Peter Terrin – Yucca
I was nine years old when I discovered that I could do magic.
I was, to be precise, nine years and five days old. It was a mistake: I must have counted to forty-three, or forty-one. I must have counted too much or not enough – there’s no way of knowing afterwards. Maybe it was when I was cleaning my teeth, maybe in the bus next to that man with the flaky skin, or by the horrible toilets at the playground, or in my granddad’s car. I don’t know.
Back then, forty-two was a sacred number. I had others, but without forty-two, the biggest one, I would die for certain. The number was like a friend that watched over me, day and night. By counting, I stayed healthy. I could do it really fast, moving only the tip of my tongue. Once I reached thirty, I felt better and I calmed down. From thirty, I was basically in control. Forty-two was in sight, the final countdown had begun, I slowed down, pronounced the numbers properly now. I’d made it. As I approached forty, I often felt a small stab of regret, as the counting was nearly over. Sometimes, after forty-two, I counted to eleven, even though it wasn’t really necessary. Just because.
I also had to wash my hands and wrists when I’d touched something that had been touched by strangers: cutlery, doorknobs, books. Soap was often not enough and I’d scrub my hands with a brush. If my clothes made contact with the clothes of someone I didn’t know, I’d throw them in the laundry basket. It was all so simple and efficient, the counting, the washing. I stayed alive, but it required the utmost concentration.
If I had another cerebral infarction, the doctors had said, I’d die. There wasn’t enough brain left inside my head to survive a second stroke. Brain cells die if a blockage in the bloodstream stops them receiving oxygen. Around a quarter of my brain was gone. The scans showed an area on the left-hand side that was entirely black. Black on the scan meant liquid. Dead cells become liquid, strange as that may sound, brains turning into liquid. It’s one of those things a person doesn’t know until it happens to them.
A mistake was unlikely, my counting was like a prayer. And yet that was how it must have happened. It’s unlikely but not impossible for religious people to make a mistake in their Our Fathers and Hail Marys. The phrases are so deeply ingrained that no one stops to think about them. The words lose their meaning, they become sounds, familiar ones. Everyone can count to forty-two. And that’s exactly why we stumble, if a word or a sentence or a number suddenly manifests itself and we listen to what we’re murmuring. It throws you. It’s like going downstairs carrying a big box that blocks your view of the steps. Everything’s fine – until you start thinking about where your feet are going.
It must have happened before thirty, after was impossible. I suspected I’d skipped a number in my hurry. In reality I’d only counted to forty-one. It was impossible to work it out and it was so unlikely and yet it was the only logical explanation for what happened that night. My counting had the power to protect me from harm, to impose a safe status quo. That’s why I counted to forty-two, so that nothing would change and I would stay healthy. Accidentally counting to forty-one was more dangerous than not counting at all. It was asking for something to change.
I was staying with my aunt in town. It had been hot all day and a storm broke out late in the evening. I hate storms. I felt small and alone, and I thought of a clown. A clown was exactly what I needed, a little bit of happiness in my life. I’d only counted to forty-one, a mistake, and wished for a clown, and then I’d conjured him out of nowhere. He was suddenly standing there in the darkness, on the footpath across the street, in the pouring rain, perfectly still. He wasn’t looking up, at the bay window of the bedroom, where I was standing behind the curtain. He was looking at the front door of the house.
I could have conjured up something else for myself. I don’t know if it would have worked then. My father, my mother, my grandma, I could have magicked them back to me, I could have conjured up a brother for myself, a big brother, who would protect me like forty-two, just by being there and teasing me and helping me when I fell on the ground yet again, and who could make me laugh just like that. But maybe that was all too big, too much. A clown was enough to make me forget my sadness for a little while. A clown was already a pretty big deal.
