MY NAME IS PAULA
She picked out photos from albums and peeled them off their pages. She spread them out on the floor and tried to shuffle them like memory cards. She swapped them around but wasn’t able to shuffle them, the photos stuck to each other, they kept tearing at the edges, it was taking her too long. No matter how hard she tried to shake the solid mass of photos, she could hardly get them to move. They were heavy and wouldn’t separate from the floor or each other. She started dividing the pictures that lay scattered on the floor like rubbish into tidy little piles, layer upon layer, face down. She spent nearly an hour doing this. When she had finished building the piles, she reached out to take a random one, the way you pick a tarot card for reading the past. She took the top photo and placed it on the first page of a new, empty album. The picture showed her and Kristian on a skiing trip, before she had got pregnant, against the backdrop of snow-capped mountaintops bathed in sunlight. She started shifting the photos around and inserting them into new albums. She did it without regard to the sequence of time, in defiance of their terrifying chronology. She binned those pictures that clearly showed the number of candles on the birthday cake. She didn’t want the photos in her new albums to be arranged chronologically, classified by the year or place where they had been taken. This way she’d know that the photos, mostly happy ones, were showing her and not some stranger who had once inhabited her body, having borrowed it from her to revel in her youth. Her son David clumsily helped her sort the pictures, she let him join in.
“You’re bending them, David!”
She missed her mum, she missed her badly. A mum, David, is really important to a child, you take her so much for granted that you can’t imagine she won’t be here one day and will never come back. She didn‘t have any pictures of her mum’s death, her head shoved into the car’s airbag.
She took David for a walk in town. She packed three slices of bread to feed the seagulls on the riverbank. They walked down to the river in silence, she wasn’t feeling well, it felt like an aimless ramble, their movements in a kind of harmonious state of semi-wakefulness, two sleepwalkers, perfectly synchronized. David was silent, for once he walked without stopping to look at every pebble, leaf, puddle or branch. He wasn’t moaning that something was too tight, itchy or painful, he wasn’t whimpering, she didn’t have to drag him along, he was taking brisk strides. It was chilly but she felt hot, burning up, unable to shake off her depression, ensnared by anxiety like it was a thrilling, engrossing book. Paula’s lips and the corners of her mouth seemed to weigh over a ton, she couldn’t to lift them, she couldn’t smile at David whether she wanted it or not. The steps of the passers-by sounded like gunfire. She quickened her pace, desperate to get away from each spot her feet had touched. David could no longer keep up with her, she held his wrist in a vice-like grip and dragged him along behind her, he had no idea what he’d done wrong. Only when he told her she was hurting him did she stop, slow down, come to a halt, caress his cheek, pick him up with some difficulty, for he was heavy now, a big boy, her baby boy had grown, his mum’s arms were no longer his extremities like they used to be. She put him back down and drew a deep breath. She felt invisible, her heart was itchy, she felt like thrusting her fist into her chest and scratching the inside of her body. They passed trees, cars, people, houses. Houses are balloons that have to be cut loose. Let all these bloody houses fly off, to hell with them, let them drift across the atmosphere and extinguish the lives inside them, all those opulent houses catapulted into the sky were nothing but grains of rice. Once up there they would expire, burst, their value on the property market would plummet to zero, never again would their balconies wreck families entangled in inheritance proceedings, never again would they rob people of their health, their will to live, rob brother of brother, mother of daughter, husband of wife. Homes were balloons, they just had to be churned by a tornado, swallowed by an ocean gone wild, scattered by a comet, melted by time.
“Are we going to grandpa’s?”
“No, David, we’re not going to grandpa’s, we’re going to feed the seagulls.”
They were approaching the river. The traffic lights at the pedestrian crossing were on red. This was a place where cars held sway over pedestrians, the red lights would stay on forever, what normally took just a moment here turned into a provocation. The traffic lights waited for the people to gather on the narrow edge of the roadway, to form a huge squirming heap from which their impatient feet poked out over the kerb. They would stick their feet out cautiously, slowly, driven by the instinct for self-preservation, as if testing the water’s temperature in a swimming pool with their toes. But that wouldn’t do for Paula, she felt the need to put her entire body into the roadway, to let herself be swept away on the bonnet of a car. The lights changed to green, the human heap surged onto the road tsunami-like, spilling out, spreading. Paula handed David chunks of bread, together they elbowed their way through a group of tourists who were about to board a floating old people’s home. Paula received a text from Kristian. He’d just booked a table for dinner at the new restaurant he’d mentioned this morning, luckily their occasional baby sitter Maria was free tonight, she could look after David, they didn’t have to ask grandpa to come.
