And then what happened, happened. We looked around Rijeka. We found a genuine restaurant, where they served fish and not pizza. We drank more red wine and instead of fish we ate octopus, prepared according to some old recipe which only the restaurant proprietor knew, because he’d learnt it from his grandmother. My view was that it had just been baked on a tray of butter and garlic, but I don’t know what’s done with octopuses beforehand – I think before they’re put in the baking tray there are some special procedures so they don’t become too chewy. I asked Emcho if he knew, so that I could try to make it. He looked at me as though I’d completely gone off my rocker and asked quietly: “And where will you get octopus?”
“From the fishmonger’s.”
Emcho continued to look at me with concern and it hit me. He cannot believe that you can buy octopus in Sofia. Emcho remembers the empty shops with the huge queues in the cold for milk, he remembers the time when you needed coupons for cheese. Only that, just this last year, hasn’t he been with us, didn’t we go shopping together? He’s erased it from his memory and I now realize how important this is. How important shops have been for him and the numberless articles that can be bought. How important his green Jeep is for him and the laser beam that helps you cut an absolutely even slice of bread. When he showed it to me, I lapsed into hysterical giggles. But now I don’t find it funny. Yes, these things were important. These things were infinitely important, because they weren’t around. Then they stopped being so important, because one after the other they appeared, and then they just flooded in, and now we had the time to get fed up with them, but some folk had left before that. Some folk had left and it’s really sad to think that the fully-stocked shops were not at all without significance. Yes, Emcho, you can buy octopus in Sofia. From the local fishmonger. But I don’t tell him, because I get the feeling that if I say it, he’ll start crying.
The octopus was fantastically tasty, but pretty heavy cooked this way. I polished off the last bit and then felt completely woozy, as heavy as an elephant and almost asleep. Really impossible for me to even imagine that I could move a single part of my body, and I just wanted to carry on sitting there on the wooden bench forever. I wasn’t jolly any more. This long day, which began so bright and breezy in the morning, but then became stranger and stranger still, now seemed to me to have been exceptionally irregular and wrong, and had just destroyed me entirely. I left it to Emcho to convince me that we needed to drink a digestif, because we’d eaten too much. Between me and bed there stretched a whole long journey along the shore and, what’s more, in the dark.
The digestif was some kind of really strong rakia, which smelled of juniper and seemed unusually tasty and unusually small. Here we were in Europe and they poured me just a 30-gram glass. We ordered another and this time I asked for a coffee as well.
And indeed the juniper rakia and the coffee brought about a miracle. My ponderous kilograms simply began to melt into the air, I no longer had the feeling that the bench was going to collapse under me, that I could now stand up and I even wanted to stand up, to see this Rijeka in which I’d landed quite by chance and would never likely land again. I wanted to see all of Rijeka and why not Rijeka by night. Especially Rijeka by night.
We ordered the third digestif along with the bill, which seemed huge to me, but one way or another, I have no money, I hadn’t even thought of taking any, so that I couldn’t care a fig for who paid the bill and how. By this time we’d begun to laugh, our eyes sparkled and our movements had become feverish and fast.
“Rijeka by night,” said Emcho. “In this town, there’s no way not to dance.”
And then quite spontaneously he took a wad of money out of his pocket, paid the bill and left a tip that seemed colossal to me.
We were on the main street in the harbour area. Lights blinked from everywhere and were reflected in the sea, and by now the town didn’t look at all like Budapest. It looked like a southern port town in August.
Everywhere was full of tables at which people sat and ate and drank. And on every table there was a candle and the candles were reflected in the sea as well. It was very beautiful, but no one was dancing. We passed by some tables where everyone was eating only ice cream, but each ice cream was a different colour, and not one colour was duplicated, and that’s when we saw the place, which maybe we were looking for, but it looked gloomy and unwelcoming in comparison to the multicoloured ice cream strip along the beach. It seemed even a little scary. It was a dark black cube with no windows and luminous lettering in the coldest, even freezing nuance of blue lilac. You couldn’t hear any music, I suppose, because the black cube had no windows.
However, we went in. And the music hit me so hard it simply hurt. It wasn’t nice music. There was a local DJ, who was mixing some melodic Croatian songs, similar in style to old-fashioned Italian-type Bulgarian pop, with some monstrous techno, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum and again dum, dum, which pretty much drowned them out. I had no idea how you could dance to this, but Emcho declared that it was super, even though he immediately led me to the furthest corner of the bar, where, of course, you still couldn’t talk, and so he screamed in my ear, “Choose a cocktail,” and pushed a menu in front of my face. Emcho is the only person who remembers how short-sighted I am, but even so he overdid it somewhat, sticking it right on my nose. I’m not a great expert on cocktails. I’ve drunk a margarita and I remember it had a lot of lemon, so I confidently stabbed my finger there. And then Emcho swore in English, then he screamed again in my ear that there was no margarita, and then we communicated by signals only and at some point some enormous glasses materialized in front of us, that could hold half a litre, dark aubergine, almost black in colour, and crammed with fruit, little umbrellas, lemon slices and every kind of crap, including whipped cream on the top. I closed my eyes and took a sip. It tasted like a fruit salad. I didn’t detect any kind of alcohol at all. I lit a cigarette. Here was my Rijeka by night. Now, before we left, I had to drain this half-litre glass of whatever its crap content. And then the path by the sea awaited us. It wasn’t possible to talk, nor even to dance to this music.