He was standing half under a tree, half in the dim glow of a street lamp. His red hair lay flat against his scalp and he stood, motionless, looking at my aunt’s house. I could hear the rain lashing against the little roof over the front door. Under the pelting rain, there was another sound, one I couldn’t identify, which disappeared as soon as the clown started moving and slowly crossed the road. The clown wasn’t bothered by the rain. Clowns are like children, they enjoy rain and puddles. I had the impression that I’d heard someone else on the street, a voice, just for a moment. I couldn’t see anyone. The clown walked to our front door. He disappeared from view, I was standing a few metres above him in the bedroom. I couldn’t believe it, any moment now he was going to ring the doorbell. The house was still quiet, but it was as if I could already hear the bell.
Life Is So Different
At the counter in the prison he was given a white plastic bag with all his belongings in.
The guard behind the glass pointed to a door at the side. She turned the key, gave him the bag and immediately locked the door again. The woman only barely fitted into her blue shirt, the knot of her tie was hidden beneath her sagging neck.
Viktor had been here eleven years, he had never left the building, but the woman showed no sign of knowing. He could just as easily have been a visitor who had handed in his bag an hour or so ago. She was apprehensive about something, some unspecified danger. She had been instructed to remain professional, in all circumstances. That attitude was a bad fit for her, just as her uniform was a bad fit for her body. Small gold rings stuck through her cherry-red lobes, which were angled against her round cheeks. The earrings had sparkling facets, which made her look both girlish and old-fashioned, jewellery that a grandmother had given her at her confirmation. She was acting as if he were no longer standing at the counter and looking at her. She seemed like a woman who would cry when she made love.
The dark, solid gate had a little door in it, which was opened by a male guard. Routine and habit, the foundations of the prison system, extended to this outermost limit and had formed tracks of bare wood. The world outside sounded different, he noticed it immediately. He couldn’t say what it was. Was it something to do with the trees across the street, with their wide crowns? Did buses used to be quieter? After a few minutes in front of the big gate, looking at cyclists and cars and pedestrians and buildings he couldn’t remember, Viktor realized there was a sense of exuberance in the air. He could smell it. The world was freer now. But that hadn’t made the world any calmer. Maybe it was him. It would take time to get used to everything, that was obvious. As far as that was concerned, his prospects were excellent. He had time in abundance.
To the left of the big gate, the colour orange caught his eye. A litterbin hanging on the wall. On its front a symbolic depiction of a litterbin, there was no mistaking it. That was something else he couldn’t really recall, that colour. Without looking down the street, he noticed three litterbins, patches of orange on the edge of his vision. The colour was very effective, even though there were still a few bits of rubbish lying around here and there. He took his ID, driving licence and bank card from the plastic carrier bag and shoved the rest into the opening. Junk, he thought. It’s all become junk, it doesn’t have any meaning or value today. One thing was clear: his old life was over. He had to get rid of the carrier bag.
Viktor let go of the plastic. It felt like dropping a stone into a well, though all he needed to do was stick his hand into the hole to fish the bag back out. He waited for the sound of the stone. Everything in the town was in motion, everything was alive, only he and the bulky brick prison did not move. A woman with a shopping bag and a coat that was too thick for the time of year walked slowly past. Her little dog stared at him and, trotting along high on its front legs, kept looking back at him, its shining eyes full of understanding.
Viktor turned around.
What was it about the trees? Across the road, there were four trees on a patch of grass with a footpath and a bench. Their crowns looked unnaturally broad and full, perhaps they were reaching farther than the weight of their branches would allow, greedy for light and water, panicking. A silent scream. Their branches were touching, so they seemed to be reaching out all around. In the light wind, the compact crown of the first tree leant forward and Viktor looked at the grass beneath, at the gnarled roots that merged with the trunk, he was looking for the first indications that heralded the inevitable. Then there was a shout from a passing cyclist. Viktor didn’t hear the word. He didn’t know if it was aimed at him. He was standing on the right side of the dotted line that marked out the bike path. There was no point shouting after the man, who was in a great hurry. The moment was gone. He would never know what had got into him. The feeling of unease vanished as quickly as it had come. The man was carrying a small rucksack, with a golf ball dangling from the zip. He was still some way from the end of the prison wall.
The crenellated wall looked different from this side. Seen from here, the warm rust-brown colour with the paleness of the coping stones at the top had a calming and decorative effect. The wall suited this neighbourhood. Inside the prison, the wall had been a wall. An insurmountable obstacle. A vast projection screen, on which everyone saw his own film.