“Maria is coming tonight. Would you like that?” she asked her son.
“Will she bring me a present?” asked David, excitedly pointing at a flock of wild geese winging their way across the sky in a V formation.
Paula’s boss entered the restaurant in the company of a girlfriend. Paula turned her head to the wall so he wouldn’t notice her. She really wasn’t in the mood for him. Oh no, not him, he was the last person she wanted to see.
“Hi Paula, feeling better now?” her boss asked, shaking hands with Kristian. Paula felt like fainting. She wished she would faint.
I just asked her if she was feeling better and she fainted. Her husband and I had to bring her round.
I just asked her if she was feeling better and she fainted. Her husband and I had to bring her round.
I just asked her if she was feeling better and she…
How do you protect yourself from a question like this? Paula could read his mind, could see herself in his thoughts, casually tossed there, stripped naked, a vibrator inserted in her rear, she’s feeling better there.
“Hi, Paula, feeling better now?”
What a pain in the neck, he wants to squeeze Paula into a couple of words, into a single question. For him Paula was a boneless body, an Adam’s rib made of rubber that could be folded into a single simple sentence. He thought he could take her apart with one move like an uncomplicated mechanical engine that was playing up a bit. She wished the trout on her plate could answer instead of her. The trout’s head. With its body split open the trout looked like a butterfly with its wings outspread.
“Hi, Paula, feeling better now?”
Should I be feeling better now? Is it past the deadline? What’s the deadline for feeling better?
Am I ready to send myself to the client for approval, or go straight to print? Why doesn’t the stupid trout say anything? Please, Kristian, tell my boss that I’m not going to leave you the way he was left by his wife, we’re not like them.
Who’s that slut by my boss’s side? Who is she? Why is she giving me that brazen smile? Does she think I’m sleeping with him, that I sleep with my boss? Why is she smiling at my husband? Does this slut sleep with Kristian? Do the three of them sleep together? A threesome? Has this slut seen my husband’s penis?
Did she study his penis when I posted it on Facebook? She liked it. She liked the whole world. The slut believed the world was created just so that she could like it.
So had she seen his penis before? Hi Paula, feeling better now? I just asked her if she was feeling better and she fainted. Her husband and I had to bring her round. Paula’s husband was really scared, he was worried about her, so I had my new slut give the scared little thing a massage while poor Paula was loaded into an ambulance. Otherwise he too might have had a breakdown and be taken away as well. It was really terrible, the four of us had planned to go back to my place after dinner. My slut was really looking forward to it. They ruined our evening.
Kristian looked pale and haggard, he was like a mirror reflection of me. Kristian, please drive these people away from our table. By force.
“I heard this place has a homely atmosphere.”
Yes, isn’t that just what you need, a homely atmosphere, now that you’ve given up your own home. This is your home, the air is dry here, parched like your questions, so arid it will dry your smiling floozy’s wet crotch.
Hi, Paula, feeling better now?
I’m on display here, you fool. I’m wearing my best dress, simple, posh, fresh like fresh fruit, flammable, cling-wrapped to protect it from vagrants, cool like a crouching leopard with taut muscles. And the first words you shoot at me are Hi, Paula, feeling better now?
A cheeky question. As inappropriate as the cheap tablecloths with their tiny, unobtrusive Coca Cola logo, arrogant as your slut’s grin.
Homely atmosphere? In this place? There’s nothing here, not even oxygen, just butterflies reeking of fish, ice-cold wood and skin.
Yes, I’m feeling better, you fucking idiot.
Don’t forget to give me a five star rating.
There was no shortage of devils at the fancy dress party at the nursery school. The horns suited David. Paula was about to draw a moustache under David’s nose with a black marker when the teacher walked into the dressing room filled with children and dewy-eyed parents. A lovely young woman still keen on her job. A charming blonde with peachy skin. She seemed almost too calm for a nursery school teacher. The teacher glanced at Paula. In her glance Paula saw an intimation of a problem or reproach. The marker froze in her hand. She wasn’t used to such a mistrustful look from the teacher. She approached Paula and stroked her son’s devil horns. Paula smelt the delicate fragrance of her perfume. The teacher smiled at David and then looked Paula straight in the eye. The tight space between them reached boiling point. The harshness, or maybe the tactless suspicion, in her eyes soon gave way to compassion bordering on a do-gooder’s determination to understand the feelings of a distressed mother. Why was she staring at her like this? Paula looked tired. She’d had an awful night. She couldn’t go to sleep at all. It must have been obvious. And so what? Oh, I see, so you, Goldilocks, are also one of those omniscient, incredibly empathetic people who can look straight into my mind?
