The labour bazaar is a collection of men garbed in every colour of mourning, reeking of humanity and unwashed clothes, arranged in ranks of three or four across. Most stand silently, staring down at the ground with a look of resignation, their work-worn hands ingrained with dirt, clenched into fists. Every time a car with a potential employer stops on the road, or brakes to slow down and look, the men draw themselves up straight and suck in their bellies. A hand pops out of the car window and beckons someone with a finger. Three or four men dash out of line towards the car, to negotiate with the owner of the hand. Then, after a brief tussle, one or two hired men climb into the car and their places in the front rank are quickly filled in by the foot soldiers behind them. Off to the right stands an army of women workers for hire – cleaning ladies, gardeners, childminders. There is a murmur of conversation broken by outbursts of laughter. It reminds Nami of lying in the garden in spring, underneath the cherry tree, listening to the buzz of bees in the treetop.
Nami stands at the tail end of the third row. He isn’t picked all afternoon, none of the potential employers even so much as look at him, nobody points a finger at him and asks how many bags of cement he can carry. As dusk falls, the crowd slowly disperses, but Nami still stands there, shifting his weight from foot to foot, chilled right through. The woman he helped with her shopping would give him a cup of tea, maybe even a clean bed, but he shudders at the memory of her pungent body odour and creaking rubber sandals.
He spends the night in the park, in front of Maimun’s cage. He sleeps only intermittently, shaking with cold, but is more or less refreshed when he wakes in the morning, though his ears and nose are frozen. As the market vendors open their stalls, Nami buys a mug of sweet black tea and a cabbage pancake. The day is a bit more welcoming today, the sun trying to break through the clouds, but a cold wind blows. Nami goes to queue at the work bazaar again. He’s early today and gets a place in the second row. Some of the faces he recognises from the previous day. He greets them with a nod, then they proceed to ignore each other right through till evening, except when one of them saves the place for someone who needs to urinate.
According to Nami’s calculations, the customers choose about a fifth of the available workforce every day. So five days should do it. But it takes twice that long. His money is running out and every night is colder than the one before. He smells. His hair itches.
Then, one day, a guy in a pickup truck comes and points to Nami and two other men. Without any questions, he loads them into the bed of the truck and drives them to a warehouse in the port, where they will be paid to unload cargo from ships. It’s hard work; one of the men shatters his ankle during the first shift. Nami has no gloves, and after just a few hours, his hands are covered in bloody blisters. His back aches from lifting and carrying crates of carrots and onions. He finds it hard to believe the city has enough people to eat that many onions. They get a 15-minute break for lunch. The other men, like Nami, are trying to save money. Instead of lunch, they just light up a smoke, out on the concrete pier. They sit atop the wooden crates, sucking on their cheap cigarettes, gazing silently out at the lake.
Red sulphur, a by-product of mining, sits cooling in pits on the lakeside. As it cools it turns to a yellow mass, stretching out of sight. Figures in safety helmets move about on the mass, chopping it into big yellow blocks, which are shipped to sulphur-hungry buyers in Africa and Australia. Flames lick from the four black towers in the background.
After several agonizing days on the job, Nami starts to toughen up. His calluses harden, and the back pain continues, but drops below the threshold of perception. After a week, he gets his first pay. It’s only half what they promised. They deduct half his wages for living in the dormitory. Nami has to manage his funds judiciously. He barely has enough left for food, but wants to save up for a new coat and trousers, so he won’t feel like a villager. When he’s hungry, he drinks water to make the feeling go away. He has a vague notion that he ought to go out at least once a week, to be around people who don’t smell of fish and have dirt beneath their nails. Also, somewhere in between his conscious and subconscious is the faint image of a person he doesn’t recognise, but judging from the long hair and breasts, he concludes that it’s a woman. He has a feeling he should like her, but given how unclear it is what action he should take, he decides to postpone the matter.
The water in the dormitory works just one hour each morning, if at all, and only runs cold. There is no heat. The plywood floor is rotting, and the sour smell from the toilets permeates everything, seeping into the walls, his clothes, hair, pillow. Instead of glass, the window frames are filled with plywood. Wind blows through the cracks. The beds are hard, though certainly softer than the dried-up lawn in the park in front of Maimun’s cage. Nights are short. Nami wakes to the sound of footsteps from another worker, whose shift starts even earlier than his.
Nami shares his room with 11 other men. They come home so tired that at night they just collapse into their beds and fall asleep. They’re so used to bedbugs at this point, they don’t even bother. Once, Nami lifted his mattress and discovered thousands of them, all over the bed frame. The men don’t have strength to argue, not even to masturbate. Every so often, Nami remembers Zaza, but the memory is always tainted by the image of a Russian rear end moving up and down, so he quickly banishes it from his mind. His muscles are growing. He scarcely speaks to the other men, apart from exchanging greetings in the washroom in the morning.
One morning, he wakes with a start before he even opens his eyes. A shock of realization runs through him as he feels his muscles stiffen. The light from the electric bulb on the ceiling pours through his closed eyelids into his head. His heart pounds wildly. With each beat, his fingers seem to get longer and shorter again. He doesn’t even need to reach under his pillow to know that the purple sock with his savings in it is gone. He presses his hands firmly against the blanket, eyes still shut. No point looking round, no one will tell him anything anyway. He was stupid; the money he was saving up to buy a coat is gone. From now on, earnings go in his underwear, that’s it. Attached with a safety pin. He grits his teeth and sticks it out in the dormitory till spring.