He heard the door in the gate opening. The guard who had let him out came to stand beside him. He asked if he was okay. Tentatively placed a hand on Viktor’s shoulder, looked at him and asked if he knew anyone, had somewhere to go.
“I was just looking,” said Viktor. “Do you see those trees?”
“Have you got an address to go to?” asked the guard.
“Yes. They’ve got a place for me. I’m going there now.”
“That’s good.” The guard removed his hand, pushed it deep into his pocket. “Feel free to stand here for a while. No problem. But I thought: I’ll go and ask if he’s waiting for someone. Maybe something’s happened and they can’t get here on time and they’ve no way to contact you.”
“No, I’m not waiting for anyone.”
“No. But you’ve got that address from the agency. That’s good. Do you know where it is?”
Viktor nodded. The guard started talking about buses, which numbers went to which parts of town. Then he asked if Viktor had lived in the town.
“Yes. In a flat. In the centre.”
The guard took out a packet of cigarettes.
“No one can afford the centre these days. But they’ll help you find your feet. They’ve got plenty of places. It’s a start. Don’t expect too much… But yeah, it’s a start. Sometimes you bump into someone again, at a flea market or in a shop or just on the street. Always full of praise for the agency. Most of them have no idea what would have happened to them without help from the agency.”
The guard held the red packet between the fingertips of both hands, unsure whether to smoke, or thinking about something that was happening far away.
“I lived there with my wife and my son,” said Viktor. “When they were still alive.”
The guard silently bowed his head, tapped a cigarette out of the packet.
“I don’t smoke.”
“It’s never too late to start.” And then: “Just one. One can’t do any harm. To celebrate your freedom. Don’t forget that. You’ve done your time. You can’t do more than that…”
You can’t do more than that, Viktor heard.
He was strangling the guard, the vision taking hold of him. He grabbed his neck and squeezed his larynx shut with both thumbs. He shoved the man up against the prison wall. Before a pedestrian, cyclist or driver could react, the guard would be dead. In his final moment on earth he would have seen Viktor, the brown fleck on the blue iris of his left eye, or maybe the trees over his shoulder, the first tree falling at that very moment. The fat woman appeared in the doorway in the gate. He saw the ripple of her shapeless breasts and belly as she fumbled at her holster and reached for her pistol to shoot him. The shot made her release a trickle of urine. The man with the golf ball on his rucksack would read about the murder tomorrow in the newspaper and vaguely remember Viktor and be in a gloomy mood all day. A plaque would be put on the wall above the orange litterbin in honour of the dutiful guard who always showed his human side.
Viktor took a cigarette and played in reverse the film he had just seen. The plaque was unscrewed from the wall, the moisture vanished from the white underwear, the bullet returned, twisting around its axis, into the barrel and the magazine, the pistol into the holster, the man’s heart pushed the blood through his veins again, his eyes blinked and he said: “You can’t do more than that.”
There was always more you could do.
The guard struck a match, sheltered the flame in the cup of his hand and held it up to Viktor’s face. It would confuse the man if Viktor apologized for what had happened in his imagination. The man was too friendly to deserve such confusion. Sometimes it was better to remain silent.
The studio flat was in a three-storey building, in a pleasant suburb, just outside the inner ring road. The street was quiet at this time of day. The flats in the building must once have been bigger. They’d turned them into smaller units. The studio was on the ground floor, a long, narrow, dark room with a tiled floor and bare walls. An odd bit of space, too big for a bike shed. The agency had provided minimal furniture. A folding table with two chairs, a two-seater sofa, a child’s wardrobe in the bedroom area, three small white hangers inside. There was a coffee machine in the kitchen. Some cutlery in a drawer, some plates and cups and a dozen glasses on a shelf. A mishmash. All second-hand.
