could be a disaster. My face was swelling with flaming red: what if they heard it, what then?.. But then something made me forget about the lovers and just keep staring in the direction where my grandfather was lying. The thing is, he wasn’t trying to get his camera back. As if bitten by a snake, he was noiselessly twisting on the ground, and just shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. I knew this was a heart attack without ever seeing anything like that before.


By the time I crept to my grandfather, the lovers had reached their joyful climax (which he still didn’t miss, I’m now inclined to add) and were presently in the fit of violent, outrageous laughter. The effect was crazy, dizzying. The contrast was terrifying. There was still some movement in the old man’s body while I was trying to think of a way to somehow react to all that. Dreading to look at the writhing figure next to me, I finally decided to run home and fetch my parents. And that moment I didn’t really see it as handing myself in; I saw it as the only thing I could possibly do.


I’m ashamed to admit: I was creeping back home, not running at full pelt like I was supposed to. I dreaded to disturb the lovers, and so was confined to listening to the piercing sound of roaring laughter pushing me from behind my back…


When we got there, all three of us, my grandfather was already dead. The lovers were gone too, leaving behind them a patch of UFO-like trampled grass. Could my parents guess its meaning, crack its mystery?.. I hoped not, of course.


- Must have been heart, – said my father. His was not relieved, no, but there was not too much concern either.


“Heart”, – I thought. Just like my grandmother.


And then my father picked up the camera and turned to me:


– And what is your camera doing here?


I stared at the camera with my watery, disbelieving eyes. Yes, blinded by shock, I’d forgotten to hide the camera.


- He… stole it, – I muttered. Which was true.


- I will go call the ambulance, – he said. – You both stay here.


And of course: the question that was hanging in the air, like an overripe apple ready to fall. My mother voiced it when we were alone.


- What were you doing here?


- I don’t know, – I said. – He was so strange (God, how easy it was to talk about him in past tenses!). I followed him here, only today. I wanted to know what he was up to.


Which, in a way, was also true.


- And what was that? What was he up to? – Evidently my mother was not struck by grief either. She was calm, collected. I could not blame her.


- Well, – I said, thinking about the camera, – he was making pictures.


- Pictures?


- Yes.


For some reason, she didn’t ask me what pictures – for which I was eternally grateful. I wanted to embrace her that very instant. Kiss her, confess. I didn’t though, dreading the awkward contrast this could cause. It would have been so different from the way I was in those days…


But I did get back. And how easy it was: to get back. To my comic books, to puzzles and to board games. And most importantly: to those quiet sitting-room evenings in front of the TV-set… 


But that was later, and presently my mother picked up my grandfather’s bag and looked inside.


- Hey, – she said. – Look at this. My father liked poetry.


- Really? – I asked. – He never looked like that.


- No, – she agreed. – He didn’t.


And in the few coming days, when they saw the film in the camera, when they entered his room (no doubt for the first time since grandfather’s arrival), when they found all that money, when they opened his briefcase, there were more revelations still. I never gave them the whole truth (their shocked eyes: they did not need it themselves), only bits and pieces: something that I said I’d seen or overheard. For instance, I made a point of telling them about the old man’s strange obsession with Indian films – as if that amounted to much. But I didn’t know it myself, the truth. Not all of it in any case. And there’s one thing about the truth – it only makes sense when it is complete. It is this completeness that I’ve been trying to reach here with this restless narration of mine.


The funeral was modest, and I didn’t attend. I just didn’t have the heart to do it. My grandfather was cremated, which was fitting. I didn’t know why, but somehow it seemed to me the only way of doing it.


***

There are times now when it all comes back to me, and I want to talk about the whole thing to death. Give my honest account of it, describe my grandfather’s pictures, suits, poetry books, ties... Was it all over in just four months? And where is it all gone now?.. Sometimes it feels like it never even happened… There are times when I feel some odd, bittersweet tenderness towards my grandfather. Him reciting poems in the shower, him coming happily from the fields… But equally there are times when I experience such fits of blinding, engulfing rage that I want to smash every single thing around me. Give me a moment like that, and I will be almost happy to be 42 and unmarried. To only have this one dog beside me.


And speaking of my dog. Every evening we go out to have a walk. Unchained by destinations, we wander aimlessly, and sometimes find ourselves in one of those fields that are so ubiquitous in these places and around this small house of mine. There’s an instant tension in muscles, limpness in feet, and I start calling the dog back.  We go home, my pace perhaps a little too swift for a nice pleasant walk like that.


And I’m still thinking about those lines, the ones that came from that verse anthology I read in the country house. There might have been nothing there, just some poet’s meandering ruminations on birds or past or unrequited love. Something pointless, tedious, like all poetry. But then… I don’t know. Those lines might actually explain what everything else couldn’t.


Also, there’s one thing. I got rid of insomnia after his death. Though now, so early in the morning, lying awake and thinking about it all again, you can never be too sure.



March, August, 2011

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