But people were managing. I looked at the dance floor and it was full of obscenely young creatures, who danced in a trance with rapturous faces. The light revolved and flashed like a camera bulb, and I saw them in seconds cut out of time – motionless, happy, entranced. I thought that if this was suitable for them, why wouldn’t it be suitable for me? True, I’m not 18, but this I can do. I could do it.
And so I threw my bag over the back of my chair and made for the flashing light zone. I started out falteringly, and when I got to the round podium I stopped in my tracks. I realised why their faces were so stupefied and that this had nothing to do with the music. It simply turned out that the floor was revolving and that was why their world was spinning. That’s why their faces looked like this and the only thing that surprised me was that I saw no one throwing up. Sea sickness. Very cautiously I tried to wiggle my body to a non-existent rhythm. I succeeded, because the lights set the rhythm. Photo-flash, dark, flash, dark. That way. And you shouldn’t forget the revolve. The revolving lights, which made the floor look as if it was turning. So, at last, I began to even hear the music. It was so loud, that up till now I hadn’t heard it. Some kind of rhythm, it changed, then another rhythm, then again it changed into something absolutely ludicrous, but there it returned to two beats from the beginning, that meant there was some structure and, look, I almost managed to dance to it. I looked at the others around me. In fact they were just slightly rocking like me. Just slightly. The impression of dynamism only came from the stroboscope. Flash, dark, flash, dark. And the revolve, let’s not forget the revolving floor, because now the floor was really turning and its changing rhythm could be caught, there just so, with just a slight change, just in the swaying. By now I was dancing like them. Or better than them. I expect that from far away, my face had the same entranced happy expression in the flashing lights. But I could manage more. I could manage a lot more. I could drive myself crazy over this music which I didn’t like at all and had nothing in common with me. But I could become the music. I could become even the worst music. I could turn into it. I could go wild to every separate rhythm, and then on to the next, as I continuously changed the steps – the only way this mish-mash, this musical stew could be danced to. And now I wasn’t swaying cautiously, but I just went crazy, with short steps I broke into others’ floor space and returned to a fast cadenza. I am really brazen. And around me now a circle had formed and the obscenely young had left me in the middle and were dancing with their faces turned towards me and alert, ready to make way, when I decided to mow into them like a mad woman or who knew what, ready to react. And now I’d turned into the centre of the black cube with no windows, and all the lights came from me. I could command them. There I could delay the flash. If I wanted to I could turn the floor the opposite way and then everyone would fall on the ground. But I didn’t do it. I hadn’t done it up till now. Saturn. The black cube without windows is Saturn and I don’t know where this rubbish came from. Saturn. And here now was Emcho, who had also got up in the centre of the circle and was dancing opposite me. Emcho is also brazen and everyone made way for him. He hadn’t yet warmed up but he was switched on. Emcho is a dancer. Maybe he doesn’t understand music, but he’s a fantastic dancer. Always has been. And he could be forgiven his green Jeep and his laser-guided beam for cutting bread, because now he’d hotted up and his frenzy exceeded mine, and now he was already leading and I was switched on, ready to react at the first signal and straight off catch on to whatever was the next key for the monkey-moves at the next crazy rhythm switch, and I was now sweating but there was no hope for this piece to finish, because this was no piece at all, and as such had no beginning, middle or end. Just never-ending beginnings and never-ending changes and by now it made absolutely no difference that the music was crappy, because we were making the music and the lights were coming out of us, but even so, at some point it stopped and the whole circle was clapping and the floor now stopped turning, so that I was within an inch of falling, but Emcho clasped me round the shoulder and led me to the bar, furiously proud. I can tell when Emcho is furiously proud.
At the bar the dubious half-litre glass awaited me, containing I don’t know what, but I gulped it down because I was thirsty. If there really were 30-grams of alcohol in it, I didn’t detect them, and that’s why I didn’t react when I saw Emcho lift two fingers to the barman, OK, why not. We got the new glasses with the same dark black aubergine, in which the white cream sat just lewdly, and we proceed to the chill-out. There the music was quieter, there were white sofas and a big flat screen on which porno was playing. It was cooler and I was scared of catching a cold, because I was sweaty. Emcho realised this and without me telling him, he held me round the shoulder. On the other sofas there were two couples who were embracing, but Emcho and I can’t embrace, because we’ve known each other much too long. We can touch or look into each other’s eyes, we can kiss, but we shouldn’t. It’s just that under the circumstances it was pretty late by now and so we kissed and then left and walked on the beach.
We passed the ice cream country, but it was now closed and there were no multicoloured ice creams, but even so the beach could be seen just below, you go down some steps. A small grubby beach, quite close to the harbour. There was no sand of course, but the stones were small and didn’t prick much.
Emcho’s body was like an old item of clothing, which has been stuffed away somewhere and then found again. It hardly had anything to do with sex. Emcho’s body was like a cave, like a womb, like a home, to which you’ve returned.
By Ina Vultchanova
Translated by Christopher Buxton
More info here.
Thank you to the European Union Prize for Literature for allowing us to republish this translation.