Now Nami works in the sulphur plant. His eyes are still glued shut as he walks to work in the dark every morning. He has to go on foot. The buses don’t run to the factory, and the factory lorry only takes the skilled labourers who have been working at the plant so long that most of them suffer from emphysema. Nami is just a young, unskilled asphalt layer, so he walks from the dormitory, hands shoved deep into the pockets of the worn red ski jacket he bought at the market – second-hand, but at least it keeps him warm. He walks with a group of men. Hardly anyone says a word. Sometimes the residual humidity in the air forms an icy crust on the uneven parts of the road that crunches under their factory-issue boots. The boots have a thick sole of hard rubber, but even so, the hot asphalt burns right through them and doesn’t stop until the end of the shift. Nami takes particular care of his boots; they won’t give him a new pair if he ruins these.
All day long he walks behind a truck with hot asphalt flowing out of it. It reminds Nami of the blueberry syrup his grandmother used to make and pour on top of his pancakes. He breathes in the sweet smell of liquid asphalt, until his entire body is steeped in it. He spreads the asphalt with a wooden rake.
He walks home in the dark with a dusting of yellow sulphur on his jacket. Legs and lungs burning, most nights he just collapses onto his bunk, without bathing or even brushing his teeth. The only day he has time for hygiene is on Sundays, when the water is running. Standing under the icy shower, he quickly washes off the week’s dirt and, for a while, ceases to smell. Then he borrows a pair of scissors to cut his fingernails and toenails and the hair growing over his ears, and goes into the city. He has no one he could ask, no one to consult. He wouldn’t know how to ask. He doesn’t know his mother’s name or what she looks like. He doesn’t even know whether she’s alive. He’s looking for a woman whose existence is as real as the Spirit of the Lake.
He makes the rounds: the train station snack bar, the stalls at the market, the tearooms, even the more upscale cafés (where he can only look in from the door, from behind the heavy, gold pleated curtains), searching the faces of women, looking for something he might latch onto. Mostly what he finds is just indifference or smeared mascara. The women either ignore him or wave him off like they were shooing away a pesky fly. What Nami likes best is going to the harbour, where sometimes he runs into people from his neck of the woods, sailors from the oil tankers and fishermen with deep salty wrinkles. He doesn’t know how to talk to them, so he just takes a seat at a table next to theirs and drinks Russian tea from a tall glass as he listens in on the men’s conversation. They talk about torn nets, withered trees, their moody women, how many of their neighbours have come down with cancer, and, almost always, their visits to the brothel or their plans to go again.
After one night out drinking, they take Nami with them. The Symphony house of pleasure is an even more depressing place than its name suggests. Just inside the door is a sort of reception area with a counter where a fat man in a tracksuit hands out the keys to the rooms while doubling as bartender. Weary girls lounge on grungy divans sprinkled round the room. They don’t look much like the ladies in the lingerie catalogues; their thighs are covered in cellulite and bruises, and their chubby bellies poke from beneath their too-short shirts. Moustaches sprout on the upper lips of at least a few of the girls. Cigarettes jut from between their fingers, with long and colourful nails.
Nami casually leans against the counter, trying to act worldly as he looks over the women. Some are clearly old enough to be his mother. He catches the eye of a girl in a powdery dress – she must be the youngest, can’t be much older than him. The girl stares back at Nami, but not in a seductive way; the look on her face is weary, pleading. Nami leans over to the man behind the counter, but just then the music comes on full blast, a brisk Middle Eastern disco song with a wailing singer, drowning out Nami’s inquiry about price. He doesn’t attempt it a second time. The men toss back one shot after another, and in less than half an hour they’re drunk. They start yelling at the prostitutes, who sit on their laps looking bored and annoyed. The girl in the powdery dress wraps her arms around the fat neck of a bald man with the build of a veteran wrestler. Nami can imagine the reek of sweat and cigarettes, he doesn’t even need to get near.
Nami orders a bottle of Pepsi-Cola, first time in his life. It costs as much as he earns in a day. The girls drift off with the men to the rooms in back, leaving Nami alone with his Pepsi. He drinks slowly, through a straw, the taste is sweet and delicious. He runs his hand along the chrome edge of the counter, while the receptionist-slash-brothel manager reads the local sports pages. Nami gets up and asks how much it costs to hire a girl. The guy laughs and tells him the basic rates. Nami thanks him politely and thinks to himself, That’s a lot. He puts on his cap and walks out.
Outside, a car squeals to a stop at the kerb. A man with a cap on his head and a knapsack on his back jumps out and runs away. The driver of the car gets out and chases after him. The knapsack bounces heavily on the man’s back as he runs. The driver soon catches up, knocks him to the ground and starts strangling him with one of the straps on the backpack. The two men struggle wordlessly for several moments, then the driver gets up, kicks the man on the ground and walks back to his car. He starts the engine and speeds away. Nami bends over the fallen man and helps him to sit up. The man has a bleeding scratch on his face and is crying.
Back at the dormitory, Nami hurriedly masturbates, then tosses and turns a long time before managing to fall asleep.
By Bianca Bellová
Translated by Alex Zucker
Bianca Bellová, born in Prague in 1970, is a translator, interpreter and writer with Bulgarian roots. Her first book, Sentimentální román (“Sentimental Novel”), came out in 2009 and describes the trials of growing up near the end of the communist totalitarian regime. Two years later, the publisher Host brought out the novella Mrtvý muž (“Dead Man”), which impressed critics. In 2013, Bellová’s novella Celý den se nic nestane (“Nothing Happens All Day”) was published. The title both reflects and does not reflect reality: until the evening nothing much happens, but the reader is able to reconstruct the underlying stories. Her most recent book, nominated for the EUPL, is the novel Jezero (“The Lake”, 2016).
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Thank you to the European Union Prize for Literature for allowing us to republish this translation.