Viktor put a chair by the window and stared through the net curtain for a while at the cul-de-sac across the road. He could see all the way to the end, where a wider section gave drivers a chance to turn. It was an attractive street, small identical trees on both sides: straight trunk, green ball. They’d survived the storm too. The side street was tarmacked, but his street had cobbles. He could hear cars in the distance. While he sat looking, a woman walked past his window, came into the building. At a relaxed, steady pace, she climbed the stairs – there was no lift; then the front door slammed with a bang. His own door shook on its hinges. The woman headed deeper into the building, her heels tapping as she went. She was inside her flat now. It sounded like she was putting groceries away, walking short distances from table to cupboard and back. Eventually it became silent.
Viktor moved the other chair in front of the cooker and took a knife from the cutlery drawer. Standing on the chair, he put his head halfway into the cupboard with the extractor pipe. He found three holes in the white walls. Took the screws out of the bag and screwed them into the wood with the tip of the knife. There were just two screws left now. He checked the other cupboards but found nothing, all the pre-drilled holes had been filled. He took a glass, filled it with water and sat down on the chair. Sometimes manufacturers put more screws in the packet than needed.
He felt chilly, sitting there in his wet clothes. Stripped the cotton from his skin and hung everything over the rail of the shower curtain to dry. Put the chair from the kitchen under the window in the bathroom, a strip of glass just beneath the ceiling. At the agency they’d told him he had no access to the shared garden. Viktor saw green, lots of green, the garden behind the building stretched a long way. Beneath his window, a deck of tropical wood began, which stuck out into the flat lawn like a jetty. As he was naked and cold in this tiled room and the grass seemed like water, he thought about swimming. Then he thought about a swimming pool, the high ceiling, the shrill noises. He saw Igor, his son, shooting out of the blue-tinted mass of water, straight up, his blond hair flat on his scalp and his eyes staring, wide open, through the water that was streaming off him. The boy’s body gleaming in perfect innocence. Thursday, thought Viktor. We went swimming on Thursday evenings. Or was it Tuesday? A crow flew across his thought, landed on the lawn and walked, hopping and waggling, onwards in a straight line, paying no attention to the grass. As if the bird had suddenly forgotten how to fly and so continued on foot instead.
He decided not to wait and put the T-shirt and trousers back on. Out in the hallway he met a man in slippers who was putting a rubbish bag in the storage room. An old man; his back remained bent when he released the weight, closed the door and turned around. But his neck stuck up vertically from his body. A big nose, a stiff clump of grey hair in each nostril. Viktor recognized this image, the shape of this man, it reminded him of something. The man looked at the door of the flat and then at Viktor.
“The day before. No sooner. You’ll have to find a spot yourself. The rules say a day before collection. Otherwise the stench gets unbearable at this time of year and the hallway and bin room are full of flies.”
“A vulture,” said Viktor.
“A vulture. I thought of it because I just saw a bird.”
“I saw a crow, in the garden. Seeing you reminded me of something. It was a vulture.”
Viktor tried to sound friendly. He didn’t mean to insult the man. He only said it because he’d come out with “vulture” in the first place – the word had just popped out. The man deserved an explanation.
“Couldn’t care less,” said the man. “As long as you follow the rules. A day before, no sooner. You hear me? It doesn’t matter in the winter. But it does in the summer. June, July, August. Why are you wet?”
“Got soaked in the storm.”
“Why don’t you put some other clothes on?”
“I don’t have any other clothes. This is all I’ve got.”
They both looked at his T-shirt and trousers.
“Don’t you have any money?”
“A little,” said Viktor. “I was about to go and look for a shop.”
“A shop?” The man thought for a moment.
“The agency gave me a bus pass. Catching the bus doesn’t cost me anything.”
“I might have something for you.”
Viktor looked at the man’s pale blue shirt and linen trousers. They were good, smart clothes, which fitted the man perfectly, even with his stoop.
“But you’re smaller than me,” Viktor said.
“Lord almighty, he’s got brains into the bargain. The clothes aren’t mine. Come on,” he said with a smile. “Have faith in the Vulture.”