“How are you?” she asked Paula with a mistrustful yet charming smile. She managed to conjure up the kind of smile that captivates people, the better to snoop around inside their heads. “Not bad,” Paula replied, dropping the black marker. It was exactly the same question her boss had asked her before firing her, except he wasn’t so fragrant. There was a lot of commotion in the nursery school, the children were yelling, but despite the din all Paula could hear was the teacher’s voice.
“David seems a bit sad and withdrawn lately,” the fragrant bitch went straight to the point. The teacher was aware that women the likes of Paula suffered from a heightened, almost outlandish sense of self-esteem, and therefore had to be treated very carefully and deliberately. Standing up to this kind of irritable mother from the smart set, the type that Paula, with her ‘successful woman’ look, also represented in the teacher’s mind, was not exactly a bed of roses. Teachers are very much aware that these supermums are touchy and can’t abide comments about their hard-won authority. Not even the slightest hint, no comment that might call into question their brilliant child-rearing methods, let alone their lifestyle. Mothers like these don’t understand how teachers afflicted by motherphobia feel, and regard any comment or reservation a teacher might express as an insolent attack on their own person. Mothers are allergic to having their motherly love questioned, and desperately consult medical or esoteric articles and blogs in search of the most suitable ways of emotionally relating to their child. If stimulation were wealth, these children would live in luxury. Life speaks to them in the fullness of its virtuosity and expectations.
“Does he? I haven’t noticed, he doesn’t seem sad to me,” Paula responded to the teacher, maintaining her distance and civility. She made quite a passable effort at not letting the teacher see any sign of embarrassment or indignation. Nevertheless, guilt feelings clung to her lips like sour grapefruit. Could the teacher have seen her Facebook page, she wondered. That time she shared a photo of her husband’s penis. Or when she took poor little David’s pictures in the middle of the night. Paula was no longer able to stand on her feet and crouched down to David. She picked up the marker from the floor and finished drawing the moustache under his nose. All the teacher’s fragrances merged into a single acrid smell that settled on Paula’s face like a spider’s web. She needed fresh air, wind. Fortunately a chubby dad came up to the teacher and deflected her attention. Paula didn’t know him. She’d not seen him in the nursery school before. He looked like an obese Elvis Presley. He informed the teacher that his daughter Janka had come dressed as a homemade cheesecake. He pointed to the little girl plastered with white card. Paula didn’t know the little girl either. She must have been new. Janka seemed frightened. She was visibly holding back tears. Her dad asked the teacher to help her take off her costume if she got too hot inside the cheesecake. But she had to take care not to damage it because his wife had spent a whole week making it.
What sort of sick idea is it to dress a girl like a cake, a gateau? Especially if the girl is brand new, this will get her written off for good, Paula thought. If the teacher had felt any empathy, she would ruin the costume ‘by mistake’ to make sure the homemade cheesecake outfit would never embarrass another child again.
She gave David a peck on the cheek and as she was leaving she glanced back into the dressing room. The teacher was still standing there. She was listening to daddy Elvis, who appeared to be flirting with her, but she was looking at Paula. The cheesecake girl also stared at Paula as if she were the last strawberry to have just escaped from her caramel topping.
ONDREJ ŠTEFÁNIK (b. 1978) Bratislava, Slovakia. Graduated from Faculty of Philosophy at Comenius University in Bratislava. His first book was the short story collection Pštrosí muž (Ostrich Man, 2011) about “taming the Kraken, love, anger, voices in your head, toys and unfathomable darkness”. His first novel Bezprsté mesto (Fingerless City, 2012) is “a contemporary urban novel and a crime fiction”. My Name is Paula is among the 10 shortlisted titles for Slovakia’s Anasoft litera award.
About the Translators:
JULIA SHERWOOD was born and grew up in Bratislava, which was then Czechoslovakia. After working for Amnesty International in London for over 20 years, she became a freelance translator in 2008. Her book-length translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s Lullaby for a Hanged Man (from the Polish) and, jointly with Peter Sherwood, Peter Krištúfek’s The House of the Deaf Man, Uršuľa Kovalyk’s The Equestrienne and Balla’s In the Name of the Father.
PETER SHERWOOD studied Hungarian and linguistics in the University of London before being appointed, in 1972, lecturer in Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London). He taught language, linguistics and literature there until 2007. Since 2008 he has been the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Peter Sherwood received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize of the Hungarian Republic for contributions to Anglo-Hungarian relations in 2001, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007, and the János Lotz medal of the International Association for Hungarian Studies in 2011. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.
Read more work by Ondrej Štefánik:
A short story in B O D Y
Another short story in B O D Y