A girl boarded the train. Actually, she was no longer a girl, because she was about thirty. But there was something in her behaviour and her appearance which suggested that, body aside, she was still a girl. The lines around her eyes were from laughter rather than age. No doubt she laughed openly and often – in general, there was something a bit hysterical about her. Within every gesture, no matter how small, lay dormant a kind of thoughtlessness, impatience and coarseness. Everything was highly charged. Each of her movements could blow up at any moment. For some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t stand her from the moment I laid eyes on her.
She came into the compartment and, even though there were plenty of free seats, she pointed to a handbag on a seat and asked the elderly lady by the window to free up the space next to her. She stood in the middle of the train and, with a strange restlessness, that contained a hint of aggressiveness, gestured to the seat, invoking the most ridiculous of all rights: the right of a passenger using public transport. What was the point of all this? One thing was for sure: the request had immediately made her the centre of attention. All of a sudden, there was an almost palpable tension between us, the only three passengers. There was nothing calculated about her request. It was just a kind of habit, something that had been ingrained in the girl since childhood, a strategy she had developed which had been reinforced with each new act – a peculiar, animalistic way of immediately drawing attention to herself; an egotistical alchemy she used to get attention at any cost in any setting.
Raising her eyebrows slightly, the woman she had spoken to made room for her, moving her bag to the seat opposite. I immediately felt myself silently and quite spontaneously allying myself with this woman against the overbearing girl. I watched the girl taking off her coat, sitting down, crossing her legs, flicking the fringe away from her forehead with a strange nervous movement, placing her hands on her lap. All of this was a cry for attention – the fringe, the legs, the hands – and then when she didn’t move at all, her stillness was a cry for attention. I secretly watched her: she was sitting. Never in my life had I found myself getting angry about something as commonplace as that girl sitting. Something about her face and her posture almost sent me into a fury. I knew all it would take was one word from her, one word, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to control myself. The provocativeness that radiated from her and filled the whole carriage was a strange gust of defiance, a kind of desire for conflict. The girl’s fingers trembled. Her arm occasionally branched off from her body as though on a rail – to throw away a hankie, to turn off the heating. She took out a magazine and absentmindedly flicked through it.
To my surprise I realized I had a terrible urge to sleep with this girl, and I was immediately aroused. And I became angry at myself for being aroused. It came on so suddenly that for a moment I didn’t know what to do. I felt embarrassed and just then the girl leaned over towards me.
“Do you want this magazine?” she said, and I stared at her, dumbfounded. I could see her features, a strong Slavonic tone in her face and in her body in general. The ponytail that swirled round her neck fell onto her shoulders and her left breast.
“I’m done with it, so take it if you want,” she said, handing me the magazine. I could feel the blood rushing unbidden to my face. I didn’t know where to look. In the middle of the girl’s chest sparkled a sun called the solar plexus: a bony disc with the rays of the individual ribs radiating out from it, and then the breasts with black lace trim clearly visible in the deep cleavage.
I mumbled something in my confusion, thanked her and took the magazine. After that the girl paid no more attention to me, took out her mobile and began to rapidly type something on it. And I sat there with her magazine like a whipped dog. For some unknown reason I had the sense that by being given this magazine I had at the same time lost something important. I glanced at the woman by the window, but she pretended to be looking out at the countryside. Yes, the girl had definitely taken something away from me. She had taken away my anger. Or at the very least she had sealed off an invisible channel through which I could surreptitiously direct it towards her. Now that I’d been given the magazine – incidentally, a magazine which I occasionally like to buy myself – I’d have to be a complete idiot to continue to hate the girl, albeit quite privately. Against my will, the tectonic plates inside the train had been set in motion; the secret conspiracy with the woman by the window had suffered a serious breach. I felt I was shifting closer to the girl, even though that was somewhere I really didn’t want to be. There, beneath her thirty-year-old skin, sparkled her solar plexus, and on it provocatively lay, like two scoops of boiled rice, her white breasts.
But then more people came into the compartment. A family with a child. All of them panting heavily.
“I almost had a coronary,” said the father, wiping his sweaty brow. The train creaked and started to move.
“What’s a coronary?” asked the child.
“A coronary is a kind of forest animal,” said the girl with a smile, without taking her eyes off the phone. Her smile was so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Everyone immediately turned to look at her. The child stared wide-eyed and thoughtfully nodded his head.
And off we went.
Outside the window a field, a river, a forest. Inside the compartment a fringe, arms, legs, and now the coronary. For a while the parents stared in bewilderment at the swinging leg of the girl, who was paying no attention to anything but her mobile. The child stared out of the window, no doubt with a coronary running round in his head, and the parents, suddenly flagging, didn’t have the strength to chase it out of there. An embarrassed silence. The girl swung her leg. At first the swinging began to visibly annoy the mother, but soon she got over it and the anger was passed on to the father like some kind of infection.