Viktor locked up his flat and followed the man, who went upstairs, one step at a time, both hands on the rail. He lived on the second floor, in a large flat that extended over the entire width of the building. The walls had dark paintings on them in thick, dark frames. They hung up against one another, a mosaic of different sizes; you could only really see the colour of the wall by the light switch. Most of the tiled floor, the same as Viktor’s, was covered with rugs, some of them threadbare. An elegant ivory ashtray stood beside an armchair that could easily have seated two people; five cigarette holders were arranged beside the ashtray.
“He died not so long ago. What am I saying? It’ll have been a year in two months.”
With difficulty, the man turned one of the high-backed chairs away from the table and told Viktor to sit down. The table top was rough and studded with iron, as if it had once been a medieval gate. The man dropped into the armchair and took a quick look outside, left and right, as though to check what had been happening outside on the street. After he’d recovered some strength by focusing solely on his breath, he asked if Viktor would like a cup of tea. Jasmine.
“Don’t go to any trouble.”
“My dear man, what is life if not trouble?” He winked. “Or how about a coffee? Would you prefer coffee? You look like you could do with it. So where on earth did you come from?”
His last question struck Viktor as a rhetorical one, but he wasn’t sure.
“Just moved in,” he replied. “Got the key today.”
“Yes, I realize that much. I’ve never seen you before.”
“I got here an hour ago.”
The man gave him a searching look. “And now you’re sitting here.”
There was a silence. Viktor had learned in prison that if it wasn’t obvious exactly what was expected of you or you didn’t know what to say, you were better off keeping your mouth shut. You just had to stay strong for a few seconds. Then the ball was back in the other court.
“He wasn’t much of a talker either. Alex. And before it all fell out his hair was just as blond as yours. I didn’t wash his clothes for a while. I thought I could still smell him, I comforted myself with the thought that part of him was still here. A few times a day, I unfolded a T-shirt and carefully held my nose to the fabric. It went on like that for months. I’d close my eyes and for a moment I could touch him with the tip of my nose, that was how it felt. But to be honest, as time went by, I couldn’t tell anymore. Wasn’t it just the wardrobe I could smell? I couldn’t remember what he smelled like. I could probably pick out the scent from among others, but I can’t imagine what it was like now… Believe it or not, at the beginning he called me Heron, that’s twenty years ago now. Greedy, long neck, big beak. Vulture’s a new one. A vulture seems like a clever bird to me. Always patient. Detached. But ready to latch on furiously if the slightest opportunity presents itself…”
The mechanism inside the grandfather clock audibly came into motion, laboriously preparing to mark the hour. Viktor and the man listened patiently to the chimes, until a loud click concluded the movement of the cogs and the echo fell silent.
“Don’t worry. I’ve washed his clothes. I gave most of them to a charity shop. The nicest things, the ones he got from me, I’ve kept. They’re washed and in the wardrobe. Take off your clothes, it’s making me cold seeing you sit there in those wet rags. There.” The man pointed at a door. “You can get changed in the bedroom. It’s the right side of the wardrobe. Try on whatever you like. I’ll make some coffee in the meantime.”
Viktor closed the door behind himself; there wasn’t a lock. He opened the wardrobe, the clothes lay folded on the shelves. He couldn’t help giving them a quick sniff. Nice clothes, he thought, that’s how the clothes of people smell who are willing to make an effort every day, to set themselves apart from animals in their dealings with one another. For years he’d been without that smell, and everything it implied – the realization hit him full in the stomach. He gave in, tears dripping from his eyes. He pressed his face into a jumper, drank it in, sat down on the edge of the bed because his legs were shaking. He thought about Alex, whom he hadn’t known and who would never wear this jumper again, these clothes, which must have made him very happy when he was still alive and at the Vulture’s side.
For the second time that day, he stripped the prison clothes from his body.
In the living room, Viktor was greeted by the warm scent of coffee; he’d heard the Vulture grinding beans. He deliberately slammed the door loudly. The old man appeared from the kitchen, the expression on his face remained serious, unmoved.
Viktor turned around and was once again Helena’s husband, standing outside a changing room; her taste was impeccable.
“They fit you like a glove,” said the man. “I knew right away that you were the same size as him. You can keep them. You can take all of them with you. But you’ll have to do something for me in return.”
Translated by Laura Watkinson