Suddenly it was obvious that it wasn’t just the girl’s movements which were highly charged, but the movements of everyone else in the compartment. The father reached for something, and there was something aggressive in his gesture. He reached for something as if out of spite. As I was watching the father, I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat, because it was like looking in a mirror. Like seeing myself half an hour earlier, when I was still at liberty to hate the girl, which was now impossible. The father immediately got my back up. The idea that just moments before I could have made movements like those, that I could have so visibly lost control over the outside of my body, filled me with an intense revulsion against everything the father did: now he had even begun to faintly tap his fingers on the small table by the window. He soon stopped, but after a while, as though he had remembered something, his fingers started up again, and there was something idiotically spiteful about that drumming.
Just then the girl put down her mobile and took out a packet of sweets. Jelly snakes. She ate one after another. The father secretly stared at her chewing, something stirring inside of him. He was completely beside himself. I watched the father out of the corner of my eye; I watched that mysterious voyeurism and that rage, which I knew so well and which was visible around the father’s mouth, in the faint microscopic twitching of the tissue around his lips. No-one else noticed anything, and the child even started to sing a song. But the girl had somehow managed to sneak her way into this song as well: the cow jumped over the moon, but there was a coronary lurking behind it, peering slyly through the moonbeams.
And then the thing I had subconsciously been expecting to happen happened, but it still took my breath away. The girl bent over to the father and said innocently:
“D’you want one?” and held out her hand with the bag of sweets. Not to the child, not to the mother – to the father. The blood rushed to his face and he lowered his gaze. It was all too obvious – in front of him that dreadful solar and the hint of lace and the ponytail draped over her left breast. And instead of saying something, he took the sweets and started to eat them. He put them in his mouth and chewed on them and swallowed. It was awful. He chewed and blushed. He was trapped. All of a sudden he didn’t know where to look. In front of him a thirty-year-old chest with two breasts, and all of the previous aggression was transformed into passion right in front of him by a dreadful erotic gravity he was unable to control. He immediately turned towards the window and did his best to pretend he was looking at the landscape outside.
But now that screech of shifting tectonic plates inside the train reached the mother. She glanced at the father, who was daydreaming, only occasionally chewing the remainder of his treat a little, and a flush spread across his face in waves in time with the throbbing of his heart. She glanced at the girl, who was once more typing on her mobile, oblivious to everything else. A kind of shadow passed over the mother, the faint shuddering of the earth during a seismic tremor that is barely registered on the Richter scale. That does no more than make the glasses in the sideboard clink, and yet everyone suddenly remembers – spoons halfway towards mouths, steam rising from plates, animals in the forests raising their heads, birds falling silent in the trees – that somewhere deep down in the darkness below, beneath all of those layers and deposits, lies a core which burns at a billion degrees Celsius. For a moment the mother stared absently at the core in the middle of the girl’s chest and a hot flush came over her. Would he be capable of it? Did he have the right to? I mean, his child was sitting next to him… But the seismic tremor was over, spoons entered mouths and the world outside the window, frozen with fear for a second, erupted once again. We move on, the landscape behind the glass undulates and that slight shadow lifts from the mother’s face, contracts with a movement like a jellyfish and floats away. But still, in the evening when she goes to put the dishes back on the shelves, she’ll discover that one of the glasses in the sideboard – the one right at the back that they never use – is cracked. And it always will be. A yearning has settled there. And from there, during unguarded moments, during those evenings when you hear dogs barking in the distance and children’s voices from the garden, when it grows dark in the forest and strange patches of cloud quickly drift by in the blue sky, at moments like that, this yearning will unexpectedly spill over into their lives.
The train began to brake. The girl stood up without looking at anyone, said goodbye and left the compartment. She was gone. It was as though we’d all had a tooth pulled at the same time. The empty seat she’d left behind was suddenly lit up. Everyone stole looks at it in turn. The train started off again and I felt a wave of dizziness. Like a hard pill to swallow, the child mulled over the coronary, the father his secret passion and the mother her yearning. And the woman by the window, the one it had all started with, the one who had kept silent the whole time and indifferently looked out at the landscape, suddenly – like a shy conductor marking the beat of all the days, weeks and years to come – began to gently swing her leg.
MAREK ŠINDELKA belongs among the most highly regarded Czech writers. He studied Cultural Studies at Charles University in Prague and screenwriting at the film academy, FAMU. His debut poetry collection, Strychnin a jiné básně (Strychnine and Other Poems, 2005), won the Jiří Orten Prize for authors under thirty. His novels and short story collections have been translated into several languages, including English and Dutch, and have won two Magnesia Litera Awards. “The Relay” comes from his collection of interlinked short stories Mapa Anny (A Map of Anna, 2014).
About the Translator:
GRAEME DIBBLE is a translator who is originally from Scotland but has lived in the Czech Republic for nineteen years. His translations focus mainly on Czech history, literature, and music.